These are trying times for a beleaguered Israel as it engages in combat with forces in neighboring Lebanon, in a war that holds popular support at home but is questioned in many world quarters.
That means an extra busy time at Israel’s embassy to Costa Rica, also part of that court of world opinion.
The hectic nature of the work takes on another dimension these days with the departure of Ambassador Alexander Ben-Zvi, who this week wound up his four-year term in the post.
Ben-Zvi was scheduled to depart yesterday, returning to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, “a standard procedure” he describes of serving a minimum of two years back home after every posting abroad.
“You lose touch with what’s going on inside Israel when you’re away so long,” he explains.
New Ambassador Ehud Eitam arrived from Jerusalem this week and will begin work Monday. (The post is also accredited to Nicaragua.) Eitam’s most recent foreign posting was as ambassador to Colombia. Ben-Zvi’s four years here have seen an increase in trade between the two nations, with Costa Rica now Israel’s third largest trading partner in Latin America.
Strong ties have been a hallmark of relations between the two countries, with Costa Rica one of only two nations to maintain its embassy in Jerusalem. Most countries post their diplomats to Tel Aviv, claiming that Jerusalem’s status has yet to be determined. The ambassador spoke with The Tico Times Wednesday about the war, world opinion and his four years as ambassador at his office in the Centro Colón building on San José’s west side, for what he called “my final press function here.”
TT: “Disproportionate” is the term used in many quarters to describe Israel’s response to the Hezbollah attacks. Is that fair?
AB: I give the example: there were many more Germans killed in World War II than British, but does that mean Hitler was right? In the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia, many civilians were killed. Does that make [late Yugoslav strongman Slobodan] Milosevic sane? No. That’s philosophical, of course. The International Court of Justice has written: “Proportionality cannot be in relation to any specific prior injury. It has to be in relation to overall legitimate objectives in ending aggression.”This is the legal approach to proportionality. It’s not on the specific threat between two soldiers, but the overall threat to Israel.
It hurts when civilians die. Always. It’s easier to blame us because we bombed them. But the blame lies with the one who puts his military targets inside the civilian population in violation of Article 28 of the Geneva Conventions.
Geneva Convention or not, isn’t this an age-old guerrilla tactic? How do you confront that?
As best as you can. For example, using more accurate precision weapons, which should inflict less damage on civilians. Hezbollah’s rockets are unguided. For that reason, they have to use a big target like a city. It falls where it falls. It targets Jewish, Arab and Druze populations. It’s never not civil targets.
Lebanon appeared to be getting back on its feet after a long period of chaos. In damaging so much of its infrastructure and inflicting so many casualties, does Israel risk creating instability on its northern border once again?
Infrastructure is a legitimate military target, but instability in Lebanon is bad for Israel. We have no fight with Lebanon. But all that would never happen if the Lebanese government took control of its own territory. Normally, a country has an army.Here we have an organization that holds a country hostage.
Hezbollah is not standing alone. They have Syria as a training ground and arms supplier, and Iran for political, financial and ideological assistance. Where did they get 15,000-16,000 missiles, some of them longrange? They come from Syria and Iran.
Does the world have a double standard in the way it views Israel versus its neighbors?
Yes. No doubt. Do you remember any United Nations resolution against Arab states, asking them to stop firing missiles on Israeli civilian populations? Of the last 600 resolutions in the United Nations, 400 have been against Israel.
Why does that happen?
That’s a good question. I have no logical answer. The question has to be asked by each and every one who says that only Israel is wrong. There are things that are permitted for others, but not for Israel.
The embassy is the voice of Israel here. How does it get out its message?
We try to convey our point of view. I know the response is: “You have made up your mind as if they were facts.” Yes. That’s what we do. We represent Israel. That’s our job.We try to convey the whole picture, but from our point of view; we do not pretend to be objective. There are casualties on the other side. Of course there are. We are very sorry about that. We present what happens with us. It’s quite a good job that the other side presents. Check the television. There are civilian casualties in Israel and in Lebanon. Which will get priority in the news?
How do you gauge the level of support and opposition in Costa Rica?
Generally we feel quite a bit of support here. Not that everybody agrees. We had a demonstration in front of the embassy [Monday] with 150-200 people, mainly the trade unions, University of Costa Rica students and a small group of the Muslim community here. The first groups are protesting everything. There were signs against CAFTA (the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States). Israel is not involved in that. They burned an Israeli flag and compared the Star of David to a swastika, which I didn’t like, but it’s a democratic country here in Costa Rica as in Israel. But they have to remember that in the countries they are in favor of, such kinds of demonstrations could never happen.
You have described Costa Rica and Israel as having a “special relationship.”Are those ties still strong?
Yes. I do understand however: Costa Rica is a peaceful country with no army, so any conflict is terrible. And it is. So it is difficult to understand, we are trying to fight for our existence for almost 60 years. It’s crazy that we have to spend a quarter of our budget on defense. Think what we could do if we didn’t have that expense, but that’s impossible for the time being.
You say “for the time being.”
Oh, I don’t have a timetable. I wish I did. But you see, for example, there is no reason why Israel and Lebanon couldn’t have a peace agreement. We are small countries, with small populations and an internationally recognized border. We are the only two countries there without oil. We have to develop in other ways. We could cooperate on so many things.
What have you missed most about Israel during your stay here?
The atmosphere. With all the tension and all the problems, Israel is a special place. It has its own charm. It’s still the Holy Land. Also, in Israel when you wake up, you immediately put on the news.We get addicted and listen every half-hour. You just dive into things. I miss that.
What will you miss about Costa Rica?
I’ll miss Costa Rica for the whole tranquilo and pura vida thing. It’s really just the opposite of Israel.