H.D.S. Greenway

Israeli diplomat just doing his job

By H.D.S. Greenway
August 13, 2009

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IN THE PRACTICE of diplomacy it is not enough simply to represent your country abroad or to put its policies in the best light possible. It is not enough to give speeches and throw a party on your country’s national day. It is also necessary to faithfully and accurately report back to your political masters on the attitudes and atmospherics of the country in which you serve. The best are keen observers whose cables home can affect history. One thinks of George Kennan, whose cable from Moscow in 1946 - later published in Foreign Affairs under the pen name X - set the parameters of containment which set the course of US policy in the Cold War.

Thus I was disheartened to read that Israel’s consul general in Boston, Nadav Tamir, had been caught in the growing quarrel between the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Whereas the Bush administration gave Israel a green light to do what it willed vis-a-vis the occupied territories, President Obama wants to bring about the peace that Bill Clinton came so close to obtaining but failed. Obama wants a complete settlement freeze; Netanyahu does not, and a full-blown rift between Israel and its all-important ally is opening.

Tamir is being recalled to Jerusalem, reportedly to be scolded, because he wrote an internal memo that said the settlement dispute was doing “strategic damage to Israel’’ because it was alienating the American administration. The memo was subsequently leaked.

Given the Northeast’s universities and intellectual centers, the Boston consulate is a good listening post for diplomats - especially during Democratic administrations when it often seems that Harvard and MIT empty out into government jobs in Washington. Barack Obama may have been born in Hawaii, and came to politics via Chicago, but Harvard Law School also had an influence on him. If Nadav Tamir had not sent a cable to his government warning that his country risked alienating its all-important ally, he would have been remiss in his duties as Israel’s man in New England.

Rather than scolding Tamir, the Israeli foreign office ought to commend him for speaking out through the proper channels of an internal memo. All countries need diplomats who are not afraid to give their opinions about the opinions they are picking up in their diplomatic posts.

It is undeniable that Israel is risking its relationship with the Obama administration by sticking to its settlement policies. The Netanyahu administration knows this, and for its own political reasons, has made its decision to stay the course on settlements. But it should welcome its diplomats raising red flags. To demand silence in conformity to a party line in reporting is to render its diplomats overseas useless.

Because of my job, first as foreign editor at The Boston Globe, and then editorial page editor, I have known many of the consul generals assigned to Boston. And because I came to Boston fresh from the Washington Post bureau in Jerusalem, I have known all the Israeli consul generals for more than 30 years.

When it comes to representing his country’s interests, I would rate Tamir as one of the best. When I groaned to him that Netanyahu’s election would be bad for peace, Tamir gave me a cogently reasoned argument on why I was being too pessimistic.

Knowing that I follow the Israeli-Palestine conflict closely, and often write about it, Nadav Tamir once remarked to me that there was so much more to Israel than the conflict with the Arabs, but that the non-conflict side got buried in the world’s press. It got me to thinking, and when the Globe asked for columns on subjects that we thought had been under-covered that year, I wrote about Israel’s economic achievements, its burgeoning film industry, and its cultural achievements. It was a change of pace for me, given that politics and dispute are the bread and butter of my trade. But Consul General Tamir understands that there is more to the job - and more to Israel itself - than just the party line.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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