9 min read
Discussion on Israel and the Middle East with Professor Henrique Cymerman

We’re lucky and honored to have with us one of my favorite teachers from the IDC who agreed to join us for an interview on Israel’s relations with the Arab world. Professor Cymerman is President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry between Israel and the GCC and has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in facilitating a prayer of peace between Muhammad Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres and is a leading figure in building bridges between the Arab world and Israel. Thank you, professor, for taking the time to speak with Platform! 

The Platform: Regarding some of your previous interviews, there’s been an active debate on the sincerity of Arafat’s willingness to engage in the peace process, in light of his history of violence against Israelis and his two faces, one being his statements to the Americans versus his statements to his own people… What’s your view of Arafat and his peace overtures and his sincerity?

Professor Cymerman: Well, I must say, this is one of the most enigmatic personalities I ever met. I think I met Arafat, 15-20 times, and we had many interviews, and spent many hours together, I think he did one very good thing and one very bad thing. The good thing was that Palestinians were in the 60’s of the last century almost unknown. They were not in the media; they were not an international priority and through Arafat that changed. He knew how to bring the Palestinian issue on the table and to make that issue maybe the most important and influential in international politics. That’s how Palestinians also became the people with the largest amount of external financial help/ aid in the world.Now, I think this was a big success with the name of Yasser Arafat on it, signed by him, because of his personality. Sometimes, he reminded me of an opera actor, more than a leader, but then he was a guerrilla leader, a kind of Che Guevara of the Arabs, but that was his main problem and main mistake, that was that he never underwent the transformation, the conversion into a President, or head of state, because he wasn’t able to. The persona of the guerrilla leader remained until the last days of his life and he couldn’t make that conversion or metamorphosis that is so important, if you think about other guerrilla leaders, who became political leaders of other countries. And here I blame him.I think that Arafat had a lot of responsibility on him. I remember many cases, where he tried to transform into the persona of a statesman. I saw him in Gaza when he came back. I remember meeting him in his apartment in Gaza with his wife Sua. Then I met him in the Mukata before the Israeli invasion. Then we saw the whole process after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, he was really touched by that. He used to talk about the need to be brave for peace, but he was not brave enough. With the 2nd intifada, he lost it [the passion for peace], he couldn’t control Hamas, he couldn’t control the more radical sectors of his own movement Fatah, and the fact is we saw that terrible wave of terrorism, of 200+ suicide bombings. The 2nd intifada changed history in this area of the world and that influenced the whole political map in Israel. So, I think he’ll always be a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Platform: You’ve interviewed both arch enemies of Israel, such as Sheikh Yassin and Arafat and some of the greatest leaders of Israel such as Peres and Rabin. How did you manage those interviews and the trust of both camps?

Professor Cymerman: Well, step by step. I think this is something that happens gradually, I believe that the fact that I worked for many years, I still do, with many different networks and in five different languages (English French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew), opened to me a huge amount of people, in many countries in the world and I think people like [Sheikh] Yassin knew it. They knew, by the way, that I’m Jewish. I had many interviews in his house and he used to invite me as of a kind of representative of the foreign media. But he knew I’m Jewish (although I’m not sure he knew I’m Israeli), and I think he thought that having me alone, he could gain access to millions of people in four different continents and also in Israel. It was important for him to reach these audiences. We must understand that these kinds of political leaders and also even terrorist leaders need journalists as a tool to get publicity. Jibril Rajoub (a potential successor to replace Muhammad Abbas) even said to me, “We know who you are, we know where your heart is, but you’re an honest professional and that’s why we prefer to speak with you."

The Platform: That’s interesting because my next question was actually asking: Having interviewed multiple personalities that would be considered by the West as terrorists, some of whom have dabbled in anti semitism… did you ever feel your Jewish identity and life in Israel, led to prejudice during your interviews?

Professor Cymerman: Shaya, I’m sure there’s no objectiveness like in mathematics, which is completely clean, I am who I am. When I was sitting with Sheikh Yassin, I remember there was a terrorist attack in front of my son Yair’s school in Herzliya. There was a girl killed in this suicide attack, named Hadar Eskovitch, zichrona l’vracha, who was producing a film with my son. The day after, I came to Gaza to interview Yassin and I knew at that time that he gave the order to launch those attacks. So, you can imagine it’s a kind of paradox, it was a very tough moment, but I reminded myself that my role is like a doctor who must save the life of a terrorist, that’s our mandate. I’m not there to judge him - I’m there to try to illuminate things that normally he doesn’t speak about and even if he is an enemy - and he is an enemy - my role at that moment, is not to be a soldier, not to take revenge, my role is to gain information that is understandable.

The Platform: Absolutely, I also think that like Sun Tzu’s idea in the Art of War, “If you know your enemy you’ll win a thousand battles,” so definitely there is what to be said for that philosophy, even if you are looking at it from a military aspect.

Professor Cymerman: You know Shaya, you remind me, I used to be close to a guy who was my age, who was the head of the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. His name was Sheikh Abdallah Shami and I went to his house many times. Once I gained his confidence, he showed me his library and I saw his library was filled with books of people I knew very well, David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Aryeh Deri, biographies written in Arabic, and when I asked him why he had those biographies there, he said, “Because we must know the enemy”, so you’re right

The Platform: Which lesson learned from your numerous interviews had the greatest influencing impact on your political paradigm?

Professor Cymerman: Well, I think the most shocking interview I had was the last interview I did with Yitzhak Rabin 24 hours before his assassination, in the Defense Ministry, November 3rd, 1995. By a chance, I was invited to interview him on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat and I asked him a lot about his legacy, about the future. My last question was: “How do you want to be remembered”? He didn’t want to answer, but he took a picture with me and our crew with that incredible date and that was the last interview he gave, before the dramatic day that changed history. When I heard the news of the shooting, I understood that things would change dramatically in Israel and the Middle East.

The Platform: Which interview was the most challenging to conduct, both in terms of the preparation and the actual interview itself?

Professor Cymerman: I think it was with former vice president of Syria Abdel Halim Hadam, who was close to Hafez al Assad. He was his vice president and foreign minister, and when Assad died in 2000, he continued that role with his son Bashar el Assad as foreign minister and vice president. One day, one of my producers, Ziyad Darwish, got an email from his son that I had an opportunity to interview Abdel Hadam in Paris, after he exiled him himself from Syria. He said he would like to give me an interview with very exclusive information and when we were on his way to Paris to do the interview, I was warned by the Prime Minister of Israel that I was about to be kidnapped by Hezbollah and that the interview was a trick. So, it was quite a dilemma.Then they said that my producer of 20 years Ziyad Darwish, who is like a brother to me and saved my life many times, that he would be the one to sell me to Hezbollah and then they [the Israeli Government] lost me, because I knew this was impossible. Ziyad would never do something like this. So, I said to them until you give me solid and effective proof that something like this could happen, I will go and continue with my plans.So Ziyad went to Paris (while I waited in Madrid) and he met the former vice president at his house on the Champs d’Elysee, and Abdel Hadam told him “I know Henrique and I want to give him a piece of information that will be very valuable for him.” So they decided to do the interview in Brussels and not in Paris, because the French didn’t allow him to give interviews in France because he was under political asylum, and so we went to the Conrad hotel in Brussels (the interview was in French) and in the middle of the interview, some French and Belgian people from security came to him and said “Vice President Hadam, there is an assassination cell that left from Damascus and is coming here to Brussels to kill you!” So, I heard that and it was quite a challenging moment, I must say, and the security people placed themselves by the windows and I thought to myself, “Well, they left this morning, when are they going to arrive here?” One of Hadam's people told me "They brought all the Syrian opposition to Brussels to meet you and they will come at 10 PM in the evening." And it was 3-4 PM in the afternoon, so I said, “Uh oh - that means we must come back!”Then Hadam warned me, and he said “Look, they are going to try and steal your cassettes from your hotel.” (At that time, interviews were recorded with cassettes.) The reason for this interview was he wanted to blame Hafez al Assad, his former ally, his son Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah for the assassination of the Lebanese Prime minister Rafik el Hariri. This document was used by the UN afterwards and by the way they tried to steal the tapes of the interview (it’s the first time I’m telling it), but they didn’t know they were empty, and the real tapes were safe in another place, we did a trick and it worked.

The Platform: It sounds like you could have had a career in the Mossad as well. On January of 2019, Sisi stated that the cooperation with Israel was “Its closest ever”. Do you agree with him? And what are your thoughts on the fact that he tried to have the interview pulled, given Egypt’s population being far more anti-Israel then him?

Professor Cymerman: The reality is completely different from what people think. Egypt is today a close ally of Israel. I’m talking about the government, the army, and Sisi himself. I know what his thoughts are on Israel and the Middle East because he’s a close ally of Pope Francis and, as you know, I’m very close to Pope Francis and when they meet and they speak, many times Pope Francis gave me the information from the main parts of their conversations.So, I know he’s (Sisi) very close [with Israel] and there’s a red telephone operating 24/7 between Jerusalem and Cairo and I know (it’s not a secret) that in the Sinai desert there’s a very deep military cooperation in the fight against Islamic Salafist groups, such as ISIS, AL Qaeda etc. and the two armies work together, and Israel helps him in a way. Israel is the eyes of the Egyptian army, using drones and all kinds of intelligence means.So, relations between Israel and Egypt are very close. I know Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid are in touch with their counterparts in Egypt very closely today and even Netanyahu before was quite close to Sisi. I know Sisi told the Pope “Tell your Israeli friends that we know how to deal with Hamas much better than Israelis.” Anyway, the first time Sisi went to see the Pope, the Pope called me 24 hours before to ask me what my opinion was about Sisi, and I remembered that I told him “Pope Francis, you know someone is listening to us, they are tapping our phones for sure and what are they thinking about the Jewish guy telling the Pope what he thinks about the leader of the main Arab country? That looks like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion!”The Pope replied, “Send my regards to those listening to us, but tell me your opinion of him, because he is coming tomorrow.” They met after for two and a half hours and afterwards he called me very briefly and he said to me something very funny: “Look - it was amazing, you were right, but the main thing he said to me after two and a half hours, standing near the entrance, when he was about to leave, was "'You know I learned something being here, the British leave your place without saying goodbye, the Jews and the Arabs have something in common, they say goodbye, but they don’t leave!'”So, I think Sisi is an ally of Israel, but you must take into account the fact that in the public opinion of Egypt, we have a very serious problem. I think there wasn’t a real preparation of the public opinion in Egypt like we did in the UAE, there there’s almost a consensus about the peace with Israel, we don’t see that in Egypt, or in Jordan the oldest peace agreements and maybe the most important. But we have very good elite relations with the governments, with the armies, with the academics, but not really with the public opinion [there] and that’s something we must work very hard in the future [to fix].

The Platform: Moving to the UAE, with the signing of the accords, Netanyahu had been claiming that he wanted to do annexation for a while, did he ever intend to annex the West Bank or was it a bargaining chip that he always intended to leverage?

Professor Cymerman: Let me say something about Jordan before we continue just because I think it’s critical to understand some of the things happening right now with Jordan. I’ve been in Amman, in the palace (before Corona) every month for almost two years. I must tell you, that even more than before, I’m convinced about the major huge strategic role the Hashemite Kingdom must play and is playing for Israeli interests. This is the longest border we have- about 400+ kilometers- and they are a sort of buffer zone between us and many problems, which are neighbouring Jordan, problems in Iraq, etc. So, I think it’s not by chance that Israel is so active in protecting the Kingdom of Jordan from a military point of view. One of the highest ranking officials in Jordan’s government said to me once two years ago “If you want a solid tree, you can’t have it with only one root, with security, intelligence or defense. You must have other roots, like commerce, like industry, like academic cooperation, culture, like sports, and that’s how [and why] I became the founder and president of the GCC chamber of commerce.I think Jordan has a very important role for the future, I think Netanyahu made a big mistake in the way he treated the Jordanian government and king, and he didn’t invest enough in this relationship, and the Jordanians had a kind of feeling that Netanyahu saw Jordan as the solution to the Palestinian problem and that was a direct existential threat for them. Now, Bennet and Lapid are investing huge efforts in improving the relations, they are helping Jordan in water, they are helping in other matters that aren’t only military, and I think it’s critical to improve relations with this important neighbour.Now about the UAE, the UAE is a pioneer and leader that has one of the leaderships that I admire most in the world and for sure in the Middle East. I think that the crown prince Muhammad ben Zayid in Dubai has something that we lack a lot, by the way also in Israel, at least in the former government, which is a vision of future, a vision of strategy, not trying to put an end to the fire we have today or tomorrow, but what we want to be in thirty years, when Israel will be 100 years old. Where do we want to reach? What are our goals? What is our destiny and our destination for the future?We must know it [these answers], because without that we are like a ship in the sea that reacts to all kind of situations, but doesn’t have a clear strategy, a clear destination, so at least we must try to have it and to decide what we want to reach and here I think the UAE saw the relations with Israel as part of their strategy for the future. I remember discussions and I’m quite familiar with the leadership of Abu Dhabi and I meet them and speak to them, they always speak about 2050, about 2070 and say “this is our strategy for the next 50 years” and I say to them “I’m really jealous, I would like for Israel to also have a kind of plan a roadmap for the future, but yes, I believe this is a strategic agreement that can change the situation in the Middle East, also with Bahrain, Sudan and very important also with King Mohammed VI in Morocco.You know, Shaya, we have in Israel, one million Moroccans, people who feel attached to Morocco. So Morocco has a very important political role in Israel and the Abraham Accords are maybe the best thing that’s has happened to us in the last few years, but they are only the beginning. I believe that in the next decade, in the next generation, we are going to see lots of changes, and we’ll have rational leadership that doesn’t make huge mistakes and so we’ll get there. We’ll have more agreements in the Gulf and the Arab world in general.

The Platform: Going with that theme, who do you believe is the next Arab or Muslim country to engage in relations with Israel? Do you see any chance of Pakistan or Indonesia or even Saudi Arabia doing that in the next 10 years?

Professor Cymerman: Well, before the Muslim countries, like Indonesia, like Malaysia and like Pakistan, I think there’s Saudi Arabia. But before Saudi Arabia, there are probably other countries in the gulf, I believe Oman is close, I think Qatar is thinking about the possibility after the World Cup ends in 2022 of getting closer to Israel. I think we are going to have some surprises like countries such as Kuwait, but I think the jewel of the crown is Saudi Arabia, the giant of the Gulf with 33 million people, the most conservative place in the world until recently.I was there last year, I’ll be there next month, I think there’s a demographic revolution in Saudi Arabia, 70% of the population is under 30 and for them the wars with Israel are the same as the Roman wars, they are past and very ancient history, and they want to move forward. There was an event in the last few hours in the Olympic Games that is very important, a fight in judo between an Israeli judoka and a Saudi Arabian judoka and it was allowed. I know because I got an email from someone in Riyadh that said “Mabrouk (congratulations), it’s an important day, the decision comes from the upper leadership of the country,” and that’s another little step in the long way towards normalization with Saudi Arabia. Now Saudi Arabia as the host of Mecca and Medina, means the moment we have an agreement with them, it will likely influence other countries like Indonesia and Malaysia and others. We are in a very exciting era.

The Platform: Can we see the progress in the Abraham Accords upended in the next conflict?

Professor Cymerman: No, I don’t think so. We had a huge exam [as in, a test] in the last war in Gaza and I was quite worried, and as you saw nothing happened. We didn’t see any changes we didn’t see calling the ambassadors for consultations, and I must say I even got calls from some of the countries, saying “Why don’t you hit them harder”? It’s quite confusing, there’s a gap between the things they say publicly and the things they say off the record, so without naming names and countries, I think we are living in a new revolution in the Middle East, a revolution with new coalitions. I think the rational people are getting together against the spoilers, the radical groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, like Hezbollah, the Iranians and others, who try and be spoilers against any sort of agreement and any sort of hope.

The Platform: It’s a poorly kept secret that Abbas’s standing with the Palestinian street is on shaky ground and thus he lacks the legitimacy to agree to any peace deal, do you see any potential for any of his potential successors who have both the interest and legitimacy to strike a deal? Or is the willingness to strike a deal a catch-22 inherently, in that it automatically erodes the leader’s legitimacy with the Palestinian street?

Professor Cymerman: I was at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, as a very young reporter covering the peace conference, and since then I’ve been covering every peace effort, peace agreement and negotiation and I’m convinced the two sides can’t achieve an agreement alone. I also saw that Americans and Europeans couldn’t really help; we saw many failures in the negotiations. So today I believe that the only way that could work is using the influence of the Arab countries from the Abraham accords and Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia together with the US, and maybe the Europeans too. However, the Arab countries must be part of it and they must help Israelis and Palestinians to respect each other and to change their narratives in a way that they can understand the other and not only our narrative. I think there’s a national interest to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in the future because that will define our character as a Jewish democratic country, so it’s vital for the future of Israel and I hope we won’t think that our relations with Riyadh will replace our relations with Ramallah. I think that we must use the Arab countries to gain an agreement, even if it’s not final peace, but an agreement that will allow the creation of a Palestinian state that will live in peace with Israel. That’s my hope and that’s something we didn’t try yet and it’s about time.

The Platform: I definitely hear that, inshallah, we should have peace in the near future.

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