Insights Into Israel-Saudi Relations, Jews on Campus and Israel’s National Library with David Makovsky

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David Makovsky, a Silver Spring resident and member of Kemp Mill Synagogue, is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a former senior advisor at the State Department and the president of the American arm of the National Library of Israel, which recently opened a magnificent new building in Jerusalem.

What’s on top of mind for you at this moment as you think about the war against Hamas?

Of course, everyone is very focused on the very real threats, but we should also look at the opportunities. If there was a breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Israel, it would be like the Super Bowl and the World Cup and the World Series combined, because the Saudis are the most influential country in the Arab world today. They have always symbolized the rejection of Israel in the past and now seem open to a very different relationship in the future.

I’m not here to predict success, but I do think the Biden administration is very focused on can you have a three-way breakthrough — a defense treaty between the Saudis and the U.S.; a breakthrough in terms of peace and normalization and regional integration between the Saudis and Israel, and that there will be a pathway for the Palestinians as well.

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Some might say this is way too ambitious, but I think the Saudis understand that this is the only way to get a defense treaty with the U.S. Saudi Arabia is not a member of NATO and they felt very exposed in 2019 when two Saudi facilities were attacked by Iran and the U.S. did not come to their aid.

And I think they’re very much more aware than Americans think they are, that oil is finite and they need to look past oil and diversify and digitize their economy and for them [to do that] there’s nothing better than Israel.

You have spoken during your career on close to 200 college campuses and have been sought after on campuses since the attack of Oct. 7. How do we make sense of what is happening on some campuses right now?

I think the social sciences in America are going through a tough period, and Jewish students are not going to be immune. There is this idea of trying to reduce complex conflicts into simplified boxes. Are you the oppressor, are you the oppressed? And I don’t think that’s the right prism to look at complicated conflicts. I think you need to know the history of a conflict, the geography, the demography, social economics, governing structure of the different entities to have a full understanding of the complexity.

What is so confusing for so many students is that they tend to look at the academic framework as the arbiter for deeper truth and what is happening on some campuses is the opposite of that. That’s taking them away from complexity which is what life is about and what universities should be training for. We need to be training students to think in more complex terms.

My colleagues and I from The Washington Institute, former ambassador Dennis Ross and Ghaith al-Omari, see it as our duty to go to campuses and talk about the complexities of this conflict and why it doesn’t fit onto a bumper sticker.

The National Library of Israel has just opened its beautiful new building near the Knesset, and you are the president of the library’s American arm. What does the library mean to you?

Everyone has a story of personal impact and for me, in 1984, I was the head of the World Union of Jewish Students, and our offices were near the library and one day in the reading room I saw Nechama Leibowitz, the renowned commentator on the Bible, and in the next room was her brother, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the renowned philosopher. And I also saw Jews on the entire spectrum and to me it seemed to be almost a secular Beit Midrash — house of study.

As people migrated to Israel from all over the world, some did not maintain their religious connections, but they did have a common sense of cultural legacy of Jewish books, and they would sit in the same rooms I was in. I have always felt that the “people of the book” deserve a library. I truly believe that the more people visit, the more it will be a touchstone for them. I was there recently, and it was packed with kids and with older people and I think it’s one of the most exciting projects in the Jewish world today and it’s a great privilege to be the president of NLIUSA.

The library opened in fall 2023, as planned, despite the war. Why is that so important?

Opening the library during the war is such a shot in the arm for the people of Israel. This is what they are fighting for — a thriving Jewish culture. And the library is also doing a mega project on documentation of the war, everything in the run up to Oct. 7, the atrocities and the aftermath. Not just what it means for Israel, but what it means for the Jewish world. We are getting help from institutions outside of Israel as well, and that’s critical because it’s very important that Jews all over see the National Library of Israel as their library as well.

Fran Kritz is a freelance writer.

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