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Israel's Battle to Win Public Opinion: Ambassador David Ivry
The Washington Diplomat / January 2001

By Larry Luxner

On June 7, 1981, Maj. Gen. David Ivry, commander of the Israeli Air Force, held his breath as Israeli fighter jets -- flying low to avoid radar detection -- entered Iraqi airspace and blew up a secret reactor that would have eventually given Saddam Hussein nuclear bomb-making capability.

All of Israel's enemies, and even some of its friends, expressed outrage. But 10 years later, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney presented Ivry with a satellite reconnaisance photo of the destroyed reactor, signing it "With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job you did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!"

Today, Cheney is the vice president-elect, and Ivry serves as Israel's ambassador to the United States. The framed photo hangs on the wall of Ivry's spacious office as a constant reminder -- as if he really needs one -- of the enduring hatred between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

In our 90-minute interview with Ivry last month, the 65-year-old former fighter pilot wasted no time dumping blame for the current Arab-Israeli violence squarely on Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

"From our point of view, the Palestinian side isn't doing anything to reduce violence and implement the Sharm el-Sheikh agreements," he told us. "Barak is trying to give incentives to Chairman Arafat to reduce tensions, but he won't because it's in his interest to continue the violence and shootings. In this way Arafat can remain the underdog. This is part of his effort to achieve his political goals."

He also blames Arafat for creating an atmosphere in which Prime Minister Ehud Barak was forced, in mid-December, to resign and call for new elections in February -- a contest which Israel's hawkish former leader Benjamin Netanyahu might very easily win.

The [timing of the] elections in Israel are dictated by Arafat," he told The Washington Times in a subsequent interview Dec. 15, insisting that Arafat has tried to turn the intifada into a religious crusade. "We are not against Islam -- it's a political conflict."

Ivry, a career military officer who has never before held a diplomatic post, was sent to Washington by Barak exactly one year ago. A rather shy man who avoids the limelight and clearly feels uncomfortable in front of a camera, Ivry has found himself in the unenviable position of having to defend Israel's crackdown against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before an unrelenting -- and not always sympathetic -- press.

Matters aren't made any easier by the fact that nearly 90% of the 350 people killed in the ongoing violence, which began Sept. 28, have been Palestinians or Israeli Arabs.

"It's against the interests of Israel to have any casualties at all. Someone wants to have many more casualties, and it's not us," he said. "If somebody is releasing from jail terrorists who openly claim that they want to kill Israelis, it means they're encouraging violence."

Asked if it's possible that thousands of young Palestinians have lost all hope of having their own state -- with all the political, social and economic freedoms that statehood implies -- and are therefore resorting to desperate measures, Ivry turns the question around and says Palestinians are going about it the wrong way.

"Some of them think they're going to achieve a country only through violence. And the Lebanon experience encouraged them to udnerstand that maybe our society is so sensitive to casualties that Israel would accede to their demands," he says. "They use the example of Hizbollah. But I don't think they're right. Israel wanted to get out of Lebanon -- we decided we shouldn't be there. We didn't claim an inch of land, and we don't want any conflict with Lebanon. We want to make peace with them. And if the Palestinians only sit down and talk, they will get their state."

Ivry, whose parents fled Czechoslovakia in 1934 in the face of rising Nazi persecution and settled in Palestine, has participated in every Arab-Israeli war since he joined the military in the early 1950s as a fighter pilot, flying combat missions during the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six-Day War (1967) and the War of Attrition (1968-70).

From 1977 to 1982, Ivry commanded the Israeli Air Force, and in 1982, under Ivry's command, the IAF destroyed Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. In 1986, he was named director-general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, a post he held until 1996, when former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named him Israel's national security advisor.

Along the way, Ivry has won medals of distinction from the U.S. Air Force and the Government of Singapore, of all places, and he's served on the boards of Israel Aircraft Industries, El-Al Airlines and Haifa's Technion University, where in 1977 he received a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering.

Observers say Ivry accepted the job of Israel's ambassador in Washington rather reluctantly. He admits that the job isn't easy -- particularly now, when it seems the whole world is against the Jewish state.

"I don't think there's an easy time for any Israeli diplomat anywhere," said Ivry, who spends most of his days lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as meeting with the leaders of major Jewish organizations. Both groups are vital to Israel's continued survival.

"I think that on the Hill, people understand that justice is on our side," he told The Diplomat. "Recently the Senate urged Arafat to stop the violence. The next week, they passed a resolution 365-30 condeming Arafat and urging the administration to veto any condemnation of Israel at the United Nations."

Israel, with 6.2 million inhabitants, currently receives $2.86 billion a year in U.S. aid -- more than any country in the world. Of that total, $860 million is economic assistance, down from $1.2 billion in past years.

At present, Congress is debating a $750 million aid package that would award $450 million to Israel, $225 million to Egypt and $75 million to Jordan. Of the $450 million earmarked for Israel, $250 million is compensation for expenses associated with Israel's recent withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which Ivry says easily cost $900 million.

"We are facing an economic challenge," he said. "Because of the violence, Jews are not coming to Israel. This is going to erode our economic achievements. The U.S. is doing the right thing in order to keep the stability."

Reminded that the violence has inflicted far more economic damage on the Palestinians than on the Israelis, Ivry responded that "when they started the violence, they knew their economy would suffer." He denied that Gen. Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the Temple Mount had sparked the current intifada, insisting that Palestinian leaders had been planning a barrage of anti-Israeli violence days before the Sept. 28 incident, and were only using Sharon's visit as an excuse for continuing the bloodshed.

Nevertheless, he says "we want the Palestinians to flourish economically," and cited various "confidence-building measures" taken by the Barak government such as reopening Gaza International Airport for the first time in two months, allowing thousands of Palestinian laborers to enter Israel after having barred them shortly after the violence began, and releasing $9.5 million in tax collections for use by Palestinian local authorities.

"Barak came up with many concessions. We were offering them a Palestinian state, 90% of what they wanted," he said. "We're ready to negotiate over Jerusalem for the first time."

But Ivry has his limits, too. He will not, for example, seriously entertain the notion of allowing millions of Palestinian refugees who left during the 1948 War of Independence to return to Israel.

"We are letting Jewish people come to Israel under the Law of Return. This year, 60,000 people immigrated to Israel," he said. "Once they have a state, the Palestinians should also open their doors to their own people, but not to Israel."

Another area where Ivry won't budge is the use of United Nations troops to keep the peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He says that -- given the UN's infamous 1975 declaration equating Zionism with racism and numerous anti-Israel resolutions passed since then -- there's "no chance" Israel will let UN troops into the West Bank and Gaza.

"We don't have any equal rights at the UN. Until now, we aren't even in one working group. We are not going to be dictated to by international forces," said Ivry, adding however, that he doesn't object to U.S. troops in the area. "The United States wants to be an honest broker. We should give them a chance."

Despite sporadic pro-Palestinian protests in front of the heavily guarded Israeli Embassy at 3504 International Drive, Ivry tells us he doesn't feel particularly threatened.

"I'm a military man. Threat is a part of my life," he said, noting that since the current Arab uprising began, the American Jewish community has been more supportive of Israel than ever before. A recently flurry of pro-Israel demonstrations, fund-raising drives and Jewish solidarity missions to Israel appear to back up the ambassador's claim.

"If anything, American Jews blame our public relations people for not responding aggressively enough to Arab propaganda," he said. "It's not that they feel Israel doesn't have justice on her side. My opinion is that, since the media is always in favor of the underdog, we just have to explain our positions better."

The Arabs clearly have a lot to learn from Israel in this regard. Despite repeated attempts by The Washington Diplomat to interview the Palestinian Authority's official U.S. representative in Washington, Hasan Abdel-Rahman, for this story, no meeting materialized because Abdel-Rahman never returned our many phone calls and faxes. Yet the Israeli Embassy -- which has long understood the importance of public opinion -- scheduled an interview with Ivry almost immediately.

"Most of the print media already supports Israel," he said. "Pictures, we cannot fight because we don't have 1,000 words to give the TV media. I agree that the pictures on TV are very disturbing, but you only have 20 seconds."

Nevertheless, the ambassador cited an Oct. 21 poll showing that 46% of Americans support the Israeli side in the current violence, while only 10% favor the Palestinians.

Ivry says he has not been in touch with Abdel-Rahman at all since the current violence began.

"It's my choice, not my government's. There's nothing I can solve with him," said the diplomat, though he added that he's in regular contact with the ambassadors of Egypt and Jordan -- the only two Arab countries officially at peace with Israel.

Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's envoy in Washington, said his country was a "pioneer in trying to bridge" the gap that existed between Arabs and Israelis, and in 1979 became the first Arab country to conclude a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

"Our objective since then has been achieve sustainable peace agreement between the different Arab parties and Israel, which essentially means to have these agreements founded on intenrational law so they are not challenged again later by newer generations of Israelis and Arabs. It's been a difficult road to pursue, but it's a worthwhile pursuit."

Fahmy has known Ivry since 1992, when Ivry headed the Israeli arms negotiating team at various multilateral talks, and Fahmy headed the Egyptian team. He said the relationship between himself and Ivry is "friendly" despite ongoing Arab-Israeli hostilities.

"For Egyptians this whole conflict will never really end until there is peace between all Arab countries and Israel, which essentially means Israel's withdrawal from Arab occupied territories," he said. "I think the Egyptian-Israeli peace has been a strong peace, a realistic peace, and it's sustained many challenges. If you ask the Israelis themselves, they'll say they are much happier to have this peace than not to have it at all."

Says Ivry: "Everyone in the Middle East wants to have peace. It all depends on what kind of peace you're talking about. Israeli society went a long way toward peace. If 10 years ago, you asked for a Palestinian state, you would have been called a traitor just for speaking about it. Today, everybody's speaking about it. Israeli society went a long way to accept peace, and the Palestinians' right to have their own entity. I can't say the same thing for the other side. We're disappointed and frustrated that they still call for jihad [holy war], and that their school textbooks still speak about Israel not having the right to exist."

Despite the current gloom and doom, Ivry says he's optimistic that someday, Arabs and Israelis will learn to live with each other -- and maybe even prosper.

"There's always hope," the ambassador concluded, smiling sadly. "Without hope, you cannot live in the Middle East."

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