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Board meets Sharon

Last updated: 2004-01-06

Ariel Sharon

Board meet with Ariel Sharon

The Board of Deputies' Israel Solidarity Mission, led by President Henry Grunwald QC and organised by Vice President Flo Kaufmann, met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday to discuss issues of joint concern.

Addressing the Prime Minister, who was accompanied by his bureau chief Dov Weissglass, his spokesman Raanan Gissin, and other senior aides, Grunwald said: "The Board Mission came to express the solidarity of the British Jewish community with Israel and to learn more about the problems facing Israel at present. We accept that the prime duty of the Government of Israel is to protect and defend its citizens.  We know that Israel is often criticised in the media, but we also know that Israel's case is not always presented as well as it might be."  

He stressed the importance of Hasbarah and, in particular, of ensuring that Israel's ambassadors, and spokesmen to the world's media, are able to present Israel's case clearly and consistently, and that they must be fluent in whatever is the appropriate language.  Grunwald raised various issues on which members of the Mission wanted more information such as the security fence and the prospect of a unilateral withdrawal by Israel. He also raised concerns that this information was not always available to Diaspora Jewish communities, for use in explaining Israel's case.

Replying, the Prime Minister accepted that the Foreign Ministry's overseas public relations budget of just $9 million was insufficient, especially "when compared to what the Arabs have," however, he explained, "the foreign press is using local photographers and journalists to show what they want." Urging British Jewry to play their part in Israel's defence, the Prime Minister told the delegation: "It's wonderful to be a Jew, but it's hard to be a Jew...Jews need to know that, if Israel is weakened, G-d forbid, Jews won't be able to have the same life they have around the world."

Discussing the rise in antisemitism, the Prime Minister said: "I cannot ask you to carry all the burden on your shoulders. The main goal of the government I lead is 'aliyah'... but on security you have to back us. It's our right to keep our capability, it's our right to self defence."

Referring indirectly to the efforts of the Board of Deputies, and others who have raised concerns with European governments and the European Union over the provision of funds to terrorist organisations, the Prime Minister highlighted the legal status of Hamas and Hezbollah in Europe. He noted that Hamas had recently been labelled a terrorist organisation by the European Union, but regretted that not all EU countries had implemented and acted on the declaration.

Returning to the subject of Hasbarah, the Prime Minister and his bureau chief announced a reorganisation of government's public relations operation, with the proposed establishment of a Foreign Information Service, based in the Prime Minister's office, which they hoped would create a visible change in Israel's PR effort.

The Prime Minister reiterated that Israel was committed to the road map, which Israel had adopted with reservations, but that there was still no one to talk to. "You can make compromises for peace, but not on security. On security I stand with my back to the wall. I don't have anywhere to withdraw."

Later Grunwald said: "We have had a most successful Mission and the access that our group has had at the very highest level shows the extent to which Israel wishes to hear the views of British Jewry.   We have met the President, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Justice Minister, the Tourism Minister and the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, as well as members of other political parties outside the government.  

We were especially pleased to hear from Benny Elon, Minister for Tourism, that, of the one million visits to Israel in the last year, over one hundred thousand were from Britain.    We took the opportunity to raise with him the question of high air fares to Israel as well as concerns over high hotel rates charged to overseas visitors.   He undertook to investigate both matters.

The group has been briefed on many aspects of Israeli life.   An IDF official took us to see the security fence.   A senior police officer addressed us on the responses to acts to terrorism.   We visited a Magen David Adom station in Tel Aviv, and the headquarters of SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Centre, which provides support services for the victims of terror and their families.   We have learnt what Israeli organisations such as "Save a Child's Heart" are doing for Palestinians and other countries in the developing world. 

We were briefed on the difficulties facing Israel's economy and on its future prospects, and on the importance of supporting Israel by buying Israeli products wherever possible.   We were also able to see at first hand the effects of the current economic problems in a visit to a Jerusalem soup kitchen.    

In addition, the new British Ambassador, His Excellency Simon McDonald, received the Mission at his home in Ramat Gan. With him we discussed current British government policy on the Middle East. I was able to congratulate him on behalf of the community on the CMG awarded to him in the New Year's honours list.

Now much better informed than before we came, we have received answers to many of the questions that we, and members of our community, have recently been asking.   There is no substitute for seeing for yourself what is actually happening in Israel and we urge British Jews to come and follow our example."

Vice-President Flo Kaufmann said: "This is the first mission that the Board has had since 1997, and I intend to ensure that, once again, it becomes a regular event on the Board's calendar.  It is the most practical way of showing our support for Israel and our understanding of the difficult path that Israel has to tread.   Since our return, Israel has a team of new ambassadors willing to spread the word."