Israeli diplomat downplays papal ‘shortcut’ on Palestine

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Roey Gilad, Israel’s consul general to the Midwest, who is based in Chicago and serves an 11-state region that includes Missouri, was in St. Louis last week to meet with Jewish Federation trustees and other Jewish leaders. His visit came in the aftermath of the recognition of Palestine as an independent state by Pope Francis and the efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new governing  coalition.

Gilad, 53, arrived in Chicago in the summer of 2012. He is the highest-ranking Israeli official in the Midwest. During his 26-year tenure with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gilad has served in various positions outside Israel, including Kenya, Jordan and the United Kingdom.

Last year, Gilad received a master’s degree in national security at Haifa University. He also has a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Tel Aviv University. He served as a staff sergeant in the artillery forces in the Israel Defense Forces.

The Light caught up with Gilad for an interview at the Federation building.

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Last Wednesday, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican has recognized Palestine as an independent state. At the same time, he canonized two Palestinian Arab women. The Israeli Foreign Ministry denounced the move, saying it will not help the peace process. So far, 135 other nations have recognized the Mahmoud Abbas government as the State of Palestine, and parliaments in major European cities have urged their governments to do so. The White House and State Department have hinted the administration of President Barack Obama might not veto a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine. Has Israel lost the momentum on this issue?

In the long run, Israel would like to see a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, which has been going on since the 1920s, almost a century. But the solution can and should be through direct negotiations. Early recognition is a shortcut, which does not advance the peace process. The Palestinian Authority should engage in building toward a state with a strong economy and more effective security. International recognition should come after those objectives have been achieved.

After initial reports of a major electoral victory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended up with a narrow 61-seat government, including the Jewish Home Party and the Haredi parties. Can such a narrowly based coalition govern Israel effectively at this time of regional chaos?

The answer is yes, an effective government can be formed, and the prime minister is making that effort. He is holding some key portfolios open, such as the minister of foreign affairs. Many Israelis would welcome a broader government, but the jury is still out on its final composition.

Will the return of the Haredi parties restore full control of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbinate over marriage, divorce, conversions, etc. in Israel? If so, will that development alienate non-Orthodox Jews and rabbis in the United States and other nations around the world?

I do not share those concerns. I consider the ultra-Orthodox to be part of Israel. I do not think their return to the governing coalition will result in a rollback of the reforms that have been made. As is the case with increased rights for the LGBT community in Israel and in many other countries, you cannot stop the progress that has been made. In recent years, Reform and Conservative Jews and their rabbis have gained more rights in Israel. The trend is there for a more liberal and open society, so I am not fearful of this development.

What is Israel doing to counter what appears to be increasing hostility toward Israel and Jewish students and professors who are pro-Israel at U.S. colleges and universities? Why has the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement gained so much traction on our college campuses, and what can be done to push back against this development?

The BDS movement has generated lots of noise and public relations for its advocates, but very little in the way of real progress or practical effect. At the student level, there are concerns, but nearly all major universities and their leadership have rejected calls for them to join the movement. To the contrary, the push for an academic boycott has failed.  

On a very positive note, I want to commend Washington University and its chancellor, Mark Wrighton, for a most positive academic relationship with Israel, including important partnerships between its school of business and its counterparts in Israel.

As the June 20 deadline for a final nuclear deal between Iran and the so-called P5 + 1 approaches, is Israel fearful of a bad deal that would endanger its security being finalized?

There is indeed concern not only in Israel but among all of the moderate Arab governments in the Middle East — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. These governments share Israel’s concern that a poorly drafted deal could put Iran on a path to nuclear weapons. In football terms, Israel and the moderate Arab states at this stage are only 20 yards from the finish line with our backs to the end zone.