Wednesday, Jan. 6, brought great news to start 2016: The Israeli Consulate General to the Southeast is remaining in Atlanta.
For five months, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government issued a draft budget calling for the closure of the consulate, we had fretted in an information vacuum about the fate of the diplomatic mission, which plays a vital role in connecting six Southeastern states to Israel.
We have stated the many ways the Atlanta consulate has proved its worth over the years, from facilitating political and business connections to supporting the region’s growing Israeli population to lobbying state lawmakers to stand with Israel and against the anti-Semitic regime in Iran. But, as hard as it is to believe, the Atlanta Jewish Times doesn’t have a direct line to the prime minister.
Fortunately, the consul general, Ambassador Judith Varnai Shorer, does.
Shorer, who officially was on the job less than a week when the draft budget was announced, has a longtime, personal relationship with Netanyahu, and she has been in the diplomatic corps long enough not to worry about risking her career prospects by getting out of line with her boss.
Remember, she’s the rare Israeli diplomat who arrived here with ambassadorial rank. Her immediate predecessor, Opher Aviran, achieved that status late in his five-year service in Atlanta. His predecessor, Reda Mansour, had served as the ambassador to Ecuador before becoming consul general here, but he did not carry the official rank in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When the Atlanta consulate was threatened, Shorer didn’t hesitate to act. She turned her office into a clearinghouse for messages of protest to the prime minister’s office. She rallied Southeastern elected officials to declare the importance of the consulate. And when she joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on a mission to Israel during her first month in office, she went straight to Netanyahu and told him it would be a mistake to abandon Atlanta.
Shorer didn’t have to stand up for the consulate. She had no long-standing ties or deep commitments here. She and her husband and daughter hadn’t settled in yet. Instead of demanding that Netanyahu leave the consulate alone, she could have used her face time with him in late August to ask for a reassignment.
The threat to the consulate came at a vulnerable time for our Jewish community. Not only was the consulate going through a transition, but before the final budget was passed Nov. 19, the chief executives of Federation and the Marcus Jewish Community Center had announced their departures. As a result, community leaders who might have rallied to support the Israeli diplomats had pressing local concerns to distract them, and, at least publicly, Jewish Atlanta was largely silent.
We don’t know what happened behind the scenes to save the consulate. Perhaps Knesset member Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who expressed support for the consulate before an appearance in Atlanta in October, nudged Netanyahu. Perhaps the prime minister never intended to shutter the local mission but just needed the cover of additional U.S. targets (San Francisco also was on the initial chopping block) before proceeding with longtime plans to close Philadelphia. Perhaps some political heavy hitters in the Southeast made persuasive arguments.
But we know Shorer succeeded in her first big challenge as consul general, and we’re grateful for her efforts.