Greetings from Jerusalem! As Co-Chairs of the CIJA National Board, it is our privilege to lead a talented group of Board members as they guide CIJA’s advocacy efforts. While the work of the organization is comprehensive and includes many domestic and social policy issues of consequence to Canada’s organized Jewish community, it will come as no surprise that we also spend significant time gathering the latest information about the situation on the ground in Israel so that we can better educate Canadians about the challenges faced by the Jewish state.
To that end, we have just completed the Board’s annual retreat to Israel. It was an interesting and productive week, and we wanted to share a few observations with you.
The board was received by the top Israeli defence and diplomatic leadership, including President Rivlin who praised CIJA’s leadership in promoting Canada-Israel relations and in maintaining support for Israel as a consensus matter in Canadian public life. President Rivlin also spoke of the importance of strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations, marking this as a goal for his upcoming official visit to Canada, meetings which we will be attending and supporting.
The last week was designed to enhance our understanding so we could strengthen CIJA’s ability to conduct its advocacy work even more effectively.
Three issues served as the backdrop for our meetings:
1. Israel’s intensifying regional conflict with Iran. Regarding the regional strategic situation (and specifically the security challenges posed to Israel by Iran, Russia, and Turkey), the board benefited from discussions with the immediate past IDF deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Yair Golan; a detailed briefing from nuclear expert Dr. Emily Landau; and a broad strategic overview of “mega-trends” in regional defence matters from the Director General of the Ministry of Intelligence, Chagai Tzuriel – a thirty-year veteran of the Mossad. It became clear that Israel is determined to enforce the “red lines” it has enunciated against Iranian encroachment and aggression, no matter how difficult the challenge and how far into direct military confrontation this may take Israel.
2. The dangerous deadlock with Hamas in Gaza. General Golan also led us on an in-depth tour of the Gaza defence perimeter, which included a briefing by the Gaza Division Commander, Brigadier General Avi Toledano, and a descent into one of the terror attack tunnels dug by Hamas under the Gaza-Israel border. The IDF is operating with tenaciously to thwart Hamas’ border attacks.
The Board was also allowed a rare visit inside the Kerem Shalom commercial border crossing, which facilitates an enormous amount of humanitarian trade and aid from Israel into Gaza, a complex operational and logistical challenge which we observed first hand. This visit also provided a window into Hamas’ misappropriation of gas, electricity, and cement for its military operations. Hamas perpetrates a systematic exploitation of their own people by stealing these resources and preventing them from reaching Palestinian civilians.
3. The forthcoming American peace plan.Regarding peace diplomacy, we were briefed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chief foreign policy advisor and deputy national security advisor Reuven Azar; the foreign ministry’s legal advisor and peace negotiator Ambassador Dr. Tal Becker; and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov. It appears that Israel is gearing up to engage in an intensive new round of peace diplomacy involving many Arab states and, perhaps, Palestinians too.
The Board also held a no-holds-barred, difficult discussion with Deputy Commissioner-General of UNRWA, which left the board unsatisfied as to the purpose, neutrality, and effectiveness of the organization, and a sense that UNRWA significantly enables Hamas.
We studied democracy and law in Israel (with the Director General of the Ministry of Justice, Emi Palmor); Zionist identities and Israel-Diaspora tensions (with Prof. Gil Troy); social and religious tensions within Israel (with the recently-elected, revolutionary Mayor of Bet Shemesh, Aliza Bloch); the strains of living under the trauma of terror (with the co-founders of the Koby Mandell Foundation); and media coverage of Israel, with three prominent foreign correspondents.
And finally, the Board visited CyberSpark – the Israeli Cyber Innovation Arena, in Beersheva; and the about-to-open Peres Center for Peace & Innovation, in Jaffa. These tours enhanced our understanding of Israel’s contributions to global advances in health, energy, environment, cyber and defence technologies; and the possibilities for Israel-Canada partnerships in these fields.
Of course, the current Israeli election campaign hovered over everything, as the parties rushed to finalize their lists of candidates and aggregate slates for election. We were briefed by several top Israeli political analysts who agreed that this topsy-turvy campaign is just too close to call. The campaign could still be significantly affected over the next 45 days by possible indictment decisions against PM Netanyahu; and the post-election coalition negotiations could be significantly affected by the tabling of the American peace plan.
We are very grateful to the many impressive Israelis who took time out of their schedules to meet with us. We are also deeply appreciative of the hard work of the CIJA professional team who are the beating heart of Canadian. Jewish. Advocacy.
Joel Reitman Jeffrey Rosenthal
Co-Chair CIJA Board Co-Chair CIJA Board