Labor MK says he was ‘moved’ by meeting with King Abdullah
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Labor MK says he was ‘moved’ by meeting with King Abdullah

Erel Margalit, contender for opposition leader, 'furious' with science minister who pulled out of collaboration event in Jordan

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit. (Courtesy)
Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit. (Courtesy)

While Israel played a major role in helping to build the first-ever particle accelerator in the Middle East — the fruit of more than two decades of regional cooperation, including with Iran and Pakistan — the only Israeli official present at the inauguration ceremony in Jordan on Tuesday was Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis canceled his participation the day before the event in a diplomatic protest, saying Amman had “crossed a line” by condemning the killing by an Israeli policeman of a Jordanian man who was stabbing him.

Margalit, who is one of the main contenders to win the crowded primaries for Israel’s leading opposition party, and a strong proponent of regional cooperation, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that he was “furious” with Akunis for not showing up.

“I was really hoping we could go together as coalition and opposition, hand in hand in this respect,” he said in a phone interview.

Likud MK Ofir Akunis seen at a press conference of the Likud party in Tel Aviv on February 1, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Likud MK Ofir Akunis seen at a press conference of the Likud party in Tel Aviv on February 1, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Margalit accused Akunis of politicizing the event in order to win political points within the right-wing government.

While at the inauguration event for the particle accelerator in Allan, Jordan, Margalit briefly met with Jordanian King Abdullah II.

When the two first shook hands, Margalit said, the king did not know who he was. He introduced himself as “a venture capitalist, working in politics and running for the leadership of the Labor Party.” (Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party comprise the opposition Zionist Union faction.)

“Oh, great. Technology and science could really move this region forward,” the king said, according to Margalit.

Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a press conference with US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
Jordan’s King Abdullah II speaks during a press conference with US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Margalit said he was “moved” by the “dynamic reaction” of Abdullah, who seemed “pleasantly surprised and encouraged” when he heard who his Israeli interlocutor was.

Israel is one of the founding partners of the SESAME (Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) project, begun in 2002 under the auspices of UNESCO and aimed at promoting regional cooperation through scientific partnership.

Among the other member states of the project are Iran, Cyprus, Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

The accelerator produces powerful light that can be used to inspect the tiniest elements of any material. The tool is expected to be a boon to regional science, and can be used for research in a wide range of fields.

Margalit has already worked on a number of projects with Jordanians, including an initiative last year, organized with the help of EcoPeace, to revive the Jordan River for those living on both sides.

An employee from SESAME stands next to the particle accelerator in Allan, Jordan. (Sharing Knowledge Foundation)
An employee from SESAME stands next to the particle accelerator in Allan, Jordan. (Sharing Knowledge Foundation)

“I don’t think that things are easy,” Margalit said, acknowledging there is still some opposition in Jordanian society to cooperation with Israel.

“But I do think that when there was an opportunity, we were treated with the utmost respect,” he added. “I’ve had no problems with high-level officials, whether Jordanian, Egyptian, Moroccan, or Tunisian, and I can tell you that there is quite a bit of constructive discussion and cooperation.”

‘Ambivalent’ about Iranian membership in SESAME

Margalit, a former venture capitalist and entrepreneur who entered the political fray in 2013, has touted what he calls his “converging interests” plan, designed to enhance Israel’s economy while fortifying and extending its collaborative relationships with other Middle Eastern and Gulf states.

Part of this plan includes combating the flow of capital into Tehran as the Iran nuclear deal is implemented.

Yet, Margalit admitted that it would sometimes be complicated to keep Iran out of regional cooperation, as the SESAME project proved.

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Imam Khomeini Mosque in the capital Tehran on May 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)
Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Imam Khomeini Mosque in the capital Tehran on May 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

He pointed out that Iran isn’t “getting any money” from the project, but said he was ultimately “very ambivalent” about it being a member of SESAME.

“It’s not easy, you know…When we will start to solve our issues and move things forward economically and security-wise, we will have situations that are not going to be easy for us.”

He added: “Change requires being in situations that are challenging, opening your eyes, being very clear about who are the extremists that you want to fight and giving change a chance, which is something that a responsible but courageous leader needs to do.”

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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