HK is a beacon to follow, Israeli ex-spy chief says
It was an unlikely confrontation: seven Hong Kong students and the former head of what is considered the most secretive of secret services in the world, the Mossad of Israel.
Efraim Halevy (above), who led the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations - to give the Mossad its English name - between 1998 and 2002, was delivering a talk at Lingnan University in Tuen Mun.
As his address last week, entitled 'Non-State Actors and Intelligence Services - their Pivotal Role in the 21st Century', neared its end, a group of students in the lecture hall audience silently held up placards spelling out the message 'God would not join the military'.
The students, mostly from the university's cultural studies department, were referring to what they see as a litany of unjustified violent action by Israel against Palestinians. In particular they were angry at Israel's blockade of Gaza and the attack on a Turkish aid flotilla by the Israeli Defence Force in May which left nine activists dead and dozens wounded, including seven Israeli commandos.
They also accused Halevy, 75 - who restated his belief in talking to Israel's sworn enemy, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas - of supporting the targeted assassinations of that group's senior leaders.
The seasoned spy-chief-turned-ambassador quickly slapped the students down, blaming erroneous media reports, before going on to describe Israel as 'indestructible' because it has 'so many means of defending itself at its disposal'.
One of the protesters, first-year cultural studies student Kelvin Wu Ka-wai, 19, said: 'I thought he was a liberal in the Israeli government but what he said left me quite disappointed. In Hong Kong some Christians believe that Israel is chosen by God. We were just making the point that God would not support some of the actions of Israel.'
In his speech, Halevy argued that the rules of behaviour between nations need overhauling and trust in the world's intelligence services re-established as 'non-state actors' exert a greater and more dangerous influence.
He said: 'They are not part of the system we have created over the past couple of hundred years or more. They do not adhere to the rules. I believe it is possible that these groups will have the capability of influencing the outcome of conflicts in a very, very clear and very, very unfortunate way.'
Later, in an interview, the former Mossad chief said he believed the reason Israel attracted so much negative publicity was because it was a victim of its own success in building a strong, democratic state against the odds in a part of the world where democracy is thin on the ground.
Halevy's Hong Kong visit, in which he also spoke to members of the city's 5,000-strong Jewish community, came as pressure mounts on Israel over the expansion of settlement building in the West Bank and yet another push for peace in the fraught Middle East threatens to fail.
Diplomats such as Israel's consul general to Hong Kong, Amikam Levy, have been working hard to add culture and education to already established business and diplomatic links abroad.
Concern is rising among Israelis at home - and their supporters abroad - that the country may be isolating itself diplomatically and culturally.
An agreement on cultural exchanges was signed between Israel and Hong Kong last June, but the consul general said the former Mossad chief's visit was a personal one and had no connection with bilateral links.
With the peaceful protest at Lingnan last week and the Palestinian cause gaining international support at the expense of Israel's image, it isn't hard to see why diplomats like Levy want to nurture cultural and academic links in addition to business ties.
Halevy was a close associate of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister murdered in 1995 by a Jewish right-wing extremist who opposed the then peace talks. Rabin is seen as symbolising an Israeli commitment to a negotiated peace with war as a last resort.
At a gathering of Israeli business leaders in Hong Kong, a moment's silence was held in Rabin's memory last Tuesday on the 15th anniversary of Rabin's assassination.
For Halevy, there is one non-state actor that shines as a beacon of hope.
'Hong Kong is a classic example of a non-state actor which behaves responsibly.
'It's a model that shows that to some extent - although all comparisons are odious - if ways are found of operating a political system within another political system, allowing the system maximum freedom of activity on a wide range of issues pertaining to everyday life, including international commerce and business ... Hong Kong shows that it is possible to make adjustments in other parts of the world which bring non-state actors into a similar setting.
'I don't think there could be another Hong Kong in the world as such but I do think, to use a musical metaphor, there could be variations on a theme,' he said.