Rubbing shoulders with Mideast royalty

On a recent Middle East mission trip, the local head of the American Jewish Congress traveled to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan and met with a plethora of dignitaries — including the King and Queen of Jordan.

Jay Umansky, a local attorney and president of the St. Louis Region of the American Jewish Congress, was part of a group that included Richard Gordon, president of the national AJCongress, and co-executive directors Marc Stern and Danny Grossman.


Umansky said the AJCongress has long been an ardent supporter of Israel, and maintains close ties with the Israeli government while also reaching out to moderate countries in the Middle East. The group has long since established a dialogue with Jordanian officials both in Washington and Amman, he said.

Umansky recently spoke about the trip with the Jewish Light.

Give us your impressions of James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

I found the ambassador to be bright, energetic and absolutely forthright with us. He spoke of his love of Jerusalem, but expressed frustrations with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, and his concerns over the nuclear threat posed by Iran.

What did you learn about Israel’s security and defense concerns in your meeting with Amira Dotan, the first woman brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces?

Now a grandmother, Dotan brought a different perspective to our discussions about finding peace in the region. At one time a kindergarten teacher, her approach to the Palestinian stalemate was more creative. Rather than having the parties discuss issues like settlements and the (Palestinian) right of return, it was her belief that a positive first step would be a conference on post-traumatic stress syndrome and how it was impacting both the Israeli and Palestinian children directly impacted by the conflict.

It was her sincere belief that finding an issue on which both parties could agree, one that had no political ramifications…was critical towards a greater understanding and possibly a solution in the area.

What about other Israeli officials?

Later in the trip, we also met with Amos Yadlin, the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate. Each of the IDF members who spoke to us expressed significant concern about the danger a nuclear Iran presented to the region. While he indicated a confidence in Israel’s ability to protect itself, it was my sense that Yadlin hoped a political solution could be reached which would avoid a military confrontation with Iran.

Tell us about your meeting with Salaam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.

We were ushered into a non-descript municipal building in Ramallah…we spent about half an hour with Fayyad, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. Fayyad was gracious to us but not surprisingly laid the blame for the stalemate in the region upon the shoulders of his Israeli neighbors.

Fayyad acknowledged that conditions in the West Bank had improved significantly, but suggested that the burden rested with Israel to take more steps to meet the Palestinian positions. He expressed a concern that time was critical and that delays would play into the hands of the more radical elements in the region.

You met with members of the Knesset, including former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party. What did you learn from those visits?

We met with several Knesset members, including Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a member since 1984, making him one of the longest serving ministers in the Israeli government. He spoke candidly of the issues of the failed leadership within the Palestinian Authority.

He suggested that one alternative to breaking the stalemate would be to include within a prisoner exchange involving the release by Hamas of Gilad Shalit, the release of Marwan Barghouti, held in an Israeli prison on murder charges…In his opinion, Barghouti is the only person capable of unifying support among the Palestinian people and that the gamble, although a dangerous one, would be worth the risk.

Due to her schedule, Tzipi Livni only had about 15 minutes to spend with us. She spoke with us of her views of Israel and her agreement with the approach to bolster the West Bank infrastructure in an effort to generate a stronger economic base from which a more stable government might emerge.

Tell me about meeting the King and Queen of Jordan in Amman.

We were driven to the Royal Palace, where we had an audience with his majesty, King Abdullah II and Queen Rania. The session was formal, with royal photographers and a film crew documenting the entire session. Interestingly, our meeting made the front page of the Jordan Times the next morning. The king and queen were gracious and spent almost an hour with us. Like the Palestinian Authority prime minister, the king suggested that time was critical and the burden rested upon Israel to take the next major step in the peace process.

The king suggested that finding a solution to Palestinian issues was the essential first step in the formation of a strong moderate voice in the Arab world.

The king also discussed the deterioration of relations with Israel and asked our group to speak with both Israeli and American officials about their desire for peace in the region and the urgency with which solutions must be found. The king also spoke about Jordan’s need for water and the vision of a project involving many desalination plants as one joint project that might benefit both Jordan and Israel.

It was interesting to watch as Queen Rania voiced her opinions as well, with the king repeatedly deferring to the queen to allow her to share her thoughts.

Any overall closing impressions or thoughts?

There seemed to be an abundance of finger-pointing. The Americans blamed the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis blamed their Arab neighbors. The Palestinians and Jordanians blamed the Israelis.

Several points are clear, though. Certainly, within the Arab world, the expectations from the Obama Administration were unrealistically high, which has led to disappointment. In Israel, the approval rating for President (Barack) Obama is less than 10 percent. I did not find a significant amount of optimism among any of the parties. However, there’s a shared sense of emergency, particularly in view of the situation regarding Iran. Perhaps that urgency may lead to a new and creative approach that might bring them towards the road to peace.