A seasoned diplomat who cut his teeth in journalism will soon take over one of Israel’s most prominent public relations jobs in America. Starting next week, Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, will become consul general in New York.
He succeeds Alon Pinkas, a telegenic and articulate spokesman, whose three-year tenure ended in July.
Considered among the Foreign Ministry’s most desirable assignments, the New York position also is one of its most taxing: The consul must interface with the financial, media and political power brokers of the world, along with the largest Jewish community outside Israel. Nearly all the major American Jewish organizations are headquartered in New York.
Mekel, who is well-liked, well-informed and known for his media savvy, spent seven years as the Atlanta-based consul for six southern states and held several other diplomatic postings before becoming Israel’s d! eputy at the United Nations.
Many say his new assignment is a natural fit.
"In many ways, it’s an obvious and welcome choice," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "It’s going to be a relatively smooth and seamless transition both because he knows New York and he knows the American Jewish community very well."
The posting, which covers New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, comes as Israel struggles to bolster its image in the media, among decision makers, in Jewish communities and the general public and on campus amid the ongoing intifada.
It also comes as Israel prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and is counting on American public support for the effort. The impending withdrawal likely will figure prominently on Mekel’s agenda.
Pinkas came on board at the start of the intifada, and served when the terrorist war reached its peak in early 2002. The attacks have been curbed in the past year by Israel’s West Bank securi! ty barrier, Mekel said.
"Now we are entering a new phase," he said . "The center of our activity is the disengagement plan from Gaza, so this may call for a different activity."
Mekel, who has spent nearly 40 years in Israeli public life, began his career as a journalist for the Voice of Israel, Israel’s state radio station, at age 19.
With degrees in political science and English language and a masters in mass communication, Mekel’s career often has straddled the spheres of media and diplomacy.
He has been an adjunct professor of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and special advisor to the deputy foreign minister for combating anti-Semitism.
For Mekel, there’s a common thread in the positions.
"Whether we work with the consulate or in the U.N., basically we do the same thing: Our mandate and our calling is to serve the Jewish state and the Jewish people," he said. "We serve the same ideals and we fi! ght for the same thing."
Those who know Mekel call him a gifted communicator.
"We always joked that the consul general assigned to the Southeast is really the consul general to CNN," said Sherry Frank, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta chapter. "Arye Mekel, because of all of his public relations background, did a superb job of that."
Mekel also is considered well-informed about high-level politics and backroom deal making.
"He’s very engaging, and he’s in the know," said Neil Rubin, who was editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times during Mekel’s southern stint and now is editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times.
"He loves journalists and journalism, so he finds out about what’s going on behind the scenes all the time because he was a journalist," Rubin said.
Additionally, "he’s not afraid of both giving his opinion and representing the government well," said Rubin, noting that Mekel served under both Labor and Likud governments.
"He’! s articulate and experienced. He’s a professional," added Abraham Foxm an, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "He did a very serious, significant job as No. 2 at the U.N.," acting as a liaison to the Jewish community and supporting Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman.
Mekel sees his mission and his life as bound up with Israel’s.
At 58, he notes that he is roughly the same age as the Jewish state.
"I grew up with the state, and this is what defines me. The changes of the state, they define me," he said.
Mekel is the son of Holocaust survivors whose own parents were not as lucky. His family left the Soviet Union in 1949 and moved to an immigrant community near Haifa, where his father was a policeman for 30 years. His mother was a grocery cashier.
Despite offers to work in the private sector, Mekel says, "I always wanted to serve the Jewish state and the Jewish people."
He called his upcoming task a "large portfolio which I intend to maintain, together with my colleagues at the consulate and with the help of t! he Jewish organizations and the headquarters and support in Jerusalem."
Mekel also hopes to be able to show Israel’s accomplishments, and not just its efforts against terrorism.
Mekel’s permanent residence is in Jerusalem, but he lives in New York with his wife, Ruth. He has three children and three granddaughters.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.