Over the course of more than three decades working for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Meir Shlomo has represented the Jewish state in India, Denmark, Peru, El Salvador, and Boston. But this globetrotting diplomat says he never saw “such a level of grassroots support” for Israel like what he has witnessed in the Southwest United States.
Shlomo, the consul general of Israel to the Southwest U.S., ends his Houston-based assignment in mid-May and will return home to assume a post as the Israeli foreign ministry’s second-ranking diplomat dealing with North American affairs. (The top official in that division is Ambassador Liora Herzl, deputy director general for North America.)
Shlomo’s previous role was head of mission at the Boston-based Consulate General of Israel to New England.
“It’s really almost overwhelming,” Shlomo said in an interview with JNS, describing support for Israel in the Southwest, where he has served since August 2010. That support comes not just from Israel’s usual advocates such as Jews and evangelical Christians but also from “regular Americans,” he says.
“People that I meet all the time, when they know that I’m presenting about Israel, they come out and say something nice about Israel,” says Shlomo. “That happened everywhere [I represented Israel for the ministry], but here [in the Southwest]… it’s really heartwarming to see this kind of grassroots support that we have. It’s very visible, and people feel the urge to make a statement out of it. It’s one thing to support Israel, and another thing to say it out loud.”
Why is the Southwest so warm to Israel? Besides the large evangelical Christian community in the region, Shlomo believes it may come down to the famous slogan, “Don’t Mess with Texas.”
“Texans share a lot of the same attitude as Israelis, that we say what we think and we think what we say, and that makes it much easier to communicate,” he says.
Shlomo, 60, explains that Israelis also have much in common with the Hispanic community, another significant demographic in the Southwest.
“Israel is a country of immigrants, and for us, the Hispanic experience is not just words, it’s actually something that Israelis are still going through,” he says. “Jews still come to Israel and go through this immigration experience, which is a very complicated experience, so I think there is also a lot of commonality there.”
Another bond between Israel and the Southwest is the energy sector – in particular due to the fact that Israel’s two major offshore gas fields, Tamar (discovered in 2009) and Leviathan (discovered in 2010), are both operated by the Houston-based firm Noble Energy.
“We have a very good relationship with Noble Energy, and we try to be a bridge to whatever concerns they have vis-à-vis the Israeli market,” Shlomo says.
In addition to his various overseas posts, Shlomo has headed the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Division. Asked to assess the current challenge of working on the Jewish state’s international image, Shlomo says that, unlike the task of marketing most other entities, promoting Israel involves the dual agenda of positive marketing and responding to intense opposition.
“From Arabs who will take the Arab side no matter what, to vehement anti-Semites who have found a new way to be anti-Semitic by being anti-Israel and kind of disguising their anti-Semitism, there is a very active negative campaign against Israel…. It’s an active war. No other commercial or country brand is actually fighting this kind of intense negative war, so that’s a huge challenge, because it’s not only about marketing Israel. It’s about dealing with the opposition to the Israeli brand that we are trying to market.”
The other challenge when it comes to enhancing Israel’s image, Shlomo says, is limited funds – a $10 million worldwide public diplomacy budget within the Foreign Ministry during a “good year.”
Yet as a diplomat focused on specific regions, Shlomo has gotten the chance to focus on the micro, and in both Boston and Houston, he has seen Israel’s image cast in a largely positive light.
“I think in both cases I found the Jewish communities to be very warm communities, very supportive communities, very engaging communities, communities that care about what’s going on in Israel, and communities that work to deepen the U.S.-Israel relationship.… That’s the most important thing for us, to care about Israel, because indifference is probably the biggest enemy that we have in the long run,” he says.
Upon returning to Israel for what is likely a three-year Foreign Ministry assignment, Shlomo says he hopes to enhance Israelis’ understanding about America.
“I would like to bring more of my knowledge about the United States [to Israel],” he says. “The United States is not only the East Coast and the West Coast, there’s a big chunk in between these two coasts, and not too many people [in Israel] factor that in when they speak about the United States. I would like to bring this wider perspective about the United States, about the issues that the United States is facing.
“At the end of the day, a strong United States is a vital interest of the whole free world, including Israel, and we would be fools not to be well-wishers for the United States to be a strong country, a strong leader, because the fate of the Western world is pretty much dependent on that.”