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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Roey Gilad, Israel's consul general, came to Fort Wayne to speak at the History Center. This photo was taken at The Journal Gazette during an editorial board meeting in advance of his appearance.

Consul: Israel stronger than perils

Talks peace process during city visit

For a nation living under constant threat from many directions, Israel sure is upbeat.

It is "an island of stability in an ocean of instability," Roey Gilad, Israel's consul general to the Midwest, said Tuesday at the downtown History Center.

On one hand, Israel is struggling to make peace with its Arab Palestinian population and guard against terrorism while Mideast neighbors Syria and Egypt slog through sectarian civil wars and archenemy Iran tries to acquire nuclear power.

On the other hand, the largely Jewish nation is enjoying strong economic growth, low unemployment, a boom in high-tech industries and a small and shrinking deficit in government spending.

"Israel is altogether much stronger than all of the many challenges that we are facing. … We did it for the last 65 years, and we have no intention to go anywhere," Gilad told an audience of about 60 people.

His appearance was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne, the Salon Foundation and the Schneider Foundation.

Based in Chicago, Gilad oversees Israel-U.S. relations in 11 states. He is a 25-year veteran of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His other assignments have included stints in Kenya, Jordan and the United Kingdom.

Gilad called Israel "the best ally of the United States" and said relations between the two "are improving with every day that passes."

That doesn't mean Israeli leaders will buckle to the U.S. or the international community in ongoing efforts to create a Palestinian nation and curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"We want to reach an agreement with the Palestinians," Gilad said. "But we want to reach it because it serves our interests, not because of any pressure coming from any international organization or state."

He said a separate Palestinian nation is "the right solution. … We don't know of any other solution. But we have to make sure that this solution will not be one that will endanger the future and the security of the Jewish state. Hence, we say that the Palestinians will have to recognize that Israel is a Jewish state."

Israel and the U.S. "are on the same page" on Iran, "but we have a second page," Gilad said.

"I think it would be fair to say that the Obama administration is adamant to make sure that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon, while we are adamant to make sure that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon capability. And this capability is a major difference," he said.

Answering questions from the audience, Gilad acknowledged other challenges.

High prices, including for real estate, have hurt Israel's middle class.

Tens of thousands of African immigrants have driven down wages for low-skilled jobs, prompting Israel to erect a border fence along Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and offer each immigrant $3,500 to leave the country.

Gilad disputed an audience member's assessment that Israel is home to many people living in poverty.

Gilad said the nation's poverty rate is 6 percent, not counting religious groups who tend not to join the workforce.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has pegged Israel's poverty rate at 20 percent, saying half those people are Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The National Insurance Institute reported a 23.5 percent poverty rate for the country for 2012.