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Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout becomes rallying cry for U.S. Jews

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Baltimore Jews rally June 4 in support of Israel. Rebecca Gardner/Baltimore Zionist District

The last time American Jews took to the streets in significant numbers to make the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, during Israel’s war with Hamas in early 2009, rockets were raining down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This time it’s a public relations war rather than a military one that has sent American Jews into the streets warning that a campaign is under way to wipe Israel off the map.

In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds, and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Why did Israel even have to resort to blockade?” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. “Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.”

“If none of these is permissible, what’s left?” Krauthammer asked rhetorically. “Nothing,” he answered. “The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”

As with the Gaza war, and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel’s defenders see in the global assault on Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza — a territory controlled by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction — nothing less than a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Once again, my friends, Israel is under siege,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared at a pro-Israel rally Sunday in Los Angeles opposite the local Israeli consulate.

Some 3,000 people showed up for the demonstration, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The international outcry against Israel is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state, Israeli Consul Jacob Dayan warned the crowd.

“Enough of the campaign of lies spread by the defenders of terror,” Dayan said. “Those on the flotilla were not peace activists.”

The precipitating incident occurred May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks upon encountering violent resistance to their effort to board a ship in international waters that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla bearing aid materials and pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident became a rallying cry for pro-Palestinian activists, who held rallies across the country and around the world protesting against Israel, including at some Jewish sites. In downtown Cleveland, some three dozen protesters stood outside the Jewish federation building last Friday chanting slogans and holding signs including “Stop Israel Pirates.” In Washington, activists flocked to the Israeli Embassy calling for it to be shut down.

Many Jewish groups said the worldwide reaction to the flotilla incident smacked of hypocrisy.

“Why did we not hear the same voices of condemnation raised as thousands of rockets poured down on Israel or on behalf of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas more than four years ago and held incommunicado ever since?” the main Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked in a statement.

The Jews countered with rallies of their own in communities across the country.

In Baltimore, several dozen demonstrators stood at a busy intersection in 90-degree heat waving Israeli flags and placards calling for the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and blaming Turkey for the flotilla incident. In New York, demonstrators gathered across from the United Nations and at other rallies scattered around the metropolitan area. In Philadelphia, some 250 pro-Israel demonstrators gathered last Friday across the street from the Israeli consulate at a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America, providing a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian demonstration that had taken place three days earlier at the same site.

To be sure, American Jews have not been uniformly supportive of Israel’s actions on the high seas. Some American Jewish groups questioned the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the way the flotilla raid was conducted. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu all issued statements critical of Israel’s Gaza policies.

“There wouldn’t have been a flotilla if Gazan children had enough food, had schools, and clean water to drink,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

“This is not a hasbara problem,” he said, using the Israeli term for public relations. “For decades Israel and friends of Israel have complained about a hasbara problem. What they have is an occupation problem,” Ben-Ami said. “We can either complain about the way the world views Israel or change the way we behave.”

While some American Jews and many Israelis said they support the blockade of Gaza in principle but disagree with elements of its implementation and the way the Israeli navy handled the flotilla interception, that nuance was not readily apparent at the pro-Israel rallies across the nation. Rather, the message at the demonstrations was kept simple: We stand behind Israel.

One speaker at the L.A. rally, David Pine, West Coast regional director for Peace Now, tried to deviate from that message, saying, “Despite the way one individual military operation was handled, ultimately it will take a negotiated resolution that provides for a two-state solution.” He was drowned out by a chorus of boos. When the chairman of the local Jewish federation, Richard Sandler, tried to quiet the crowd, audience members continued to boo Pine, with one yelling out, “Traitor!”

In Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, director of the greater Philadelphia district of the ZOA, summed up the approach he expected of supporters of Israel.

“I would not be satisfied,” he said, “until every Jewish person in the Philadelphia area, every person of good conscience in the area, everybody who knows right from wrong in the area, will be out supporting Israel, because Israel is in the right.”

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

'Iran has been stirring the pot'

Much of the international spotlight these past two weeks has focused on Israel, which, according to political analysts, is exactly what Iran wants — to deflect attention from its nuclear pursuits.

Even as the U.N. Security Council passed another round of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday, worldwide concern grew that the Islamic Republic could spark a military conflict in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey, which launched last week’s flotilla, has increasingly aligned itself with Iran — which also pulls the strings of Hamas and Hezbollah — stoking more fears of a new regional terror-supporting alliance.

“Iran has been stirring the pot,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers, Newark. “It’s no secret that weapons from Iran and individuals from Iran have found their way to Gaza — smuggled in via Iran’s friends from Syria and elsewhere.”

The Iranian Red Crescent — the equivalent of the Red Cross — announced plans this week that it planned to launch its own aid flotilla to Gaza. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has said that it would escort such a flotilla if ordered.

“To openly engage Israeli forces, which is what would happen if openly identified Iranian contingents tried to break the blockade, would be a huge escalation in Middle East tension to have Israeli and Iranian military forces shooting at each other,” Cole said. “If initiated in Israel’s neighborhood, it could well escalate into Israeli military action much closer to or directly at Iran.”

The Iranians are trying to make a statement, said Iran analyst and Fox News guest commentator Lisa Daftari. And, she added, Israel has not said how it would specifically respond to such a provocation — except that it would not allow Iranian ships through the blockade.

“Iran has flexed its muscles and shown it can politically run circles around our government,” said Daftari, a Paramus native. “While we’re having summits and meetings, thinking how to next negotiate with Iran, Iran is carrying on its own agenda.”

Cole does not believe Iran would carry out its threat to openly send military forces to Gaza because it’s not interested in a conflict in the Mediterranean. Daftari declined to hazard a guess as to what might happen if Iran tries to break the blockade, but said the government is looking to shift blame onto Israel for any regional conflict. If the activists aboard last week’s flotilla actually cared about getting aid to the Palestinians, she said, they would have diverted to Israel’s Ashdod port as requested.

“The Palestinian people are not the main issue,” she said. “There’s an Islamist agenda here that Iran has been carrying on for years.”

Iran would like to get rid of Israel, said Dan Kurzman, the North Bergen resident who penned biographies of former Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in check during the Cold War, but Kurzman does not think that policy would work with Iran.

“These guys in Iran are not rational,” he said. “If they’re willing to kill themselves because God wants them to, why should they care if they kill a million Jews? This is really dangerous.”

To head off the Iranian threat, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said. After that, it can more easily forge deals with the rest of the Arab world against Iran.

“The Arab world doesn’t fear Israel,” Kurzman said, “but it does fear Iran.”

Because of this, Israel has a chance to pull the Arabs to its side — if it can make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said.

“Iran says they want to destroy Israel with an atom bomb and they’re close to getting a bomb. All of this wouldn’t have happened if there was peace,” he said. “They wouldn’t have an excuse for getting a bomb.”

The author cast blame on Israel not just for its handling of the Mavi Marmara, but also what he called the collective punishment of Gaza. He agreed that cargo should be inspected before entering the coastal strip but he railed against the blockade.

“It’s the wrong policy from the beginning,” he said. “You don’t punch everybody for what the terrorists do. It’s really shooting yourself in the foot. Israel is now in a terrible position where the whole world’s against them.”

Despite the provocations aboard the Mavi Marmara, Kurzman said, Israel made a mistake in the way it handled the activists.

“There are ways of stopping a ship and making them come to a halt and eventually getting on board to check on this stuff,” he said. “It’s riot control. There was a riot aboard the ship, and in a riot you don’t just shoot into crowds. This was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided.”

Kurzman recalled that after the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion said there was no chance of making peace if Israel didn’t give up the west bank. Neither Ben-Gurion nor Rabin would have agreed to give up Gaza without a peace treaty, though, Kurzman noted. He called the disengagement from Gaza an “absolute disaster.”

“Israel brought this on itself,” Kurzman said. “That’s the great tragedy of history. Israel thinks it’s invincible, but it isn’t.”

 
 

Judge not…

 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Israel facing tough choices on Gaza as criticism of blockade mounts

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Following the Israeli navy’s takeover of the Gaza bound flotilla, Jerusalem is facing tough questions about its blockade of the Palestinian area. Moti Milrod/Pool/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Despite the international outcry following last week’s lethal confrontation between Israeli commandos and militant pro-Palestinian activists aboard a Turkish vessel carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel insists its naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory is justified and will continue.

But even Israel’s closest allies backing the blockade as a legitimate means of cutting off weapons supplies to the Hamas regime, with which Israel is in an official state of belligerency, have been critical of the wider siege, which they say is hurting the people of Gaza far more than their fundamentalist rulers.

The new international predicament in which Israel finds itself raises a number of fundamental questions: How necessary is the blockade and how effective has it been? Why was it imposed in the first place? Why was it accompanied by a wider siege blocking civilian goods and movement? And what should Israel do in the face of the storm of international protest?

The blockade-siege in its present form was imposed in June 2007.

Hamas won a majority of parliamentary seats in Palestinian elections in 2006, and it formed a unity government with Abbas’ Fatah Party. The following year, Hamas staged a violent coup and took complete control of Gaza.

Israel and Egypt responded by closing land crossings into Gaza, and Israel reinstituted a naval blockade on the Gaza coast.

Israel’s rationale was that after hundreds of Hamas-inspired rocket attacks, it needed to do whatever it could to keep weapons, weapons’ manufacturing parts, and bunker-building materials out of Gaza. The siege, which also limited civilian supplies, was intended to put pressure on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and possibly even to induce popular rebellion against Hamas.

In September 2007, following dozens more rocket attacks, Israel officially declared Gaza “a hostile territory,” buttressing legal justification for its hostile moves against it.

Moreover, by stifling economic development and living standards in Gaza while promoting them in the west bank, Israel was signaling to the Palestinians that Abbas-style coexistence would get them further than Hamas’ blanket rejectionism.

The Egyptians, concerned that Hamas radicalism could spill over into their territory, argued that opening their border with Gaza would imply recognition of the Hamas government and further undermine the legitimacy of the PA. Formally Egypt insisted on faithfully carrying out the provisions of a November 2005 agreement that provided for supervision of its Rafah crossing point with Gaza by PA and European monitors, a provision rejected by Hamas.

The 2005 “Agreement on Movement and Access” was meant to put the finishing touches on Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza two months earlier. Brokered by the United States, the aim was to ease the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and thus enhance Palestinian productivity.

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Members of Russian American Jewish Experience and other Jewish organizations gathered outside the Israeli consulate in New York on June 1 in a show of solidarity with Israel. Ross Den

Under its terms, the main land crossing points at Rafah, Kerem Shalom, and Karni would be fully opened. There was no thought at the time of a naval blockade. On the contrary, work on a feasibility study for an independent Palestinian deepwater port in Gaza was under way.

Dov Weissglas, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man, says that with Israel out of Gaza, the Palestinians promised an economic miracle, arguing that without the occupation to hold them back, they would show the world what Palestinians could do if given a chance and turn Gaza into a new Singapore.

According to Weissglas, plans for five-star hotels along the coast and an airport at Dahaniya were far advanced, with former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, then the international Quartet’s special representative, playing a leading role. The idea was to underpin peace between Gaza and Israel through economic progress, much as in the west bank today. The Hamas takeover, however, put an end to the Singapore dream.

Stepped-up Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians eventually led to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli land invasion of Gaza in December 2008. After the war ended a month later, Israel’s main concern was to prevent Hamas from rearming.

Talk at the time had German, French, and British ships patrolling the Gaza coast to prevent arms smuggling. But when the idea fell through, mainly at Egypt’s insistence, Israel was left on its own to monitor maritime traffic for weapons. Last November, Israeli Navy vessels intercepted the Francop, an Antigua and Barbuda-flagged ship that was carrying hundreds of tons of Iran-supplied weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly also Hamas.

On the cover

More than 700 people turned up to show their support for Israel at the StandWithUs rally held on June 3 in Times Square. Hundreds more stopped to watch footage of the IDF boarding the Mavi Marmara while StandWithUs regional coordinator, Avi Posnick, narrated the events.

According to a group spokesman, “This was the first time the footage was shown out on the street, and the point of us doing this was to get this out to the masses.”

On June 9, the organization co-sponsored a rally at the Israeli Consulate, drawing some 2,000 people.

Hamas has been able to continue smuggling weapons through tunnels along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The Israeli fear, though, is that large ships could bring in much bigger rockets and missiles, possibly even game-changing weapons such as the accurate medium range GPS-directed M-600s Hezbollah has received from Syria. Israel sees Gaza and Lebanon as two Iranian forward positions and part of a much wider regional threat.

Many of Israel’s friends recognize its need to check ships approaching the Gaza area for weapons. But there is far less understanding for the limited inflow and often arbitrary exclusion of civilian goods — for example, keeping out unsupervised cement and steel that could be used for building bunkers or making weapons makes sense. And critics ask why thyme, coriander, chocolate, and macaroni are on the exclusion list.

Some critics say the limited influx of goods is causing a humanitarian crisis. Others argue that even if it isn’t, the restrictions constitute a form of collective punishment, which is illegal, even between warring parties.

Israel maintains that no humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza and that it is doing more than enough to prevent one. According to the Israel Defense Forces, which coordinates aid to Gaza, Israel in the first three months of 2010 sent in more than 3,600 trucks with approximately 100,000 tons of fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, animal feed, hygiene products, clothing, and shoes, as well as 1,000 tons of medical equipment.

Moreover, 10,544 Gaza residents were treated last year in Israeli hospitals. According to Western figures, the average life expectancy in Gaza is 73.68 years, compared to about 40 in some African countries, and there is as little malnutrition as in the West.

Israel also supplies 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity, its fuel needs, hypochlorite for water purification, electricity grid repair parts, and glass to fix windows, as well as cement and iron for building, under strict supervision. According to U.N. figures, updated to Jan. 30 of this year, 78 percent of homes lightly damaged in the 2008-09 Gaza war have been repaired. Other observers go even further, pointing to the well-stocked markets in Gaza, the emergence of gourmet restaurants, and the recent launching of a new Olympic-size swimming pool.

Human rights activists contend that although there is plenty of food, not everyone can afford to buy enough to meet basic needs. They say 70 percent of the factories in Gaza are closed, 40 percent of Gaza workers are unemployed, and 60 percent of households are “food insecure” — that is, they can’t be sure of having enough cash for their minimal food needs.

Whatever the true state of humanitarian affairs in Gaza, there is increasingly little tolerance from friends or foes alike of Israel’s limitations on the inflow of civilian goods.

Following a visit to Gaza in March, Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin declared that all the siege is achieving is to “enrich Hamas and marginalize even further the voices of moderation.” And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the siege in its present form as “unsustainable and unacceptable.”

To some extent, it seems, continued Israeli insistence on the civilian blockade could undermine the far more vital military blockade. And that’s precisely what the militant blockade runners aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara and others that might follow are trying to achieve: to delegitimize Israel’s blockade altogether and enable the free entry of all ships to Gaza, even those carrying military cargoes.

Israelis are divided over how to go about maintaining the blockade. The government argues that the best course of action is to make Israel’s moral and legal case, and expose the delegitimizers. The opposition retorts that Israel can only hope to deflect international criticism by embracing credible peace policies. In other words, that criticism of Israel was so spontaneous and severe after the confrontation on the high seas because the government was widely perceived as not being committed to ending the occupation.

Opposition voices also suggest that the government should rethink the civilian siege, which they say has not achieved its goals: After four years in captivity, Shalit has not been released or even so much as allowed a visit by the Red Cross, and there is little sign of the siege sparking an anti-Hamas uprising. They conclude that the failed policy is costing Israel heavily in diplomatic coin, leaving it more isolated than at any other time in its history.

The government faces some big decisions: First, whether to allow an international presence in an inquiry into the confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara; second, whether to ease the civilian siege to ensure continued international backing for the military blockade; and third, whether to present a new initiative on peacemaking with the Palestinians.

JTA

 
 

It’s how you say it that matters

 

A matter of convenience

 

As Israel’s image sinks, whither Israeli PR?

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Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh on June 5. Richard Milnes/Creative Commons

JERUSALEM – In the war of public relations for Israel, the past few weeks have been full of setbacks.

Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla sparked countless angry editorials, demonstrations, and condemnations. The assassination in Dubai in January of a Hamas operative by agents widely believed to have been Israelis — using faked passports — resulted in the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the countries whose passports had been faked. Even leading musicians have canceled performances in Israel in recent weeks, citing political circumstances.

These developments have brought Israel’s growing image problem into sharp relief.

The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.

More than ever, Israel needs an efficient PR machine capable of undermining the would-be delegitimizers and getting across the Israeli narrative.

That raises the question: Who is running Israel’s PR — in Hebrew, called hasbara — and why have they not been more successful?

The public face of Israel, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government, wins few points on the international stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as uninterested in making peace, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen as a racist bully, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as not doing enough to press for more peace-oriented policies.

Another problem is the large number of agencies within the government dealing with public relations. To name just a few, there is a directorate for PR in the National Security Council, and PR divisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces.

They are not always coordinated. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s quick response team and the IDF spokesman’s office argued over who should present the initial Israeli version of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that greeted Israel’s commando raid with violence. As a result, the Israeli account did not come out for about 10 hours after the incident, a lacuna the Turks and other detractors were able to take full advantage of.

Israel’s “rebranding” strategy also seems to have had little success.

For years, a Foreign Ministry team under Ido Aharoni has been trying to improve Israel’s image by branding it as a fount of “creative energy,” emphasizing Israel’s high-tech and scientific achievements, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle, and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. The core idea behind the campaign is that focusing on Israel beyond the conflict would deflect attention from its negative image as an occupying power.

Not only has the campaign failed to achieve its main goal, but politics has penetrated nonpolitical realms. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and indie rocker Devendra Banhart have canceled concerts here, citing politics. The Madrid gay pride parade banned an Israeli float sponsored by the city of Tel Aviv, citing the raid aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Earlier this year the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, issued a comprehensive report analyzing Israel’s delegitimization problem and the tools needed to combat it. The report argued that the time has come for the government to take the delegitimization challenge as seriously as it does the military threats facing Israel.

In its report, presented to the cabinet in February, Reut pointed to an increasingly effective alliance between Islamist rejectionists and radical left-wing groups in the West whose common goal is to destroy Israel by isolating it politically and economically, ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid, and the California bay area, which Reut called hubs, where they form grassroots networks of activists, NGOs, and fellow travelers against Israel. The tipping point in their work would be a growing international consensus for a one-state solution, the report said.

“Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner, but as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially,” Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut paper, told JTA. “Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa.”

In order to meet the challenge, Reut proposes a complete overhaul of Israel’s foreign service. It argues that instead of an outmoded diplomacy geared toward handling states and continents, the new focus should be on the hubs where the delegitimizers are particularly active and where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible among the decision-making elites.

In addition, Reut recommends building anti-delegitimization networks worldwide based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. The main goal of the multifaceted campaign would be to prevent delegitimization from spreading from the fringes to the mainstream.

According to the Reut paper, the aim is to drive a wedge between bona-fide critics of specific Israeli policies and promoters of delegitimacy, thereby winning over the nonpartisan political center and creating a “political firewall around Israel.”

So far, there is no sign the government intends to adopt any of this. While pro-Israel NGOs from Jerusalem to New York are involved in trying to defuse deligitimization campaigns against Israel, some PR experts argue that the problem is more a question of government policy than organizational structures or efforts.

Israel will continue to suffer on the PR front unless it launches a major peace initiative, this school of thought says. That is one of the reasons Barak has been urging Netanyahu to come out with a new peace initiative, carefully coordinated with and backed by the Americans.

Such an initiative almost certainly would not impress the delegitimizers, but it probably would give Israel a better chance of stopping the erosion of its international standing by driving a wedge between them and the rest of the international community.

JTA

 
 

Israeli Deputy Consul Krasna reflects on time in Teaneck

Benjamin Krasna, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, has fond memories of the past five years living in Teaneck. But when he returns home next month at the end of his appointment, there is one thing he definitely will not miss.

“The hardest part of the challenge for me was the daily commute,” he said, noting that sometimes he would spend hours trying to cross the George Washington Bridge. Still, the pluses outweighed the minuses for him, his wife Sharon, and their three children, who found the modern-Orthodox lifestyle of Teaneck and day schools of Bergen County a good fit.

“Teaneck worked,” he said. “It was a very, very good match for us — in spite of the George Washington Bridge.”

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After five years as Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Benjamin Krasna is returning to Israel next month.

But with such an active and Israel-focused Jewish community, Krasna’s became a 24/7 job. At Cong. Keter Torah, where the Krasnas were members, congregants would often express their opinions on Israel’s policies and offer Krasna advice.

“You’re in a situation where every Shabbat is another hasbara challenge,” he said.

Balancing a job like that with family life can be a challenge, but Krasna said he made his choices strike that balance.

“You work very hard to protect Shabbat and Sunday … so you can do normal Sunday things — coaching soccer, going to Little League games, things like that,” he said. “If I decide on this day I need to be at my kid’s party at school, then fine, I’ll go and do that. I’ll make the time. You have to find those moments to free the time up for them as well.”

As the Jewish state’s No. 2 man in New York, Krasna has been responsible for keeping a bead on national Jewish groups and how they interact with Israel. Rather than simply responding to requests for information or appearances, Krasna took a proactive approach. He has spent more time than any of his predecessors, he said, visiting smaller communities outside the metropolitan area.

Literally the day Krasna first arrived in New Jersey, his government was uprooting thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza under the disengagement plan. Then came the capture of three Israeli soldiers, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, the election of America’s first black president, two elections in Israel. Also, the Giants won the Super Bowl and the Yankees won the World Series (again). But, he complained, “the Knicks didn’t get any better.”

One question in particular has become routine at every event, no matter who the sponsor is, and it’s a question Krasna will not miss answering.

“And that was about Israel’s PR,” he said. “I think Israel does a very good job. We make strong efforts to make people know about the multifaceted nature of Israel, Israel beyond the conflict.”

As PR successes, he pointed to the worldwide consensus on Iran, widespread support in Congress, and a recent Gallup poll that indicated more than 60 percent of Americans support Israel — a level not seen since the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have to understand also that sometimes being the stronger in the conflict means that public sentiment may lean a little towards the weaker,” Krasna said. “The fact of the matter is I still don’t want to be the weaker, I want to be the stronger. If I look at the level of understanding there was during the war in Lebanon — publicly in America — or during the war in Gaza, we basically had public opinion on our side to take the action we needed to take.”

Many point to Israel’s delay in releasing footage from the Mavi Marmara — that showed activists attacking Israeli soldiers — as a publicity misstep. Krasna quickly disagreed.

“It was a conscious decision taken to delay the release of some of the photographs and footage,” he said. “We paid a PR price for that. You have to remember when an operation is ongoing — literally, ships are still at sea, soldiers are still there — we have other considerations that come first regarding the safety of our soldiers. You need to successfully bring this operation to a conclusion.”

One area where Krasna would like to see more emphasis is Israel education of high school students. Much has been made in recent years about the college campus as the latest battleground for Israeli public relations. Krasna, however, believes that battle needs to begin long before students get to campus.

“If our kids don’t feel comfortable enough in their own skins as pro-Israel advocates, their choice is going to be to avoid confrontation,” he said. “They don’t have the arguments and they don’t want to be faced with a case where somebody’s going to confront them.

“That’s why we need to invest in education before they get there.”

Today’s youth — and Krasna’s generation, as well, he noted — can take Israel’s existence for granted because they never knew a world without the Jewish state.

“We all run the risk of taking for granted the fact that we live in a world with the State of Israel, which is a better world because of the State of Israel. We’re all a generation born into it,” he said. “Israel is not just Ben Yehuda [Street], or the Inbal Hotel [in Jerusalem], or nightlife in Tel Aviv. Israel is battles that were fought, people who sacrificed, and things we can be proud of.”

Krasna grew up in a Zionist home in Forest Hills, Queens, and made aliyah with his family when he was 11. Although his family returned to the United States a few years later, Krasna formed a lifelong connection with the Jewish state and, after completing a bachelor’s degree in Middle East studies at Rutgers in 1986, he returned to Israel for his mandatory military service.

He left Israel again to complete a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. And when he returned to Israel, he got his first diplomatic break — in the form of a newspaper ad calling for diplomats. He applied and was accepted.

Starting in 1997, he served as Israel’s deputy consul general in Istanbul, as the spokesman of the Israeli embassy in The Hague, and specializing in the Multilateral European Institutions Western European Division of the Ministry in Jerusalem.

And what’s next for the career diplomat?

“Home,” he said. “Home is to enjoy a house that I bought before I came here and haven’t had a chance to live in yet. Home is seeing my kids reacquaint themselves with Israel — in the case of my youngest … seeing him acquaint himself with Israel.”

As he prepares to head home, Krasna has but one lingering regret.

“I’d be more careful about what I ate at these [gala] dinners. A smorgasbord is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “As a general rule I chose the carving station over the sushi every time.”

 
 

Israel’s cooperation on U.N. inquiry signals tactical shift

The decision by Israel to participate in the U.N. probe of the Turkish flotilla incident marks a stark departure from Jerusalem’s practice of opposing the world body’s investigations of Israeli actions.

A year and a half ago, faced with a similar decision when the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel and Hamas’ actions during the Gaza war, Israel boycotted the inquiry led by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone. Israel would pay a heavy diplomatic price: The Goldstone report was harshly critical of Israel and generated months of negative publicity for the Jewish state.

News Analysis

A year later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking the opposite course with the U.N. review panel looking into the May 31 flotilla confrontation. Nine Turks, including a Turkish-American, were killed in the mélée that ensued when Israeli commandos tried to board the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla of ships sailing for Gaza in a bid to break Israel’s blockade of the strip. The incident drew worldwide condemnation of Israel.

“Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “It is in the national interest of the State of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world, and this is exactly the principle that we are advancing.”

The U.N. inquiry out of New York will be led by a former prime minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, and will include the outgoing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, as well as a Turkish and an Israeli representative who have yet to be named. The panel is expected to begin its work Aug. 10 and submit a progress report in mid-September.

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Footage taken from cameras aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31 shows passengers apparently preparing for a confrontation with Israeli soldiers, May 31. IDF/Flash90/JTA

The decision to cooperate with the U.N. probe comes after two months of Israel resisting calls for an international inquiry and signals a tactical shift for Israel when it comes to dealing with U.N. investigations of its actions. It marks the first time that Israel will be part on a U.N. committee looking into Israeli actions.

“This could be viewed as a new approach,” confirmed a source at Israel’s embassy in Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed it as an “unprecedented development.”

Israel’s decision to cooperate on the probe follows weeks of urging by the Obama administration, but it’s also a way for Israel to mollify Turkey, which had threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the Jewish state unless Israel acceded to an international probe or apologized for the flotilla deaths.

Israel had launched its own investigations of the incident. An Israel Defense Forces investigation found intelligence failures in the IDF’s preparations for stopping the flotilla but no fault with the soldiers’ actions, and a government committee probe is still ongoing. Turkey, however, was not satisfied.

Concerned about the rupture between Turkey and Israel over the incident and its long-term implications for the future of the Middle East, the Obama administration was keen on finding a way for a probe that would satisfy both Turkey’s demands for an international inquiry and Israel’s concerns about bias against it. The new probe was the result of negotiations with Israel and Turkey.

“For the past two months, I have engaged in intensive consultation with the leaders of Israel and Turkey on the setting up of a panel of inquiry on the flotilla incident of 31 May,” the U.N. secretary-general said in a statement Monday. Ban said he hoped the inquiry would “impact positively on the relationship between Turkey and Israel as well as the overall situation in the Middle East.”

After the Goldstone report was issued a year ago with findings that tarnished Israel’s international image, some in Israel argued that it had been a mistake to boycott the inquiry. Rather, they said, Israel should have cooperated in a bid to ensure the least damaging report possible. With Israel now choosing cooperation over rejection on the new flotilla probe, some in Israel are cautioning against comparisons between the two.

In the Goldstone case, they note, the original mandate for the inquiry prejudged Israel as guilty and came from the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a record of singling out Israel for opprobrium while ignoring human rights violators around the world. In the flotilla case, the probe will be conducted under the aegis of the U.N. secretary-general, who is seen as mindful of Israeli concerns.

“You have to make a distinction between the Human Rights Council, which is partisan and has an anti-Israel obsession, and between the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, whom we hold in the highest esteem,” a senior Israeli official told JTA on condition of anonymity. “After ongoing discussion with the secretary-general, we are convinced that what he is proposing is credible and objective. I wouldn’t apply either of those two adjectives to the Human Rights Council, which is a travesty.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, implied that she hoped it would cancel out the Human Rights Council inquiry into the flotilla raid.

“The United States expects that the panel will operate in a transparent and credible manner, and that its work will be the primary method for the international community to review the incident, obviating the need for any overlapping international inquiries,” Rice said.

“That was an unmistakably derogatory reference to the U.N. Human Rights Council probe,” observed Hillel Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based pro-Israel watchdog organization. “A shadow has been cast on the U.N. Human Rights Council probe, and it was done so expressly.”

Neither the U.N. probe in New York nor the one being carried out in Geneva by the Human Rights Council will have legally binding consequences. JTA

 
 

Israeli commission’s flotilla report: Preaching to the choir?

JERUSALEM – The response was predictable when Israel released the findings of its commission of inquiry into the May 2010 Turkish flotilla incident: Israel’s defenders heralded it as absolving Israel of wrongdoing, Turkish critics of Israel dismissed it as not credible.

Now the question is how the international community will view the report, which found that the Israeli Navy was not at fault in the May 31confrontation aboard one of a flotilla of Gaza-bound ships that left nine Turkish passengers dead.

“We think that this is an independent report, [the result of a] credible and impartial and transparent investigation that has been undertaken by Israel,” U.S. State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said late Monday. “It will contribute to the broader process that continues through the secretary-general” of the United Nations.

It’s not clear that other countries will be as receptive to the Turkel Commission’s findings released Sunday.

“The Turkel committee was established mostly for external consumption, and even if the United Nations gives some weight to the panel’s findings, it’s hard to believe that the international community will accept them as is,” Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz.

Israel’s land and naval blockade of Gaza does not break international law, the report found, and Israeli soldiers acted in self-defense while intercepting and boarding the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship in the flotilla whose passengers attacked Israeli naval commandos when they tried to board the ship.

The report concluded that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, “in view of the security circumstances and Israel’s efforts to comply with its humanitarian obligations, was legal pursuant to the rules of international law.” But the report also suggested that Israel should find ways to focus its sanctions on Hamas while not harming the civilian population of Gaza.

The commission, which was chaired by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel, also called on Israel to find ways to improve the delivery of medical care to Palestinians in Gaza.

It included four appointed members from Israel — one died during the proceedings — as well as two foreign observers: Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble from Ireland and Brig-Gen. (Ret.) Kenneth Watkin of Canada.

Twenty-seven witnesses over 15 days testified before the committee in open proceedings, while 12 witnesses offered their accounts behind closed doors.

Only the first part of the report was released Sunday. The second part will deal with whether Israel’s examination and investigation system regarding infringements of the laws of warfare comport with international law.

“I hope that all those who rushed to judgment against Israel and against its soldiers will read these reports and learn the truth about what happened,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “The truth is that our soldiers were defending our country and defending their very lives. This is not only their right; it is their duty.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Sunday that the Turkel Commission’s findings have “no value or credibility.”

A Turkish report on the incident submitted last September to a U.N. panel investigating the incident said that Israeli commandos used “totally unnecessary violence” and withheld medical care to passengers injured in the raid. It found Israel’s blockade of Gaza and subsequent interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla to be in violation of international law.

“We expected the Turkel report to say that mistakes were made and disproportionate force was used, but instead the report’s attitude almost renders the Israeli soldiers heroes,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told reporters Monday.

The Tel Aviv-based nonprofit Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, which advocates for Palestinian rights, criticized Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza.

“No commission of inquiry can authorize the collective punishment of a civilian population by restricting its movement and access, as Israel did in its closure of Gaza,” the organization said in a statement.

The Turkel report will be turned over to a U.N. panel appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the incident.

On Monday, the Free Gaza movement and the Turkish pro-Palestinian organization IHH, which organized the May 2010 flotilla, said that two new Gaza-bound convoys — dubbed the Freedom Flotilla 2 — will sail for Gaza in the spring.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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