Diplomat delivers hard-line stance to Bay Area students

Although he's been neatly tucked out of the public eye since August, Washington's former No. 2 diplomat for Israel, Lenny Ben-David, has kept his eye on the U.S. public.

So what has the former deputy chief of mission observed?

"Challenges to Israel's legitimacy, challenges to Israel's right to holy sites, challenges to Israel's elected government," said Ben-David on a recent visit to San Francisco, a hint of frustration intensifying his observation.

"Israel needs to be defended on the same issues that it was being attacked on 40 and 50 years ago — we've returned to the days of yesteryear."

But the ex-politico has high hopes that strong ties between the new U.S. administration and the one being formed in Israeli will help reinforce the Jewish state.

For instance, he believes the White House is going to be "very strong about laying the blame on those responsible" for each act of violence rather than just taking a general "even-handed approach of the Clinton administration."

"If the Palestinians blow up an Israeli bus full of children and the Israelis retaliate, and then a spokesman comes out and says, 'We call on both sides to avoid violence,' that's an even-handed statement that doesn't reflect the evil of what took place," he explained, predicting that the Bush administration will make a fairer assessment of the conflict.

"I think that by breaking away from this intense even-handedness, the new administration will influence how the press is covering the conflict as well," he added.

Ben-David, who resides in Jerusalem, also predicts that the Bush administration will have a broader focus on the Middle East than the Clinton administration did.

"In this broad view of the Middle East, Israel and America will find considerable common ground, common threats, common response. Our countries' intelligence [departments] will work together against terrorism and missile proliferation."

But in addition, much of the responsibility of preserving Israel's "good name" lies in the hands of private citizens, said Ben-David. He said grassroots efforts to refute allegations against Israel are essential.

With more than 30 years of work devoted to hasbarah (public relations), including editing "Myths and Facts," a publication dedicated to refuting negative allegations about Israel, Ben-David should know.

During his trip to San Francisco, he met with local college students and activists to discuss the issue of hasbarah and promote grassroots activities.

Not surprisingly, he said he found that many of the students felt "exposed and very intimidated" by the "Arab intimidation and propaganda" on their campuses.

"One student came up to me carrying a copy of 'Myths and Facts' I'd written in 1989 and told me, 'I need this now,'" said Ben-David.

"There really needs to be re-education on all of these issues," he added, emphasizing that Bay Area activists — based on their proximity to Silicon Valley — have the advantage of using the Internet and other new technology as a way to defend and protect Israel.

Six months ago, however, Ben-David did not expect to find himself traveling to San Francisco to do hasbarah. He had just left public office and was settling into his Jerusalem-based private consulting firm, IsraelConsult Inc.

He even considered the possibility of going scuba diving in Eilat. But increased violence foiled the plans of a man whose roots are firmly planted in hasbarah.

Despite his efforts for Israel, the former Benjamin Netanyahu-appointed diplomat has no plan or desire to return to public office.

"I've been a Jewish civil servant or an Israeli civil servant for a long time," he said. "Now I'm in private practice and enjoying it."

And if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked?

"I'd have to say, 'Thank you, no.'"