Fleur Hassan-Nahoum grew up in Gibraltar and studied law at King’s College London, where she practiced until immigrating to Israel in 2001. There, she became the executive director of Tikva, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving abandoned and abused Jewish children from the former Soviet Union, and later established a communications consulting business.
In 2016, Hassan-Nahoum was elected to the Jerusalem Municipal Council, rising to opposition leader one year later. Upon her re-election in 2018, she was appointed deputy mayor for foreign relations, economic development and tourism.
Hassan-Nahoum is deeply involved in the advancement of women’s rights and marginalized population groups in the city: its economic development, and for a pluralistic Jerusalem. Hassan-Nahoum is also the co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council and Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum.
Fleur, one of the first Israeli women to gloss the pages of a Bahraini newspaper, is a wife and mother of four children. She is the first profiled woman guest on the premier episode of the new television program Facing the Middle East with Felice Friedson.
TML: Fleur Hassan-Nahoum is an Israeli politician and policymaker. She currently serves as deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of foreign relations, international economic development, and tourism. She’s also a founding member of the UAE-Israel Business Council.
It’s been round the clock activity since the revelation of the Abraham Accord bringing normalcy to relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. What can you tell us about the run-up to the Abraham Accords? The worst-kept secret in the region is the many contacts between Israelis and Emiratis that have been underway for years. What was the tipping point that brought such contacts public and triggered this new era?
Hassan-Nahoum: Well, I think you are 100% right. I think it was a very under-the-radar normalization already for a number of years. In fact, we estimate that there was probably 250 Israeli businesses working in the UAE. I mean, you have to understand when we talk about working in the UAE finding ways around the kind of barriers that used to exist.
I got a friend who is a very successful entrepreneur who sells some type of a medical device. She told me that she used to have to send it to a warehouse, take everything out of a box, change the labels from ‘Made in Israel’ and then they could sell. So, we knew that was going on the whole time.
Back in June, my co-founder Dorian Barak who has already been working for about 10 years in the region, said to me, “Fleur, I’m telling you, this is the new frontier; we have to do something about this.” I said, “Why don’t we create a business council?” And we did back then in June because we’ve been talking about it for about a year and a half.
Neither of us imagined, three months later, two months later we were going to have these accords, so there was normalization; the normalization was definitely picking up speed, but I don’t think anybody imagined that the peace accords, or the normalization accords would happen so quickly one fine day without leaking anything before. As a journalist, were you aware that anything was coming? Or, you were?
TML: Well, I think you would look at it, and I think as an observer as a journalist, you saw things were heading that way.
Hassan-Nahoum: They were heading…
TML: Nobody expected…
TML: …the dynamic to take place when it did.
Hassan-Nahoum: Exactly! Nobody was saying by next week there’s going to be accords. Yes, it was accelerated. I agree with you. So, that kind of caught us by surprise and when that happened, we worked really hard and within two days we already had an online platform and we went out into the world and said this is a place where were going to be building the bridges for businesses. And within a few weeks we had 3,000 signed up members who are telling us what areas of business they are interested in.
So, what we have is also very exciting data that can now build those bridges with some serious data about where people want to do business; what arenas.
TML: Give me an example of some of the things that have closed. Have you seen business to business close to this?
Hassan-Nahoum: So, there’s a lot of things being closed as we speek, but absolutely we’ve had companies closing on auto technology. We’ve had companies there in the UAE. Lots of different [and] even nonbusiness bridges that we’re building, for example, the different nature parks, etc.
Next week I am going to be talking about different sport initiatives between countries and businesses…
TML: So, let’s stop there a minute and not say next week, because remember this is during Labor… OK…
Hassan-Nahoum: As we speak, we are looking at different collaborations and sports in nature parks. You know, that’s the non-business. The business, we are creating a lot of value with our events that are creating a lot of bridges. Ultimately, we believe that our job is to open the door to create the bridges and then the free market will do its own work. We’re not here to handhold anybody. We’re here to open doors. And that’s what we’re doing.
And so, every week there’s a new opportunity that we’re exploring and that we are hand-holding and that we are matchmaking, and then we step out of the picture when that’s done.
TML: Many naysayers will say that Bahrain was never at war with Israel.
Hassan-Nahoum: And neither was the UAE.
TML: OK, So, do you think they’re belittling the scope of the Abraham Accords?
Hassan-Nahoum: You always have the people who want to belittle anything good in the world, and those people, for whatever reasons, because they hate Trump, because they hate Bibi, whatever it is that drives this negativity, how can anybody say that peace is not good? In any situation, in anything, how can anybody say peace is not good? Peace is great!
I speak with the Arab community of Jerusalem all the time. The people I speak to are certainly very excited about it, but of course, what you’re going to be hearing is the Palestinian media machine against them, because it goes against their own political interests; the political interests of the leadership that is doing absolutely nothing to their people, but is losing the faith of their people. But of course, they have to be naysayers.
We all know also, [and] a lot of journalists are going to say, well, if you could just look at a certain publication without mentioning names, every day there is a negative story about the UAE and the UAE and Israel. These are the people who are barking and staying behind. The people who are moving forward are the people who will see the positivity in this, see the mutual prosperity in this, and see that even for the Palestinians this is a fantastic move.
TML: We’re going to see a new president. President Biden is going to come in. Do you think that that will alter the status quo?
Hassan-Nahoum: I really hope not. I’ve been speaking to a lot of people who are close to Biden, who have worked with Biden in the past and people tell me a few things. First of all, not me, but the Gulf [countries] is completely panicked about it because they have post-trauma from the Obama years.
They tell me, these are my friends in the Gulf [countries], that during the Obama years it was very clear to them that Obama chose Iran over the Gulf [countries]. He was a bad president for the Gulf countries. This is not me. This is not Israel saying this. This is what my friends in different positions in the Gulf [countries] are telling me.
And so, they are a little bit post-traumatic and they are concerned. Having said that, [inaudible] I’m telling them, from the people that I’ve spoken to, Biden is not Obama and he has a different way of looking at things. We have to wait and see.
What I do believe is that the momentum is running by itself now, so nobody can stop the momentum. The doors were opened. This was really Trump and Kushner’s real pièce de résistance of his presidency in terms of international relations. That’s running. Nobody’s going to stop that.
I’d even say more than that. If Biden gets too close to the Iranians or to a JCPOA Agreement, which is bad for Israel and bad for the Gulf [countries], what you’re going to find is that they are going to pushing Israel and Saudi Arabia into each other’s arms, which is a good thing.
So, I’m an optimist. I believe that people who are politicians who are not optimistic should not be in politics, because then you have nothing to offer. And I believe that Israel is in a win-win [situation]. If we manage to influence the Biden Administration or not, not to give in to the demands of the Iranians, then fantastic! And if that doesn’t happen, it’s only going to push the Gulf [countries] and Israel together.
TML: To what extent do you think the new relationship between Israel and Bahrain will assist with sagging numbers in tourism?
Hassan-Nahoum: Here? Or there?
Hassan-Nahoum: Look, there’s only one reason that we’re sagging in numbers of tourism and that is because of the corona[virus]. So, I have no doubt that the minute that there is a vaccine that has been rolled out in most countries, people are going to be flooding back. So, what we’re talking about here, whether in tourism or business is not a short-term fix-it-all band-aide, but we’re talking about a long-term relationship. And the exciting thing for Jerusalem, my city of course, is that for the first time in history we’re going to be having Moslem tourism, as we’ve had Evangelical and Christian tourism for many, many years. We’ve enjoyed that. We’ve enjoyed welcoming them to our city.
TML: So, explain what you have in mind there, because this is new.
Hassan-Nahoum: It is completely new. What I have in mind is this. Everybody knows that [the] Temple Mount or Haram Al-Sharif for the Moslems, is the third Moslem holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Every Emirati that I spoke to when I was there have on their bucket list to go and pray [there]. This is their pilgrimage. This is what they want to do.
Therefore, Jerusalem already has a very strong brand in the Gulf countries as a place that is a must-see visit so that’s exciting to me because what that means from a tourism perspective is that the anchor of their trip would be Jerusalem and not Tel-Aviv. Because, let’s be honest, I love Tel Aviv. You have Dubai. Tel Aviv is a beach city with great bars and entertainment like Dubai. It’s nothing different from what they [the Gulf countries] have and know. Jerusalem is different.
And then of course, from here we have the Dead Sea and they are also very much into green nature, [which are] things they don’t have in a desert country, and so I believe Jerusalem can be the anchor. And this is what we have with the Christians. When Christian groups come to Israel, four or five days they are anchored in Jerusalem. That’s what gives our economy a boost. The fact that the anchorage is here.
So what we are doing now is trying to prepare the best product possible for the Gulf [countries] tourism which means things that they are interested [in], which means luxury hotels, luxury service, because this is the service you get over there. I tell the hoteliers every day, and I tell the tourism industry people every day, we got to up our game.
TML: Is Israel prepared for it?
Hassan-Nahoum: We will be. We will be by the time they come. We’re making sure.
TML: The Arab sector is generally in need of assistance. It is a sector that has been overlooked for many years, not just in tourism. Are there programs that you can speak of that are happening right now that are helping to shape the economy for East Jerusalem?
Hassan-Nahoum: So, let me just tell you, Felice, three years ago a momentous government decision was passed that many people don’t know about and this was done under the tutelage of Minister [Ze’ev] Elkin who at the time was the Jerusalem affairs minister. And he saw the reality of what is going on in Jerusalem. He saw that if we want to call it one city, the city can’t look like two cities. The opportunities have to be across the board.
And so, he passed this government decision called ‘The Decision for Jerusalem to Close Gaps’. That decision involves serious governmental budgets and serious policy changes in three areas: one is physical infrastructure, the second is quality employment, and the third is education.
So, I focus more on the quality employment side and a little bit on the education side. Physical infrastructure is not my portfolio, but the mayor, this particular mayor, Moshe Leon, is very much a mayor leading very interesting infrastructural development changes in Jerusalem.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but the city is much cleaner. We’re building everywhere. There are bigger sidewalks. All the streets are being redone anew. This is Mayor Leon. He is very much a man that wants Jerusalem to look good, to feel good, and to build it.
And so my focus is on the quality employment, because I truly believe that we will have peace the day that there’s economic opportunity for all in the same way. People will not be angry if they are making great salaries, [and] if their business are flourishing. This is a way that we can embrace the Arab population in the city as part of the rest of the city.
So, I’ll give you a few examples. One, for example, and this comes from a very sad statistic, that the employment participation of Arab women in East Jerusalem is amongst the lowest in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, more women are working in terms of percentages than in East Jerusalem. It’s ridiculous, 19, 20, 22%.
TML: How do you see that shift?
Hassan-Nahoum: So, what we’ve done is we’ve realized that that’s a problem. That’s the first stage. The second thing we’ve realized where the problem is coming from, and the problem is coming from the fact that young Arab men and women in the Arab educational system in East Jerusalem, 90% of them do not learn Hebrew in school, which means that when they graduate, they cannot, or not easily go to colleges and universities in the city and they cannot get the good jobs.
TML: Is it for political reasons?
Hassan-Nahoum: Absolutely! This is the Palestinian Authority purposely keeping the East Jerusalem residents poor and angry. Why? Because it serves them politically. Meanwhile, they’re not giving them anything. They’re not giving them an alternative. They remain poor and they want to keep the wound open, and that’s their political reason for doing this, but what happens in effect, and this is when it becomes a gender issue, what happens is that at 18 years-old the Arab men go to work and they find jobs in delivery or construction. They have to work, so they work. They learn Hebrew on the job.
For women, they start having children at that age and by the time they want to go out to work, they are already in their late 20s with no hope of learning Hebrew and that’s why this situation with the educational system becomes a gender issue. So what we’ve done is that we’ve partnered up with a nonprofit organization called MATI that is an organization that helps develop small businesses, and have opened up an office in East Jerusalem run by Arab staff training women in what a business is, providing counseling to women who want to open a business, a business plan, and even connecting them with small loans.
TML: [For] how long is this going on, and how many young people have participated?
Hassan-Nahoum: So, we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of women who participated. Even the ones that end up not opening their own business, end up getting a good job and so we’re very excited about this. And just to say, not just with this program; we have other programs in place and of course, we are encouraging now and dealing with the matter of Hebrew and trying to combat the ignorance of Hebrew with extracurricular classes which are not unaffordable.
So that’s what’s happening right now. So, we’re very excited about MATI, but just to tell you that in the last few years the needle has moved in terms of female workforce participation, from 19% to 22/23%. So, something is moving, of course it needs to be fast, but it is moving in the right direction.
TML: We’re talking about women’s empowerment here and that’s an exciting thing. Where do you see Jerusalem heading in terms of the women’s sector? The Haredi woman, the Arab woman, they’re all very different.
TML: Looking at it over the course of the next few years.
Hassan-Nahoum: Well, I believe, as you know, [and] I also am the co-founder of the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum which you covered so well recently, and we truly believe that women are peacebuilders and that women are change-makers because women are mothers and women are the center of their family. And so, if you can affect the life of a woman, you affect the life of the entire family and I truly believe that.
And so, we’re empowering female leaders in the Arab sector, in East Jerusalem. We are absolutely empowering Haredi women; ultra-Orthodox women. The problem with the ultra-Orthodox women [is that] they work. The men are the ones who don’t work. They work, but the work normally is very low-paid work so what we’re doing with Haredi women is upping their skills so that they get better-paid jobs, whether in technology, whether upgrading whatever it is that they do, but giving them that kind of ambition and that kind of career advancement that they need for the better jobs. And in fact, the Haredim, the Haredi society are also very supportive of that. As long as the men don’t work, they are very supportive.
The Haredi women are actually becoming today managers and team leaders at a pace that you can’t imagine. That’s empowering them and it’s very important to empower Haredi women because we have another problem in this country [and that is] that ultra-Orthodox women are not allowed by ultra-Orthodox political parties to run for office. And what that means is that ultra-Orthodox women and families are underrepresented in their sector.
This is something that I work with partners every single day, and the more power women have in money, in great jobs, the more power that will come politically. And all they have to do is strike for two months with no work and we’ll see if they’re going to be allowed, but slowly, slowly the needle is also moving for ultra-Orthodox women and the power shift is happening.
Again, I’m an optimist. It may take years. It needs to change, because society, Haredi society cannot continue to have 50% of their men not working. It’s just unsustainable for the country.
Women are definitely the trailblazers in the ultra-Orthodox community and the change-makers and we will continue to support them in everything that they need.
TML: Fleur Hassan Hassan-Nahoum, you too are a wife [and] a mother.
TML: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Hassan-Nahoum: Oh, God! In politics, you really can’t predict, because it’s such a…
TML: Your hopes?
Hassan-Nahoum: …crazy… No, I believe that my strengths are in representing Israel in the world, not just because I speak a few languages, but also because I understand different cultures [and] have been raised in different cultures, because I am a Sefardi or Mizrahi woman. My mother is from Morocco. I also believe I have a certain affinity and understanding of the Arab world, so I will be anywhere my country needs me to advance Israel’s image abroad, business interests abroad, and diplomatic interests abroad. And the rest is up to the electorate.