Amid the horrors of 11 September 2001, the day al-Qaeda murdered some 3,000 people, I made the time-honored mistake of focusing on the inconsequential.
I was posted at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, and on that fateful Tuesday morning there was plenty for me to do. Israel’s defense minister Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer was due to arrive the following day, and as embassy spokesperson I was coordinating his media program.
Ben-Eliezer was to be hosted at the Pentagon by his American counterpart, then-US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Additional meetings were scheduled with the administration and Congress.
Then the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Ben-Eliezer had been defense minister since March 2001, serving in the national unity government led by Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon. But unlike Sharon, who had visited Washington for meetings with US president George W. Bush immediately after being sworn in as prime minister, Ben-Eliezer had waited some six months before embarking upon his inaugural US trip.
Despite being the most powerful minister in Israel’s government after the prime minister, Ben-Eliezer remained an enigma for the Americans. But since he was a Labor leader, US officials were interested in building a relationship with a key figure seen as being a possible moderating influence on Sharon – the latter still suffering from a “bull in a china shop” reputation, earned primarily, but not only, from his time as defense minister during Israel’s controversial 1982 Lebanon War.
I was at my desk planning Ben-Eliezer’s interactions with the American and Washington-based Israeli media, when shortly after 8:46 a.m. one of my press team told me to turn on the television. A plane, she said, had just crashed into the World Trade Center.
The networks were reporting live on the events in Lower Manhattan, but like so many others, this author did not initially comprehend the gravity of what was taking place, and with one eye on the screen with its pictures of the smoking North Tower, I continued to work on the Ben-Eliezer visit.
But when, after 9:00 a.m., my television showed a second aircraft smashing into the South Tower, I began to understand that what was happening in New York City might be more important than what I mistakenly thought I needed to be doing.
Like countless millions across the globe, I was now glued to my television, riveted by the horrific breaking news. About half an hour later, the first reports were broadcast of another aircraft crashing into the Pentagon.
It wasn’t too long before my colleagues and I were instructed to exit the embassy. But with the defense minister arriving the next day, and so much still to do, my immediate reaction was to view the evacuation directive as unnecessary. I attributed it to the legendary overzealousness of embassy security which was always prioritizing safety at the expense of everything else.
Believing it pointless to debate the matter directly with the security team, I raced upstairs from my ground floor office to the first floor, believing I could get our ambassador to countermand the order.
Ambassador David Ivry was a former commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF), deputy IDF chief of staff, director general of the Ministry of Defense, national security advisor, and long experienced at handling a crisis. Under his leadership, the IAF famously demolished the Osiraq nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in June 1981, and destroyed the network of Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air-missiles in Lebanon a year later.
Barging into his office, Ivry must have thought my behavior somewhat detached from reality. For when I complained that the security people were preventing me from preparing for Ben-Eliezer, the ambassador looked at me and said: “Mark, you don’t understand, there isn’t going to be a visit.”
Only then did the penny drop and it dawned upon me that it was no longer business as usual. And then, like the rest of the embassy staff, I dutifully exited the building.
Far from being gung-ho, embassy security was following a protocol that was being implemented at government buildings across the greater DC area due to fears about additional hijacked planes heading towards the capital. Until today, no one knows for sure what was the intended target of a fourth aircraft, which crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers physically confronted their hijackers.
The embassy’s political team, I among them, relocated to the ambassador’s residence, nearby but far enough away to be a secure location, where over the following hours we were in constant contact with Jerusalem over the day’s dramatic events, offering advice as to the appropriate Israeli government response.
Sharon set the tone. In a televised address to the nation, he proclaimed: “The fight against terrorism is an international struggle of the free world against the forces of darkness who seek to destroy our liberty and way of life.” Israel, he declared, was prepared to provide the US with “any assistance at any time.”
Sharon was governing a country agonizing under the Second Intifada’s unremitting suicide bombings and ubiquitous fatalities. Across Israel, many hoped that with America experiencing Islamist terror firsthand, Washington policymakers could now better appreciate the realities that Israelis had been facing daily.
How the Palestinians reacted to 9/11
PLO chair Yasser Arafat followed the events from his seaside office in Gaza City, while his security services expeditiously suppressed spontaneous manifestations of Palestinian joy surfacing in the aftermath of the bloodshed in New York and Washington.
But having no authorized security presence in Jerusalem, Arafat was unable to curtail such expressions there, and footage from the Old City’s Damascus Gate showing Palestinians celebrating America’s calamity was widely circulated. In a calculated act of damage control, Arafat rushed to Gaza’s Shifa Hospital and donated blood for the 9/11 wounded in front of the cameras.
That confusing and crazy day also produced an incongruous meal. Ofra Ivry, the ambassador’s spouse, had a planned luncheon event at the residence for a Washington women’s group that was canceled in the wake of al-Qaeda’s attacks. She generously insisted that the already-prepared food not go to waste and that the evacuated embassy staff partake.
Postscript: Every year on the anniversary of 9/11, the International Institute for Counter Terrorism at Reichman University, headed by Prof. Boaz Ganor, hosts its World Summit. The conference attracts some 1,400 participants from 65 countries: politicians, defense and intelligence officials, police officers, private sector security specialists, and academics. Billed as the “most influential event in the field of counter terrorism today,” the summit begins on Sunday.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.