By Natalie Jacobs
David Siegel became Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles in August, 2011. Since then, he has been leading efforts to strengthen American community relationships with Israel culturally, economically and politically. He was in town for the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial last month, so we sat down with him to get an update on the Iran nuclear threat and the Consulate’s efforts to create strong connections to Israel both inside the Jewish community and beyond it. This following interview has been edited for length.
San Diego Jewish Journal: What is the main thing that we should know about the Iran nuclear program and the status of Israel/US relations right now.
David Siegel: We are deeply concerned about the Iran nuclear threat. Iran is a country unlike other countries that calls for Israel’s destruction.
The United States recognizes that concern, recognizes that it’s an existential threat to the State of Israel. The state of U.S./Israel relations – you hear a lot about it these days, but the relationship is very strong. The cooperation is stronger than it’s ever been before on military issues, security issues, intelligence issues. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements, which all allies have. Israel’s capabilities are different than the United States, the United states can do more, so that our sense of urgency may not be the same as America’s sense of urgency and that’s natural.
The art of diplomacy is to really sit down and figure out what we need to do to reach our shared goal, which is to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Israel’s stance on this issue is very clear: Iran should be fully dismantled from its military nuclear capability.
We’ll be engaging the United States very extensively in this in the coming weeks. We have a big delegation coming here [to the U.S.], of experts on national security issues that will be engaging our counterparts in the decision. Our intention is to stop the erosion of the sanctions on the one hand, which is happening as we speak, and on the other hand to make sure that we can reach an agreement about where this needs to lead.
SDJJ: A lot has been talked about with John Kerry’s recent trip over to the Middle East. Did that trip help to assuage any concerns that Israel had, as far as where the United States stood on the Iran issue?
DS: We’ve expressed our concerns publicly and now we’ll be sitting down and rolling up our sleeves and seeing what can be done to address our concerns. Again, Iran is an existential threat to Israel. We cannot tolerate that kind of threat and we’re on the record saying that our preference is to resolve this diplomatically, politically, economically. But there should be no mistaking our determination to protect Israel. We have a Jewish state in order to protect it, and Iran is a major threat to that. Again, we want to find ways to resolve this diplomatically, but it needs to be a very robust formula that rolls this back and dismantles it.
SDJJ: How do you do that?
DS: Well, the record, I think, is very clear: Iran responds to pressure. When the pressure was significant, economically, they came to the negotiating table. What we’re concerned about is that any concessions in terms of the sanctions will lead to a snowball affect where global expectations are that you can start doing business again in Iran and Iran will be less under pressure and therefor with less of an incentive to end this program.
SDJJ: Switching gears, what do you and the Consulate do to promote a strong relationship between Israel and California?
DS: Well, the Consulate covers seven states in the Southwest. We spend a lot of efforts in Southern California. We work with all our constituencies which are the Jewish community, but also Latino American communities, African American communities, the LDS Church [Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints] which is very significant in Utah and Southern California, the political establishment. I’ve already been fortunate enough to accompany two governors to Israel, from Nevada and from Utah. So that means engaging the business communities in both states, the academic communities, the political establishment, sharing Israel with them, explaining why it’s in their interest to partner with Israel.
Israel today is widely recognized as second to California in terms of being a global innovation hub, so that Israel and Southern California have obvious synergies. There’s always more that can be done. We encourage as much business exchanges as we can. We also believe very strongly that the future of this country and the future of the U.S./Israel relationship also depends on our ability to solidify understanding and support in the Jewish community but also work beyond our community, in other communities. We also believe that there’s huge commonalities here between Latinos who share the same values that we do – family, faith, education, ethnicity – that’s very close to what we care about so that there’s much to do in order to build these bridges with all these communities.
SDJJ: What are some long-term goals of the Consulate in terms of those relationships?
DS: First and foremost, it’s the Jewish community. We believe very much in Jewish peoplehood. We believe very much in the future of the Jewish people and that the answer to the future of the Jewish people depends on our relationship with oversees communities, mainly the United States.
Second is to reach out to other communities that are becoming a significant part of this country’s future. There are already 55 million Latino Americans that are becoming significant politically, economically. And as I said, our natural commonality is so obvious but there’s not enough being done to share that message in both our communities and we need to do more to be more relevant for them and to be sure that they are also focused on our concerns as they build themselves in this country.