Responding to criticism from American Jewish leaders that Israel is suffering on the image front in its conflict with the Palestinians, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has opened an emergency office in New York to deal with its public relations problem.
Arye Mekel, 53, who served four years as director-general of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and whose seven years as consul general in Atlanta prompted Ted Turner to call him “Israel’s ambassador to CNN,” was recruited to coordinate the hasbara, or p.r., effort.
Mekel had returned to Israel from Atlanta in July, but was called by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on a Saturday night, two weeks ago, and by Monday morning was here and on the job.
Mekel told The Jewish Week his biggest challenge is to help Israel combat “the difficult television images” of Palestinian children facing off against Israeli soldiers and to bolster support for Israel on college campuses, where Arab activists are attracting large numbers of students for anti-Israel rallies.
In addition, Mekel said he is seeking to shake American Jewry out of its complacency.
“We are in an emergency situation,” he said. “And while there is no existential danger to Israel, the Palestinians are conducting a campaign to undermine our legitimacy as a Jewish State, and it is my job to instill a sense of urgency on a daily basis.”
Working out of the Israeli Consulate, Mekel has become the point man between Israel and American Jewish groups, some of whose leaders had complained that Jerusalem was not doing enough to provide a clear message in making Israel’s case over the last seven weeks of Mideast fighting.
Jewish leaders here also were concerned about a lack of procedural coordination with Israel, with specific complaints about infighting between the Prime Minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry.
At least two American Jewish leaders this week said they were gratified Israel had taken their concerns seriously enough to send Mekel here, but noted that so far, the confusion remains because the message from Israel remains mixed.
Malcolm Hoenlein, who heads the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, cited the fact that only days after Prime Minister Ehud Barak told leaders here he opposed any international force in the Mideast, news reports suggest Israel may be prepared to accept such a presence. “It’s very frustrating, and officials in Israel tell me they’re even more frustrated,” Hoenlein said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said “Israel has come to realize there is a problem, and that’s the first step to resolving it. But the message must come from Israel and we’re getting different messages. We’re stymied.”
Sensitive to the criticism that Israel does not have an effective spokesman posted in the U.S., the Foreign Ministry is sending Alon Pinkas, a former journalist and diplomat who has spent significant time in the U.S., to replace Shmuel Sisso as consul general in New York in the next several weeks.
Sisso was recalled in August, but filed a suit saying he had a verbal contract to remain in his post. The suit is pending but sources say a financial settlement has been reached.
Although David Ivry, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., and Yehuda Lancry, the United Nations ambassador, are viewed as effective behind-the-scenes diplomats, neither is considered comfortable or valuable in the role of Israeli spokesman on television. Pinkas, who is chief of staff to the foreign minister, is expected to play that role when he arrives.
Mekel said he will also act as a spokesman when the occasion warrants, but is focusing now on bringing Israeli officials to the U.S. for a few days at a time to appear in the media. He said about 50 Israelis have come here since the new intifada began. Avraham Burg, the speaker of the Knesset, has been in the U.S. several times, and Colette Avital, the former consul general in New York, another effective speaker, will be here twice in the next few weeks.
Mekel said that while the Palestinians have relied primarily on Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat as spokesmen for their cause, Israel is underscoring the fact that it is the only democracy in the region by sending a wide range of officials. He said Ashrawi and Erekat say the same things over and over — namely that Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation, and Israelis are killing Palestinian children — regardless of what they are asked, and that they are less than factual in their statements.
But it is widely acknowledged that the Palestinians have done a more thorough and professional job of making their case in this media war than Israel.
Mekel insisted that despite criticism, Israel has a clear message, “but it is not a one-line sound bite like the Palestinians have.”
He stressed that Israel’s generous offer at Camp David this summer to resolve the conflict was rejected by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, who made “a strategic decision to go back to violence to achieve his aims.” He said Arafat is responsible for the resulting bloodshed, including terrorist attacks, because he released about 80 Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists from Palestinian jails weeks ago. “
He could put an end to the violence whenever he wants,” said Mekel.
He asserted that Israel’s powerful army has shown great restraint in protecting its citizens, and the national goal is still peace. “We have not given up hope on peace because at the end of the day we will all still be on the same land, the Palestinians and us. But maybe we will have to wait until Arafat is not on the scene.”
He said Israel’s goal is to get back to final-status negotiations, the “once and for all agreement, but it doesn’t look realistic now. We cannot agree to talk while we are being shot at.”
According to Mekel, Israel’s trust in Arafat “has diminished dramatically,” and as a result, any future negotiations would require “as many safeguards as possible.” He preferred not to use the word “reciprocity,” though, a favorite of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “we don’t need loaded words that have been used.”
Mekel, who said he considers himself a media expert, asserted that he does not believe “anyone in the American media has a preconceived bias against Israel,” though he noted that some television coverage has been problematic. “If we think something is unfair, we raise it specifically with the powers that be,” Mekel said. “We have good access, and we get full attention when we have proof.
“I believe in dialogue, not confrontation,” he added. “We are results-oriented, and it is counter-productive to accuse major organizations of an anti-Israel bias.”
He noted that more than 40 percent of Americans empathize with Israel’s cause, compared to about 10 percent who favor the Palestinians, and that most major newspapers favor Israel in their editorials on the conflict. “We are not perfect in the area of hasbarah,” he said, “but we have experienced, hard-working people, and we are aware of the problems and working to improve on them.”
Mekel urged American Jews to “go back to basics – to support the Jewish State and its democratically elected government, and to remember that their fate is our fate, and vice versa.” He said people should speak out against perceived inaccuracies in the media, but to stick to the facts as objectively as possible.
Mekel questioned why there are not more rallies in front of the PLO offices in New York or Washington, and said he was saddened that so few American Jews are visiting Israel, when tourism is suffering. “Jews know better [than the State Department travel advisory against visiting the region]. They know that it is safe.”
He said he was particularly concerned about the situation on campuses around the country, where well-organized Arab students sponsor rallies and demonstrations. “We don’t see the same enthusiasm among the Jewish students,” Mekel noted. He said he will be working with Hillel and other groups to provide informational material and make speakers available.
Richard Joel, the international president of Hillel, said he welcomes the opportunity to work with Mekel and other leaders, and pointed out that today’s college freshmen were born in 1982, and are “Jews without memory.” He said 80 percent have never been to Israel and “they are being assaulted as angels of darkness” for Israel’s alleged misdeeds. What is needed, he said, is “to win the battle with facts.”