Several monthsago, I happened to be present when Yoram Ben Ze'ev, Israel's ConsulGeneral in Los Angeles, addressed a local group at the JewishFederation offices on Wilshire Boulevard. The talk, of course, wasabout politics: the conversion bill, the peace process, Israel andAmerica -- the standard fare.
Then a man in the audience rose to ask a question.Well, actually, it was more of a statement than a question. The gistof his remarks was that Israel should adopt a tough stance withArafat and the Palestinians. If they didn't shape up, the IsraelDefense Force should lend a forceful hand. After all, Israel hadtanks, an air force, the latest in sophisticated weapons, and an armyunmatched in the Middle East. The man appeared to be in his late 60s,maybe early 70s, and he clearly intended his statement-question to besupportive of Israel and the Consul General.
But Ben Ze'ev surprised him...and many others inthe audience. Such a policy, he asserted, was unacceptable. War wasunacceptable. There was a secret fraternity in Israel that boundtogether everyone who had fought, or who had family members who hadfought, in one of Israel's five wars these past 50 years. Those whoknew war firsthand were dedicated to peace, he said. They knew thecost of war, for both sides, and were determined to prevent it fromhappening again. It was peace that required a tough stance, he added,and was far more the heroic course for Israel to follow.
It was a bold statement, passionate and eloquent;it left the audience silent. He might have added, but did not, thathis father had fought and died in the closing hours of the 1948 Warof Independence. That he himself was wounded in Jerusalem in theSix-Day War of 1967 -- in the exact place his father had fallen 19years earlier. That he recovered, his father did not, in the samehospital. And that he was wounded again in 1973. Perhaps for thosereasons, he was determined that his two sons and his daughter wouldnot have to fight in another war because his generation had failed toachieve peace.
The exchange seems, to me, vintage Ben Ze'ev. Itcaptures his passion, his articulateness, his sense of conviction.But in a subtle way, it also reflects just how familiar and at easehe is with Jewish Americans. Indeed, he served as consul for pressand information at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles from 1981 to1985. That experience is serving him well today. Certainly if a timeexisted for someone in his position to be on intimate terms with thefeelings and sentiments of American Jewry, that time is now.
The reasons are obvious. Oslo's aftermath, theMideast peace process, appears to be at an impasse; the White Houseand the Republicans in Congress are at odds over President Clinton'sperceived attempts to muscle Prime Minister Netanyahu into place; andIsrael has suddenly become a key divisive factor in U.S. politics,particularly for American Jews.
We have not even mentioned the conversion bill andthe anger of Reform and Conservative Jews over their sense ofdisenfranchisement in Israel.
But the central issue at this moment has to dowith peace in the Mideast. Do we (American Jews) support PresidentClinton's efforts to pressure the Netanyahu government into acceptingthe American peace proposal? Or do we condemn it? We are conflictedhere, and aggressively so; there is no tolerance for fencestraddling.
It is no accident that local federationsnationwide are announcing that UJA funds headed for Israel have beencut to about 35 percent, with the rest slated for local needs. Orthat for the first time in a long while, criticism of Israel and itsprime minister is being voiced publicly by American Jews and by someJewish organizations as well.
In this context, it is fortunate that Ben Ze'evhas all the right credentials. Immediately prior to his appointmentin Los Angeles, he was acting deputy director for the Middle East andthe peace process in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a posthe held from 1993 to 1995. In short, he was intimately involved inthe peace negotiations.
Moreover, he is acquainted with Netanyahu. Severalmonths ago, the Israeli press reported that the prime minister hadasked him to sign on as his chief of staff.
It is this background, presumably, that leads himto say today that no matter what occurs in the next few weeks, thepeace process itself is irreversible. It has changed the status quofor Israelis as well as Palestinians, and there really is no goingback. However, he argues, the Israeli prime minister is getting a badrap in America, for he is following the letter and spirit of Oslo.One only needs to look at the agreement in Hebron. This doesn'tchange the fact that the obstacles are monumental, he adds. Everyonecan see that. But patience is required
One problem lies with Chairman Arafat'sperceptions, says Ben Ze'ev. He has failed to grasp that he mustpersuade the Israeli public he wants peace desperately and sincerelyenough so that he will make every effort to guarantee their security.It is the Israeli people he must win over, explains Ben Ze'ev, and itis not clear he fully understands this.
Ben Ze'ev is a rarity, a seventh-generationIsraeli whose ancestor walked out of Russia in the 18th century. Inpart, this may account for his tendency to take the long view, pastas well as future. It is this propensity perhaps that leads him tostate that the problem looming for Israel is how it will remain astrong democracy and still be a Jewish state.
After peace is achieved, he says, that will be thedifficult task for Israel in the 21st century. But he may leave thatsolution to his children. --GeneLichtenstein
Consul General Yoram Ben Ze'ev Photo by Peter Halmagyi