newsU.S.-Israel Relations

‘I expect the US public and leadership to respect the choice of Israeli citizens’

An interview with Ofir Akunis, the incoming Israeli consul general in New York.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis attends a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Jan. 8, 2023. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis attends a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Jan. 8, 2023. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

In two weeks, after 15 years in the Knesset and government and amid peak tensions between Israel and the United States, Ofir Akunis will head to New York to begin a three-year term (with an option for an additional year) as consul general. 

Amid packing and preparation talks at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, we sat down with Akunis for an interview at his home in Tel Aviv.

“When the offer was presented by the prime minister, I immediately said yes,” said Akunis. “To me, this role in the U.S., at this time, against the backdrop of the ongoing war and Israel’s situation since Oct. 7, is as significant as any position in the government or Knesset.”

Akunis departs for New York on May 1, while his wife will stay in Israel until the end of the school year with their daughter, who is completing 12th grade, and their son, who is currently serving in the military. 

“There’s no doubt that the long-standing alliance between the United States and the State of Israel is strong and based on the democratic foundation and the values of freedom and the Western world. Of course, there were disagreements, which happen between friends and are legitimate,” he said. 

“One of my main roles will be to express Israel’s just and correct stance and to reflect the facts to reassure American public opinion and Congress.”

Q: Is there a diplomatic way to say no to the American demands to stop the Gaza war and not to enter the Hamas stronghold in Rafah?

A: This discourse is taking place between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office. This is not my mandate. My mandate is to shape public opinion that will also reflect the reality of the Middle East to decision-makers. The reality is that Israel is good and Hamas is evil.

Q: In this battle, we’re already losing.

A: I reject the notion of giving up in advance. The challenge is certainly great, and my role is to set the truth straight. To remind American public opinion that we are in this war because of Oct. 7. Israel’s Oct. 7 is their 9/11. 

America’s powerful and justified response against Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and the demise of Osama bin Laden was a just end; even there it took time. Mistakes happened in this war; it happens. We need to stand by the war objectives defined by the War Cabinet, meaning the toppling of Hamas and the return of the captives.

Q: The governments you sat in allowed Hamas to gain strength over the years.

A: Israel did not transfer money, it was Qatari money and it was not intended for building tunnels. American, European and even Israeli public opinion agreed that money should be transferred to sustain life in Gaza. 

Since the prime minister, senior ministers in the government, military chiefs and heads of intelligence all say that a thorough investigation is required after the war, so it will be. Everything will be investigated after the war, including the aspect you asked about and others. This investigation is required for our future. 

But first and foremost, the two goals must be implemented:  The elimination of Hamas and the return of the captives, male and female, safe and sound to their homes.

Q: We are on the eve of a hostage deal; how high a price will the government be willing to pay?

A: I don’t know the details of the upcoming deal and I’m now not required to vote in the government. Since the Jibril deal in 1985, Israel has paid very heavy prices for every deal. 

This is the difference between us and them when it comes to the value we attribute to life. If our enemies demand 150 terrorists for every captive man or woman, that says what their attitude is toward themselves.

Q: They say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appointed you to this mission, is the obstacle to relations with the United States, and not the issues on the table.

A: I am a small-D democrat, and I believe in it, whether I win or lose. And by the power of the voter, a government is formed in Israel. Want to discuss electoral reform? That’s up to our elected officials. I respect the election results that reflect the will of the people in Israel, just as in the United States, France and Italy. 

Therefore, just as I respect the choice of the American people who are currently in an election campaign, I expect the public and leadership there to respect the choice of Israeli citizens.

Q: The intensive and intrusive protests that have reached your doorstep over the past year because of the judicial reform, were they also a factor in your decision to take on this mission?

A: Absolutely not. There was only one consideration and that was the national mission at this time. Protests are legitimate and a cornerstone of democracy, although there is no need for torrents of curses and dragging families into it. I have never behaved that way. 

When it was said in the past that Israeli democracy was in danger, the protests came and showed that democracy is resilient. Woe to a democratic state where the right to protest is not a fundamental right. As long as protests are within a democratic and legal framework.

Q: You will also be in charge of relations with the Jewish communities in the United States. There is great discontent in the community with the incumbent Israeli government and its actions over the past year on issues of “who is a Jew” and of course the judicial reform. How will you restore the connection?

A: You would be right if you were conducting this interview on Oct. 6. Then there was a huge debate about the judicial reform, the conversion issue and the Western Wall. Nothing new. 

I’m telling you that since Oct. 7, there has been a huge shift in American Jewry. Something happened. We saw it in fundraising and support, public declarations for the return of the captives. Do they need my backing on this as a representative of Israel? Of course they do, and vice versa. 

Any other debate now moves aside. There will be a time and style to conduct it, not in the style of Oct. 6. This style must leave the world.

Q: Young people on campuses are turning against Israel; opinions there sometimes reach outright antisemitism.

A: Israel could not stand up factually to Qatari money. We did not have the resources and this was a historical failure. There were attempts by the Hillel organization and others, but it was David vs. Goliath. We need to curb this deterioration. The Washington hearing [on antisemitism on U.S. campuses] also shook American public opinion. 

I have no doubt we will overcome this and I intend to establish a dedicated task force to address this problem.

I believe that our ability to prevail stems from our internal unity and I think most of the public is united, contrary to what is reflected in the media. 

This is also required of Jewish communities in the United States, that reflect the various streams of the Jewish religion from the 16th century. We can continue to disagree on certain issues that have accompanied Israel since its founding, but the unity around deflecting criticism of Israel must be very broad.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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