Vice consul brings peace talk, basketball chops to S.F.

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Only now, sitting in his downtown San Francisco office overlooking the city, does the new Israeli vice consul have time to reflect on the magnitude of his actions.

"For two years I was locked up in hotels with 300 negotiators for up to two weeks at a time. When you're in it, it's all so intense, all so embracing," Etzion said. "What I did feel at that time was a shift in my view of everything.

"There's a difference between knowing something and experiencing it. No matter how much you think you know about Arabs, the fact is that most Israelis still have a lot of prejudice."

Sitting in the hotel lobby face-to-face with a Palestinian for the very first time "was a human experience on the most basic level," the 29-year-old said. The first Palestinian he met impressed Etzion with his "excellent English. He was fluent in German. Well-organized. Well-dressed. Elegant in his suspenders. Nothing like the stereotypes.

"We were two equal parties. It was an entirely new sensation."

Etzion served as negotiator and Israeli delegation spokesman to the second round of Oslo negotiations, called Oslo II, and as a member of Israel's delegation to the exploratory talks with Syria during his tenure as adviser and spokesman to the director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He was recruited upon graduating with honors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he had majored in philosophy and Far Eastern studies, including Mandarin Chinese.

Etzion was prepared to complete his studies in Beijing and be posted there when he received the foreign ministry's call. And he hasn't looked back.

"When deciding what to study, I knew I needed something practical. My father and I agreed Chinese-Israeli relationships had a future," Etzion said.

However, "Chinese is such a complicated language. My skills are probably the equivalent of a 3-month-old boy. I know about 3,000 idioms. You need at least 15,000 to really speak."

In his new job, Etzion will focus on potential economic activity between Israel and the United States, especially foreign investments. He hopes to draw on his experience in the peace process by encouraging investment in what he calls "peace institutions."

For instance, the World Bank is currently working with the Israeli government to set up joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial parks.

"It's tough to initiate because there is no model on either side. However, foreign investment could put it into place."

Etzion will also get involved in the typical duties of media relations and Israel education in his region, which includes Northern California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon.

He hopes to help American Jews better understand the possibilities for peace. There are many, he said.

"It's startling how much of a gap exists between facts and perceptions. Ask the average person about land for peace; you get all sorts of answers," Etzion said.

"With the Palestinians, we gave up 3 percent of the West Bank. It set a precedent. Jordan set another precedent, also receiving little land. And Egypt set another, getting a lot of land.

"There is not one formula for agreeable peace. I think all three cases attest to the different possibilities."

Looking forward to his three-year posting, Etzion and his wife, attorney Gail Titman, are anxious to hike, scuba dive and "explore every corner of the Bay Area," he said.

"And I won't have to stay up from 2 a.m. through the morning to watch the basketball playoffs."