Behind Israel’s most expensive house

News outlets have reported that Sheldon Adelson, the American casino magnate and mega-donor to politicians, has closed a deal to purchase the seaside residence in the Israeli city of Herzliya that for decades has been the home of successive U.S. ambassadors. Evidently, in the wake of its move of the American embassy itself from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Washington has been keen to bolster its presence further in Israel’s capital; disposing of the residence is one means to that end. Adelson’s reported price, the largest sum ever paid for a home in Israel: $87 million.

As it happens, the same coastal property once drew another famous, upward-aspiring American owner—a fact I discovered by accident two years ago.

At the time, I was dipping into Israel’s state archives…

• For the full article go here to Mosaic, or download here.

Image: An aerial view of seaside homes on Galei T’khelet Street, Herzliya, 1991. The ambassador’s residence is the large white-fenced property in the center. Moshe Milner, Israel Government Press Office.

Nasser’s death, 50 years on

Fifty years ago last night, on September 28, 1970, at 6:15 pm Cairo time, Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser died. Cause: heart attack. A minute before midnight, Egyptian vice-president Anwar Sadat announced the death to the nation. “Abdul Nasser is more than words,” he said. “He is more immortal than all words.” The funeral took place on October 1. Millions of grieving Egyptians surged around the cortege. A government minister later announced that at least 46 persons died in the crush, and 80 were severely injured.

A scene from Nasser’s funeral. Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Gamal Abdel Nasser Foundation.

Abdul Nasser may have been “more than words,” but that didn’t stop them from flowing, also in the millions. Even some of the contemporary Western commentary lamented his death. 

His departure, wrote the New York Times the next day, “leaves a void that can only add to the chaos already threatening to overwhelm the Middle East.” The Washington Post practically mourned him, praising his “wisdom and underlying political strength,” because he’d recently seemed amenable to American mediation with Israel. Even the Jerusalem Post regretted his demise: “Despite his enmity, Abdul Nasser offered a hope, however slight, which was afforded by no other Arab leader—that of a man strong enough to lead the Arab world to peace.”

True or not? Last year, I published an essay on when and how the unexpected deaths of leaders matter. (Publisher: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.) Below, I excerpt what I wrote about Nasser. 

• •

The crucial question is this: If a leader were to disappear, where would he be in the arc of his life, his career, his vocation? If he is a leader, presumably he has a record of achievement. Is he in the middle of his life’s work, still attending to it? Is he bringing it to a conclusion? Or is it behind him? (This doesn’t directly correlate with age. Sometimes leaders launch early; others do so late.) 

Let me now give an example of an unexpected death that came too late to have a huge effect. Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. He soon emerged as the first among equals, then as the unquestioned ruler of Egypt. His biography became identical to Egypt’s history: the Soviet alliance, the Suez war, the Nasserist wave of 1958, the makeup and breakup of union with Syria, the stumble of the Yemen war, and the disaster of the 1967 war with Israel. 

Nasser became diabetic, according to his wife, in 1958. He smoked a hundred cigarettes each eighteen-hour workday, had arteriosclerosis, and suffered acute pain in his legs, so that he relied heavily on painkillers. In 1969, he had a heart attack and spent six weeks in bed. According to his Egyptian physician, this destroyed 40 percent of his cardiac function. A few months later, Nasser appointed Anwar Sadat as vice president. In the summer of 1970, Nasser went on a three-week visit for treatment in Moscow. 

All the while, the Egyptian public was kept completely in the dark; they were told he had influenza. His Soviet doctors urged him to avoid stress, but he ignored them. In 1970, at the close of an Arab summit in Cairo, in the midst of the Black September crisis in Jordan, he suffered another heart attack and died. Sadat later related that he and Nasser had joked about the “poor fellow” who would succeed the president. “It certainly never crossed our minds,” Sadat wrote, “that Nasser would die in the very same month.” 

Because of the illusion of immortality Nasser created, his followers, like the journalist Mohamed Heikal, could claim that he was about to write another great chapter when his life was cut short. And because of that, many old Nasserists believed Nasser couldn’t possibly have died of natural causes. Heikal would later go on to insinuate that Sadat poisoned him. 

But did Nasser’s death, at age 52, really change the course of events? It is interesting to read a Central Intelligence Agency analysis of this, written early in 1971, a few months after Nasser died. It reviewed all the history-making events of Nasser’s tenure, at home and in the region. Then it added this: 

On the face of it, the demise of so powerful and charismatic a leader would appear to mean widespread and fundamental change in the Arab world. And the months since Nasser’s death have indeed seen changes in inter-Arab relations. But these differences have been subtle…This is so because Nasser’s ability to influence events in the Arab world had declined substantially in recent years as a result of the humiliating Egyptian defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. The other Arab leaders… all felt free to refuse to follow Nasser’s policy direction. In a sense, then, the biggest “post-Nasser” changes had taken place prior to his death.

In other words, he was finished before he was dead; he was already at the end of his arc. 

The late Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami once speculated on what would have happened if Nasser had lived some more years. Just as Sadat did, Nasser probably would have gone to war with Israel to break the post-1967 deadlock. It is an argument Sadat himself made in 1974, when he announced that “if Nasser had lived to this day he would be doing what I am doing.” But Ajami went on to add that had Nasser lived, “his charisma would have continued to fade and weaken, and his supporters would have grown increasingly lukewarm and indifferent to him. His premature and sudden death at 52 probably preserved his legacy and added to its potency.”

Now, there is a debate over the extent of continuity and change between Nasser and Sadat. But we can agree that Nasser’s death in 1970 was less consequential than, say, his death would have been in 1954. This date has not been selected at random. In October 1954, Nasser gave a speech in the central square of Alexandria. In the middle of the speech, a would-be assassin, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, fired eight shots at Nasser. All of them missed, Nasser didn’t flinch, and then he began to roll up the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Leaving aside the conspiracy theories (most notably, that Nasser himself engineered the whole thing), the point is this: had Nasser been killed in 1954—before Suez, before the United Arab Republic, before 1967—the effect on Egypt and the region would have been far more profound than the effect of his actual death in 1970. 

Again, in making assessments, one has to ask where the leader stands in the arc of his life. In the middle, toward the end, or is all behind him? In 1954, Nasser was positioned somewhere in the middle—after the revolution, full of ambition, but with little to show for it yet. His death by bullet would have had incalculable effects. By 1970, his great achievements and errors were already in the past, his death by heart attack had fewer effects, and these were moderated by his chosen successor. 

It isn’t that such departures have no consequences. Specialists can always compose a long list of them. But the list shrinks when a leader is simply putting touches on his largely completed project. Of course, it can always be argued that a departed leader had one more move to make, one more trick up his sleeve. But no one has unlimited moves or tricks, the possibilities recede over time, and leaders late in life are sometimes averse to bold initiatives, especially if they have moved to planning for succession.

• •

End of excerpt. Agree or disagree? Food for thought on this fiftieth anniversary. (For my full assessment of untimely deaths, read my whole essay here. There is an Arabic version right here.)

Cross-posted at the Times of Israel.

Israel’s vulnerable new friends

Most Israelis, if they know anything about the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, know that they’re rich, vulnerable, far from the conflict with Israel, and dangerously close to Iran. It’s this combination of factors that made possible this past week’s White House ceremony.

What many don’t realize is the source of that vulnerability. Just as Israel frets over demography, so too do the Emirates and Bahrain. And any problem that Israel has pales in comparison to theirs.

The United Arab Emirates has a population only slightly larger than Israel’s, about 9.8 million people. But Arab citizens of the country form only about 12 percent—around a million-plus. The rest are migrants who’ve come to work, but don’t have Emirati citizenship or any prospect of getting it. About 60 percent of the country’s inhabitants are South Asians (Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis); the rest are a mix of Filipinos, Nepalese, Egyptians, and others.

In most Arab countries, zealous nationalist regimes oppressed or threw out religious or ethnic minorities, many of them sources of initiative and wealth. In the UAE, by contrast, the Arabs turned themselves into a small minority. They needed migrants to leverage their massive oil wealth into fast-paced development. Otherwise, their huge resources would have languished in distant banks.

So they imported working hands in the millions, confident that they could manage the influx and preserve their own identity and solidarity. So far, it’s worked.

Bahrain is a smaller-scale version of the same dynamic. The population is only about 1.7 million, of whom less than half are Bahraini citizens. The majority are expatriates, although a substantial portion is Arab.

Bahrain’s citizens are divided between a Sunni ruling minority and a Shiite majority. The latter share religion and sometimes ethnicity with Iranians, and constitute the source of most opposition in the kingdom. So far, the monarchy has held its own against opponents, although it relied heavily on Saudi (and UAE) backing to fend off a popular challenge during the “Arab Spring.”

Both countries look stable, but demography is an abiding concern. The combined citizen populations of the UAE and Bahrain probably don’t come to two million, less than that of greater Tel Aviv. The Jewish population of Israel is three times the Arab populations of the UAE and Bahrain combined. Likewise, there are as many Arab citizens of Israel proper as there are of the UAE and Bahrain. The Arabs of these two countries form only half a percent of the 400 million Arabs in the world. And Emiratis and Bahrainis are but a drop as compared to the 82 million Iranians next door.

The very rich are different from you and me

They’d have reason enough to feel vulnerable if those were the only numbers in the game. But there are more.

Thanks to Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, the UAE has a gross domestic product of over $400 billion. Much of this flows to the resident expatriates, but it primarily sustains the affluence of the citizen minority across the seven emirates that make up the union. Bahrain, which also relies heavily on oil (as well as banking and finance), isn’t that far behind the UAE. Just for proportions, the combined gross domestic product of the UAE and Bahrain is equal to Iran’s—and Iran has a population of 82 million.

Over the years, not a few observers have declared that such huge disparities of wealth, and its concentration in the hands of ruling minorities, couldn’t be sustained.

A sample of this view can be found in the book After the Sheikhs, whose author (British academic Christopher Davidson) concluded that the UAE’s rulers “have suffered a serious and likely permanent loss of legitimacy,” and that Bahrain’s monarchy has “the bleakest future” of the Gulf monarchies. His conclusion (in 2012): “Most of these regimes—at least in their present form—will be gone within the next two to five years” (emphasis in source).

The end-is-nigh trope is an old one. In fact, the rulers are perfectly aware of their vulnerability, unlike those Arab rulers who were toppled during the “Arab Spring.” So they have perfected survival strategies that work amazingly well.

The most important is to secure and keep the support of the West, and especially the United States, as a counterweight to the forces of envy that surround them.

But it goes beyond that. After all, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak had U.S. support, and it didn’t save him. So the UAE, in particular, has tried to look, sound, and feel like a showcase of the West. True, it can’t embrace democracy, but it’s embraced a degree of cultural and religious tolerance that has impressed the West.

Whether it’s a branch of the Louvre museum (visited by the recent Israeli press delegation to the country), or an outpost of New York University, such talismans are there for a rainy day. Should the UAE get in trouble with grasping neighbors, public opinion in the West will say: “Let’s save them, they’re one of us.”

A friend of a friend

It’s here that normalization with Israel fits in. Yes, Israel has lots to offer the UAE and Bahrain, and they have much to offer in return. But the real attraction of normalization for the UAE and Bahrain is that good relations with Israel are the default of all enlightened Western countries. An Israeli embassy goes perfectly with a branch of the Guggenheim art museum.

Why now? The United States is pulling back from some of its Middle Eastern commitments. From some, but not all—and certainly not its commitment to Israel, which Americans of all stripes see as “one of us,” even if they disagree with some of its policies. Full and normal relations with Israel raise the UAE and Bahrain to a new category: from “friendly Arab countries that sell us oil” to “best Arab friends of our own best friend, Israel.”

Not only does that strengthen the U.S. insurance policy, it also lines up the pro-Israel lobby in America on the side of the UAE and Bahrain. They’ve always had their own hired lobbyists in Washington, but they never had any grassroots support in America. Now they will.

It’s an upgrade, and it’s become a need-to-have in a time of American retrenchment. It’s also an open-sesame for bigger and better arms deals, and a deterrent against would-be aggressors, above all Iran.

Israel reached this landmark because it’s strong. The Gulf Arabs have reached it because they’re vulnerable. Israel seeks to translate its strength into recognition. The Gulf Arabs seek to translate their recognition into strength. Just how the two sides will negotiate this unequal partnership isn’t in their formal agreements. It’s in the politics ahead.

Left to right: Bahrain’s foreign minister, Israel’s prime minister, the US president, and UAE’s foreign minister, signing of Abraham Accords, September 15. Official White House photo.

Cross-posted at Times of Israel.