Jews, Muslims, Christians, various community members — and even politicians — gathered peacefully on Sunday, June 2, at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura. But they weren’t there together seeking a new religious awakening. They came together to see David Siegel.
Siegel is the consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, and one of Israel’s top diplomats. As he often does with his work, he led a community forum to talk about Israel as a global nation, as a Holy Land and in the role the nation plays in the Middle East and the United States. The day after the forum, which attracted around 200 attendees, Siegel spoke at length with the VCReporter about his Ventura County visit and the conflicts surrounding Israel.
VCReporter: When you visit or speak in communities similar to this one, what do you find is the prevailing theme or topic of discussion?
Siegel: Well, we find tremendous interest in what’s happening in the Middle East and Israel, specifically. It’s fun and inspirational to bring those parts of Israel to the local community that isn’t highlighted by the world press. Usually, the press talks about conflict and things happening in the Middle East in terms of military and geostrategic, but there is not much emphasis on different ethnic groups in Israel, and not much emphasis on how diverse Israel is. When we bring that reality to local communities, whether they are Latino, African American or interreligious, and talk about the fact that Israel is a tiny country in the heart of the Middle East and is a robust democracy and highly diverse, just like southwestern U.S., it becomes a very interesting conversation.
Do you find that local Jewish communities question or want clarifications to what their relationship should be with Israel?
Very much so. The Jewish community is very interested in its own issues, U.S./Israel relations, the Jewish community here and its relationship with Israel, and Israel being the Jewish state and does it have a role beyond itself, and there are big questions about the ways Jews in different communities around the world see the relationship between synagogue and state. Issues of religious pluralism have become a big part of the conversation these days and we’re happy to be a part of that conversation.
If you’re a Jew in the U.S. or, actually, just any human being, and you support the existence of Israel but you don’t support the right-wing party of Netanyahu, how do you go about supporting the democracy of the country when you don’t support the policies and actions of Netanyahu? (Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is an Israeli politician and the current prime minister of Israel.)
We face these kinds of questions often, settlement policy, policy of peace with the Palestinians and many other issues. Our approach is a very open approach. Israel is a democracy, a multiparty democracy. We have a different system than the United States. It’s much more like the European parliamentary system where you have multiple parties that form government. So you can have one party with the right-wing point of view, you can have other parties and other individuals with other points of view, and we’re open to discussions like all democracies. Not everybody in the U.S. agrees on government policies either, whether it’s foreign or domestic. It’s the same thing in Israel. We invite those kinds of conversations and we invite those kinds of input and guide people. If you’re interested in an issue like pluralism in Israel, we can direct people to the kinds of civil society organizations or political organizations that are working on those kinds of issues. Our goal is not to convince people to agree to government policies. Our goal is to make sure people know what Israel is, Jewish or not, and understand the significance of Israel and invite them to come and experience Israel for themselves, all in the context of being an open vibrant democracy that has debates about all these issues.
In the U.S media, we hear a lot about Israel’s continued settlement expansion, which seems to be counterproductive to creating a lasting peace with the Arab world, specifically Palestinians. How does Israel rationalize this? And is this an accurate point of view taken by U.S. media outlets?
Media naturally gravitates toward headlines and sometimes can be very different than the more nuanced reality that happens on the ground. Our approach is very simple when it comes to the Palestinian issue that includes the settlements. Let’s sit down at the negotiating table and negotiate these issues. We don’t believe that this conflict is about settlements. If this conflict was about settlements, this conflict would have started only after the Six-Day War when the first settlement was established in the late ’60s, early ’70s. But the reality is, this conflict has been with us over a century. To say the conflict is about settlements also flies in the face of what we did in 2005 when Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, decided to remove all the settlement in the Gaza Strip and to remove Israel’s presence in Gaza Strip and to give it to the Palestinians to enable them to establish a Palestinian state. But what happened was, Hamas, an extremist terror organization, took over the Gaza Strip. We pulled out 10,000 people from Gaza, they took over the area and began bombing Israel with rockets from there. So if the conflict is about settlements, we should have had peace with Gaza but we don’t. So it shows that time and time again that, yeah, settlements are an issue, but unfortunately there are many other issues we need to finalize with Palestinians. Chief among them is, first of all, to agree to sit down, agree to Secretary of State Kerry’s attempt to bring parties to the table and discuss these issues. What are the other issues? The issues of settlements, but also issues of where the border lines will be and what will be the security arrangements to make sure Israel can survive in the Middle East that is changing daily. … For that you need two parties that trust each other and are able to forge the framework for this sort of agreement. We’re not there, unfortunately. They don’t recognize our right to the land; they don’t recognize that the conflict should be ended. We’d like to see a final and complete resolution to these issues in return to the concessions we’re willing to make and [this] will be really painful. Let me add that we don’t develop new settlements. The settlements are very few percentages of the West Bank, and you can easily envision a solution where those blocks remain inside Israel. Over 90 percent of the West Bank would go to Palestinians for their future state. In fact, these agreements and proposals have been on the table for many years.
Because of the Syrian war, is Israel incurring the refugees the same way Jordan and Lebanon are?
First of all, the conflict in Syria is terrible and coming at terrific human cost to Syrians of various religions and ethnic groups. There are 70,000 to 80,000 dead, and those are conservative estimates, and it’s getting worse. We don’t take sides with Syria. We believe both sides — on the rebel side are many al-Qaida-like and global jihadist elements there that cannot be trusted, and the other side, the Assad regime, is brutally suppressing his own people, supported by Iran and Hezbollah. … It is a tremendous tragedy and it’s spilling over into Jordan, into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, and also spilling over into Israel, involving all sorts of relatively minor military incidents. … We hope conflict ends soon with some sort of resolution for Syrian people. What we’re concerned about is the use of chemical weapons, transfer of chemical weapons, transfer of heavy systems like the Russian S-300. We’re very concerned about, other surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, surface-to-sea missile systems that are coming in that are flooding Syria that could fall into the wrong hands.
What has the Arab Spring meant to Israel as democracy in the Middle East appears to bring forth Islamic fundamental states?
The Arab Spring has been a mixed outcome. It is still a very dangerous moment in the Middle East and going to be with us for many years. It’s a moment where we see regimes collapsing and people suffering throughout the region, and something we are very concerned about. Our priorities are to make sure significant weapon systems don’t come into this part of the region. Make sure we strengthen and maintain our peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and [are] doing everything we can with U.S. and other friends to help stabilize the region and work on these relationships. The No. 1 issue and concern is a global concern, not just Israel’s, is the state of Iran’s nuclear program, which is moving forward very rapidly.