First thing to note – Covid is everywhere in Israel, but nobody seems to care.
Masks are dirt cheap in Machane Yehuda, yet no one can sell any.
Social distancing is not just a foreign concept but seems to be anti-Israeli – what, you don’t want to share?
By the way, lettuce is also cheap, plentiful in all salads in all cafes, important if you arrive here from certain parts of Australia.
For most Israelis, President Biden’s visit was a pain in the backside, especially for those in Jerusalem.
The traffic. The road closures. The security.
After a week in Jerusalem, we escaped to Zichron Ya’acov, just as Biden was arriving.
What a beautiful place. Full of history, with the NILI Museum in the home of the spy ring’s most famous family, the Aaronsohns, whose patriarch was Ya’acov, hence the name Zichron Ya’acov. As well as being the home of that of his son, the world-renowned agronomist – and spy – Aaron Aaronsohn.
It’s the fascinating story about the Jews who secretly spied on the Ottomans and passed vital information to the British during WW1.
NILI stands for – Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, from the prophet Samuel – The Eternal One of Israel will not Lie – which was also their password.
In true Israeli fashion, when we arrived and I inquired at the hotel desk as to where the NILI museum was, the two young people at reception tried to help us. They really did. They just didn’t know. Finally, after resorting to Google Maps, one of them found it. Then, however, they disagreed on which direction it was.
Perhaps they thought it was still a secret.
Turns out it was only 200 metres from where we were staying……….
So much for history.
If you’re ever in Zichron in summer, make sure it includes a Thursday night. That’s when the relatively small but interesting pedestrian mall with its many cafes and craft shops and stalls comes to life with multiple entertainment – street bands, performing artists and hundreds and hundreds of people strictly enforcing the ‘no social distancing allowed’ rule.
Interestingly, the mall itself, begins at the Aaronsohn’s house, but it seemed to have less visitors than the Tishbi Café just across the road.
Whilst Biden’s visit was an imposition for Israelis, it was important for Israel.
Although the real centrepiece of his visit was still to come – Saudi Arabia – Biden made sure to not repeat Obama’s mistake when he had visited Egypt but not Israel, on his own initial trip to the Middle East.
Whatever one wants to say about his administration or segments of the Democratic party, without doubt it was clear that Biden, emotionally, has close ties with both Jews generally and with Israel.
In Israel, President Biden made some broad points including:
– That both Obama and Trump had each made mistakes by withdrawing America from the Middle East, leaving a vacuum that had/would only be filled by unfriendly forces such as Iran, Russia or China. In other words, Biden claimed that now, America was back.
– That the United States would not tolerate a nuclear Iran
– Biden expressed strong support for the Abraham Accords established under Trump and called for its expansion
– That whilst, in his view, ultimately a Two State Solution was needed, the time for it was not ripe now, nor for the foreseeable future
– That Israel must and would retain its QME (qualitative military edge) over everyone else in the region
Time will tell whether the outcome will match the expressed intent, but although much, but not all of this, is the status quo restated, it was good to hear it reaffirmed in Israel herself.
The real issue is the credibility of both President Biden and the USA today – and America’s ability to deliver.
For Israel – neither an outright win, nor loss.
A clear win for Saudi Arabia though, regaining admittance into the US circle of relations, business and acceptability – for almost no price.
Biden was forced, by his own earlier heavy criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and of Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) in particular over the Khashoggi murder, to effectively eat humble pie.
The President had come to Saudi Arabia to ask them to produce greater quantities of oil, in order to lower the price of petrol at US pumps and to generally ease the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Also on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, but secondary was to try and expand the Abraham Accords. First steps and partial success in having the Saudis agree to allow El Al overflights and, seemingly by the next Hajj, to see direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Local Saudi press and government spokespeople spoke of Israel in positive terms – tempered somewhat by some negative comments made after Biden had left Saudi Arabia.
Two-time losers – the Palestinians. Both with the USA and the Saudis.
In a further proof of the diminishing political position of the Palestinians, whilst they did get the promise of extra aid from Biden, he refused to guarantee that East Jerusalem would be their future capital, a matter he said needed to be negotiated. He did however reaffirm that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, without defining her boundaries.
Moreover, whilst he did pay lip service to the Two State Solution, as mentioned before, he applied no obvious pressure on Israel in this regard.
Even worse from the Palestinian point of view, and most importantly, Biden put the Two States very much on the back burner.
Mahmoud Abbas had also desperately tried to get a meeting with the Saudis prior to Biden’s visit The Saudis refused, and in the end, the best Abbas could achieve was a short phone call with King Salman.
Of course, it is unbelievably, 25 years since the Maccabiah bridge collapse and the current Maccabiah is in full swing after marking the events of 25 years ago.
In so called hedonistic, irreligious Tel Aviv, we found ourselves staying in a hotel with some of the Aussies participating in this Maccabiah.
Friday night we discovered a problem that was so big that neither Biden, Lapid, nor it seemed any earthly body, could even attempt to resolve.
A territorial dispute between two groups of Orthodox Jews.
The hotel had said that Kabbalat Shabbat tephilla was to begin at 7:30pm. Maccabi was there. We were there. All good.
A nice guy with a melodic voice from Ma’ale Adumim started to lead the prayers right on time.
We got halfway through the tephilla when another group marched in and started loudly proclaiming that this was their tephilla and that we needed to start all over again, but this time, to start with the earlier Mincha (afternoon) service.
Uproar. Chaos. Shouting. Deep emotion.
The female banquet manager arrived but refused to step into the Beit Knesset (synagogue) for fear of causing an additional problem.
She called in the equivalent of King Solomon. He arrived in the form of the manager.
Using the well known wisdom of Solomon, he found a solution.
There would be two minyanim – two sets of prayers – in two different areas.
Did I mention that the manager was an Israeli Arab?
A dispute between two groups of Orthodox Jews is being resolved by an Israeli Arab.
And all sides accepting his decision.
Only in Israel.
So much religious fervour – and in Tel Aviv at that.
You just gotta love it here.
Ron Weiser is the Honorary Life Member ZFA Executive and Honorary Life President, State Zionist Council of NSW