Israeli ambassador tackles bombings in online forum

This may seem like a strange time to launch a tourism campaign to Israel, but that's just what Israel's U.S. ambassador did in cyberspace Monday night.

Despite the recent spate of terrorist bombings, "if you planned to visit Israel, you should go now," Itamar Rabinovich said on the national online service America Online. "It's important that friends of Israel show support to us and faith that the government of Israel will protect its citizens and visitors."

Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the United States since 1993, did his best to convince his online audience that his government can, in fact, provide such protection.

Pointing to the formation Monday of a special security force, Rabinovich said that "there are quite a few measures that can be done" to halt further terrorist attacks. He did not specify what those measures would be, however, saying only that the steps will become apparent within days.

Speaking to an audience that topped 200 at its peak, Rabinovich acknowledged the challenge of preventing the sort of attack that took place Monday outside Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center. And he implied that the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas must be attacked at its roots.

"It is difficult to deal with the suicide bomber, but there is a way to deal with the network that aided him," he said.

But even while trying to project an air of hope about curbing terrorism and continuing the peace process, it was clear Rabinovich was still reeling from Monday's tragic events.

"This has been a very difficult day in the state of Israel," he said. "The country is reacting very badly. People are agitated."

The online discussion with Rabinovich, which was sponsored by AOL's Jewish Community Online forum, drew people from across the political spectrum. Some cursed Arabs in general with comments like "the Arab is a cancer. Either it's cut out or eventually it will get you." Others expressed the fervent hope that the Labor government would be able to remain in power.

Some AOL subscribers came to ask questions — about Israeli security, politics and morale in the wake of the bombings. Others simply voiced pain, fear and anger.

"I went to Israel for the first time in August and felt so proud to be Jewish," one person said. "I felt connected to Israelis in joy. Now I feel connected in pain. My heart is breaking."

Another person expressed interest in aiding the families of bombing victims. Rabinovich suggested contacting the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., which will set up a fund to enable Americans to assist Israelis in need.

After only a half hour online, Rabinovich informed the audience he had been called away and had to leave the discussion. Many people still wanted to discuss events in Israel, however, so they moved to the JCOL's community chat room to continue debating.