On the wall of his Knesset office, behind a large Israeli flag, Ayoob Kara has placed a framed Prayer for the State of Israel, given to him by the emergency response organization Zaka. “Wishing for quiet days,” reads the inscription on the backdrop of the Western Wall and a cheesy graphic of a white peace dove. If you ask Kara, Israel’s most senior Druze politician, those quiet days are already here.
“Israel receives more international legitimacy today than it has since independence,” Kara said recently. “Our relations with our neighbors are the best they’ve ever been.”
That assertion may sound like typical political hyperbole, but Kara, deputy minister for regional cooperation, has the proof. Last November, Israel quietly opened its first diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, inside the headquarters of the United Nations’ International Renewable Energy Agency. In July, Israeli diplomats had hardly caught their breath from the visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the first in nine years, before receiving a high-ranking Saudi delegation headed by retired general Anwar Ishqi. Having now signed a reconciliation deal with Turkey, Israel is experiencing a diplomatic renaissance with almost all of its regional neighbors.
And that is just what is happening above ground. “Once, [Arab politicians] used to run away from me when they heard I’m Israeli,” Kara said. “Today, we are praised by ministers and parliament members from places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.” They do so quietly, however, he added, due to “a culture of hypocrisy.”
For Kara, 61, who oversees covert and overt Israeli projects in the Arab world on behalf of his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu (who doubles as regional cooperation minister), improved relations with surrounding countries serve a dual purpose: assuring Israeli safety in an increasingly volatile environment, and diverting world attention from the Palestinians.
“By eyeing the Saudi coalition, I am bypassing the Palestinian issue, which I have no interest in dealing with all the time,” Kara candidly admitted. “The Oslo Accords have caused us more grief than benefit. Had Abu Mazen [Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas] and his friends never been brought back from Tunisia, our situation may have been better.”
According to Kara, it is the Obama administration that remains insistent on keeping the Palestinian track alive despite all odds. “We have no partner, and there is no chance of progress on that. [The Palestinians] are even talking about canceling the Balfour Declaration [sic], so who exactly am I waiting for?”
Were it not for the negative vibes emanating from Washington, Kara asserted, Israel’s relations with the Arab world would truly bloom. “Our problem is we’re going it alone, with no assistance,” he said. “With the Americans of earlier days, Netanyahu would have already visited a number of Gulf states. They [the Arab leaders] admire him and like him so much. I’ve heard this from at least six or seven leaders in the Arab world.”
Like Netanyahu, Kara is deeply mistrustful of mainstream Israeli media. Leftist journalism has systematically been blocking reports of his ministry’s activities in a bid to delegitimize the Netanyahu government, he argued. “They want to show that Israel is disconnected from the world, that nobody talks to us in Arab countries,” he said. “If someone from the Labor Party or Meretz were to hold such meetings, they’d get front-page headlines.” A case in point was Kara’s rare meeting last month with Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki, reported exclusively by the Netanyahu-friendly daily Israel Hayom.
Fiercely loyal to the prime minister, Kara nevertheless lost his cool when a cabinet reshuffle failed to promote him to the rank of minister. His previous government titles always seemed to be preceded by the word “deputy”: deputy speaker of the Knesset, deputy minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee.
“I will not become the Madhat Yusuf of politics,” he told a gathering in Beersheba last May, following the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister. He was referring to the 19-year-old Druze border policeman left to die of his wounds in Joseph’s Tomb following an armed clash with Palestinian militants in Nablus during the Second Intifada.
“The prime minister had promised me a job as minister or the equivalent, but treacherous ministers were appointed instead. I am not treacherous but loyal to the people of Israel forever.”
The notion of personal sacrifice for the Zionist cause is not foreign to the Kara family of Daliyat al-Karmel, a large Druze community southeast of Haifa. His grandfather Salman, a functionary with Keren Hayesod who oversaw Jewish land acquisition in northern Israel, relocated to Caesarea around Israel’s creation at the behest of the presidential Weizmann family. Two of Salman Kara’s sons were killed by Arab nationalists in 1939 and 1947 for cooperating with Jews, and he himself was injured as an IDF volunteer during the 1948 War of Independence. Years later, Ayoob Kara would similarly lose two brothers to war on the Lebanese border and sustain serious wounds as a young officer in the First Lebanon War.
It was Yitzhak Shamir, an old acquaintance of his grandfather soon to become prime minister, who persuaded Ayoob to join Likud upon his discharge from the army following the war. “My family was in a state of trauma. Chief of Staff Moshe Levi asked me to retire and take care of my parents, saying I could return to the army whenever I wanted.”
Today a trained lawyer and the sole non-Jewish member of a hawkish Jewish cabinet, Kara’s Hebrew is impeccable. During his high school years in a Jewish agricultural school near Haifa, Kara was taken in by a pair of Holocaust survivors, Rosa and Ernest Gold. “They were like family to me,” he recalled. “I recite their names every year on Holocaust memorial day [at the Knesset].”
Kara said he finds it distasteful to identify as Druze in domestic political debates. “I am Israeli, period,” he declares. Yet he deliberately flaunts his minority status in conversations with Arab counterparts abroad. “What better example can they have for the equality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel?” he asks.
As Arab states crumble while others shudder in the face of Iranian boldness, Kara identifies a rare opportunity for Israel. Never before have the Arabs been in greater need of Israel’s edge, be it technological or military.
Kara shares Netanyahu’s belief that peace lies not in signed documents with neighboring states but in the combination of military deterrence and economic fortitude. Factories and employment in the Arab world guarantee Israel’s safety much better than a negotiation process that leads nowhere, he asserted.
To that end, Kara is working hard on cementing Israel’s economic ties with Jordan. A planned canal connecting the Red and Dead seas will be used for water desalination in southern Jordan, while an artificial waterfall at its center will generate hydroelectric power. Water-independent due to its pioneering desalination breakthrough, Israel has recently given Jordan 100 million cubic meters of water from the Sea of Galilee as a goodwill measure.
Israel has also been helping Jordan with employment, allowing 1,500 Jordanian day laborers to work in Eilat for an Israeli minimum wage, four times their salary back home. Kara would like to see the employment of Jordanians in Israel expand at the expense of illegal foreign migrants from Africa and East Asia. A new border crossing to be opened south of the Dead Sea will soon allow Jordanians to take jobs at Dead Sea mineral factories and resorts.
“There are currently 4,000 jobs in Dead Sea hotels and Arava agriculture taken by foreign workers,” Kara said. “Why shouldn’t Jordanians come in? It strengthens their economy and thereby their security. It stops fanaticism.”
Kara would like to see the Jordanian model of cooperation extended to Saudi Arabia, which he identifies as a key ally in the struggle against Iranian expansionism. Not only could Israel provide Saudi Arabia with much-needed water and natural gas, it could even sign a regional defense pact that would include the entire Gulf Cooperation Council .
“Iran should know that if it attacks, it will face a unified coalition and may be wiped out,” Kara said. “Such a coalition is entirely possible. If the Americans lend us a hand it will work for sure, but even if they don’t—reality will bring it about.”
While Kara advocates an aggressively proactive Israeli stance in the Gulf, he is wary of intervention in Syria. The threat of force has so far kept ISIS, as well as Hezbollah, away from the Golan border, but Israel may be forced to respond to future attacks on the Druze of Syria.
“If, God forbid, the Druze are harmed, it would be an irreversible situation,” he said. “It would be a red line.”
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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.