In the past few days, Zalman Shoval’s popularity has soared with colleagues and strangers he bumps into around his Washington office.
“There isn’t a single person in the [U.S.] State Department that hasn’t tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘thank you,’ ” related Shoval, Israel’s incoming ambassador to the United States. “It reminds me of the good old days of Israel’s restraint in the  Gulf war.”
Shoval is feeling some of the warm afterglow of appreciation over Israel’s starring role in the search-and-rescue effort following the terrorist bombings last Friday in Kenya and Tanzania.
From President Bill Clinton on down, Shoval has been hearing a chorus of gratitude from Americans who have been transfixed by television and newspaper images of Israeli soldiers leading the rescue efforts in the twin African disasters that killed more than 200 and injured more than 5,000.
The tragedies ironically have resulted in some of the best world press Israel has received in years. Last Sunday’s New York Times emphasized how 150 troops from the Israeli Defense Forces Home Front Command rescue team organized the chaotic rescue efforts in Nairobi , Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Tuesday’s Washington Post highlighted the efforts of Israeli special rescuer Gil Rainer, publishing a large photo of him shaking hands in a hospital with rescued Nairobian victim Samuel Nganga.
TV viewers were captivated by scenes of trained Israeli dogs, displaying Jewish stars on their harnesses, leading Israeli rescue workers through tons of rubble sniffing for survivors and victims amid the bombed-out ruins. The Israelis staged a dramatic rescue of a woman and her son, and recovered more than 32 bodies.
Israel’s famed intelligence agents were also assigned to the effort to hunt down the terrorists, who still had not been identified this week.
Israeli rescuers declared the search effort over on Wednesday, as the U.S. beefed up security at embassies around the world. The State Department issued a statement Tuesday saying it had “received information that there may be a threat to U.S. interests in Egypt, Malaysia and Yemen.”
In Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI was collecting traces of explosives from the twisted steel and concrete mountains of rubble. Investigators were looking at a large number of people with known terrorist connections and sympathies. In Tanzania, police working with the FBI arrested 14 people: six Sudanese, six Iraqis, a Somali-born Australian and a Turk. There have been no confirmed arrests in Nairobi.
A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Wednesday said that Israel advised U.S. officials to treat with skepticism a warning that the U.S. Embassy in Kenya might be the target of a bombing attack.
The rescue mission and the good press that followed could not have come at a better time for Israel because of its sagging stature on the world stage. It has been blamed by the Europeans and its friends in the Arab world for the all-but-dead peace process; it has been criticized at the United Nations, where there have been increasing calls for sanctions, for its settlement-building activities in the West Bank; and those settlement activities may be tried as a war crime in a proposed international war crimes tribunal.
The sense of appreciation has not been lost on Shoval, even coming from people who may not be familiar with the 68-year-old diplomat, who last served as Israel’s top representative to the U.S. in 1993.
“What is even more heartwarming,” he said, “is that individuals are coming up to me, not just high officials, and everyone who knows I’m the Israeli ambassador has walked up and said thank you. That’s nice.”
But whether this newfound gratefulness translates into a more positive image for Israel on the world stage remains to be seen. Shoval, for one, thinks the impact is limited.
“I’m trying to be philosophical,” he said. “Those for whom Israel already has a good image in the world have it anyway. For those who don’t, this time won’t change it either.”
To illustrate, Shoval told The Jewish Week he had not heard from any of Israel’s adversaries in Africa, or even from Israel’s peace partner, Egypt. In New York, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, said the phones have been quiet.
“Privately very little has been said,” Gold said. “But you know it’s being seen, especially when it’s on the front page of The New York Times. Every embassy sees that.
“I think that in places like the UN there is a politics that is always against us. But,” he added, “Israel demonstrates a bilateral capability that isn’t lost on many countries.”
Gold said in sending Israel’s condolences to African and U.S. missions, “you sense the appreciation. The knowledge that Israel is there confirms the basic impression that many countries have about what Israel is really about: a country that is the first to get there to save lives and … is in the front lines in fighting terrorism.”
Gad Opher, a former member of the IDF rescue team who was part of the group that helped Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake, said he swelled with pride when hearing about the latest effort.
“We are proud again,” said Opher, who was visiting New York this week when the news hit. “It feels good.”
The tragedies also seem to have bolstered the political fortunes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — at least in the short run.
The African carnage has brought Netanyahu some needed shade from the glaring light of international pressure being brought by American and European forces abroad, and political opponents and hard-liners at home, over the moribund peace process.
Netanyahu has been backed into a corner over U.S. insistence that Israel give up another 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Going ahead with the plan for Netanyahu means a crisis with his right-wing supporters, who vehemently oppose it.
Continued delay means a showdown with moderate supporters, The Third Way party and Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai.
But the bombings have, in effect, taken the heat off Netanyahu and redirected it to Islamic terrorism. And with the Clinton administration now focused on Africa, Israeli officials seem to have won a temporary respite.
With the Knesset going home for a three-month vacation, Netanyahu seems to be off the hook — for now.
Meanwhile, Shoval hopes there is a more lasting positive effect for African Americans.
“I certainly hope the African-American community in this country will appreciate the close bond which Israel maintains with the populations of Africa,” he said.
- Department of State
- New York Times
- Washington Post
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Samuel Nganga
- Gil Rainer
- Dar es Salaam
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- united states
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- west bank
- Staff Writer
- Human Interest
- Bill Clinton
- The New York Times
- United Nations