Approximately 85% of members of the US Congress have visited Israel during their terms, according to longtime diplomat David Siegel, while the statistic for the European Parliament is roughly an eighth of that – some 13-15%.
These are figures which drive him in his new position as CEO of the European Leadership Network (ELNET)-Israel, as he seeks to raise the latter.
ELNET’s mission is to shore up support for Israel throughout Europe based on shared values and interests, largely through the fostering of stronger ties between key European nations and Israel.
“We don’t have enough platforms to engage EU officials on a systematic basis,” Siegel, a former consul-general to the southwest US, told The Jerusalem Post in a phone conversation last week.
“There are no exchanges, nor real exposures to both challenges and opportunities.”
ELNET-Israel strives to change this, funding Israeli-European dialogues and encouraging face-to-face encounters between Israeli and European politicians in order to achieve deeper exchanges.
“We’d like to see more engagement between Europe, Israel and the US,” Siegel stressed. “There’s anxiety and changes in world geopolitics and we can be part of the conversation.”
With nearly three decades of experience representing Israel, Siegel also served as chief of staff to Israel’s deputy foreign minister prior to taking on his role at ELNET, and was consul-general in the US from 2011 to 2016. During his tenure, he fostered multiple bilateral agreements between Israel and the southwest states, including a landmark Israel-California strategic memorandum of understanding as well as R&D agreements with Colorado and Arizona.
In his new position, Siegel will work closely with ELNET executive directors in France, Germany and Poland and ELNET’s European Union executive director in Belgium to expand the Network’s capabilities, enhance ELNET programming in Israel and build local networks of leaders committed to the Europe-Israel relationship.
“We live in very challenging, interesting times – almost like the worst of times but also the best of times,” he said.
Issues such as Brexit, terrorism, cyber security and the refugee crisis, he said, “present very interesting opportunities for Israel and Europe to elevate and enhance their partnership despite occasional political disagreements.”
ELNET seeks to use its presence in key cities to increase the visibility of bilateral relationships between Israel and European countries and bodies.
The organization has nine strategic dialogues scheduled for this year, the first in France with officials from the Ministry of Defense, the government and think tanks.
Additionally, ELNET is planning conferences in Europe on cyber security and counter- terrorism issues in which they will give a stage to top Israeli experts. “There’s a whole world of things that need to be done and that we want to do and there really is a sense in government, academia, and think tanks that now more than ever we have real opportunities to solidify relations.”
Drawing from his experience in the US, he says “I know the power of this first hand.” Referring to the memorandum of understanding Israel signed with California in 2014, he says ”it completely changed the conversation about Israel in the Southwest United States – it became a tremendous platform for partnerships on other issues.”
“You engage politicians on issues that are important to them, not just on politics in the Middle East – that’s one of the keys to what we need to do,” he asserted.
Addressing challenges faced by Israel, Siegel mentions the potential impact of the BDS movement and related activity in Europe, which he said could harm Israel both politically and economically.
ELNET strives to tackle this by helping pro-Israel communities better organize themselves to become better educated about how to advocate for Israel.
He stresses that the principal threats do not necessarily come from the BDS Movement itself, but from other people in think tanks and government circles who are calling for differentiation between Israel and the territories.
“If we solidify partnerships and broaden platforms of engagement with Europe, we can counter that,” Siegel emphasizes. He points to eco-development, health, security, science and technology as examples of fields where Israel can expand both its partnerships and visibility in Europe.
“If you work with leadership – and we have an extensive network of relationships with leading think tanks in Europe – and you connect politicians to that and also bring leaders of civil society into these discussions, then you can broaden your approach and your reach,” Siegel continued, emphasizing that the nature of this work is never-ending. “It’s not something you can declare done and over. It’s ongoing, and there is certainly a battle out there that we have to engage in.”
Siegel hopes that through hosting large conferences, ELNET will be able to cultivate ties with representatives from more and more countries, and will eventually pull a wider spectrum of European officials to Israel. “I keep thinking about seeing that 13% broaden and grow over time – and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen.”
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