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Rose Report: Melting Ice in Saudi Arabia

Binyamin Rose

Can Israel evolve into a key player in Saudi Arabia’s strategy against Iran?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman doesn’t foresee Israel and Saudi Arabia establishing diplomatic relations in the near term, but he does view the warming of ties as Israel’s opportunity to pursue better relations with the Sunni Muslim world


eril and Promise

My one experience with Saudi Arabians came when I was on assignment in Kazakhstan in 2006.

The occasion was an interfaith conference sponsored by Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev, which I attended as a guest of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

Most Israeli journalists, myself included, were spurned when we approached delegates and fellow journalists from Arab countries. I remember asking one young man in a kaffiyeh where he was from. He looked at me, mumbled “Saudi Arabia,” and looked down.

We met again in an elevator the next day. I said hello. He didn’t respond. I asked him: “What are you afraid of?” He looked away.

Eleven years later, his response might be different. Today, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been drawn together by a common existential threat, Iran, and its march toward nuclear weapons and regional hegemony.

And Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has seized power, pushing forward his Vision 2030 plan to reform and modernize Saudi Arabia.

“He is a dynamic, ambitious young man in a hurry,” said Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman at a Jerusalem news conference last week. Lerman is a former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and currently a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank whose focus is training the next generation of national security specialists.

Lerman, who eschews the term Arab Spring (“It’s a really pathetic term —there’s half a million people dead in Syria alone”) describes the turmoil that has remade the Middle East’s map since 2011 as “a major catastrophic shock that broke up the landscape” and challenged Israeli decision makers to “redefine the tools of navigation with which we decide what’s happening around us.”

The new landscape has narrowed the geopolitical field to two camps: Iran and its proxies, and the Saudi-led coalition of what Lerman called “the forces of stability.”

“Iran is a dagger pointed straight at Mecca and Medina, the core of the Saudi kings’ claims to be the custodians of Islam’s holy places,” Lerman said. “To have them under Iranian control would put an end to [the Saudis] and to [their version] of Islamic history.”

Lerman doesn’t foresee Israel and Saudi Arabia establishing diplomatic relations in the near term, but he does view the warming of ties as Israel’s opportunity to pursue better relations with the Sunni Muslim world.

When I asked him what pitfalls lie in Israel’s way, he replied: “MBS may have an inflated sense of what he can ask us to do. If he thinks we will take Lebanon away from Hezbollah on his behalf, I don’t believe the Israeli military is going to do that,” Lerman said. “We also must be careful not to be champions of a regime that brutally represses its own people. Even though MBS has liberalized some aspects, it’s like a glacier. An inch of ice melts each year. But we need to position Israel as a legitimate and key player in the camp of stability.”

Political Chess

Train Work Derails Minister Litzman

Back in 2005, when Ariel Sharon split from the Likud to form the Kadima party, luring many Likud and Labor members into his camp, the media speculated that in the upcoming 2006 election, Sharon could win 61 Knesset seats, using his absolute majority to abolish Israel’s parliamentary democracy in favor of a US style presidential system.

I used the opportunity at the time to survey chareidi MKs and ask whether they could see themselves fitting into a secular Israeli party, much like many American Orthodox Jews identify with the Republicans or Democrats.

Only Rabbi Avraham Ravitz z”l said yes. Rabbi Yaakov Litzman was opposed, and expressed concern over how a single-party majority might cut chareidim out of the picture.

Kiddingly, I asked him, “What about Chaver Knesset Litzman with 61 seats?”

His answer: “Hashem yeracheim.”

Litzman never became prime minister, but he did break ground in 2015, becoming the first Ashkenazi chareidi parliamentarian to hold a cabinet post since Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin served as minister of welfare from 1949 to 1952. Litzman resigned his cabinet post Sunday morning to protest chillul Shabbos at Israel Railways, igniting a coalition crisis.

In his two-year stint as health minister, Litzman has made a kiddush Hashem. Many public opinion surveys have named Litzman as Israelis’ favorite cabinet official. On Litzman’s watch, the government has increased annual insurance coverage for pharmaceutical drugs from NIS 300 million to NIS 500 million; purchased MRI scanners for many hospitals, ending painfully long waiting times for the exam; and built a hospital in Ashdod after 40 years of bureaucratic wrangling.

At press time, it appears as if Prime Minister Netanyahu solved the coalition crisis by agreeing to pass a law that would authorize the minister of labor and welfare to take “Jewish tradition” into account when it comes to infrastructure repairs and keeping stores closed nationwide on Shabbos, except for the ones the Supreme Court already ruled could stay open in Tel Aviv. Until those laws are passed, Litzman will serve only as deputy health minister.

Law and Order

Court Fight Looms on Belgian Shechitah

When we met last with Belgium’s Chief Rabbi Albert Guigui this spring in Amsterdam, it was right after the local parliament in the Flanders region, home to Antwerp and Brussels, where most Belgian Jews live, voted to ban shechitah unless the animals were stunned first.

This week, Belgium’s Jewish community was set to file suit in Belgium’s Constitutional Court to overturn that ban, as well as a similar ban in the Wallonia region.

“We hope we will succeed, because the court has the authority to overturn laws passed by the regional parliaments,” said Rabbi Guigui, in an interview on the sidelines of last week’s Conference of European Rabbis in Monaco.

Although many highly placed government sources say the ban was really aimed at Muslim halal ritual slaughter, and not at the Jews, it’s of little consolation.

Rabbis have met with Muslim groups and have considered fighting the legal battles together, but Rabbi Guigui told me he rejected that in the end.

“We have to keep the two separate,” he explained.

One reason is because the methods of slaughter are totally different and rabbanim are concerned about conflating one with the other. Secondly, there is a machlokes in the Muslim world as to whether some form of stunning might be permitted.

“The Muslims contend the reason they oppose stunning is because it kills the animals,” Rabbi Guigui said. “In response, some legislators suggested toning down the law to make sure the stun doesn’t kill — which might appease certain sects among the Muslims, but won’t help the Jews.”

Rabbi Guigui was cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the case. “You never know how a court will rule. It could go either way, but in our case, we have no other choice.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 687)

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