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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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