Retired Israeli ambassador warns of new government’s diplomatic danger
Arthur Lenk, orginally from Teaneck, worries about frayed ties with former home and community
Retired Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk has a message for the new Israeli government.
Mr. Lenk, who grew up in Teaneck, graduated from the Frisch School in 1982, and went directly to Israel, was one of more than 100 former Israeli diplomats and ambassadors who signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week warning of damage to Israel’s global standing if the new government implements hard-right policies.
In the letter, published in Hebrew and English, the signatories expressed “profound concern at the serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, its international standing and its core interests abroad emanating from what will apparently be the policy of the incoming government.”
The former Foreign Ministry employees said they were concerned about a backlash that could harm Israel’s alliance with the United States and undo the progress of the Abraham Accords, the agreements that normalized Israel’s relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.
They also warned that Israel could face sanctions and prosecution in international courts.
“Serious damage will also be inflicted on the intricate web of relations between Israel and Jewish communities throughout the world and on Israel’s international image,” the signatories wrote. “This will also have wide-ranging repercussions on foreign investment and commercial activity in Israel, and will strengthen attempts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.”
Netanyahu has largely brushed off concerns over his incoming coalition, accusing political rivals of misrepresenting its agenda while vowing not to harm LGBTQ and other minority rights and insisting that he will be the one calling the shots.
“I didn’t write it,” Mr. Lenk said of the letter. “I didn’t organize it. I’m not sure I agree with every word in it. But I certainly support the overarching idea that there’s a lot to be concerned about with the new government. There’s a large group of serious people who have given their lives for the State of Israel, who are Zionists and patriots, and are really worried, and put it down in writing.”
Mr. Lenk first went to Israel for the second semester of his senior year at Frisch, which at the time offered students a chance to study in an Israeli yeshiva as a response to senioritis. That was in 1982. He subsequently served in the IDF and studied law at Hebrew University. After passing the bar in Israel and New York, he entered the Israeli diplomatic corps as a junior trainee in 1994. As a career diplomat, he served as ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2005 to 2009 and to South Africa from 2013 to 2017.
Since retiring from the foreign ministry, he has been in business, sharing Israeli innovations with companies around the world, including South Africa and Azerbaijan, where he had been posted.
Now that he’s retired from public service, he feels free to share his opinions publicly.
As a diplomat, of course, his job was to express the views of the Israeli government — whatever they happened to be that day.
“Over the 23 years I worked in the foreign service, every shade of government was in power,” he said. “When I started, it was the Rabin government. That year, the foreign ministry took double the number of junior diplomats because they were positive that we were going to have diplomatic relations with dozens and dozens of new countries and would need people in new embassies.
“As a civil servant, you know you’re going to represent some people you agree with and some people you don’t. You don’t give your own personal point of view because it doesn’t matter.
“Do talking points change? Sure. There was a time we talked about peace all the time, and there are times you don’t say the words ‘two-state solution.’”
But now Mr. Lenk is free to share his feelings on the Israeli government’s talking points and policies.
He doesn’t like them.
“The new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, gave his first speech on Monday,” Mr. Lenk said. “One of the comments he made was that Israel is going to be more quiet vis a vis the Ukraine-Russia conflict. He said he is going to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. No Israeli foreign minister has spoken with Lavrov since the war started. Here on his third day in office he’s going to do that. Israel becoming pro-Russia now is not a good thing.”
What is Mr. Cohen thinking?
“I have no idea,” Mr. Lenk said. “I don’t know if it’s him or the prime minister. But it’s clear, from quite a few examples, that the new ministers are consciously, actively differentiating themselves from the policies of the previous Bennett-Lapid government. That’s natural. What is the first thing our new transportation minister, Miri Regev, wants to do? The previous minister put high-occupancy vehicle lanes all over Israel. She’s taking them away.”
Mr. Lenk noted that there was cause for concern about the new government’s future diplomatic problems in the wake of the first conversation between Mr. Cohen and his American counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Following their conversation on Monday, the State Department released a three-sentence “readout,” or summary.
It concluded: “The Secretary emphasized the continued U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and opposition to policies that endanger its viability.”
Mr. Lenk’s analysis: “That third sentence is a big red flag. It’s a warning.”
And it’s evidence that he and his colleagues were correct to be worrying about Israel’s relationship with its closest allies because of the new government’s policies.
Mr. Lenk also is worried about Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry. It’s both a personal concern — he is, after all, an American-born oleh, an immigrant — and a concern that was at the center of his professional role when he was posted in the Los Angeles consulate early in this century. Relations with the local Jewish community was a large part of his agenda.
“This is the first government in 30 years that there hasn’t been an oleh who is a member of the government. There are none. Zero. And Smotrich’s party” — that’s the Religious Zionist party, headed by new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — “has said they would like the Law of Return changed. The impact that can have on American Jewry is not insignificant.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu originally rose to political power in Israel as someone who understood America and American Jews. Would he really instigate a crisis between Israel and the Diaspora?
“Lots of people who interacted with him recently say that he’s different, that things have changed. His actions and decision making are different over the past couple of years. From 2003 to 20005, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister, Netanyahu was finance minister, and he was a hardline budget-cutter trying to get the ultra-Orthodox out of the yeshiva and back to work, and to have less kids. He’s doing the exact opposite now.
“It’s probably not surprising, given the criminal cases against him and the real concern on his part that there’s a good chance that he’ll be convicted. And he’s going to do what he has to do to stay prime minister.”
So what does all this mean for Jews in the Diaspora — and more specifically, for Jews in North Jersey?
“I’m certainly a believer that there has to be a dialogue between Israel and our brothers and sisters all around the world,” Mr. Lenk said. “There are issues of what Israel is as a liberal democracy that are at real risk right now. I think our brothers and sisters in New Jersey should know about that and form their own opinion and engage with Israel. It’s not time to step away — it’s time to engage more.
“If there are issues of concern to American Jewry, the Israeli government should hear it.”
For his part, Mr. Lenk finds himself renewing his engagement with the Israeli diplomatic corps: One of his three daughters is following in his footsteps and has started working for the Foreign Ministry.
“In November, Ilana joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a trainee diplomat. We took her as a 1-year-old baby to India, then to Los Angeles and Azerbaijan and South Africa. Now she goes out on her own.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this story.