Diplomatic Connections Articles

Consul General Roey Gilad is the Public Face of Israeli Diplomacy in the Midwest

By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Roey Gilad is a career Israeli diplomat and a long-distance runner. But, perhaps that is a distinction without a difference. Though the bulk of his diplomatic career has been spent in government-to-government representation, Gilad has adapted to his public diplomacy role, based in Chicago and covering 11 Midwestern states, with the passion, determination, persistence and courage of the marathon runner he is.

Noting that running was the only sport he could do in a decent way, the consul general reflects that, “Distance running presents a physical challenge of endurance, but it also presents a challenge of mind over matter. The challenge is the training and the discipline it takes to prepare mentally and physically to run distances. The training sharpens my mind and my endurance. It makes me a better diplomat and a better person.”

Running can be pure pain and sheer joy. Running can be at once lonely and exhilarating. Both are good metaphors for diplomacy in general, but they are especially good metaphors for the work of representing the state of Israel . . . at once one of America’s closest allies and most controversial partners. It is deeply respected for its commitment to sustaining the memory of the Holocaust and yet probingly challenged for its dealings with its Palestinian Arab neighbors, simultaneously celebrated for its remarkable achievements in building and securing a modern democratic state, and criticized for pursuing security in ways that sometimes appear to undermine peace negotiations.

Roey Gilad’s diplomatic career has spanned more than a quarter century of Israeli politics: repeated peace negotiations meeting with failure more often than success; cycles of violence and efforts at reconciliation; determined growth of the Israeli economy — including its agricultural and high-tech sectors; and almost unimaginable resilience of the Israeli state in the face of repeated challenges to its right to exist and existential threats to its Jewish identity. Like the long-distance runner, such is the pain and the joy of being an Israeli diplomat.

Consul General Gilad holds a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Tel Aviv University and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As part of his continuing professional development, he recently completed a second master’s degree in national security at Haifa University. He is fluent in Hebrew, English, Arabic and trained, though less comfortable, in French.

As required of all Israeli citizens, Gilad served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). He then became a staff sergeant in the artillery forces, an experience he counts as critical to his personal and professional formation. “Those years I served in the IDF,” he recalls, “represented the best school I had . . . for life. There, I met people who represent a real cross-section of Israeli society. It wasn’t easy, but I am thankful every day that I have that experience and met those people.”

Prior to assuming his post as consul general in Chicago in the summer of 2012, Roey Gilad served in a variety of positions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most recently at Israel’s National Defense College and prior to that as head of the Export Control Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He previously served overseas as second secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya; media spokesperson in the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan; and as head of the Political Affairs Department in Israel’s London Embassy.

Consul General Gilad was kind enough to make time to speak with Diplomatic Connections during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

Diplomatic Connections: What influenced you to pursue a diplomatic career?

Consul General Gilad: I came to the diplomatic field from a focus on Middle Eastern studies. I thought that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would give me the biggest opportunity to make use of my knowledge and to develop a profession. That led me to apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and happily I was accepted.

Now I have more than 26 years in this business. I think I may be a better diplomat because I have a good command, a deep knowledge of Middle Eastern history, language, people and cultures. This is the path that brought me into the world of diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: What is Israeli diplomatic training like once you are accepted into the foreign service?

Consul General Gilad: The Israeli Foreign Service is considered to be the “pilots training” of the Israeli Civil Service. Israeli pilots get the best training, and they are chosen in a very careful way. Much the same can be said for the Israeli Foreign Service. The screening process is very stringent.

Diplomatic Connections: You are in Chicago now as consul general, and this is your first consular appointment as well as your first appointment in the United States. What has this change been like for you?

Consul General Gilad: Consulates are based outside a nation’s capital in places where a country nevertheless has very significant relationships. The nine consulates we have here in the United States on top of the embassy in Washington are mainly doing what is called relationship building. In this sense what I’m doing now in Chicago is quite different from most things I’ve done before.

I do see my job as being the Israeli presence in the region for which I’m responsible. I’m in charge of the overall Israeli relationship with the 11 states that constitute the Midwest region. For the record, that includes: North Dakota and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

In this huge area there are 11 governments, an equal number of governors and state legislatures, 22 members of the United States Senate and more than 85 members of the House of Representatives. I reach out to those people. I do that in the realm of economics and business as well as governmental issues. I do much of the same work that the embassy in Washington is doing, but while the embassy is dealing with the federal system, I deal with the states.

Diplomatic Connections: How much liaising do you do with the Jewish community in the states for which you are responsible?

Consul General Gilad: This is my first time to work with a very significant, strong, powerful Jewish community. It took me some time, but now I realize that the members of the Jewish community are by no means my clients. They are my shareholders. They are a critical part of my outreach efforts.

I see my office as a business, a business that is there to promote Israeli interests. And Israeli interest is in building a better bridge between the Midwest and the state of Israel. This bridge has to cover 6,000 miles. When Israelis think about America, they think about the coasts. They think about Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles or San Francisco. They don’t think about the Midwest and Chicago. So, that’s my challenge, and that’s where the Jewish community is a shareholder in my work.

Israel considers itself a Jewish state, and in this sense every Jew is a shareholder in the state. Therefore, for me as a missionary of the state, there is a theoretical and moral basis to my outreach, but there is also a practical aspect. The Jewish community in Chicago and in the Midwest — Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, St. Louis — is a very strong community which generally shares an agenda. When we work together, we can achieve much.

Diplomatic Connections: How does the Israeli government deal with the status of Jerusalem? How do you deal with the fact that the American Embassy, along with all the others, remains in Tel Aviv rather than moving to Jerusalem?

Consul General Gilad: The definition of a capital is not where the foreign embassies are located, but where a sovereign state considers its seat of government to be located. I believe that this relocation of the embassies will happen in the future. But, politically and sentimentally the world acknowledges that Israel sees its capital as Jerusalem. This issue is not something that causes us to wake up every morning asking, “Where is the American Embassy located today?” It is not only the American Embassy by any means. It is all the embassies.

Diplomatic Connections: Can Jerusalem ever be a shared capital? Certainly the position that the Palestine Liberation Organization has taken over the years is that Jerusalem must be the capital of any Palestinian state.

Consul General Gilad: Jerusalem is one of the two most sensitive issues involved in any final status agreement that might be reached between Israel and the Palestinians. The other issue would be the status of refugees, and that is even more complicated than the status of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem needs a creative solution that I believe can be found. The problem with Jerusalem is not the lack of solutions. The problem is the religious sensitivity of any question involving the future of Jerusalem — a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Emotions make it difficult to find a reasonable solution. But, I believe that on Jerusalem, creative solutions can be found that will appease the religious and the political demands of the various parties and take into account the sensitivities of the citizens of the city as well.

Diplomatic Connections: Here in the United States there is continuing debate about the doctrine of the separation of church and state. Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly said, and the official government position is, that Israel is a Jewish state. How does that stance square with the oft-stated position from Israel’s earlier days that it would be a secular state?

Consul General Gilad: What is clear is that Israel was built on different pillars, different foundations than those that have shaped the American experience. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel because religious identity is the very heart of Israeli identity. That identity is shaped by Jewish religious practices, Hebrew language, the experience of the Holocaust, and the persistent threats to the survival of the state of Israel put forth by religious and political leaders in the Islamic community. And yet, for us it is extremely important to make sure that the rights of minorities, namely the Arab minority and the Christian minority, are protected.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize relations between Israel and the United States at the moment? And, particularly, how would you characterize the relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama at the moment?

Consul General Gilad: From the beginning the relationship between our two countries has had ups and downs. This is not the first time there has been some tension in the bilateral relationship. And, there are tensions in the personal relationship between the two leaders Netanyahu and Obama — who have very different styles and who, necessarily, see the world and the Middle East region from quite different vantage points.

The United States and Israel are two of the strongest democracies in the world. I think both countries and both leaders fundamentally respect each other. I think both understand that strategically they cannot do without each other. It is quite clear that the United States is the strongest ally Israel has anywhere in the world. That’s why we have the embassy in Washington and nine consulates spread around the country.

And, it is quite clear that Israel is the only functioning state, let alone democracy, in our region among 22 Arab states. Many of these Arab states have disintegrated or have fallen into civil conflict. It is quite clear that American interests are best protected through the relationship between the United States and Israel. Throughout the world there are not more than five or six states that share a special relationship with the United States that is at all similar to the long-term relationship between Israel and the United States. We share the same values: democracy, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of the media, freedom of dissent and opposition.

We might have some different views between the Obama and the Netanyahu administrations, but as for the two most significant challenges that we are facing — the Iranian situation and the Palestinian situation — at the end of the day I have no doubt in my mind as an Israeli diplomat and an Israeli citizen that there is real understanding in America, in the White House and in the administration as to the core security needs of the state of Israel.

Diplomatic Connections: Can Israel maintain its nuclear deterrent and expect that other states in the region won’t pursue nuclear capabilities of their own, even to the level of developing nuclear weapons?

Consul General Gilad: We prefer not to discuss this issue publicly. I do think that a nuclear military option held by a pariah state like Iran runs an enormous risk of destabilizing the region and encouraging other states to develop nuclear capabilities as well. This kind of proliferation is unacceptable in the region.

Diplomatic Connections: Leaving aside the specifics of the nuclear question, does Israel have other concerns about Iran’s influence across the Middle East and the Islamic community?

Consul General Gilad: Nuclear proliferation risks destabilizing the region more than is already the case, but we are also concerned about a much more aggressive stance being taken by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah or Hamas or the Palestine Liberation Organization. Many extremely negative things can happen in the Middle East short of the Iranians obtaining nuclear weapons. Our enemies have a lot of self-confidence because they have been able to push the major powers toward repeatedly making marginal concessions that end up giving Iran space, not only for its nuclear ambitions but for its efforts to destabilize other countries in the region.

Diplomatic Connections: If we might shift away from strategic issues for the moment, would you explain to us the consulate’s role in trade promotion? The Chicago Consulate finds itself in an interesting place inside the American economy. On the one hand, the Chicago Consulate sits astride America’s extremely productive farm belt. At the same time it sits astride what has been called America’s industrial rust belt. Is there anything that Israel can do to promote trade in such very different areas?

Consul General Gilad: With Illinois, Michigan and Indiana, the so-called “rust belt,” we are working to help modernize the automobile manufacturing process. We do not produce automobiles in Israel, but we produce a lot of parts. We bring one or two trade delegations to Michigan every year to meet with leaders in the automotive industry. We work very closely with American companies on cybersecurity issues and on a wide variety of high tech applications.

Regarding the agricultural areas of our region, we work very closely with American companies on agricultural technology and water technology. We try to be very responsive to the local ecosystem. In each of the 11 states for which the Chicago Consulate is responsible, we have identified local ecosystems that are of particular concern. For instance, take North Dakota. It is a small state very far from Chicago and very far from Jerusalem, and yet we know that energy is very important on the state’s agenda. North Dakota is one of six federal sites experimenting with the use of drones in both the energy industry and in agricultural applications. Immediately we introduced Israeli companies to North Dakota and North Dakota to Israeli companies.

Diplomatic Connections: Could we touch on the consulate’s efforts in cultural diplomacy for a moment? You sponsor or cosponsor the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Chicago Film Festival. Those are “fun” events in a sense, but what is their diplomatic importance?

Consul General Gilad: We use culture as a major tool in our toolbox. As we planned our work plan for 2015 we summarized upcoming activities, and I noticed that half of our budget goes to cultural events. The Jazz Festival takes a lot of our energy and manpower. It lasts only for 10 days, and yet I think it is a good investment. It is a good investment in the sense that it shows the other face of Israel. This is what we sometimes call “Israel — beyond the conflict.”

This conflict has already lasted for the past 67 years, since we were established as a sovereign state. And, I’m afraid the conflict will continue for a long time. We have built a very significant economic system, and we have many achievements in the cultural realm as well. In that sense we try to show that Israel is a very normal state.

Diplomatic Connections: Outside Israel and inside Israel as well, it is hard not to get discouraged by what seems to be an endless cycle of violence. How do you break out of that cycle?

Consul General Gilad: There is only one key to this miserable situation, which is building confidence between the opposing parties. If the Israelis have more confidence in the Palestinians, if they feel there is a partner, they will be willing to take more risks. The repeated raids and missile firings from Gaza have only served to destroy any sense of confidence that an accommodation might be reached between Israelis and Palestinians.

However, I believe that this is the time for leadership. We need leadership to engage in reestablishing the dialogue. Israel is very open to renew the dialogue. The Palestinians need to understand that it was not Israel that left the negotiating table. It was the Palestinians who left the negotiating table and decided to go to the United Nations to seek recognition as a state. [NOTE: Palestine was accorded “Non-Member Observer State” status at the United Nations in November 2012. See United Nations General Assembly Resolution 67/19.]

You don’t build a state through the processes of the United Nations. Building a state is something the Palestinians could have done already. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that the Palestinians missed the opportunity in Gaza. Israel might also have made some mistakes in Gaza. In truth, I think Gaza is a huge setback for everybody who would like to see a political solution. We need to start building mutual confidence from scratch . . . again. But, once this confidence is established through strong leadership on both sides, there is much that can be achieved.

Diplomatic Connections: If the level of mutual trust you describe was there, could a territorial settlement be reached? Would Israel give up territory and let go of the vision of “Eretz Yisrael” [Greater Israel]? Is a territorial settlement seriously negotiable?

Consul General Gilad: I think it is negotiable. I think the territorial questions are solvable. The Israeli people understand that compromise, that geographical compromise, is a must, provided that Israel gets eventually an agreement that will be respected by the other side and will guarantee our future as a sovereign Jewish state, just as the agreement with Egypt in 1979 — which was itself very controversial — accepted Israel’s right to exist in exchange for returning the Sinai to Egypt in a phased withdrawal process that was internationally supervised. Such an agreement today would be supported by a large majority of the Jewish people as was the case 20 years ago with Jordan.

For Israel it is extremely important for us to know that when we sign an agreement with the Palestinian Authority this agreement will represent the voice of all Palestinians wherever they are, including the Palestinian diaspora. That point is eventually the difference between a political agreement and a strategic agreement that represents the end of the claims — we give up parts of Judea and Samaria in return for a significant recognition by the Palestinian people wherever they are that there is room and a legitimacy for a Jewish sovereign entity in the Middle East that lives in security next to a Palestinian sovereign entity that lives in peace. Anything short of that will not satisfy the Israelis.

I think Henry Kissinger once said, “There isn’t a perfect solution. But a good solution is a solution that makes both sides equally unhappy.”

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