Unpaid envoys champion Israel in places official diplomacy can’t reach

Unpaid envoys champion Israel in places official diplomacy can’t reach

Israel’s little-known honorary consuls don’t have diplomatic immunity, and aren’t even Israeli, which some say makes for better diplomacy

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Honorary consuls of Israel visiting near the Gaza border, October 28, 2014 (photo credit: Shlomi Amsalem)
Honorary consuls of Israel visiting near the Gaza border, October 28, 2014 (photo credit: Shlomi Amsalem)

Israel’s diplomatic corps has a Minor League. Besides the state’s 82 ambassadors and 21 consuls-general, there are also 77 accredited honorary consuls. Mostly prominent jurists and entrepreneurs, they were recruited to represent the Jewish state in far-flung parts of the globe — places where Israel’s professional diplomats rarely reach.

They include the former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Sergey Tereshchenko, who is based in Almaty, and Jewish and non-Jewish volunteer diplomats from Aruba to Yerevan, from Porto to Osaka.

“An honorary consul is a respected citizen of a country (which may or may not have a permanent Israeli mission) who represents Israel in that country,” according to the Foreign Ministry. Benny Gilbert, for example, is based in Bridgetown, Barbados, and Leliana Firisua on the Solomon Islands. In both states Israel has neither embassy nor consulate.

Israel has embassies in London and in Santiago, but not in Cardiff (Wales) or on Iquique (in northern Chile), which is where Phillip Stephen Kaye and Manuel Greenspan Siguelnitzky come in, respectively. Israel’s ambassador to Norway, Rafi Shutz, doesn’t have much time to visit Iceland. That’s why Pall Arnor Palsson from Reykjavik was recruited.

Two honorary consuls even serve in countries with which Israel no longer has diplomatic relations — Roberto Nelkenbau in Bolivia and Arturo Vaughan in Nicaragua.

“We represent the State of Israel, most of the time for the economic advancement of Israeli products or companies or contacts, but also on cultural issues,” said John Manheim, a businessman from Wassenaar, Netherlands. “We try to improve the relationship between the two countries.”

This week, some 50 of the honorary consuls are in Israel for the second Global Conference of Honorary Consuls to Israel. Their schedule includes visits to Sderot and the Emek Haelah Winery, meetings with President Reuven Rivlin and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and several briefings by senior Foreign Ministry officials.

President Reuven Rivlin hosted the second Global Conference of Honorary Consuls to Israel at his official residence in Jerusalem, October 27, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin hosts the second Global Conference of Honorary Consuls to Israel at his official residence in Jerusalem, October 27, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)

Israel’s honorary consuls — none of whom are Israeli citizens — don’t enjoy diplomatic immunity or any other perks besides the honor of carrying a largely symbolic title. (They receive business cards and plaques with the state’s emblem, and Israeli flags to adorn their offices, but the position is entirely unpaid. Jerusalem doesn’t even cover expenses.) And yet some of them claim that the ties they establish with officials and opinion makers in their home countries are sometimes more valuable than official contacts between accredited diplomats.

Honorary consuls often have to “correct or improve the images that are created here,” said Manheim, who has held the position since 2010.  While he acknowledges that he’s not a real diplomat, he insists that “silent diplomacy and unofficial contacts” occasionally bear more fruit than official communications, as non-officials are under no restrictions regarding what they can say, and thus have more leeway to think outside the box.

“The unofficial contacts sometimes create a better atmosphere. Sometimes people, including members of parliament, do not want to go to the embassy and have the official line of the government,” Manheim said. Dutch officials, he noted, seek his input precisely because he’s a local and does not get his orders directly from Jerusalem.

“I know the sensitivities of the Dutch community. I know very well what makes them tick and in many cases I agree with them,” he said, adding that in certain cases he fails to understand the official Israeli position — for example why the government insists on building beyond the pre-1967 lines — and then refuses to explain it to his interlocutors. More than once did he find bilateral ties developing positively only to see the good mood disturbed by an Israeli announcement of new construction plans in East Jerusalem, “and then the whole thing caves in,” he said. “The settlements are the overriding destructive policy.”

‘Some lean to the left and some lean to the right.  We want them to be true emissaries of Israel, and this is what they all are’

The Israeli government recognizes that its honorary consuls will not always agree with every single decision made in Jerusalem. But the Foreign Ministry is happy about any help it can get in making sure Israel’s voice is heard in corners where its diplomats have little influence.

“They all share a love of the State of Israel, which doesn’t mean they agree with everything the government does,” said Talya Lador-Fresher, the Foreign Ministry’s chief of protocol. “But they certainly represent the Israeli mainstream in that they believe in Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. Some lean to the left and some lean to the right. What we want for them is to be true emissaries of Israel, and this is what they all are.”

Naturally, the 13 honorary consuls serving in countries in which Israel has no embassy — such as Benin, Nauru, Armenia, Mozambique and Cape Verde — will have better relations with local officials than Israeli diplomats, Lador-Fresher admitted.

Dorjpalam Amar, a Russian-speaking businessman who represents Israel in Ulaanbaatar, is likely closer to the Mongolian government than the Israeli ambassador to Beijing (who also serves as nonresident ambassador to the east-central Asian country), she said. “But at the end of the day, the Mongolian regime knows he’s not a full diplomat. He’s not an ambassador but just an honorary consul. For obvious reasons, they will listen to and convey messages through the ambassador more readily than via him.”

Dorjpalam Amar, Israel’s honorary consul in Mongolia (photo credit: Shlomi Amsalem)
Dorjpalam Amar, Israel’s honorary consul in Mongolia (photo credit: Shlomi Amsalem)

Dorjpalam Amar is not Jewish but his great-grandmother was and he feels close to the Jewish community. His father is Mongolia’s nonresident ambassador to Israel, based in Turkey. In 2006, he met the Israeli ambassador to China in Ulaanbaatar, he recalled Tuesday during a brief interview with The Times of Israel. “The Israeli embassy needed a good representative in Mongolia. That’s why they chose me. And we’re happy,” he said in broken English. Amar’s voluntary work on behalf of the Jewish state focuses mainly on assisting young Israeli tourists who have accidents or otherwise get into trouble in his country, and on preparing for visits by “real” Israeli diplomats.

Since the position is entirely voluntary, it is up to honorary consuls themselves to figure out how much time and effort (and money) they want to invest in it. “You decide about the minimum, and there’s no maximum,” said Alejandro Orchansky, the president of the Israeli Honorary Consuls Association of Latin American and the Caribbean. “I can work — and sometimes I do — 24 hours a day for Israel, and it’s not enough.”

About two thirds of Israel’s honorary consuls are Jewish, but it’s certainly not a precondition to get the job. “When an ambassador wants to appoint an honorary consul, whether the person is Jewish or not is not major a component in the decision,” the Foreign Ministry’s Lador-Fresher explained. “What is important is that the person has a connection to Israel, whether it came out of Christian religious feelings toward the Holy Land, business contacts, an admiration of Israel’s economy or through other means.”

Orchansky, of Cordoba, Argentina — in countries where Israeli has embassies the honorary consuls must not live in the capital — was appointed in 1990, by then-president Chaim Herzog and foreign minister Shimon Peres. “We do it because of the honor that we receive. It’s very important. We do it with our heart and all of our strength.”

Honorary consuls are usually appointed after they were recommended by the ambassador in their home country and affirmed by a committee at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. In Israel, honorary consuls have no diplomatic status whatsoever, but they are accredited in their home countries, after Israel’s president and foreign minister sign a so-called consular commission. Once confirmed by their home countries, they are licensed to act on behalf of the Jewish state as honorary consuls.

Israel has had honorary consuls since the days of its founding. For some, the position has been hereditary. David Benaim from Gibraltar, for instance, is a third-generation Israeli amateur diplomat; his grandfather was appointed in 1952.

“In each of your countries, there are people who have made it their number one priority to preach hatred of Israel. They have decided that of all the problems in the world, the number one threat to humanity is the Jewish state,” Rivlin told the group Monday at his official residence in Jerusalem. “Such blind hatred can only be the result of ignorance or anti-Semitism. We must of course call out the anti-Semites. But to the others, we must show that Israel is a modern country that seeks peace with its neighbors, and gives so much to the world in the fields of medicine, environment, technology, literature and more.”

The honorary consuls’ task is “sacred,” the president added. “You know the Midrash says that the reward for a mitzvah (good deed) does not go to the one who starts the deed, but to the one who finishes it. So it is you, our representatives abroad, who are to be rewarded for the mitzvah of standing up and defending the people of Israel, for the entire world to see.”

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