The smell of freshly dried paint lingers in the new offices of the Israel Consulate at 1880 JFK Blvd. in Center City. The conference room lacks a table of any sort, and the walls of the office belonging to the new Consul General Daniel Kutner, who arrived in Philadelphia shortly before Rosh Hashanah, remain totally bare.
Back in March, the consulate was forced to pick up and leave its longtime address on South 15th Street; the building's landlord wished to convert the office space into condos and wanted the building vacated.
Since then, the consulate — which represents the State of Israel in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Delaware and Southern New Jersey — has run a scaled-down operation. Its consular department, which assists the roughly 30,000 Israelis living in the area with issues related to passports, visas and army exemption papers, is still closed. Israel's Foreign Ministry has to approve of the security setup at the new office before members of the general public are allowed to visit.
That day is almost here, and the office is getting a fresh start in several ways. On Dec. 4, the consulate will mark the official opening of its new office; the consular department is expected to be up and running again by the end of this year.
Kutner, a 27-year-veteran of Israel's foreign service, is taking over for Uriel Palti at a time of great transition for the United States, which just held a historic election, and for Israel, where elections are slated for Feb. 10.
"I share the sense that most Americans have, that something really important has happened in American history," said the 53-year-old Kutner, referring to the election of Barack Obama. "At the same time, our friendship is bipartisan. Both parties have demonstrated incredible friendship toward Israel."
Committed to the Jewish State
Kutner was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and made aliyah at age 18.
"I grew up in a Zionist family, and our synagogue was very Israel-oriented," he said. "As a Jew, I wanted to be part of the building up of the Jewish state."
Kutner holds dual master's degrees: one in the history of Muslim countries, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the other other from Haifa University, in political science/ national security studies.
He's held diplomatic posts in Bolivia, Venezuela and New York; most recently, he served as head of the Bureau for Economic and Strategic Affairs at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Center for Political Research.
The diplomat noted that, at least for now, he's in Philly solo. His two grown daughters are pursuing their studies, one in London, the other at Tel Aviv University. His wife, Shirley Kutner, heads BioJerusalem, an organization devoted to advancing the biomedical field in Israel's capital, which has not experienced the same high-tech boom that has graced Tel Aviv and the coastal region. At least for now, she's keeping her job there.
Kutner said that the consulate has two overarching goals: One is to highlight Israel's cultural achievements, and call attention to a vibrant society that's far more complex than headlines and news clips often convey; the second is to present Israel's position on issues related to the Iranian threat or negotiations with the Palestinians.
"That's another front on which we are very active — the information war," said Kutner. "We work at different levels. We work with the media, with cultural institutions, with the universities and, of course, with the political leadership. We complement the embassy in Washington in keeping contacts with senators and congressmen."
Iran Is Still the Threat
And, as far as Israel is concerned, he said, while the collapse of the global financial market threatens to undermine economic growth in Israel, Iran remains the foremost concern. He added that, in many ways, he views the American Jewish community as a partner in convincing the rest of the American public that Iran represents a danger to the United States, as well.
According to Kutner, Iran has about half the level of low-enriched uranium they would need to build an atomic bomb.
"We are afraid that, by the end of next year, Iran may have enough material, that will allow them, if they wish to, to rush into a nuclear bomb," he asserted. "It's imperative that Iran remains high on the priorities of the new American administration, and the world keeps building up pressure on Iran."