When she came to Los Angeles two years ago, Meirav Eilon Shahar thought that the immediate task before her as Israeli consul for communications and public affairs would be dealing with the follow up to the presidential election. She came to Los Angeles from a three-year posting in Nairobi, and her work seemed cut out for her: to promote the peace process and follow Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government line, and learn about the Jewish community in Los Angeles. Responsible for public relations, the media and academia, she looked forward to the job of working under Consul General of Israel Yuval Rotem, covering six amd a half states: Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Hawaii.
But she had little time to learn, and the presidential election soon became the farthest thing from her mind.
On Sept. 29, about a month after her arrival, the Al-Aksa Intifada broke out in Israel, and Eilon Shahar -- along with the entire Israeli consulate -- went into operating on "emergency mode," to cope with the backlash reacting to events abroad.
With no signs of abating, the second intifada shaped Eilon Shahar's term, which ended last week (Yariv Ovadia took the new posting this week). The 32-year-old spoke to The Journal before heading back to Israel, where she will work at the foreign ministry's department for U.S. Congress.
Jewish Journal: What happened when the intifada broke out?
Meirav Eilon Shahar: From that moment on, we basically changed modes. We started working on emergency mode; the content of our work was more focused on events in Israel. What we always do is to represent the government's view, forming ties with the academic world, getting to know the media and getting to know people on a personal basis. When we changed modes -- in the sense that everything was focused on what was going on in Israel at the moment -- the content was different, the hours were crazy.
JJ: Did you think that difficult period would let up?
MES: Nobody knew it was going to be to that extent. We hoped [the situation] was something still workable. At that point, people said that peace process was irreversible, remember that? We believed it, we hoped it, and within two years, the terrorists developed and developed, and we realized that there is no partner for peace.
JJ: The government switched from Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Labor to a unity Likud-led Ariel Sharon government. Was it hard for you to switch? To defend difficult actions such as the bombing in Gaza that killed Hamas military chief Salah Shehadeh and 14 civilians including nine children?
MES: My personal views do not count. This is my work. I'm a diplomat, and there are some basic things that do not change from government to government: That we will fight Palestinian terrorism, that we will not surrender to terrorism....
There are some things that are harder to explain than others, but I believe that there is a way to explain it. For example, the bombing in Gaza, it's been said afterward that this operation was postponed eight times in order to prevent civilian casualties; it was postponed eight times because we wanted to prevent civilian casualties. We had information that he would be there on his own or with other terrorists. Our intention was not to kill civilians. I think it's a tragedy. It's not only the PR line; I truly believe that I represent a country that is not interested in harming civilians; we are going after the terrorists. The intention was not to kill women and children.
I think that we have to convey passionately and compassionately the message of the government, emphasizing those policies that resonate well, and not emphasizing what doesn't resonate well with the audience.
JJ: A lot of people got upset at Israel and the consulate for not spreading a good message. Does Israel have a PR problem?
MES: It's a question that comes up all the time, not necessarily directed at the Consulate, but that the State of Israel is not doing enough, and they have some good points. However, I think that in the last two years it has improved.
One of the problems is that the hasbara budget is very low.
Also, you try to be proactive and set the tone, but -- I think we are a reflection of the government....They give so many messages -- one day Arafat is a partner, one day he is not a partner; that's part of the PR problem, the fact that Israel is a democracy means we are not always talking with one message.
It's much easier for the Palestinians to speak with one message. It's also a reflection of a democracy that you have free press that is critical of the government, and is quoted all over. It's a fact that every John Doe can get on CNN and say what they want. I think that in time, there was more coordination between various government entitities.
JJ: What do you think of the L.A. community?
MES: For me, it was my first time living and working with a community in the United States -- very heterogeneous, spread out geographically. I can only tell you that we are working with organizations and individuals that are doing a lot for Israel. But there are many more individuals that can do more, from Israel's point of view. When you have a rally and you have 7,000-10,000 [people], you should have 100,000. People within the Jewish community have to get more involved because the message is stronger. It's frustrating.
JJ: Do you think that the community has changed during your term?
MES: You have groups like Standwithus, that were created in the last two years to be proactive for Israel. And that's not a phenomenon that's unique to Los Angeles (in Colorado they created Action Israel because they felt that there wasn't enough done on behalf of Israel).
I think that in March, after the Passover massacre, there was a wave -- people wanted to do more. Now it's summertime, so it's more dormant, and also, it depends on events in Israel.
People want to help. Everything done publicly is much appreciated.
We invested a lot in the academic world, and I sense changes. It's hard to motivate the Jewish students, many of them are not interested in Israel, many do not have the knowledge. We've tried to connect on a few levels, tried to educate the Jewish students and [give them] skills on how to deal with the everything happening on campus.
JJ: What do you think the community should do?
MES: They tell us to write, but they should also write, they should call the radio to complain ... it's very different if it comes from us or the community. Because they are the consumers.
[There's been a lot of] fundraising, sending funds to Israel. Fundraising is good, for all kind of entities -- the Israel Defense Forces, hospitals, ambulances....The most important thing the community can do is to go to Israel. I know it's not easy. I know they have their fears.
JJ: Do you have advice for your successor, Yariv?
MES: He should make personal contacts, and that goes for all levels, and he should know who the audience is. He's coming at a tough time. He has his work cut out for him.
JJ: How do you feel about leaving Los Angeles and going back to Israel?
MES: It's not that I'm going to miss the place, but I'm going to miss the people here. I'm going home. Every time I land in Israel, I say to my son, 'This is home.' It's time to go. Israel has changed drastically [since I left], and it's time to go back and connect once again with the country.