Consul talks up the U.S.-Israel relationship

David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, speaks at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, Jan. 30. (Kathryn L. Unger)
David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, speaks at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, Jan. 30. (Kathryn L. Unger)

David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, gave a briefing to more than 40 Jewish community leaders on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

Siegel became consul general in 2011, serving the Southwestern United States. Most recently, he’d served as chief of staff to Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs. Previously, he had served two terms at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., as chief of staff to three of Israel’s ambassadors to the United States, counselor for congressional affairs, and spokesperson. During these years, Siegel participated in the 1998 Wye River Peace Summit, the 1999 Israel-Syria negotiations, the Camp David Middle East Peace Summit in 2000, and the 2007 Annapolis Conference.

Siegel came to the Federation after a meeting at Raytheon, which is developing a new medium- to long-range anti-missile system in collaboration with Israel, called David’s Sling. The system is the next step after Iron Dome, which proved effective during the recent conflict with Gaza, said Siegel. While Iron Dome is designed to intercept short-range missiles and protect cities, David’s Sling will be able to protect the entire country.

Raytheon is “a great example of how important the U.S.-Israel relationship is to both our countries,” said Siegel, noting other joint U.S.-Israel military projects, such as a kibbutz responsible for attaching armor to U.S. military vehicles bound for places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israeli intelligence is also vital to the United States, said Siegel, citing an intelligence relationship that “both Republicans and Democrats … will tell you is like no other.”

But strategic cooperation is just one aspect of the alliance, said Siegel, emphasizing the countries’ shared democratic values.

“Our last election should remind all the cynics and critics that Israel’s democracy is alive and well and kicking in every direction — 34 directions actually,” he said, referring to the 34 parties that participated in the election. Israel is one of the few countries that has never experienced a direct challenge to its democracy, along with the United States, Canada and several others, he said. But the challenges Israel has faced as the only democracy in such a volatile part of the world are unique.

Another pillar in the U.S.-Israel relationship is commerce, said Siegel. “There’s not enough awareness of the fact that Israel today is a key component” in the high-tech sector, with 250 international research and development centers in Israel, such as Apple, Google, Samsung and Intel. Israel also has more than 5,000 start-ups right now, which is second only to the United States and more than all of Europe put together. A third of those companies concentrate on medical technologies, he noted.

Israel does have significant economic and societal challenges, Siegel acknowledged, pointing out that the country went from a socialist to a free-market system very quickly, with many cutbacks in government services. The recent elections, he said, were all about domestic issues, which were the focus of the second most popular party, Yesh Atid, which won 19 seats to Likud-Beiteinu’s 31.

Outlining Israel’s diversity, including its 20-percent Arab population, Siegel noted “a huge component of East Jerusalem Palestinians, 300,000-400,000, who in surveys talk about wanting to be part of the State of Israel.”

“It’s a very complex phenomenon that defies the easy narratives, which are usually wrong. The narrative was that government is lurching to the right wing and that the government is not representative,” that people were not as involved and voter turn out would be low. Instead, it was the highest in 15 years, roughly two-thirds, he said, and the results were “a fairly interesting balance between right and left.”

Those who aim to delegitimize Israel trade in simplistic formulas, he said, and one way to combat this is to bring Americans to Israel to show them the more complex reality.

“The Middle East around us — also very complex, unfortunately very dangerous right now,” he said. As for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been making anti-Semitic statements, “we focus on what they do more than what they say,” he said, such as brokering a ceasefire to end the recent hostilities with Gaza. “For the last three months, there hasn’t been a rocket fired from Gaza, for the first time in recent memory,” he said, noting that this was partially because Israel had managed to pinpoint military targets.

The challenges, he said, are to stop the inflow of arms through Egypt into Gaza and to restore a political dialogue, bringing back the Egyptian ambassador. “Egypt needs stability,” he said. Tourism, vital to its economy, is very low right now, while in Israel, “you can’t get a room.” Egypt also needs American aid, so it must maintain its peace treaty with Israel, he said.

“The south is very, very dynamic and that includes Egypt-Sinai-Gaza, and beyond Egypt there’s the Sudan that is split in two, and Libya that is still exploding and imploding,” he said.

To Israel’s north, Syria is “unraveling,” said Siegel, and the civil war will affect the region for years to come. Refugees, he noted, are flowing into Jordan, an important strategic partner for the United States and Israel. Israel’s main concern, its “red line,” he said, is that Syria’s chemical weapons are not transferred to terrorists such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah or to Iran. Israel also fears that Syria’s strategic weapons systems could end up in the wrong hands, he said.

Siegel spoke on the day Israel reportedly carried out an air strike on a Syrian weapons convoy. On Sunday at a press conference in Germany, Defense Minister Ehud Barak tacitly admitted the attack, saying, “I cannot add anything to what you’ve read in the newspapers about … what happened in Syria several days ago, but I keep telling, frankly, that we’ve said — and that’s another proof that when we say something we mean it — we say that we don’t think that [Syria] should be allowable to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon.” Syrian officials claim the strike hit a defense research facility, not a convoy.

Siegel also spoke about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While sanctions “have taken a huge bite out of the Iranian economy,” Iran is continuing to accelerate its nuclear program and could have enough enriched weapons-grade uranium by spring or summer, a situation Israel is monitoring in close consultation with the United States. “Our approach is crippling sanctions and a credible military threat,” he said, explaining that the Iranians believe that while they are paying a heavy cost, they’ll have a bomb eventually — and Israel’s role is to convince them they won’t.

The tragedy of Israel’s perception in the region, said Siegel, “is that Israel is not a problem for the Middle East — it’s a solution,” able to help the Arab states with their need for food, water, technology and medicine.

A question and answer session followed Siegel’s talk. Asked whether continued settlement building by Israel may be “gratuitously provocative” considering international opposition, Siegel noted that “the goalposts have changed” — when Israel used to build in Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo, it wasn’t a contentious issue, but now it is. But most negotiators on both sides, from Camp David in the Clinton years to the more recent Olmert-Abbas talks, he said, believe these are areas that will remain in Israel.

When the Palestinian Authority took the unilateral step of seeking a statehood vote at the United Nations, he continued, it was flouting the agreements of the Oslo Accords. European nations, instead of condemning this, joined the Palestinian Authority in defying the agreements. Israel could have responded more harshly, he said, by canceling the Oslo Accords, but instead took “very limited steps to send a message.” The settlements are a relatively minor issue, he added, compared with the fact that no Palestinian leader has said “I believe in a two-state solution for two peoples.” Siegel speculated that the Palestinians have refused to come to the negotiating table in the last four years because they believe that by continuing to go to the United Nations, “they won’t have to recognize us as a people, they won’t have to commit to any security arrangement, any end of conflict, and they’ll receive a state on a silver platter.”

Israel’s attempts at unilateral concessions in Gaza and Lebanon didn’t work, he said. “Iran has come into every single place that we have vacated, and we don’t want to see Iran in the West Bank; we don’t want to see Hamas in the West Bank.”

Another audience member asked whether, since the recent elections seemed to send a more pluralistic message, the disproportionate allocation of resources to religious parties such as Shas would change.

“Yes, the middle class made its voice heard in this election,” said Siegel, adding that Israel needs to better integrate two population groups, the haredim or ultra-

Orthodox and the Arabs. In the Arab community, he said, not enough women are employed, while over 60 percent of haredi women work. To ensure a robust middle class Israel must encourage more haredim to join the workforce, he said, noting that there are now waiting lists at technical colleges for haredi men and women, and that more than 90 percent of haredi men who serve in the military remain in the workforce.

A question about the natural gas discovery outside Haifa led Siegel to extol Israel’s growing relationships with China, India, Russia and even the European Union, despite Europe’s berating Israel over settlements. “There’s a whole world out there of geopolitics and energy politics” from which Israel is now benefiting.

“It’s a golden age,” he said, adding, with a nod to Dickens, “It’s the best of times and the worst of times.”