Consul general gears up for peace process challenges

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For three years, Nimrod Barkan doused political fires in the Middle East, rallied for an at-times sagging peace process, and kept Israel in a positive light — all from his office in Washington, D.C.

Now Barkan is living in Tiburon, working in San Francisco and has traded roles — from minister of information for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, to consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest Region.

Public relations, however, remains a cornerstone of his career. Only now, the target audience is Jews rather than non-Jews.

"There are nine consul generals in the United States and in the past we all worked within our communities to communicate to non-Jews the importance of Israel's security," he said in a recent interview. "Today the general community is supportive [of Israel]. It's the Jewish community asking questions about Israel's policy."

He attributes several developments to this shift, among them the ongoing Middle East peace process, the fall of communism and a conservative stronghold on American politics.

"I have no illusions. The world has changed its concept of Israel. The Arab world has changed. There have been technology and military changes. We're using these opportunities to re-track our relationships" with Israel's neighbors, Barkan said.

"We'll see a different Middle East in the year 2000 than that of 1974" for instance, he said.

Barkan realizes not everyone, most of all American Jews, will be entirely pleased with the new Middle East map. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's peace policies don't entirely please liberals or conservatives. Instead, the Israeli government is "taking actions to ensure Israel's security in a hostile environment and starting a path of declining tension," he said.

"After more than 100 years of animosity they [Arab states bordering Israel] realize they can't throw the Jews into the sea. There's a chance for a new alliance and Israel's willing to play ball. And the truth is, they need us."

Israel, however, must remain flexible to its neighbors as well, he said, or risk polarizing many Arabs.

"First, there's always give and take. If we say `we want you on your knees,' we're not going to get [Palestinians]. They'll join up with Hamas instead," Barkan said.

"And besides, there's no safe Jewish state with Israel in control of Gaza and the West Bank. Better to strike a middle ground [with the Palestinians]. Let them control terrorism, establish security in the area. They get a nation of self-expression.

"It's very simple. [By allowing Palestinian control in these areas] our responsibilities can be in strengthening all the other components of our country."

This last point, he said, is perhaps the most difficult to drive home in the United States. He's hoping his diplomatic background will assist him in his task.

Barkan has been employed by the Israel Foreign Ministry since 1977, serving as consul in Philadelphia; political counselor for the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Egypt; deputy director and minister of public affairs for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

But experience aside, Barkan has to help win backing for the peace process in a region of assimilated American Jews in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. He also has the dual role of advocating for continued U.S. foreign aid to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority at a time when more Americans, and Jews, want to spend that money at home.

"The role of the Jewish community is crucial here," he said. "It's important to understand that even though the Cold War is over the dangers to Israel haven't disappeared."

At the same time, "We need to support the peace process, support a thriving Palestinian authority, so the Arab world doesn't link with Iran," he added. "If we show Congress we support it, we all benefit by decreased tension in the Middle East."

Barkan says he knows his new job "won't be easy. But I'm not looking for easy."