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Israeli official faces recall over Iraqi friendships

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ATLANTA, Jan. 23 (JTA) – The Israeli consul general for the Southeast region of the United States will likely be recalled for allegedly allowing an Iraqi friend to live with him.

While no decision has been announced yet, Israeli diplomats close to the situation said they expect Jacob Rosen to be “removed gently” from his Atlanta-based post sometime this summer.

Over the past few weeks, Rosen had been under investigation for allegedly allowing Hisham Bahalul, 29, an Iraqi friend he met during his six-year posting in Jordan, to live with him and his family “for months” in the official residence of the consul general in Atlanta.

According to sources in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Bahalul, who for years has been an art teacher to Jacob’s wife, Annette, was also given use of the consul general’s car.

Both are violations of Israeli consular codes.

Because the Jewish state is technically still at war with Iraq, Israeli government officials are forbidden to have personal relationships with Iraqi nationals, though they are allowed to have official contacts under certain circumstances.

While no suggestion has been made that classified information fell into the wrong hands, ministry sources said a full investigation has not yet been concluded.

Last week, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot also suggested that investigators were also looking into a possible “romantic” relationship between Bahalul and Annette Rosen.

In a Jan. 16 interview with the Jewish Times, Jacob Rosen, a 52-year-old career diplomat, who was posted in Atlanta last August, scoffed at what he called “rumors.”

“I’ve been in Arab countries for years,” Rosen said. “What do you expect, that I don’t have Arab friends? I’ve been a civil servant for 27 years. What am I, crazy enough to do something wrong?”

He faulted the Israeli media for disclosing the matter, saying, “It’s a shame some bad guy had to write this – after my wife just had cancer. I’m not a private man, but a public figure. So if someone wants to write about me, it’s their right. But let the investigation be done and you’ll see then.”

Rosen has maintained a fairly low profile since coming to Atlanta, appearing at some official and Jewish community events. He has not been visible in the media during the recent months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, drawing criticism from a number of Jewish community leaders.

Also, some of Rosen’s remarks at community meetings, particularly what some saw as his promotion of Arab culture and dismissive comments about his own government, disturbed some listeners.

The Israeli press has reported suspicions that two, and perhaps three, Iraqi men lived with the Rosens at various times. Apparently, the Iraqis were refugees who fled to Jordan during the Gulf War and the Rosens befriended them during their previous posting in Jordan.

Last year, the Iraqis gained entry into the United States as political refugees and moved to Nashville, Tenn., according to Jacob Rosen. At about the same time Rosen’s wife moved to Atlanta to complete her treatments for breast cancer and to set up house, at least one of the Iraqis, Bahalul, came to stay with her.

The Rosens never tried to conceal their associations with the Iraqis. According to community sources, Bahalul would greet visitors to the Rosen home and be introduced as a “friend.”

In November, the Iraqi was being driven in the consular vehicle when it was in an accident. According to diplomatic sources, Bahalul was being temporarily moved out of the residence to make room for Rosen’s eldest son, who was on leave from the Israeli army.

Israeli security officials in the United States were said to have been aware of the Rosens’ relationship with the Iraqis but opted against a formal investigation until the car accident forced them to report the allegations to Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem.

Kenneth Stein, a professor of Middle Eats studies at Emory University and a friend of the Rosen family, said he does not understand why this is such a big deal.

“Jacob Rosen is in the business of making contacts with the Arab world,” he said. “He was a key figure in keeping the Jordanian-Israeli relationship together when he was in Amman, and at that time he created an impressive network within the Arab world. It’s only natural that he remains friends with some of them.”

According to community leaders and Israeli journalists, it wasn’t just the Iraqi relationships that sent up red flags. It was also discomfort with the Jordanian and Iraqi art that dominates the decor of the consul general’s residence and the lectures Rosen recently presented to Jewish audiences espousing the “virtues” and “genius” of Arab culture.

“With a diplomat, appearances are everything,” said one Jewish leader. “We don’t expect to get much substance out of them, but as a representative of the State of Israel, you have to know how to project the right image. Didn’t Jacob realize that the art, the friends, some of his statements, was inappropriate for a consul general of Israel?”

Such misgivings led some Jewish insiders to lodge independent complaints about Rosen with the Israeli Foreign Office.

“At a time when the Jewish community is feeling vulnerable and confused about what’s going on in Israel, the consul general’s job is to reassure us, explain to us what is happening and let us know what to do,” said a community member who was at a recent Rosen talk. “But instead of making us feel good, it was like we should try to better understand the Arabs.

“What was the message?” asked the leader, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. “That we should bow to their wisdom and retreat? It was so unclear.”

In another instance, Rosen addressed a gathering of non-Jewish civic, business and political leaders who had all been to Israel. They had just finished expressing their love, admiration and support for the Jewish state, and asked Rosen to share his views on the peace process.

“I can’t really tell you what’s happening because every minute it seems I have a different government or no government at all,” Rosen remarked. “It looks like we Israelis are getting to be like the Italians and are getting good at operating our country without a government.”

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