"Integrating Arabs isn't just the right thing; it's the smart thing"

Ambassador Jack Lew  credit: Cadya Levy
Ambassador Jack Lew credit: Cadya Levy

US ambassador to Israel Jack Lew speaks to Globes about Arabs in Israeli society, US-Israel relations, normalization with Saudi Arabia, and his concern for the hostages.

The US ambassador to Israel, Jacob (Jack) Lew, gave a special interview to "Globes" reporter Assaf Uni at the conference on the potential of Arab society in Israel held by "Globes" in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

Lew talked about the importance of the integration of Arab society in the private sector, the ways of achieving this, and the advantages, and also about several burning issues, such as the demonstrations on university campuses in the US, the economic consequences of the war, the confrontation between Israel and the US administration over Rafah, and talks on normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The ambassador also reveals that he thinks about the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip "every day", says that "the drama over the halting of the arms shipment was overdone", and that "the issue of the hostages must be resolved; time is running out to find a solution."

Lew was born in New York in 1955 to a Jewish family. He studied at Harvard University and Georgetown University, and served as a special advisor in the Clinton administration. He was Secretary of the Treasury between 2013 and 2017 in the Obama administration, following which he worked in the private sector, and lectured at prestigious universities. He has been US ambassador to Israel since last November. He heard about the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas during the appointment process, while he was in synagogue.

Arabs study technology and still struggle to find work"

Why was it important to you to attend this evening’s conference? What is your message to Israeli Arab society?

"It’s good to be here. There are CEOs in all areas of Arab and Jewish society who talk about what integration does for business and what it means for society. This is very important discourse. The fact that you do it day after day in the business world means that you don’t have to wait in order to advance. This is a very important issue for Israeli society, and when I think about American society, it’s an important issue for American society as well. Integration of Arab society is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. It’s the way of harnessing them to a better future for everyone."

In the past, you ran the strongest economy in the world. If a successful CEO were to ask you for advice, what would it be?

"The challenges of the American economy are to find people with the appropriate qualifications for doing the work that is essential for the future. When I was secretary of the treasury, I would examine how many vacant jobs there were, and how many people were looking for work. And, month after month, I saw that there were people looking for work and that there were vacant jobs, and that the gap didn’t close. I’ll jump forward to conversations that I had in Nazareth. There they told me, without knowing about what I just said, that technology drives the Israeli economy, Arabs study technology, and still struggle to find work.

"You can get the economy moving if you have the right people for it. You need the people with the relevant qualifications. At the Technion, I was told that they admit Arabs in accordance with their proportion in the population, and that’s very impressive. But they said that it was a challenge to find people with the required qualifications for the language challenges. What does that tell me as someone acting on the public plane? That language abilities have to be developed earlier.

"In general, the private market is able to change more quickly than the government. You can shake things up faster. Governments move more slowly."

So the upshot is to hire more workers from Arab society?

"Yes. And also that school pupils should receive the required language training."

What are you doing about integration of the Arab population?

"We have various programs, for example in journalism. Globes took on something that we adopted as a pilot scheme. We financed a program of integrating Arab journalists in the Israeli journalistic community. My understanding is that Globes does this extensively. That’s what you hope for in financing pilot schemes like these."

Can the Israeli economy survive the calls for an economic boycott of Israel?

"During the war, we have seen that Israel is an astonishingly robust economy. If I were to extract from the US labor force a similar proportion of workers (drafted into the army reserves), I don’t know if we would recover so quickly. I think that there’s impressive resilience here.

"For the longer term, it’s hard to answer the question. The whole issue of an investment boycott is not something new, and so far it hasn’t had any broad effect. I don’t see any effects in the business area. As long as that is the case, the connection between Israeli and global technology will remain as it is. I don’t think that the protest in the US indicates material change. Rather it’s a heat of the moment phenomenon. The question is why is there such a reaction there, and how do you change it? Part of the answer is more to do with education."

You don’t see a scenario of a severe economic blow that will force a halt to the war here?

"I think that there are many reasons for Israel to end the war successfully, while Israel will be secure. And then its progress will resume. Even after the cut in its credit rating, Israel’s rating is still very high. On the substance, business ties are strong. We are working with Israeli technology companies and with what they offer. I think that we have to see how the ties can remain as they are even in another ten years."

"Normalization is in the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and the rest of the world"

Before October 7, you thought you could advance regional peace and normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. We’re six months away for the lection in the US, and seven months after the start of the longest war in Israel’s history since it was founded. Is such a deal still possible?

"I agreed to accept my appointment because I believed then, and also now, that proceeding towards normalization with Saudi Arabia is in the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and the rest of the world. The idea is that Israel should be more accepted in the region, and also to isolate Iran and its proxies."

What needs to be done to that end?

"It’s still in the national interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US, so I think that the talks are continuing. I think that until the war dies down it will be difficult to bring it to the finishing line. We’re doing all we can to focus on the strategic issues. Overcoming the tragedy of October 7 will be a defeat for Hamas and Iran. It’s not what they wanted - that Israel should be more accepted among the moderate Arab states. It will require some tough choices in Israel. These are hard choices in a normal environment, and even harder after October 7. But that’s the meaning of leadership."

Could there be a US-Saudi deal without Israel?

"The advantages of a tripartite deal are the ability to work with the Senate and make the agreements binding through legislation. It will be much easier if it’s a tripartite deal. Senator Lindsey Graham said that it was unlikely that there would be a way of doing that without a tripartite deal."

What has happened to US-Israeli relations? Why have they soured?

"People’s memories and attention spans are not as long as they used to be. What has happened in the past two weeks has not substantially changed the relationship between the two countries. Not even when it comes to arms shipments. We’re talking about one arms shipment of one kind of weaponry that was paused, not cancelled. Last week too we sent arms. Arms shipments to the tune of $850 million are on their way. And there are more weapons in the billions of dollars to come."

The ambassador added that on the issue of Rafah, President Biden had been open about his position. "What the president said was not new, and he said it privately and in public concerning the advance in Rafah. What was important to him was to move the non-combatant population from Rafah out of the danger zone. These talks are still in progress."

On the halting of the arms shipments, which President Biden spoke about in an interview with CNN last week and created a great furor in the US and in Israel, Lew said, "I think that if you look at where we are today, the drama about the arms shipment was overdone. In this context, people need to remember where we are today. I think that the president made it clear. My feeling is that the issue has become less intense since last week."

On the question of Rafah, Lew added, "We didn’t raise questions about the targets in Rafah. We said that what was important was how it was done. We know that our comments are taken seriously here. Israel has to make its own decisions, but they have to take into account our decisions about arms supplies."

"Time is running out to find a solution"

What did you think of what Minister of Defense Gallant had to say yesterday?

"What Gallant said is what we have said time and again. Secretary Blinken also said it in several interviews. It’s not just a matter of defeating four Hamas battalions, but the question of what will happen afterwards, and whether Hamas’s command and control can come back. So what’s required so that Hamas will not be able to come back? The question of what will happen after the battles is not disconnected from the battles themselves. The battles in Jabalya keep continuing, because Hamas comes back.

"I think that there’s a decision that needs to be made here, and minister Gallant’s remarks raised concerns that we have expressed. Our aim is that there should be peace. That there should be a more secure future for Israel, and a future that the Palestinians will want to live for, and not die for. We have raised matters that we know are very challenging, especially after October 7."

How much do you think about the hostages?

"Every day."

And to what extent is the public aware of what is happening behind the scenes?

"There are a great many things happening behind the scenes. There is also the matter of aid to the civilians who have been severely harmed by the war in Gaza, which is something more public. The contacts with Hamas through the mediators have to be more private."

Are we nearer to a deal?

"We have made clear that Israel has made far reaching offers to Hamas that Hamas ought to have accepted. It said: Yes, but. And then it came back with demands. The question is how to cause the sides to be sufficiently involved to force through a decision. It’s vital to lead towards an end to the war. The issue of the hostages has to be resolved. Time is running out to find a solution."

The conference was held in partnership with Bank Hapoalim, Co-Impact, and Albyader.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 17, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Ambassador Jack Lew  credit: Cadya Levy
Ambassador Jack Lew credit: Cadya Levy
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