Israel’s new man in San Francisco inspired by Rabin

Last year, when he was working in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Andy David scanned a list of upcoming openings at consulates around the world. Only one caught his eye: San Francisco.

He put in his bid, and now David is the consul general for Israel serving the Pacific Northwest region.

Not bad for a man who had a thriving dental practice before making a radical career switch to the diplomatic corps nearly 18 years ago.

Still very new to the area, David finds himself staring wide-eyed out of his Montgomery Street office window, with its commanding view of the city. Though here only a few weeks, he already has begun to feel at home.

Andy David

“Even before I left Israel, people [from the Bay Area] connected and met with me,” David said. “Everybody made a point to make me feel welcome. I truly appreciate that.”

David, 44, admits to needing “three pairs of socks” to fill the big shoes of his popular predecessor, Akiva Tor, who wrapped up his four-year term in July. In recent months, Tor gave him advice about the job.

“He told me that everything you can think of exists here, including some things you didn’t think about,” David recalled. “His message was ‘don’t be surprised that you will be surprised.’ ”

David doesn’t come to the job unseasoned. In addition to serving as a policy adviser and deputy spokesman in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, he served from 2004 to 2008 as a deputy consul general in Chicago (overseeing a region of 11 Midwestern states), and also had high-level postings in Azerbaijan and Hong Kong.

David said he realizes the expansive Pacific Northwest region (which ranges from Northern California to Montana, and also includes Alaska) poses geographical, political and cultural challenges — one of which is the Bay Area’s often-contentious debate over Israel, sometimes within the Jewish community.

“It’s important not to draw the line in the wrong place,” David said, “and to say someone who criticizes Israel is not a friend.”

David’s bottom line is that United States “is a very important country for Israel,” he said.

“The special relations are greater than any agenda. We have to maintain and strengthen it. How do you translate that into a work plan? You need to be creative.”

At or near the top of his agenda, he said, will be strengthening ties between Silicon Valley and Israel’s high-tech industry.

“Concepts that come out of Silicon Valley affect the whole world,” he said. “How Israel can be part of that is something to explore. My role will be to bring some synergy, to sharpen the axe in a way, to try to attract [companies] that don’t have a presence in Israel.”

Born in Romania, David immigrated to Israel at age 2. After serving in the air force, he studied dentistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He went on to teach there and build a private dental practice.

All that changed abruptly in November 1995, when an assassin killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“It’s not that immediately after that I decided I needed to do something else. It was a process that built up, slowly consuming more of my thoughts,” he said. “At a certain point I thought I needed to do something for the place I love, Israel.”

He eventually put down the dental drill and joined the foreign ministry. Azerbaijan, located next to Iran and Russia, was his first posting. He and his wife, Ayelet, got to Baku, and learned quickly that the diplomat’s life isn’t always glamorous.

“It was a hardship posting,” he said. “There were many electrical power cuts. When you wake up, suddenly there is no water supply. The first winter there, every night they turned off the heat because they didn’t have the power. So you learn how to cuddle.”

During his tenure as deputy head of mission from 1999 to 2001, Israel clinched an oil deal with Azerbaijan. From Baku, he transferred to Hong Kong, playing a similar role in the consulate there.

In 2004, David was sent to  Chicago, where he served as deputy consul general. He said living in a major U.S. city with a huge Jewish population made him feel more Jewish.

“Jewish life is thriving there,” he noted. “Everywhere I went in the Jewish community, I felt at home. What made me feel at home was not the fact that I’m Israeli. It was because I’m Jewish.”

As deputy spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, David worked with the international media during two major incidents in recent years, Israel’s offensive in Gaza in 2009 and the Turkish flotilla incident in 2010.

During the former, he was based in Sderot, Israel. “Twice I experienced a Kassam [rocket] very close to me,” he said. “You have to remain calm.”

That calm demeanor comes in handy as a diplomat, and he expects to put that skill to use in the Bay Area. He and his wife plan to enroll their three children (ages 10, 8 and 3) in local Jewish schools and start making a home for themselves.

David will spend the next few months meeting civic and Jewish community leaders in the Bay Area and beyond. He’ll take some trips to the region’s further reaches, including a visit to Alaska he hopes to make next month. It will be a hectic time for him and the family.

“We know there will be a period of adjustment,” he said, “but we also know that there are many good people trying to help us. After a few months there will be a moment where you say, ‘You know what? This is home.’”