Israel Loves Iran: an interview with founder Ronny Edry

"The way to win us is always with the threat of war, because when you have a war coming, nobody’s go

Sitting at his design workspace, 41 year old Ronny Edry looks tired but no less impassioned. Since starting the Israel Loves Iran online anti-war campaign, droves of reporters and broadcasters have come to the small design studio at his home in Tel Aviv.
 
Ronny’s motivation for breaking the silence between his country’s seemingly biggest foe is simple: "I want to make sure that we don’t have to bomb them. I want to make sure we are talking to them and understanding each other. I discovered Iranians are not the enemy. The ones I’m talking to are good people."
 
It’s not surprising the campaign quickly made headlines around the world. Israelis and Iranians have not communicated on any significant scale since before the Iranian revolution in 1979, and today it remains impossible to pick up a phone in Israel and call Iran.
 
But the Iranian people and the Iranian regime are two different ball games. While civilian-designed love posters continue to flow out of Iran and into Ronny’s inbox, it’s also no secret that the Iranian regime continues to enrich uranium beyond 20 per cent without a clearly defined civilian cause, leaving the international community legitimately concerned.
 
"A lot of people are calling me naïve, stupid, counterproductive," Ronny says. "But I’m so far from naive. I was a soldier in a combat unit, I saw things, I know how it looks. Israelis are born ready. We are living in a state that is ready all the time. We have to be.
 
"But you also have to try the other ways," he counters. "You have to make sure to do everything in your power to talk to the other side, rather than just threatening them. Otherwise you’re escalating the rhetoric of war. It’s a circle. You have Ahmadinejad saying 'I’m gonna shoot you,' then Netanyahu says 'no, I’m gonna shoot you first' They build this whole threat dynamic, so that in the end they have to bomb each other. Neither one can face going back home to say 'I was mistaken, I was just trying to be careful'."
 
Potential war with Iran is certainly not the only concern for Israeli citizens. Israel is an expensive place to live. The middle class feeling the squeeze the most, serving first in the army, then competing for oversubscribed university places, moving to cities, and struggling to find jobs and affordable housing.
 
Little wonder last summer saw the biggest social protest rallies in Israel’s short history. It started with Israeli doctors and medical students calling for better pay and outcries over the price of cottage cheese and other basic food stuffs. Soon, tent cities cropped up in major public spaces to protest against expensive housing. Weekly rallies in all the major towns and cities demanded for socioeconomic reform, climaxing with 450,000 Israelis marching in the streets countrywide.
 
As their Arab neighbours overthrew governments, this shows how socioeconomic grievances -- particularly those facing young people -- are a key problem across the region. "We have social problems like any other country. We have to get a better future for ourselves, up and up, for the whole Middle East," Ronny says. "But after living a few years in Israel you kind of feel that all people living in the Middle East are your enemies – Syria, Egypt, Lebanon."
 
Indeed, as the protests came to a head, Netanyahu was simultaneously preoccupied with pushing back against the Palestinian UN statehood bid and defending the south of the country against militant attacks coming from an unruly Sinai border, altogether distracting from Israel’s internal strife. Since last summer, some financial policy reforms have been made, but socioeconomic improvement is yet to be felt. In hindsight, some Israelis are left feeling that their protest leaders made a mistake of remaining too apolitical, with whispers of further protests this summer.
 
Since then, however, Iran has returned to the top of the political agenda. Ronny is sceptical about politicians' motives. "The way to win us is always with the threat of war, because when you have a war coming, nobody’s going to talk about social problems, or loving Iranians. Because now you have to be ready. You have to get the guns ready and everything. And that’s how they’re winning. It’s always been the same dynamic, everywhere. They’re putting you in a box of fear. And when you’re afraid for your children, for your future, you’re willing to do everything. So first you go and vote for the wrong guy, the one who says I’m going to kill them.
 
"And then at the same time all social progress is pushed aside. That’s how it works. Iran is very far from us and is not a day-to-day problem, but the fact that I’m talking about it day-to-day and not talking about my social problems demonstrates it’s a way of making me lose focus on the real problems I have. The price of milk, the price of living in Israel. The fact that I have to have two or three jobs and I’m working so hard to finish the month. These are my real problems.
 
"I think Iran is more for the secret services to deal with. It’s more of a diplomatic problem. We have to communicate. Be it with Egypt, or Lebanon. We have to make an effort. You have to be clever, you have to fight for it. You have to raise your voice."
 
This brings us the top political priority for most Israelis - peace with the Palestinians. Ronny is confident about the outcome.  "Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the map know that there is going to be two states, it’s just a matter of time. Everybody knows this is going to happen whether you like it or not.  So let’s just make it happen. Let’s just finish it," Ronny says.
 
"But Bibi [Netanyahu], he can’t do it. The day he starts doing it he’s losing power. So he’s going to do everything just to not do it. It’s a distraction, and it works both ways. With Ahmadinejad and his regime, that’s how they’re staying in power in Iran and how they have all the Iranians distracted from their lives: by making Israel the enemy. It’s like they’ve created this situation where Iranians are frightened of Israelis striking them.
 
"But I don’t want to strike them. I want to have a fixed price for milk. Iran, is so, so far away. I want to meet them, to play basketball with them, but not to invade them."
 

Ronny Edry. Photograph: Camilla Schick

Camilla Schick is a  journalist based between London and Tel Aviv, writing on culture, religion and international politics.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.