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Will Israeli Relief Efforts Score Diplomatic Points?

As the waters of biblical proportions recede, Israel and its American Jewish allies are delicately flying olive branches into tsunami-devastated regions. Israel, by dint of its own experience with years of terrorism, has become a rescue and relief powerhouse. Working together with an array of U.S. Jewish groups, it is delivering its services to a region where it has long sought recognition and acceptance.

The prospect for contacts with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim democracy, is especially prized. Indonesia was also the country hardest hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, claiming over two thirds of the 153,000 dead.

An El Al airliner delivered 80 tons of aid to Indonesia this week, and Ron Prosor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s director general, met with Indonesian officials while there.

“It’s not the kind of opportunity we seek to further promote bilateral relations with Muslim countries, but I think it’s a natural thing” to do so, Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told JTA.

Ayalon appeared on a stage on Sunday with a senior Indonesian diplomat at a synagogue fund-raiser for tsunami relief in Washington. It was a rare event for the representative of a nation that until now has shunned ties with the Jewish state.

Paul Wolfowitz, the Jewish undersecretary of defense who was ambassador to Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s and who has lobbied hard since to draw the Muslim nation into the fold of the West, also appeared at the fund-raiser.

“This kind of tragedy knows no religion,” Wolfowitz said.

Wolfowitz said he would not read the traditional Hebrew mourning prayer El Maleh Rachamin — God is Filled with Mercy — saying he would mangle it, but he did deliver a credible reading of the Muslim Arabic equivalent, the Fatiha.

Such signs of warmth notwithstanding, it was significant that the Indonesian Embassy sent its second in command rather than its ambassador. And although Soehardjono Sastromihardjo thanked American Jews, he pointedly did not mention Israel.

In fact, several days later another Indonesian diplomat appearing at a Jewish event downplayed any diplomatic significance.

“That’s not relevant,” Sanga Panggabean, the first secretary of the Indonesian mission to the United Nations, said at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday, when asked about the political significance of Israel’s aid.

Humanitarian assistance was “nonpolitical,” he said.

Others suggested that it would be hard to separate the humanitarian from the political significance of the giving — a factor that probably is leading at least some Jewish donors to funnel their giving through Jewish organizations. The American Jewish Committee, which organized Sunday’s event at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, calculated the benefits for Israel into its actions; much of the money it raised went specifically to Israeli relief and medical emergency personnel who are in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Thailand, India and Sri Lanka have diplomatic ties with Israel.

“We are trying to make these dollars go as far as they can and as effectively as they can in terms of relief, but also in terms of Israel’s good will,” said Jason Isaacson, the director of governmental and international affairs for the AJCommittee.

“It not only saves lives, but it has an important and political and cultural impact.”

The AJCommittee had raised about $500,000 from its donors.

So far, a coalition of Jewish groups has raised well over $13 million, said Josh Berkman, a spokesman for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The JDC alone has raised nearly $6.5 million dollars. The American Jewish World Service, which met with President Bush on relief efforts on Monday, has collected $6 million so far.

Israel has sought support in the region since its birth, when founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion felt kinship with many of the new democracies in the Far East.

Egypt’s domination of the Non-Aligned Movement at the time and the large Muslim populations in the region scuttled those dreams.

But in the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians — and of the United States’ emergence as the world’s principal power — ties became closer.

Still, there are leftover sensitivities about the decades of distance, and these contributed to a misunderstanding about Israeli tsunami aid to Sri Lanka.

The island nation accepted one planeload of Israeli experts, but asked another, larger team to wait a few days while it organized infrastructure for relief workers.

That led to a stream of false stories that Sri Lanka had rejected Israeli aid, and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington scrambled to get the true story out. It flooded the media with a statement that “the generous assistance readily given by the government and people of Israel at this hour of need is highly appreciated by the government and people of Sri Lanka.”

Devinda Rohan Subasinghe, the Sri Lankan ambassador, said he was taken aback by the vehemence of the anger at what was a misconception. On the day he welcomed a reporter into his office, he was still fielding calls from conservative talk shows eager to play up the “ungrateful Third World” story.

If anything, Subasinghe said, Sri Lanka has been broadening its relationship with Israel since the two nations resumed formal ties in 2000. He cited Sri Lankan purchases from Israel’s military industry.

The tsunami should open the door to Israel’s developing a higher, friendlier profile in the region, he suggested, as nations and rivals grow closer because of the disaster.

“The silver lining is that the tsunami gives — internally, regionally and beyond — the opportunity to rise above ethnic and political differences,” he said. “This can be a catalyst to fuse those differences.”

For his part, Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador, said Israel was already thinking in the long-term — moving beyond immediate relief and to reconstruction and rehabilitation, an area in which Israel excelled in Africa and in the Far East during the 1950s and 1960s.

“As we help them now with medical teams and food, we are offering our expertise in rehabilitation and rebuilding their infrastructures,” Ayalon said.

(JTA staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.)

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