The Washington Diplomat / October 2006
By Larry Luxner
NEW YORK — Israel used "every measure of restraint" in its 33-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, but will not hesitate to take swift action in Lebanon again if it continues to be threatened by terrorists.
That's the word from Arye Mekel, Israel's consul-general in New York.
"Our response was totally proportional," Mekel said in a recent interview conducted at his Manhattan apartment. "Israel cannot be in a situation where a terrorist organization sits on its border, and every time it gets marching orders from Iran or Syria, it attacks Israel. We cannot live with this."
Despite the threat, Mekel claims the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) held back from inflicting total damage on Lebanon this past summer — directly contradicting accusations by the chief of Lebanon's diplomatic mission in Washington, Carla Jazzar, and just about every other Lebanese official on Earth.
"We used every measure of restraint," he told the Diplomat. "The civilian infrastructure of Lebanon is almost intact. We only attacked Hezbollah buildings that housed Hezbollah headquarters. In one neighborhood, Dahia, we spread leaflets warning the residents to get out of there."
Mekel, 60, is a veteran of Israel's diplomatic service. His resume includes stints as Israel's consul-general in Atlanta, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and president of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
"The consul-general of Israel is different than all other consuls-general," he explained. "This is Israel's largest mission in the world, much larger than our embassy in Washington."
Mekel said "hundreds" of people work at the Israeli mission in New York — for security reasons, he refused to be more specific.
"We are in charge of several areas that are crucial to the State of Israel, starting with our relationship to the American Jewish community. This is our No. 1 support group in America, their leadership is right here in New York, and this is my personal responsibility."
In addition, he said, "we are in charge of all of Israel's public-relations and media affairs in the United States, because of the fact that all the major networks are here. We distribute Israeli culture throughout North America, we deal with various groups such as blacks, Latinos and evangelicals. We have 500,000 Israeli citizens in the New York metropolitan area, and another half a million in the rest of the country."
In addition to New York, Mekel oversees eight Israeli consulates in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
"We must look at this in context," he said. "Israel is 58 years old. Every few years there's a war with the Arabs. This is our life. We want peace, but we live in the Mideast — not the Midwest — and we will always have to be prepared to defend ourselves. I don't think this will ever go away."
The way Mekel and most Israelis see it, the IDF pulled out of Lebanon six years ago "on the premise that by doing so, we would have peace and quiet, because we took away the excuse they always had" — the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that had endured since 1982.
"We figured once we took this away, there would be no reason we couldn't live in peace," he said. "But Hezbollah is an agent of Syria and Iran. Their plan is to use this Shi'ite proxy in order to constantly rekindle the Arab-Israeli conflict, in order to divert attention away from its own misbehavior, and also in order to be able to expand their influence to eventually rule the Middle East."
That's why, in the days after the war began, the Arab world reacted in a "very surprising, positive way," according to Mekel.
"The Arab League refused to condemn Israel. In fact, they condemned Hezbollah because they know the truth," he told the Diplomat. "The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians are all very concerned — as concerned as Israel, if not more — that Iran is trying to exert its influence over the Middle East. We see this in Iraq for sure. They're worried that the whole Mideast will be in turmoil, and that their own people will get excited and turn against them."
In the six years since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Mekel said Iran sent 13,000 missiles and rockets to Hezbollah, with assistance from Syria.
Of that total, some 3,700 were fired on Israel this summer; most of them were Katyushas, but some were longer-range missiles.
"Once in awhile, they would try to test us by sending some Katyusha rockets. A few years ago, they kidnapped three soldiers and murdered them. We think they wanted to test the new Israeli government [led by Ehud Olmert]. The two previous governments were led by famous generals, Sharon and Barak. They knew this was now a different kind of government led by civilians, and they thought we wouldn't have the same resolve. They miscalculated."
Mekel says Hezbollah's ambush of eight IDF soldiers and the kidnapping of two more who were patrolling Israel's border with Lebanon was an unprovoked act of war.
By the time it was all over, more than 100 Israelis were dead, two-thirds of them soldiers. Mekel says Israel killed 500 Hezbollah "terrorists" and maybe another 200 or 300 civilians.
"Everybody understood that we had no choice," he said. "Could they have hit Tel Aviv? I think Iran and Syria told them not to do it. They were afraid of Israel's reaction, but what we did represents tremendous restraint. Israel is so much stronger than that. We cannot be defeated by 2,000 terrorists."
More importantly, claims Mekel, "most Lebanese understand very well that this is a cancer that will destroy them. Most Lebanese hate the Hezbollah because only a few are Shi'ite Muslims. The rest are Sunnis and Christians. They're happy we finally took care of Hezbollah."
Mekel said that contrary to claims by the government in Beirut, Lebanon is not a helpless bystander in the war between Israel and Hezbollah.
"For six years now, Lebanon has had to decide: is it a sovereign country or is it not? For six years, the UN urged it to do what a sovereign country does: send its troops to the border and get rid of this militia that doesn't listen to the government. They refused to do it.
"This is really an unusual situation, when you ask the military of a country with whom your are at war to send its troops to your border with that country. We did not attack the Lebanese military, we attacked Hezbollah and its strongholds. We never targeted any civilians, while Hezbollah targets civilians all the time."
Mekel denied that the IDF targeted a United Nations observation post in southern Lebanon, despite immediate accusations by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that it was a deliberate, calculated attack.
"It was a mistake. He was upset that night," Mekel said. "But the following day, he had a conversation with Ehud Olmert. I know Kofi Annan very well, and he knows better than that. It's not in our interests to fight with the UN. We were upset, but we moved on. At the end of the day, the UN did a pretty good job."
So did the White House, according to Mekel.
"President Bush is our best friend," he said. "His support during this war was exemplary. We can't thank him enough."