This Week’s Guest: Ron Dermer
One week ago, the president of the United States, the prime minister of Israel, and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates together announced the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel. This is Israel’s first accord with an Arab nation since 1994, and it is the first time it has ever entered into such an arrangement with an Arab nation that does not share its border.
In this week’s podcast, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, explains to Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver how the deal happened, who made it happen, and the consequences it could well have for regional security and regional prosperity. Dermer also speaks about his hopes for the relationship between Israel and the Emirates, the nations he expects will follow their lead, the ramifications of the accord for the Palestinians, the hopes he has for Israel’s relationship with Jordan and Egypt, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strategic insight that relates diplomatic achievement abroad with commercial, entrepreneurial, and military strength at home.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
I’m your host, Jonathan Silver. My guest is, since 2013, Israels ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. He is one of Israel’s longest-serving representatives in Washington, and is known to be a close and trusted colleague of Prime Minister Netanyahu working shoulder to shoulder with the Trump administration, the prime minister in Jerusalem, and representatives from the Gulf. He had a significant role to play in bringing about this agreement.
In our conversation, we speak about his hopes for the relationship between Israel and the Emirates, the nations he expects will follow their lead, the ramifications of the accord for the Palestinians, the hopes he has for Israel’s relationship with Jordan and Egypt. Among the most interesting things we discuss is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strategic insight that relates diplomatic achievement abroad with commercial, entrepreneurial and military strength at home.
We’re having this conversation on Wednesday, August 19th, 2020. Earlier this week, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, sent a letter to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, inviting him to Jerusalem in recognition of the imminent settlement of officially normalized relations. My first question is, how did this deal come to pass?
It was really a historic day. As you said, it’s the third time that we have had an Arab state agree to normalization, the first since 1994. We’ve had over a quarter of a century without, effectively, a peace agreement. However, we haven’t been at war with the Emirates, so it’s probably best to say it’s the full normalization of relations with an Arab state. We haven’t had that happen for 26 years, since the peace treaty with Jordan, and before that the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. But in recent years, we’ve seen a change in the Arab world’s view of Israel. The prime minister has spoken about this shift for several years—publicly at the United Nations, in the United States Congress, and elsewhere.
It was happening underneath the surface, but I think what drove this shift was a combination of factors. One was certainly the rise of Iran as a power in the region, and that created a common danger—it was important for Arab states to work closely in security cooperation and intelligence cooperation against that threat. A second issue was the rise of Sunni fanaticism. Iran is a radical Shiite regime, but there are also radical Sunni forces in the region. The first iteration―let’s say in modern times, in the last few decades―of those was al-Qaeda, and then you have Islamic State which is 2.0, and there will be a 3.0. These Arab governments in the region are very concerned about that. And I think the third factor frankly was the perception that the United States was withdrawing from the region. On both sides of the political aisle in the United States, nobody’s calling for sending more troops to the Middle East, and the perception was that the US was withdrawing from the region after Afghanistan and Iraq, so that created this sense of the growing importance of Israel in the calculation of these Arab states and in their understanding of their own security interests.
Another element here is that Israel really is a global technological power. The traditional Arab boycott towards Israel is a bit like Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, and half of Southern California boycotting Silicon Valley. It makes no sense. But you do have some forces within the Arab world that want to modernize their countries—certainly the Emirates are one country that obviously has done a lot to embrace modernity, and Mohamed bin Zayed is a leader who I think wants to embrace it. Then when you have the second great center of innovation in the world—Israel—in your backyard, it makes no sense not to cooperate. I think all of those factors came together to set the table for a situation where the Emirates would like to normalize relations with Israel. But what we’ve had in the Arab world for some time is decades of poison against Israel. Many forces in the Arab world have been poisoning their populations because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Seventy years of this poison has an impact, so it’s hard for the Arab leaders to simply make this shift, even when they would want to do so.
What happened in recent weeks is that Israel was moving towards extending sovereignty in certain areas of Judea and Samaria, and the Emirates understood that this could be an opportunity for them to normalize relations with Israel. They went to the American administration and they said, “Look, if Israel will suspend this move, then . . .” and they asked for a full cessation—to take it completely off the table forever. But they did say that if Israel will just suspend it—because that’s what eventually was agreed on—that they would normalize relations with Israel. The United States administration then came to us and said, “Look, we have something real in hand, we have something that hasn’t happened before. The Emirates are willing to take this historic step. And we ask that you not go ahead with the extension of sovereignty, and that you temporarily suspend it to enable us, to give us the time and space, to take advantage of this historic moment, which may even lead to several other breakthroughs and several other peace agreements with Arab states.”
This is the first time that we’ve broken through this paradigm that has existed for several decades. The paradigm says that the road to peace with any Arab state goes through Ramallah, and it must go through Ramallah. I cannot tell you how many times senior U.S. officials, of both Republican and Democratic administrations, would tell me, “If you make peace with the Palestinians, you’ll get 22 Arab states to make peace with you.” And I would always say, and the prime minister would say, “Well, that would be great if the Palestinians wanted to make peace with us. But what if the Palestinians don’t want to make peace? Then are we giving a veto to the Palestinian leadership over Israel’s relations with the Arab world?” Effectively that veto was there until Sadat in 1979. Even the peace agreement with Jordan—which we’re blessed to have had for 25 years—happened only in the wake of Oslo, and it still reinforced the argument that you needed some breakthrough with the Palestinians in order to get peace with an Arab state. I think with this move here, even though Israel is suspending its extension of sovereignty for now, Israel is not making dangerous concessions. We’re not uprooting settlements. We’re not engaging in reckless territorial compromises. We’re suspending, temporarily, Israel’s extension of sovereignty into areas of Judea and Samaria.
Now we have the possibility of a peace agreement with the Emirates. With the peace here, you might have full normalization in a way that, unfortunately, we have not yet had with Egypt and Jordan. We would like to have that. We have formal peace agreements with both countries, and a cold peace is better than a hot war, but we would like to turn those into warm peaces of people-to-people, business-to-business contacts with both Egypt and Jordan. So in that way, this a breakthrough with the Emirates. It allows for the possibility of a truly warm peace coming, not just from the top down, but from the bottom up. With business-people going back and forth, with people-to-people contacts.
How this was received with the Emirates is also a great harbinger of what is to come once we get travel and tourism and direct flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai. It might be that you’ll go to the Emirates in a couple of years and you’ll be in a hotel there, and you’re going to hear more Hebrew than Arabic in the hotel. And you might find yourself in Tel Aviv in a hotel, and you might hear more Arabic than Hebrew. So this offers enormous opportunities because the Emirates is a financial and commercial center in the Arab world—there is a sovereign wealth fund of about a trillion dollars there. And in Israel you have a great source of innovation and technology, so when you marry the entrepreneurialism, this commercial center, and the power of investments in the Emirates with Israeli technology and innovation, the sky’s the limit. We’re very excited about it, and we think that, as I said the day it happened, there is more to come.
You opened up a lot of big questions that I want to return to, but first, just to get the sense of the timeline straight. On the one hand, there were some security reasons for the Gulf Sunni nations and Israel to cooperate in the context of the JCPOA and the Iran nuclear deal, and the threat that American withdrawal would be more serious in the years ahead. There’s also a more immediate timeline having to do with annexation. So let me just ask you, when did the prime minister start thinking about this?
We’ve been thinking about this for years. The prime minister has been talking about normalizing with the Arab states even in public speeches for several years. Even if you’re talking about this year, the prime minister did not believe his move to extend sovereignty was going to undermine any prospects of normalization in the future, and I don’t think that either. That’s the wrong way to look at it.
It may be the case, as Ambassador Friedman said, that you may not be able to do both simultaneously. But our hope was, as part of the peace plan that was put forward, to move ahead to extend sovereignty. And as that moved ahead, many people who were critical of it said that Israel is destroying any possibility of peace with the Palestinians. That we were destroying any possibility of a two-state solution. But that was not true. In fact, I wrote a column about this in the Washington Post, where I said that Israel’s move would destroy the two-state illusion, and it would actually open the possibility of a realistic two-state solution. We were not going to take any step that was going to preclude the possibility of a political settlement with the Palestinians in the future.
Take the timeline for moment. The peace plan is put out. Israel says yes to this peace plan—Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gantz both embrace it. The Palestinians of course rejected it. That was not a surprise because they’ve rejected every plan for the last century. But at the event where they launched the plan, you had three ambassadors: you had the Emirate ambassador, the Omani ambassador, and the ambassador from Bahrain. After that event, the question is: what do we do now? Now you have a peace plan that’s on the table. And for the first time in the history of this conflict, a plan was put forward that Israel could accept and that the Arab states would not reject, for which I give great credit to the Trump administration. That was new. That had never happened before. It doesn’t mean the Arabs agree with every element that’s in the plan, but they didn’t reject it. The Emirates even put out a fairly positive statement, encouraging the Palestinians to go into negotiation, saying it was a good first step.
So again, the question after the plan was put forward is: what do we do? We didn’t have a Palestinian partner that was willing to negotiate on that basis. What do we do? Israel and the United States decided to work together on a plan to extend sovereignty to the parts of Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—that would remain part of Israel according to this Trump plan. And in exchange, we were not going extend sovereignty to territory that the Trump plan designates as being Palestinian, for a Palestinian state in the future, if they ever deigned to come to the negotiating table and actually negotiate a real compromise based on the framework that President Trump had put forward. We were moving ahead with that plan, and perhaps the Emirates realized this was an opportunity for them to normalize with Israel and—from their point of view—get a suspension of Israel’s move to extend sovereignty. Through that suspension, they were able to come into this peace agreement with Israel.
And I don’t think they did it against the Palestinians. They say they’re committed to the Palestinians; they’re committed to a two-state solution. They support the Palestinians’ desire for self-determination. But I think they took advantage of this opportunity, and when it presented itself to Israel, we took advantage of it as well.
Our hope is that other countries are going to come on board. Ultimately, those who want to see Israeli-Palestinian peace should be very excited about this development because by taking away the veto power of the rejectionists, we empower those within Palestinian society who would like to see a compromise, who would like to see a historic settlement of the conflict.
Once several Arab states move towards peace with Israel, then the rejectionists can no longer say that they have the whole Arab world behind them, because they don’t. They’re on the other side. The Arab world is moving towards Israel. Hopefully those forces within Palestinian society who would like to make peace with Israel will be strengthened by this, and they’ll confront those who don’t want peace, saying, “Look, the Arab train has left the station, so to speak, and we should get on board.” The more the Arab world moves towards Israel, the greater the likelihood is for a breakthrough with the Palestinians as well.
So you see it not as a disincentive for the Palestinians to come to the table and to make it harder, but actually as a source of leverage to bring them to the table.
There are people who think the Arab world is going to force the Palestinians to make peace with Israel. I don’t think that’s true. I think you need to have a historic change among the Palestinian leadership and frankly, within Palestinian society, because it runs very deep: they don’t recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state in our historic homeland. They have to cross the Rubicon that they’ve never crossed.
I think if there are twenty Arab states sitting on that side of the Rubicon with them saying, “We won’t cross to the other side until you do,” then we’re just strengthening the forces of rejection in that society. But as those other Arab states come across, then those Palestinians who would like to come across as well will be able to point to that. That changes the whole dynamic in the region.
We have an Arab-Israeli conflict and we have an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sometimes people confuse those two. There are interconnections; in the Venn diagram there is a space where they both connect, but they’re still separate. We could look back at this move by the Emirates, if it leads to several others as well (and I hope it does), as something Churchill might say: the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Now that will hopefully lead to the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. But I think first we have to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict to be able to strengthen those forces within Palestinian society who’d like to make peace with us. That’s why this was such a historic event. What’s interesting too is the reception that it has received in the region. When Sadat did what he did, it was tremendous act of courage. He received an important concession from Israel—we left the Sinai, which is territory about three times the size of the state of Israel, and has energy resources. And we left it. But, in the dramatic moment when he came to Jerusalem, he punctured an entire wall of Arab rejectionism.
What you’re seeing in this move is that we’ve punctured a pro-forma rejectionism. But underneath the surface, the relationship between Israel and the Arab world has been building for some time. As I said, the prime minister spoke about it publicly. The prime minister has worked on it constantly. I’ve told people over the years, if you knew whom the prime minister has met with, where he has been and everything else, you would be shocked. He’s been doing all of it underneath the surface and nothing has leaked out. And then occasionally things like this pop to the surface, puncturing that formal rejection of Israel. And I think it can happen much quicker than people think for the next countries to come, precisely because of the response you’ve seen in the region. Bahrain has said something positive. Oman has said something positive. The Saudis, if you understand the intricacies of diplomacy, their response can be interpreted as something positive. This agreement has been met in a different way than was the case with Sadat, and I think that tells you about the shift that was already underneath the surface in the Arab world. Now hopefully we can bring it to the surface. We have just a little bit, and hopefully we can get many now to follow.
So I want to come back to the question of Saudi Arabia, but I want to just linger for another moment over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal engagement in this issue. Has he been to the Emirates?
I think it was Begin who said, you never ask an Israeli prime minister where he’s been, you know? So the prime minister would not say. He’s been in many places that people think he’s not been. And I have great admiration for the fact that over the years, he’s been able to conduct very successful diplomacy with many, many leaders in the region that we don’t have formal relations with, and he’s done it very quietly. In this breakthrough, one of the reasons why it happened is that it was held very closely on the Israeli side. There were very, very few people on our side who knew about it, and I think that prevented leaks. And that’s important because most of the breakthroughs happen that way. It was the case with Egypt in a positive way, and it wasn’t the case with Oslo, which turned out to be a negative. Whenever there’s leaks, all the opponents will attack it, and you never get the positive side to come out because everything’s already been undermined. We were able to do it very quietly this time.
The prime minister has invested an enormous amount of time and effort and now we’re getting this breakout. There are other things that have happened too. You may recall a couple of years ago that he actually visited Oman. Sultan Qaboos, the late Sultan there, hosted him in Oman in a public visit. There was a meeting with the leader of Sudan, which was not made public at the time, but afterwards it was reported that they had met. We had a meeting in Warsaw where you had the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, of Bahrain, and of the Emirates in the room, and other officials from Arab countries with the prime minister. It wasn’t a public event, but that in itself was a breakthrough. So these quiet things have happened underneath the surface, but here finally you have a real breakthrough. Mohamed bin Zayed deserves a great deal of credit for having the courage to do that.
Ambassador Dermer, do you have any insight that you can share about the relationship between the Saudis and the Emiratis, and about whether they’re coordinated or if this move puts any pressure on Mohammad bin Salman? Or whether Mohammad bin Salman and MBZ have together orchestrated the sequencing here so it’s like the Emiratis are acting as a kind of Saudi vanguard in making peace?
There’s a very strong relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and between the crown princes of both countries. But because I’m a sitting ambassador, I don’t want to talk about those specifics. I’m not a commentator on events. We deal with a lot of different countries and a lot of different things, so I think the best thing to say right now is that the relationship is good. I don’t think the Saudis were surprised by this, and I think it helps improve the chances of other countries moving forward towards a normalization with Israel. There’s no question about it.
You mentioned something interesting about the differences between the growing relationship between Israel and the Emirates on the one hand and the peace treaties that Israel has with Jordan and Egypt on the other. How do you think they’re alike and how do you see them as different?
First of all, we’re alike now because you have that formal agreement and you can have embassies and you can have direct flights and you have a certain level of formal ties that are important in diplomacy. There are certain things that you can do underneath the table—secret talks, working on certain security issues and intelligence issues. But I think once you surface it like this and you have a formal structure, there’s so much more potential, not only on security and intelligence, but frankly on commercial ties too.
We would like to see deep and warm peace between Egypt and Israel, and Jordan and Israel, and we will work to advance that. We’ll have to see how the peace with the Emirates will compare with the peace between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan. But I think there are possibilities for it to expand quickly, not only top-down, but bottom-up. I don’t see a lot of forces—cultural forces, economic forces, political forces—inside the Emirates that are working to stop those ties, that are trying to prevent reconciliation. Everything suggests that the forces are a tailwind for strengthening those ties. On the other hand, I think there have been forces in Egypt and in Jordan that have worked to prevent that. There can be cultural boycotts and there can be economic boycotts, and I can’t tell you that when an Egyptian or a Jordanian businessman would make a deal with Israel, they were applauded in public.
We are definitely blessed with this peace agreement for 40 years with Egypt and 25 years with Jordan and we’re thankful that President Sisi has worked to strengthen the relationship with Israel, and also King Hussein and King Abdullah have worked to strengthen this relationship’ but there were times when, within Egypt and Jordan, you had countervailing forces. I don’t see those forces right now in the Emirates. Everything suggests, based on what we’ve seen in the last four or five days since this was announced, that there was going to be a tailwind in favor of it. There were contacts before, where Israeli businessmen would come back and forth, but it was always done indirectly and sometimes with a second passport or other mechanisms. But once you open up business, once you have full direct flights, I think you’re going to see a tremendous positive change happen very quickly there because you don’t have that animosity or opposition within society. I just don’t see it there right now.
I expect as the Emirati public understands the benefits of peace with Israel, and as Israelis see the benefits of peace with the Emiratis, it will only get stronger. I would hope that it would lead to a deepening of peace between Egypt and Israel and Israel and Jordan too, because I think those publics could benefit greatly from real strong commercial ties, real cultural exchange and everything else. And so maybe it will expand peace that we don’t have, and deepen the peace agreements that we do have.
That’s such an interesting point. One would have just wondered if in 1979, if the Egyptians had seen the potential for their relationship with Israel, as it seems very much like the Emiratis do, and what kind of benefits for them in trade and entrepreneurship and medicine and high tech and everything else could have been part of their growth over the last 40 years.
There’s no question. You saw that in the statement that President Sisi put out supporting it. And had there been deeper ties, I think it would certainly have been to the benefit of Israel and I think it would have been even more to the benefit of Egypt. It’s a different scenario with the Emirates because we don’t share a common border, we haven’t had wars. When you’re dealing with a bordering state, when you’re dealing with active military engagement all the time, that is obviously a different scenario and it’s harder to have this shift happen. But I do think that it is possible, and my hope would be that the nearly one hundred million or so people in Egypt will see the benefits of peace between Israel and the Emirates.
Of course, they’re different countries. They also have different resources. And the UAE is a commercial and financial center in the entire Middle East, where Egypt has been a political, cultural, and traditional leader in the Arab world and even beyond. So there’s a different dynamic that goes on, but the hope would be that the people of Egypt will look and say, “Hey, look at the benefits that we’re having, let’s work to strengthen ties with Israel.” And the same thing would happen with the people of Jordan.
If there’s two Arab countries at peace with Israel, when you have three it strengthens the two that are already there. Once you have four and five and six and seven, it creates a whole dynamic that ultimately changes the conflict, and hopefully can bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end. That I think would be a great thing. We moved, as I said, from a hot war with Egypt to a cold peace—which is certainly better than a hot war. And you could say with Jordan, we moved from this almost cold war from 1970 to 1994, to a cold peace. Now we have an opportunity now to create a warm peace with the Emirates, and then maybe we can move the cold peace that we have with Egypt and Jordan to a warmer peace.
Let me ask you some about the security trade-offs as you think about them and as the prime minister thinks about them. One need only look at the map to see where the Emirates are in relation to the Strait of Hormuz and Iran. It’s an extremely significant strategic advantage to have this partnership for Israel. Has there been any discussion about possible naval exercises or any other kinds of military cooperation?
I don’t want to get into it, but let’s just say the prime minister has a very big map behind him in his home office and a map on the sidewall of his work office and he knows exactly where the Emirates are and exactly who’s on the other side of those straits. So it hasn’t escaped our attention, but we have to let this process take its natural course. I think you’re going to see the security and intelligence cooperation, and also civilian cooperation in health and medicine, and agriculture and in water. In many areas, you’re going to see this expand very, very dramatically, and soon. There are great strategic benefits for Israel, and there are great strategic benefits for the Emirates, as they seek to diversify their economies as well. You’re going to see a lot of investment from the Emirates into Israel. And you’ll see that vice versa, a lot of partnerships happening from the ground up. In fact, once we make these sorts of formal agreements, even if they’re skeletal agreements, everything will happen from the bottom up, which is very different from a top down process where you’re really pushing the private sector to do things. Here, I just think if you build it, they will come. So we just have to create that framework to allow for the natural affinities between Israel and the Emirates to take their course.
Let me ask you a question about America. Of course I understand there are limits to what you can tell us, and I understand it’s necessary for you to protect the trust and discretion you’ve built up with particular members over the years, but in general, can you tell us about the reaction that this deal has been received with in the House and the Senate?
I can tell you I’ve had many calls at this point, maybe some two dozen, since it happened. I usually start those calls saying, “I hate to be the bearer of good news, . . . ” and usually that has been met with a great laugh, because there’ve been times where members did not see eye to eye with Israel on a certain policy. The position regarding Iran and the nuclear deal is the most obvious one, but there’ve been others as well. But it’s nice to see the strong bipartisan support for Israel in this agreement. The former vice-president and Senator Harris came out with a statement supporting this. Especially when it’s a time of a real great partisan divide for a really long time, to do something like this shortly before a U.S. election and to see that level of bipartisan support is very heartwarming.
And I’ll tell you something else that’s important, something I’ve told many of the people I’ve spoken to, particularly the ones who have been champions of Israel on both sides of the aisle for a long time. And that is: they also have a share in what has happened now. Everybody’s trying to find the straw that breaks the camel’s back—what was the last meeting that led to the breakthrough that made this possible? But the truth is that every straw on the camel’s back breaks the back. The last one is one, but all the ones underneath it also do it. There is no question in my mind that a pillar of Israel’s strength is the alliance that we have with the United States. For decades, you have seen support for Israel on both sides of the aisle. So for some members of Congress and the Senate, those who’ve been there for a long time, some of them two, three decades, we are very grateful for their consistent support for Israel.
The only way you have breakthroughs like this is that if Israel remains very, very strong. We waited 30 years to have a peace agreement with Egypt. We didn’t sit on our hands and mourn our faith. We built the country and unfortunately we had to fight wars as we were building the country, but ultimately that led to a breakthrough. The understanding that Israel could not be defeated in war ultimately led to a breakthrough and the move of Sadat to make peace with Israel. Since then, we’ve continued to build our strength, and in the last couple of decades I think the prime minister deserves enormous credit for really turning Israel into a rising power in the world. In security and in technology, in military power and intelligence power, cyber capability, and in really liberalizing Israel’s economy and allowing the enormous brain power that we have among our people, the human capital we have, to be unleashed to make Israel the center of innovation.
Israel’s strength has led us to the precipice of this moment. And a pillar of that strength is the U.S.-Israel alliance. And those people, on both sides, who have worked year after year to support Israel, they have actually put a lot of straw on that back. Then when these days happen, I think they deserve a share of that credit. I see it as my role as Israel’s ambassador to say thank you for making this day possible.
Everybody wants ultimately to see peace between Israel and all our neighbors, including the Palestinians, but it is definitely peace through strength. In fact, the story of Israel, the 72-year story of Israel, is a story of peace through strength. The stronger we are and the stronger we become, the more likely we are to bring peace. The opposite idea—which I reject and certainly the prime minister rejects—says Israel should weaken itself and make concessions. I think that will actually make peace harder to achieve and actually undermine the alliance that we have with the United States, because the stronger Israel is as an ally, the more people will gravitate towards it. No one makes peace with the weak. They make peace with the strong, and no one seeks weak allies, they seek strong allies. That has positioned Israel in a way where our Arab neighbors see Israel as a strong ally, are moving closer to us, and the Emirates basically created a bridge now to move over and formalize this relationship that a lot of other countries in the region seek. We will work in the weeks and months ahead to see if we can have more countries that would like to cross over that bridge.
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