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Take Five: Orli Gil, Israeli consul general for the Midwest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2009 - As Israeli consul general for the Midwest, Orli Gil loves to talk about the positive aspects of her country -- what she calls the "real Israel." She becomes particularly animated when she lists the books that are published, the tickets to cultural events that are sold, the components for cell phones that are developed there.

But in her travels outside her Chicago base, the most frequent questions she faces have to do with the seemingly endless political and military struggles that Israel faces, within and without.

During an interview in Clayton Tuesday, the career diplomat discussed the recent Israeli election that still has not led to a government, violence in Gaza and the Israeli response, the prospects for peace with the Palestinians and the views in Israel of four White House residents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter.

What is the future of negotiations with the Palestinians?

Gil: All the mainstream parties are talking about a two-state solution. There is no other option if we want to keep on being Jewish and democratic. (Foreign Minister Tzipi) Livni has tried already to get the two-state solution to work. (Likud leader Benjamin) Netanyahu is the one who promises a stronger fight against terror. But the truth is all these are just words and slogans. This election showed that most of the three major parties are rather close to each other.

How do you talk to someone who thinks you shouldn't even exist?

Gil: When it comes to Hamas, there is no way of talking with them. They are talking about the destruction of everyone who is living on this land. When it comes to the PA (Palestinian Authority), there is a dramatic willingness to reach a solution, an understanding that this is the only solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians. When it comes to Hamas, there is no way of talking to them. It is not very easy to talk to someone who speaks with the name of God, to argue with them. They are not going to compromise on anything.

I really feel that most of the mainstream Gazans want to live in peace. I'm optimistic. There will be ups and downs, which always happens. But I do believe there will be meaningful talks with the Palestinians because both sides have the sense now that this is the only way and they have had enough. We have peace with Egypt and we have peace with Jordan and people did not believe in that in the beginning.

What role will the United States play?

Gil: The United States has a big role to play. It can bring the two sides together and make sure they stay around the table even though they might have a crisis here and there. (The United States) will be the go-between, and (it) will be able to create the atmosphere for both sides to talk.

On George W. Bush: The prevailing feeling is that Bush was good, Bush was very much of an Israeli supporter.

On Barack Obama: I'm looking for the connection between Israel and the States to remain as strong and meaningful in Obama's time as it was in Bush's time. I don't see why that should change.

On Bill and Hillary Clinton: If her husband would have run to be the Israeli prime minister, he would have won. No coalition needed.

On Jimmy Carter: A dreamer. He is a bit naive, in the sense he thinks you just have to explain to people that it's in their best interest and they will make peace. It doesn't work that way. Conflict and conflict resolution have paces of their own. I don't think he has much influence, quite frankly. He has the best of intentions. He did help bring peace with Egypt, and for that we will be grateful. He was instrumental. But right now, I can't see him helping, with all due respect.

Was the Israeli response to violence in Gaza proper and proportionate?

Gil: Come on. If one of their missiles had hit a classroom and killed 100 kids, then it would be OK? They had been firing rockets at civilian targets for the past seven years, knowing that they would be hitting populated areas. The fact that we retaliated after seven years because we couldn't stand it any more doesn't mean that up until then we should have kept silent. We did that, but like any government, we have the duty to defend our citizens. It has nothing to do with proportionality.

The fact that so many of the casualties in Gaza were civilians is because they were used as human shields. People who live in these areas complain that Hamas used their houses as a place to hide, as a place to store their weapons.

We are not at war with the Palestinians. We are not at war with the Gazans. We are at war with a shrewd terrorist organization that has decided deliberately to fight out of densely populated areas, out of schools. All through this operation, we knew exactly where the leaders of Hamas were. We could pinpoint it. We did not hit the places because we were afraid we would kill thousands of people, but we knew where they were. That's why they were in schools, why they were in apartment buildings.

All civilian casualties were unintended, unlike the rockets that were fired at civilian targets in Gaza.

Is the fundamental character of Israel in danger of changing?

Gil: If we go on controlling the Palestinians in a one-state solution, and if we do it by force, we are not democratic. If we give them full citizens' rights to vote, then we stop being Jewish. So we have to have a two-state solution, so the Palestinians can be on their own and we can be a majority in our own country.

Jerusalem is very complicated. We would have to come to some arrangement that would include the Arab population of the Palestinian Authority or whoever would be the governing body in some part of Jerusalem. And Israel would be the ruler over the Jewish part. It is not as simple as Belfast or Berlin because of the different neighborhoods.

Mainstream Israelis are willing to give land for peace. It will take tough decisions and a determined government.