The Washington Diplomat / October 2011
By Larry Luxner
The Washington-based ambassadors of 19 countries — some of them so obscure that most Americans have never heard of them — recently took a whirlwind, five-day tour of Israel that also included a side trip to Ramallah, provisional capital of the Palestinian Authority.
The unprecedented “fact-finding mission” was organized by The Israel Project, a nonprofit organization opposed to efforts by the PA and its supporters to push for United Nations recognition of Palestine as a member state on Sept. 20. Its jam-packed itinerary included everything from a helicopter ride over Israel’s border areas to meetings with venture capitalists and a visit to Jerusalem’s Old City.
Participating were ambassadors from small Caribbean, Eastern European and African nations that, with a few exceptions, don’t have embassies in Israel. During the visit, they met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. They were also received by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and joined a discussion on economic development with West Bank businessmen.
“Some people think that such a trip is against the Palestinians,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project. “However, nothing could be further from the truth! We believe strongly that a unilateral move by the Palestinians at the United Nations would deeply harm the interests of the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. The only way to achieve lasting peace and a two-state solution for two peoples is through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Mizrahi told The Diplomat that “even if 192 countries in the UN supported the resolution, if Israel opposed it you would not see any progress for Palestinians on the ground. Indeed, you could see a loss of key U.S. financial support for the Palestinians.”
U.S. aid is also a crucial factor for many of the countries represented on the Israel junket. Last year, for example, Uganda received $458 million in non-military U.S. assistance, while Burkina Faso got $421.7 million, Haiti got $368 million and Liberia $235 million.
Other countries sending their U.S.-based ambassadors on the Israel mission range from tiny Grenada (population 104,000) to mountainous Mongolia, which is twice the size of Texas but has only 2.6 million inhabitants. Many Eastern European countries also sent their top diplomats from Washington, as did the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic and English-speaking Belize.
“This was an excellent trip, very well-organized from all points of view,” said Gilbert Galanxhi, the Washington-based ambassador of Albania — 70 percent of whose 3.3 million people are Muslim. It’s also one of the few countries participating on the trip that maintains an embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Albania has always been friendly to Israel. It’s the only country in the world that had more Jews after the Holocaust than before. Not a single Jew was handed over to the Nazis,” Galanxhi said proudly. “So I think the vote will be carefully discussed in my capital and will be in favor of Israel.”
Galanxhi said that while he was impressed with Israel’s prosperity and technological innovation, he was “astonished” at the attitudes of the Palestinian businessmen he met with in Ramallah.
“They seem to be living 10 years in the past,” said the ambassador, whose Balkan country suffered under half a century of communist dictatorship and remains one of Europe’s poorest nations. “I directly asked them about the possibility of sitting at the table and talking with the Israelis and they said no. That was striking to me. They should have been much more interested [in improving relations with Israel] than the prime minister, who was far more forward-looking and constructive in his thinking.”
During the trip, delegates visited the headquarters of Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (Mashav) at Kibbutz Shefayyim just north of Tel Aviv, where they were briefed about programs in agriculture, education, medicine, emergency response and gender equality offered by Israel around the world. They also visited drip-irrigation operations as well as a factory that makes batteries for electric cars, and met with Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who happened to be visiting Israel on a Congressional delegation.
But Maen Areikat, chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington — the PLO’s equivalent of an ambassador here — was angered by the junket, which he called a one-sided effort by Israel’s supporters to sway foreign diplomats to oppose the cause of Palestine at the United Nations.
“This is unprecedented diplomatic behavior, for a country, Israel, to invite the ambassador of other countries based in a third country, the United States, to discuss with them an issue related to a fourth party, Palestine. You don’t do that,” he said. “And for a congressional leader like Steny Hoyer to try to convince these ambassadors not to support the Palestinians is very strange behavior.”
Yet Neil Parsan, ambassador of the twin-island Caribbean republic of Trinidad and Tobago, said the trip was meant to be a fact-finding mission and certainly lived up to his expectations.
“It was my first time to the region,” he said. “I thought the trip allowed us to ask questions freely and openly to both sides, and there was no interference by the organizers. It will certainly help inform the decision-making process when it comes to deciding on any resolution put forward at the UN General Assembly.
But Parsan declined to say how Trinidad — which has a sizeable Muslim minority and has traditionally supported Arab causes or abstained — would vote on this particular issue.
Constancio Pinto, ambassador of Timor-Leste, one of the world’s newest nations, made it clear that his Portuguese-speaking country in southeast Asia hasn’t yet decided how it’ll vote on the upcoming resolution.
“As ambassadors, our job is to report whatever we see and hear. I think all of those countries including mine want to see a peaceful settlement of the conflict,” he said. “Of course I will relay all of this to my government, and hopefully they will make the right decision.”
Pinto told The Diplomat that one memory from his trip stood out above the rest. It happened when his Israeli guides took the group of diplomats to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.
“We lost one-third of our population during the Indonesian occupation, but today, our border guards play basketball with the Indonesian guards. They have lunch on one side one day, and dinner the next day on the other side,” he said. “I asked our guide, a general, whether there’s that same kind of interaction between Israel and Lebanon. He said no. That means peace is still a long way to go.”