Borderline: Telling it as it is
Boston consul-general concerned about Israel's image should be commended, not vilified.
Israel's consul-general to Boston, Nadav Tamir, is in hot water over a letter he sent to his superiors in the Foreign Ministry last week. In his letter, Tamir made clear what appears to be obvious to just about everybody else - namely, that the policies and statements of the present government are making it increasingly difficult for Israel to gain support in the US, not only among the administration but even among large sectors of the Jewish community who have traditionally supported Israel almost blindly.
And for telling the truth, Tamir has been called back home for clarifications. He is likely to be reprimanded, perhaps even face an early relocation to a less strategic location - back home to the ministry offices in Jerusalem or to a remote diplomatic outpost in Africa or Latin America.
The winds are clearly changing in US-Israel relations. It is unprecedented that Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has hardly managed to warm his seat in Washington and he has already been officially summoned twice to the State Department for official rebukes of recent government actions in east Jerusalem. Not only has the Obama administration made it clear that it will no longer turn a blind eye to the actions of its major ally in the Middle East, but it does appear that, finally, the White House intends to exert some serious pressure on Israel to make it freeze all settlement activity, in action, not just in meaningless words.
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has also made it clear that he wants to listen to the vast silent majority of the Jewish community, those progressive pro-peace groups who are strongly supportive of Israel but critical of its government's policies; those groups who do not hide everything behind a cover of threat, security and anti-Semitism; those groups who voted en masse for Obama but whose views are not represented by the hard-line pro-Israel lobbyists such as AIPAC who have traditionally portrayed themselves as the only ones who know what is good for Israel.
For its part, Binyamin Netanyahu's government is doing its best to see just how far it can go before a real crisis point is reached between the two countries. Unlike his previous term in office, Netanyahu is under no obligation to implement policies which will anger his own right-wing constituency at home. This time around, he is not obligated to carry through a Hebron, a Wye or any other agreement. Despite its oft repeated support of a two-state solution and further territorial concessions, the outgoing Olmert-Livni government did not leave Netanyahu with any written or signed commitments to be honored.
But this freedom of action does not explain why Netanyahu had to appoint a settler as foreign minister, and a person who was initially persona non grata in the US as his national security adviser - two people whose views do not, to put it mildly, go down well even with the most friendly of US administrations.
It is never easy to be a diplomat representing a country in conflict. It is even more difficult to be an Israeli diplomat, especially in the post-1967 era, when the country's international image has moved from being the weak, threatened, post-Holocaust nation to a mighty military power occupying the territory of another people and denying them the right to statehood and sovereignty.
The fact that Israel only continues to portray itself as the weak and threatened country, subject to continuous terror attacks and, more recently, a potential nuclear attack from Iran just doesn't sell well when, at one and the same time, the government continues to undertake policies which negate many basic international standards of human rights for Palestinian civilians who are subject to its control.
Were Israel, as the strong power, to make real meaningful concessions on the issue of Palestinian statehood, the world would much more readily accept the very real security threats that the country faces and it would not be so antagonistic. But recent policies and statements by our leaders have sent a very different message to the world, and it is now our supporters and allies, not our enemies, who are criticizing us.
WHY SHOULD we be surprised when a worried diplomat sends a private letter back to his superiors in Jerusalem informing them of the damage being inflicted each and every time Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman or Uzi Arad are interviewed or make public statements?
How indeed are our professional diplomats supposed to deal with such messages? We are blessed with some very capable diplomats. Under Tzipi Livni, most of the remaining political appointees, many of whom were completely unequipped to represent Israel in the international arena, were replaced by professional diplomats. True, the recent appointment of Michael Oren to Washington was a political appointment of someone who identifies with the positions of the new government, but at least he comes well armed with the linguistic and educational skills and knowledge required by any senior ambassador to such a sensitive position.
It is not clear why a private message from Tamir, expressing the legitimate concerns of a professional diplomat over recent events, was leaked into the public sphere. This appears to have been a political act on the part of the new Foreign Ministry team of Lieberman, whose policies and statements have largely been responsible for the negative vibes which are emanating from North America. They would clearly like to pass the blame on elsewhere - and what better target than a well-meaning diplomat concerned about Israel's worsening public image in North America.
The role of a professional diplomat is to represent his/her country's position, regardless of whether he or she personally identifies with that position or not. If he feels that this goes against his better conscience and that he is unable to defend such positions in public, he has the option of resigning. No diplomat has a problem with representing Israel's legitimate right to security and its right to defend itself against terror and Katyusha rockets. But when the government undertakes dubious policies which harms Israel's reputation even among its allies, it is not only legitimate, but the clear duty of the diplomat to warn his/her government of the damage which is being done to Israel's cause.
This is precisely what was done by the consul-general in Boston, and he is to be commended, not vilified, for his actions. He is simply telling it as it is, and we ignore his warning at our peril - the peril of eroding the support of the single most important ally we have in the world.
The writer is professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.