The Activist Ambassador
Zalman Shoval is a man who understands challenges. From 1990 to 1993, he served as Israel’s top envoy to Washington during a time of enormous stress in the U.S.-Israel relationship. His tenure encompassed the bitter debate over loan guarantees for Israel; firefights with former Secretary of State James Baker; and the Gulf War, when Shoval’s calm demeanor as Israel’s top U.S. spokesman belied tough behind-the-scenes diplomacy over Israel’s role in the war against Iraq.
Now, with U.S.-Israel relations again sinking, this time because of the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Shoval is back for more. This month, the veteran Likud activist replaced Eliahu Ben-Elissar, who was packed off to Paris after a troubled two-year stint.
In a recent interview, Shoval said he plans to be an activist ambassador both
to the U.S. government and to what he sees as an increasingly divided, confused American Jewish community.
In some ways, Shoval said, it is as if he never left.
“Nothing ever stands still. But at least psychologically, it feels the same, and not just because it’s the same office, the same furniture: in many cases, it’s the same problems.”
But there are big differences, as well. One of the biggest, Shoval said, is that Israel’s internal political battles have been imported into the American Jewish context — a mistake for which he accepts his share of responsibility.
“Israeli politicians of all parties committed a sin — we all did — by transferring our own partisan political divisions in Israel to the Jewish communities abroad in order to garner support from this group or that group,” he said. “Politicians in Israel did not realize that once you harm Jewish unity, it’s very difficult later on to mend it.”
The increasingly partisan nature of the peace process debate, he says, may make it harder for American Jews to rally to Israel’s defense as they did in 1991, when President George Bush locked horns with the Israeli government over loan guarantees.
Another change stems from the bitter debate in this country over proposed changes to conversion laws in Israel — changes that many Reform and Conservative Jews feel disenfranchise them.
“It’s very different than during my last tenure,” he said. “At that time, if there were differences [among American Jews], they were more on details; we didn’t have these big interdenominational differences. This is having a negative impact on the American Jewish community — understandably so. This is not an easy problem to tackle.”
He said that much of the controversy stems from misunderstandings about what proposed conversion legislation in Israel actually does.
“But in general, I would say that both on the Israeli side and the diaspora side, we will have to come as quickly as possible to a meeting of the minds and of the deeds.”
He rejected claims that the embassy is destined to be a kind of diplomatic backwater for a prime minister who likes to manage U.S.-Israel relations himself.
“I think the Israeli embassy must play the central role in U.S.-Israel bilateral relations,” he said. “That includes a role in the peace process. The prime minister has excellent contacts in the American government, and he knows this country very well. But he didn’t send me here for my retirement. I will be a very active ambassador.”
Not surprisingly, Shoval believes strong U.S.-Israel relations will survive current frictions over the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, and he echoes the view being promoted by Prime Minister Netanyahu — regarded with skepticism in Washington — that the two sides are closer than they seem to an agreement.
But if relations continue to be troubled, Shoval could be the right man in the right job, according to leading pro-Israel activists.
“Shoval had a trial by fire during his last assignment here,” said an official with a major pro-Israel group. “Nobody wants to think about the possibility that differences over the peace process are going to disrupt U.S.-Israel relations, but that’s definitely one of the possibilities. Shoval is cool under fire and a very good advocate for his government’s position. If we move into a period of great turbulence, I can’t think of anybody I’d rather see at the embassy in Washington.”
Footnotes To Barak Visit
Several footnotes to last week’s Washington visit by Labor leader Ehud Barak and a delegation of Knesset colleagues:
The labor leader — who wants to emulate his rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by building a solid base of support in Washington — had successful meetings with key House committees and with a large group of Senate staffers, as well as national security adviser Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The Labor delegation’s visit was arranged by media guru Steve Rabinowitz. Sources here say Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration official, will be working with the Labor leaders on an ongoing basis to enhance their U.S. presence.
“Barak was very effective in conveying the message that security isn’t just a matter of Palestinian terrorism,” said a congressional staffer who attended one meeting. “He drew a very vivid picture of what the Middle East could look like if the current peace process breaks down entirely and we go back to where we were in 1990.”
But Barak was shunned by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). And the Labor leader was treated coldly by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-Rockland), chair of the House International Relations Committee, during a meeting with the committee.
In the middle of their visit, Barak and his Labor colleagues — Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ephraim Sneh — slipped out of town for a private one-hour visit at the bedside of Jordan’s King Hussein, who is undergoing cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.