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Preparing a New Battle Plan in Israel’s War on Drugs

HERZLIYA PITUAH, Israel — In Israel’s war on drugs, Ronny Douek is fighting on the front lines.

As the new chairman of the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, Douek faces a formidable challenge. The Israel Anti-Drug Authority estimates that there are 20,000 drug addicts in Israel, among 300,000 periodic drug users. Ten percent of Israeli teenagers use drugs, which are often smuggled across international borders — marijuana from Egypt, heroin from Jordan, cocaine and LSD from Lebanon.

But the 45-year-old Haifa native is well-prepared for war: He served in the Israeli army’s special forces and ended his military service as a captain in the paratrooper reconnaissance unit.

In early May, just weeks after Douek’s nomination to head the agency was confirmed by the cabinet, hundreds of police swooped down on the city of Lod, southeast of Tel Aviv, in a massive military-style operation to eliminate the flourishing drug trade there. Roadblocks were set up throughout the town, and police settled in for a long-term siege.

Douek says the raid was likely prompted by information he gave Prime Minister Sharon, whose office oversees the anti-drug authority.

“I told [Sharon] that kids travel from the Tel Aviv bus station to Lod — in taxis that are paid for by the drug dealers — to buy portions of heroin, and he called the police chief during that meeting,” he said.

But using force is not the only way Douek wants to confront the nation’s drug problem; he is urging parallel efforts in both drug enforcement and education, with an emphasis on the latter. He wants to start anti-drug education for kindergarten students that would focus on boosting self-esteem and motivation.

“The word ‘drugs’ doesn’t even need to be mentioned,” he said.

Speaking with this reporter in his luxurious Herzliya Pituach office, Douek exuded confidence as he explained his plans, looking very much like the special forces soldier he once was.

Douek spent his early years in Africa, the son of a woman who worked in the Israeli foreign service and of a man who was a senior figure in the Solel Boneh construction company. After spending his later childhood in Israel and attending Bar Ilan University for just one semester, he started his own company, building ships in Holland and West Africa. Eleven years ago, he returned to Israel permanently and established the nation’s largest vineyards, located near Eilat.

In addition to finding success in business, he has devoted himself to nonprofit work. He set up a highly successful organization called Ahshav that aided Ethiopian immigrants in mobile home camps. Douek also established another organization, supported by Jewish Federations in Detroit and Cleveland, that assisted downtrodden development towns around Israel. He now heads Zionism 2000, a “movement for social responsibility” dedicated to making Israel a “more humane and just society.” In January, United Jewish Communities appointed him co-chair of UJC Israel.

Douek has been involved in anti-drug work since 1983, when he established a nonprofit organization dealing with addiction among kids. The Israeli Anti-Drug Authority initially bristled at the idea of a private citizen interfering in what they saw as their territory. But four years ago, the authority asked Douek to help it work with at-risk kids.

“Ideally the government should be responsible for the safety and education of our kids, but due to lack of resources, it is sometimes the duty of private individuals and organizations to take upon themselves the challenge,” explained Douek, himself a father of four.

Douek says the key to tackling Israel’s drug problem is recognizing the enemy. The real enemy, he told the Forward, is the breakdown of cultural and social values in Israel; drugs are merely a symptom of this larger cultural crisis.

Referring to the current media hype surrounding the arrest of former energy minister Gonen Segev on Ecstasy-smuggling charges, Douek also attributed the deteriorating situation to lenient societal norms that he claims “give a very strong message to the younger generation” that getting involved with drugs is not such a bad thing. Douek came out against the idea of legalizing marijuana in Israel and criticized lawmakers who call for such a move, saying it makes the war on drugs much more difficult.

Douek blames the “sickness” in Israeli society on a leadership vacuum and on general fatigue. “The country has been struggling for survival for more than 50 years,” he said. “People are getting really tired.”

Douek caught early signs of what he calls a total moral calamity of Israeli society as far back as 1995. “I saw the murder of Yitzhak Rabin as the byproduct of a sickness in our society,” he said.

Douek talks urgently of his desire to reshape and reinforce Israeli society, speaking about “getting people to believe they can change” and “convincing people to take personal responsibility for the society they live in.” His enthusiasm might be mistaken for naivete if not for what he has already accomplished in the business and nonprofit worlds. He speaks like an individual who is used to getting things done, as if there is no question that he will implement any plan he formulates.

“We need to have a Sayeret Matkal” — the elite army commando unit — “for fighting drugs both on the information-outreach side and on the enforcement side,” he said.

Douek has two moves planned: He intends to establish a multidisciplinary think tank in the authority, and he will focus on lobbying the government to refocus its sights and prioritize the war on drugs.

He also suggests putting kids on the front lines in the war on drugs. “The weak point of our education campaign is in the delivery,” he said. “If you ask a teacher to give an anti-drug speech, it will not be as effective as young people who know the material and can speak in the same language as other kids.”

Douek is confident of victory in his drug war. “It is an uphill struggle. But with the right combination, dividing resources between enforcement and education and innovative ideas, the problem can be solved.”

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