Talking 'tachlis' to Abbas and Beatty

Meet Israel's flag-flying ambassador to Hollywood, Yaki Dayan.

hollywood film 88 298 (photo credit: )
hollywood film 88 298
(photo credit: )
Compared to negotiating with the Palestinians, dealing with Hollywood stars and their agents is a piece of cake, says Yaki Dayan, the consul-general in Los Angeles. "Definitely the fact that I have a lot of experience with negotiations with the Palestinians helps me with the negotiations I conduct now with some people here in Hollywood," the amiable, 42-year-old, veteran diplomat offers with a laugh. Like most of the people you see on upscale Wilshire Boulevard 12 floors below the consulate's high-rise offices, the lanky Dayan is fit and attractive, making him a perfect match for Hollywood's tinsel town image. But he's also a man of substance. For 13 years before taking over the consul-general's position from Ehud Danoch in October 2007, the career diplomat was involved in some of Israel's most sensitive issues, including serving on negotiating teams across from Palestinian and Syrian teams, acting in senior positions to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, as well as stints at the embassies in Washington and Athens. Sitting relaxed in shirt sleeves around the coffee table in his non-ostentatious office, where he oversees a 60-person staff which covers seven southwestern US states, Dayan exudes a directness and charm that helps explain how he can talk tachlis with both Mahmoud Abbas and Warren Beatty. "When I arrived here, I came with a strong political background, having dealt with the hard-core issues of the State of Israel for many years. Having served in Washington previously, I was very familiar with the relationship between the US and Israel, but I came with uncertainties over what that relationship would be like in LA because it's out of the scope of the hard-core issues I had been dealing with," said Dayan, who prefers to call himself Jacob or Ya'acov in the US, instead of the more difficult-to-pronounce Yaki. Intent on setting an agenda beyond schmoozing with film industry icons, he explained that he met with every consulate employee and asked them, "What are we supposed to be doing here?" "I got various answers. Some senior people here told me that we are here to improve the relations between the United States and Israel. So I told them, 'Okay, this is a very noble goal, but let's say a year from now we're trying to measure if we succeeded or failed. How exactly would we do that?'" A firm believer in measurable goals, Dayan set a main target for his first year of aiding Israel in what he calls the most important issue facing the country today - Iran. "When I arrived, there was legislation on divestment from Iran in the process of being voted on in the Senate. We cover the entire Southwest, so we took three states as a project - Arizona, Colorado and Utah - and said, let's try to move this legislation on divestment from Iran," said Dayan. "Now, a year later, I can sit and say that my success was 66.66 percent, because Arizona endorsed the legislation, Colorado endorsed some kind of voluntary decision by pension funds to divest, and in Utah, we didn't succeed. But where we have succeeded is in attempting to show that this is not just an Israel issue, it's an issue for all Americans." Closer to his home base of LA, Dayan has been focusing on forging ties with the city's gigantic Latino community, including organizing a visit to Israel last June for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But it's not just the big names that Dayan's attempting to woo, it's the whole community. "What we are doing now is outreach toward people who have never been approached before. We've begun working with an amazing organization called LA Best, which works with youth mostly from an Afro-American and Latino background in some of the most difficult neighborhoods downtown," he said. Dayan cited workshops conducted at neighborhood schools by noted Israeli mixed media artist Hanoch Piven, a native Spanish speaker from Uruguay known for his celebrity caricatures assembled from common objects, an upcoming Hanukka party organized in conjunction with LA Best and a recent performance by Hadag Nahash at Franklin Heights, one of the biggest Latino schools in LA. "I'm taking personal pride in this project," Dayan said. Another thing Dayan is proud about are his children, Daphne, 15; Tal, 12; and Itay, five, and the Jewish life he and his wife Galit are building for them in LA. While Dayan - the son of Holocaust survivors - grew up in Tel Aviv as a secular Zionist, Galit, who holds a doctorate in Egyptology from the Hebrew University, brings a Moroccan and Algerian tradition to the family. Their children attend Jewish day school, and Dayan has come around to the thinking that Judaism and ties to Israel are inextricably entwined, especially where the expatriate Israeli community is concerned. "If we don't connect them to Israel and to Judaism, then they'll drift away," said Dayan. "LA has the largest group of expats in the US, and I'm trying to connect them as much as possible to the State of Israel. The first generation is totally connected. They breathe and dream Shlomo Artzi. But their children's connection is becoming less obvious, and we have to find ways to connect them. "Even more than that, there is beautiful Judaism that exists here. I'm trying all the time to connect the Israelis to the Jewish community," he added, citing a recent meeting at a Jewish day school in the San Fernando Valley between the school's eighth graders and a group of visiting students from Tel Aviv. "I went to the group and asked the Israeli kids, 'What does it mean being in Israel?' Their answer - 'It's fun; I was born there.' Then I asked the Americans, 'What does it mean to be a Jewish kid?' And they talked about celebrating Hanukka instead of Christmas and Pessah instead of Easter. "I told the Israeli kids that their answers - it's fun; I was born there; my parents come from there - are all obvious. But when you become an adult, nothing is obvious anymore, and you need something more than that to base an identity on. I told them they were fortunate to have new Jewish friends in LA, because they can learn something from them." One side effect of the economic crisis in the US is that expat Israelis are increasingly contacting Dayan's office about the possibilities of returning home. "The number of Israelis that are calling on a daily basis asking questions - how and what and where - has increased dramatically in the last few months," he said. "While it's not my goal to move all the Israelis of LA back home, it is my dream that all Jews will live in Israel." IN HIS 13 months in Los Angeles, the seventh largest Israeli mission in the world, Dayan has already placed Israel in local and national headlines at least twice - by organizing a September ceremony inaugurating the flying of the first Israeli flag outside a North American consulate, and by hosting a gala, star-studded celebration in October marking the country's 60th birthday. "When I first came here, one of the first things I asked was why don't we have an Israeli flag outside the consulate? I was told security reasons, but I've been in much more dangerous places than Los Angeles and have seen Israeli flags flying, what do you mean security reasons?" said Dayan. "In America, the only consulate out of nine that has something is in New York. If you have good binoculars, you can look up on the 40th floor, and they have some kind of flag there that even I didn't recognize." So began a year-long campaign that faced many obstacles and bureaucracy, but culminated in a ceremony on September 28, the day before Rosh Hashana, in which the Israeli flag was hoisted up the flagpole on Wilshire Boulevard for the first time. "As we mark 60 years of Israeli independence, as we paint Wilshire Boulevard blue and white, we must reaffirm in one voice our support for the Jewish state," Mayor Villaraigosa told the 5,000 celebrants gathered for the ceremony. "It was a huge event, we closed down Wilshire, one of the central boulevards in Los Angeles," said Dayan. "We brought soldiers from Israel; we had Macy Gray singing the US national anthem, Noa Tishby singing 'Hatikva,' gospel choirs and Latino groups. It was the first time ever that the Israeli consulate had front-page coverage in The Los Angeles Times, and everything was positive. Its headline was something like 'Pride flies over Israeli consulate,' with pictures. It was beautiful." Exposing Angelenos and Americans at large to the positive, beautiful side of Israel is right up there on Dayan's to-do list, alongside Iran, and he said that being situated in LA makes that that process easier. "This is Hollywood, and the huge advantage of that is what happens here doesn't stay here," he said. "When I came here a year ago, I explored two things within the Hollywood community - how receptive they are to portraying the Iranian threat, and explaining it's really a global threat. And I found out that because of the Iraq war, they weren't very receptive. The second thing I explored was their willingness to help tell the beautiful story of Israel beyond the conflict, what we call branding Israel. And here they were much more receptive." While Dayan spoke, two examples that personified that receptiveness had just taken place. A group of eight of Hollywood's leading producers, directors, agents, writers and entertainment lawyers visited Israel in early December, including Darren Star, creator of Sex and the City. In addition to visiting traditional tourist spots, the participants met some of the country's best-known filmmakers and actors, including Joseph Cedar (Beaufort), writer Etgar Keret and actress/writer Shira Geffen. They also presented a panel discussion at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to film students. Separately, late last month, the stars of the film Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa arrived in Israel for the film's premiere. Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, visited the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea. "It's much better than Hollywood," Rock told The Jerusalem Post at the time. "They don't like us in Hollywood, but here they love us." Dayan, who was instrumental in organizing the directors' and producers' trip but not in the Madagascar junket, said that he's "discovering more and more friends here that are willing to work together and help us in this branding effort. Recently I met the Lord of the Rings director Peter Berg. He asked, 'What do you want from me?' And I told him he should make the next Lord of the Rings in Israel so people will see what an amazing place it is. "But a lot goes down to the nitty-gritty. US filmmakers go to shoot movies in Michigan because for every dollar that they invest, they get 42 cents back. We've been trying for a long time, and I'm very hopeful that this year we'll succeed, in passing an incentive law in Knesset - which speaks only about 20 percent return, not 42%. Then I'll be able to go to people - listen, for every dollar you spend in Israel, you get 20 cents back. It's all about economic incentives - especially now." It's also about attracting the right people, as in the case of October's 60th anniversary gala held at Paramount Studios, in which Dayan's negotiating powers came into full force. Rubbing shoulders with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik and former foreign minister Shalom were Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Kiefer Sutherland, US Open champ Serena Williams, singer Seal, studio chiefs Sumner Redstone and Terry Semel, music producer David Foster and Villaraigosa. "I sat next to the president of 20th Century Fox, Jim Gianapulos, who said he had never visited Israel," said Dayan. "But at the end of the show, he turned to me and said, 'I have to go there.' What we're trying to do here is create a critical mass. I didn't start it, my predecessors began this process - but it's an ongoing one." Just as last year's efforts by the consulate aided in raising the profile of Beaufort in its successful quest for an Oscar nomination, this year, Dayan said that similar efforts are under way to promote Oscar hopeful Waltz with Bashir. "All of these things help us tell the people that good things happen in Israel," he said, adding that another project in the works is creating a traveling exhibition that will tell the story of modern-day Israel called "Israel Inside" - based on the slogan Intel Inside. "It will show all the ways in which Israel affects the daily lives of Americans, and at first we'd place it in the lobby of the Staples Center. As you walk through the lobby to see the Lakers, you'll get a beer and learn something about Israel," said Dayan. "I just came back from Reno, Nevada, and was interviewed by this Jewish reporter from the Reno Gazette. I told him that there are two huge Israeli companies here in Nevada - one in Reno and one in Henderson - both working in alternative energy and both make the lives of Americans better on a daily basis. That's Solel, the solar energy company, and Ormat, the geothermic company. "He had no idea, and he's a reporter and a Jew. When people see that Israel affects their life and makes it better, it creates a message. We shouldn't take things for granted. The demographics and population in the US is changing - and we have to be involved in a constant attempt to shape the minds and hearts of people." Still, Dayan has been thrilled by the level of support he's seen for Israel, both on the political level from government officials, and from the strong LA Jewish community. "We don't only have 60 ambassadors based here, but hundreds of thousands. I don't consider myself a layman on this issue, but I was overwhelmed to see the support and the knowledge of the State of Israel coming from the Jewish community here," he said. "I'm always telling them that this support needs to be seen in Israel, not because LA needs the PR, but because the State of Israel and the people need to see that they're not alone, that such a strong and huge community supports them."