Diplomacy: Memorializing Shlomo Argov

His father was the ambassador in London whose shooting triggered the 1982 Lebanon War. Now Gideon Argov has launched a diplomacy program in his honor.

gideon argov 298.88 (photo credit: )
gideon argov 298.88
(photo credit: )
Gideon Argov wants to commemorate his father Shlomo's legacy. Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to the UK, was shot in the head by Palestinian terrorists from the Abu Nidal group on June 3, 1982. The attack paralyzed him permanently, leaving him bedridden and hospitalized until his death at 73 on February 23, 2003. The strike triggered the IDF incursion into Lebanon three days later that lasted 18 years. Now a highly successful president and CEO of Boston-based Entegris, a company with 2,900 employees and facilities in nine countries, the 49-year-old Argov was here last week for the launching of the Argov Fellows Program in Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The Jerusalem Post found him on the IDC campus and heard some of his thoughts on his father's legacy, being a Zionist in America, the IDC and why students specializing in diplomacy are part of the solution to Israel's problems. You've initiated a new diplomacy program at the IDC in your father's memory. Why do it in this way? This was an obvious thing to do to memorialize my dad. I was raised with very strong Zionist values. I was the ambassador's son. It's how I grew up; it's a natural state of being for me. The opening ceremony for the Argov Fellows was held at the IDC last week, attended by some of your father's old friends. How did you feel? It was as if the past, present and future were all happening at the same time in the same room. It was a very strange feeling. My father would have been 77 years old now had he not been injured, and there was no question he would have been very active. He was physically a very robust and active guy. So it was nice to see a number of old friends there sharing stories. Meir Rosenne, former ambassador to the UN, was one of dad's closest friends for 40 years. Nahum Admoni, the former head of the Mossad, was a close friend and studied with dad at university in the 1950s. We played an interview with my father recorded in London about six months before he was hit. He could have been in the room. The issues he was talking about are the same issues Israel is dealing with today. Hizbullah instead of the PLO, Iran instead of Syria. The existential issues are the same. So here was this guy who's dead, and was basically a quadriplegic for 21 years, coming through the speakers talking basically about today, 25 years ago. And then there were his friends, comrades-in-arms, who were with him along the way, and are still alive and well, reminiscing about him and talking about what happened in Israel since then. Then there was [IDC head] Prof. [Uriel] Reichman and others who spoke about the current problems Israel faces and why this program is necessary. And then there were the students who, 10 to 15 years from now, will be in key positions to make decisions that will impact the future of this country. It was mind-blowing. Whatever else I'm going to achieve in life - I have four beautiful children, and they're the most important things I could do in life, and I've done lots of business stuff - I know sitting here today that this is going to be one of the more satisfying things I will ever do. How was your connection with your father during the 21 years between the attack and his death? What I learned from my father, I learned before he was hit. After he was hit, it was the worst of all possible situations. He couldn't function, but he could still think. He couldn't move, but he could speak. You served as a tank commander in the IDF, while today you're a successful American businessman. Do you consider yourself Israeli or American? I have two homes, here and in the United States. I'm a bit of a schizophrenic. When I'm there, I want to be here. When I'm here, I want to be there. [Laughs] It's a strange place to be, but I feel at home in both places. I miss Israel a great deal and I love being back here. I grew up here. After my military service I went to study in the States and built a business career. But I maintained close ties to Israel, including business ties. My last company [Kollmorgen Corp.] ended up purchasing an Israeli company called Servotronix, a software company that makes controls for high-tech devices. It was a great acquisition and I ended up becoming extremely close to Dr. Ilan Cohen, who runs it. He and I are still good friends. I'm also the chairman of the board of an Israel-based software company called Fundtech, a banking software company. Dad didn't like the fact that Israeli diplomats are not always respected by the local Jewish community where they served. He didn't like that, because he felt that if you want to criticize us [Israelis], you must walk a mile in our shoes. Send your sons and daughters to the army. I share that partially. I think Israel is a national home for all Jews, not just those who are here. That was the whole idea. Jews who live around the world have the right to think of themselves as the "board of directors" of Israel, but not as the executive branch. If Israel makes a decision, it can be right or wrong, and Jews around the world should have input, but they can't prescribe. If you live in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, you're not in the same situation [as Israelis]. It's a balance. What brought you to the IDC? I brought this group of about 20 friends of mine - CEOs, venture capitalists, investors - over in 1999 expressly to see Israel. I'm doing it again in March with a group of 25. I do it for one reason: to win the hearts and minds, to get people to understand what's going on here on a human level, something they can't get by watching news and reading newspapers. So I brought this group over. Somebody - I think my friend Avi Fisher, today in Clal Industries - suggested coming over here [to the IDC] and spending some time. He said it was a tremendous place, with lots of creativity, and he knew Reichman. So I spent half a day here with the group. I found almost a nature preserve of the values dad believed in alive and kicking. Sacrifice, commitment, leadership by example, excellence. I decided I had to get involved in some ways. I was asked to be on the international board of IDC, which I was happy to do. When my father passed away, I started thinking about how and where to do something to preserve those values that were so important to him. I needed to do that. I just needed to do that. This was the obvious place. Even though my father was from Jerusalem [he was a seventh-generation Jerusalemite], this place had the right values. Reichman helped to make [the Argov Fellows] a reality. He put together a team of people, dedicated resources to it. He is unusual, because there are a lot of visionaries operating at 30,000 feet, and a lot of people who are tacticians operating down here. There are very few people who can do both. He's a visionary who makes things happen, and I have a lot of respect for that. Look at this place. There was nothing here 12 years ago. What were your goals in starting the program? This is a small step to make sure some good people end up in a position to make a difference in the future. We want this group to be an elite group, to think of themselves as an elite unit and to feel a sense of mission and purpose. And we want to give them the tools to carry out that mission. That mission is hasbara or "public diplomacy?" Israel has always had challenges explaining its policies and rationale for existence to a large part of the world. What is different today is that the world of the media has become instantaneous, and the resources available to groups and countries dedicated to the defamation and destruction of Israel have grown exponentially. The money behind those people, the networks, the press... this has an impact over time. It's not just what [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad says. It's a whole vortex of money, technology and innuendo and lies that come together to create a perfect storm in which Israel is a colonial power, Zionism is racism, Israel is an apartheid state. If you take it to the extreme, there was no Holocaust. But you don't have to go there. So I think hasbara, which has always been challenging, is more so today. Can the instantaneity of modern global media convey Israel's message properly? What can your 20 students, the first batch starting this year, actually do? Contact with intelligent, forceful, eloquent spokespeople has an impact, especially on US college campuses where there's a tremendous amount of anti-Israel sentiment by the Left. Much of Western Europe is an important venue. You have to start at the micro level, to create the ingredients that help make positive change happen. Every one of these kids who's going to come out of this program is another ingredient in this process. Some of them are going to end up in government, some of them as diplomats, some of them businesspeople. [In the year-long program] they're going to get a whole tool basket that will help them be effective spokespeople for the Jewish people. Our story is not that complicated. It's a story of 2,000 years of exile; a return to our national home; a desire to compromise on virtually everything in 1947; the lack of desire of the Arabs to do the same; an unfortunate occupation of land since 1967 which has really not helped. Why is it so important to convince the world we're right? Ultimately, the underpinnings of support for the State of Israel are at stake. We're living in a very interdependent world today. Israel has always been dependent on the kindness of strangers. Without American support, over the past 25 or 35 years, we would have been in a very different spot. That's the reality. My father knew this well. We don't need to beg for help from outsiders. Israel is perfectly capable of providing for itself. But explaining ourselves in an intelligent fashion is very important. Public opinion counts around the world. It makes a difference. You mentioned the "occupation since 1967." Where do you stand politically? I would say I'm a security-minded realist. I do not believe that Israel can or should hold on to a lot of this territory. I think that story doesn't hold water, unless we really want a state here that's in a perpetual conflict with large numbers of people forever and ever. [Yitzhak] Rabin saw that, [Ariel] Sharon saw that. Everybody sees that. On the other hand, certain security matters should not be compromised. There is no strategic depth here. The notion of strategic depth is pass in an age of ballistic missiles. Also, we have some natural allies in the Arab world: the Saudis, the Gulf states. You think those Arab states are ready for relations with Israel? It's a bizarre Kabuki theater: Everything is orchestrated in strange ways, and people go through unusual dances. But everybody knows what the outcome is going to be. This is a volatile region, and there is a certain virulent strain of nihilistic, quasi-fascist religious extremism that's endangering them as much as it endangers us. That's their reality, that's our reality. Is that what these fellows are going to be telling the world? I don't want to mix my views with the program. There's no political ax to grind here. The [program participants] will be taught how to peel the layers of the onion in a way that tells a story that is true, compelling and believable. It's our story. And it's a good story, not a bad one. It's basically about redemption, renewal, life and compromise. That's been obscured by a lot of hatred and a lot of years. Describe the Argov Fellows program. The students are chosen the year before, and the program is their third year of studies. It includes a special academic program with a full curriculum of Jewish and Israeli history, Israeli diplomacy, Israel-Diaspora relations, US-Israeli relations. We have ambassadors who come in as guest lecturers. Ambassador Avi Primor teaches a class. Dr. Michael Oren taught a class on US-Israeli relations. The group also travels. They were in Oslo three weeks ago. They're going to the US in the spring. Next year we're talking about taking them to Asia as well. Today, not to go to Asia is just crazy. The idea is not to turn them into instant diplomats, but to give them enough of a tool kit so they can develop in that direction, so they can be sophisticated spokespeople who base themselves on data and information, and not on speculation or things they are force-fed. They should be able to argue forcefully and in a highly intelligent manner about the raison d'etre of the State of Israel. These are really smart kids. And they've been around. They speak multiple languages. And they can put themselves in other people's shoes.