Monday, January 21, 2008

The Israeli side of the conflict

The Israeli Foreign Ministry (no photos allowed inside)

Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee

Thomas Garofalo of Catholic Relief Services

We woke up early so we could head to the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Mount of Olives. Each site was beautiful as ever. I'll post photos a bit later. After a quick lunch we headed to the Israeli Foreign Ministry for a meeting with Ambassador Naom Katz, the ministry's director of Public Relations.

Katz used an interesting strategy to describe the current situation in Israel. He described the policy problems and most surprisingly, the public relations problems.

Policy-wise, Katz talked about four different strategic issues: 1) relations with Israel's Palestinian and Arab neighbors, 2) the strategic threat of Iran, 3) problems along the northern front with Lebanon, and 4) the soldiers captured by Hamas and Hezbollah. He sees the issue as primarily that of moderates in the Middle East dealing with extremists. Over 70% of attacks on the West Bank can be traced to Iranian dollars and influence, in the Israeli government's opinion, and forces of the extremists are getting to be more powerful and influential.

All these concerns happen at the same time that political leadership on both sides - Israeli and Palestinian - are at their weakest. Israel and Palestine, Katz said, are like a divorced couple still living together. There is little likelihood for a win/win scenario, rather a lose/lose is what tends to occur in the Middle East.

In terms of the public relations challenge, Katz believes Israel has been "Boratized." Borat, he recalled, did a huge disservice to Kazahkstan, making it appear anti-Semitic, backwards, etc. Israel has been the victim of the same kind of PR disaster. Katz showed film footage from focus groups in the US in which everyone was excited about going to Italy, for instance, but didn't want to visit Israel. Focus group members saw it as an armed camp where outsiders are not welcomed. In reality, Israel is a tolerant society, diverse, and full of high-tech and artistic accomplishments. The three themes Israel's international PR hopes to get across about its country are: Passion, Ingenuity, and Fusion.

As our group asked about the Wall, Katz pointed out that Americans are building a similar, though much larger wall, on our border with Mexico. He also pointed out that only 17 km of the Wall is actually wall, the rest is fence.

Katz was a gracious and intelligent man, and I was certain I would enjoy inviting him to dinner if he ever came to Seattle.

Our next stop was the American Jewish Committee where we met the dynamic and engaging Rabbi David Rosen. Dark-skinned and with a charming British accent, Rosen was full of energy as he described the interfaith situation facing Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel. In Rosen's analysis, the two mega-trends the world will face in the next decades are a) global warming, and b) the Muslim interaction with the West.

In the evening we met with Thomas Garafalo of Catholic Relief Services. More on this to come. Gotta run for the bus to Galilee now!


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