Israel’s new ambassador in Washington says he is an optimistic man, and by one measure Danny Ayalon is indisputably right.
Many of his Israeli government colleagues bristle with warnings to the Palestinians or grim assessments of the state of what used to be called the “peace process.” Ayalon, a professional diplomat who also has served as political adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, looks for opportunities to make the point that peace with the Palestinians is possible.
And not necessarily in the distant future.
“Once there is a partner with whom we can really take risks, who is serious, who is effective, who is committed to peace, then there will be peace,” Ayalon said in a recent interview. “And I am convinced it will be sooner than you
His optimism and the ability to communicate it to the American public will be put to the test in the days ahead as Israel continues to fight Palestinian terror and worldwide hostility, and as relations with its most important ally face the inevitable complications of America’s own war on terrorism and the expected strike against Iraq.
That confident perspective already is having an impact on the Jewish communal world, where unity is high but hope is in short supply.
“He is a breath of fresh air,” a top Jewish leader said recently after meeting Ayalon. “Not to denigrate his predecessors, but he comes at a time when there has been a real vacuum in terms of someone who could articulate a genuinely positive vision about where Israel is going. And he listens as well as talks, which is a trait he will need in dealing with our community.”
At 47, Ayalon is Israel’s second-youngest U.S. envoy after Yitzchak Rabin, who held the post in the late 1960s. Ayalon was appointed to the post early in the summer after a months-long turf dispute between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres left the post vacant. Adding to the delay were complaints by career Foreign Ministry employees, who claimed Ayalon was a political appointee despite his diplomatic experience.
His resume seemed tailor-made for Israel’s most challenging diplomatic post. Ayalon served as deputy foreign policy adviser to Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. He was also part of the Israeli delegations to negotiations at Sharm El-Sheikh, Wye Plantation and Camp David, the unsuccessful 2000 summit.
“The prime minister has been to Washington six times [in the past 18 months], more than any other foreign leader,” Ayalon said. “I was part of those visits.”
He also served four years as part of Israel’s delegation to the United Nations in New York.
Ayalon took over Israel’s most important embassy at a peculiar moment in U.S.-Israel relations. The alliance between the nations is stronger than ever, thanks to common goals in the war on terrorism and a president whose pro-Israel instincts were reinforced by two years of bloody Palestinian terrorism.
At the same time, there are huge minefields just over the horizon, including the unpredictable military and public opinion consequences of the expected U.S. thrust against Iraq and what some recent polls show as slipping support for Israel among the American people.
“It is true that this is a time of great challenges,” Ayalon said. “There are many threats that we face, both America and Israel … But it is also a time of great hope; there are risks, but also there are great hopes.”
Aside from strengthening already robust U.S.-Israel diplomatic ties, he said he hopes to “strengthen relations in terms of economics. Bilateral trade is now $18 billion annually; it could be double that.”
Ayalon also said he hopes to move on the long-discussed idea of expanding the already close strategic relationship.
“I believe we are in a position of thinking in terms of formalizing and upgrading those relations,” he said. “Now we have a MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] on strategic cooperation]. We are formally a major non-NATO ally to the United States, but informally the relationship is even more intimate.”
Some Israeli officials have pushed for formal acknowledgement of that close relationship in recent years — perhaps in the form of a full-blown defense treaty.
Ayalon said he hopes to explore those possibilities in today’s climate of close cooperation and a united goal in fighting terrorism.
A more immediate priority for the new envoy is participating in intense discussion about what role Israel will play if U.S. troops attack Iraq and how both Washington and Jerusalem will respond if Saddam Hussein does what he did in 1991: lash out at Israel.
At the very least, Israel wants as much advance warning as possible about a U.S. attack. Israel also wants assurances that U.S. forces will move quickly to neutralize Iraq’s western desert, the launching pads for Scud missiles in 1991.
Ayalon declined to discuss the details of those negotiations, but said he is satisfied U.S. officials will provide “due notice” of impending U.S. action.
Ayalon also begins his tenure at a time when the role of Israel’s ambassador in Washington is in flux. Until the early 1990s, envoys in Washington served as necessary intermediaries between governments that were often at odds. But recent prime ministers have enjoyed unusually close relations with their Washington counterparts and have had ready access to U.S. officials at every level — right up to the White House.
The close alliance has changed the role of the ambassador, Ayalon conceded, but said it has not diminished it.
“There is a particularly direct link between this president and the prime minister,” he said. “From the very start, the relationship was based on trust and on credibility. They have bonded. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for the ambassador in cultivating the relationship on a daily basis.”
Ayalon said he and his diplomatic staff must “do the follow-up” after Sharon’s regular visits and his frequent contacts with U.S. officials. “We have to do the work of transforming the ideas and commitments into concrete steps on the ground. Also, we are the eyes and ears of Jerusalem here.”
A Visible Presence
Ayalon is Israel’s most visible spokesman in this country. The man he replaces, David Ivry, disliked media appearances and had a poor command of English. While Ivry was credited with working quietly at the Pentagon to enhance U.S.-Israel strategic ties, his lack of media savvy left a void that worried many Jewish leaders.
The American-educated Ayalon — the Tel Aviv native holds an MBA from the University of Bowling Green in Ohio — is relaxed and articulate on camera. Asked if he wanted to increase the visibility of the ambassador’s office, he said “by all means.”
“I do believe there should be a credible, authoritative face of the Israeli government here. It is very important to do that,” he said, “even though I understand my main job is really the political side.”
Ayalon could be thrust even more into the media limelight if U.S. forces attack Iraq — and Saddam Hussein reacts by trying to draw Israel into the conflict.
When that happened in 1991, Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval — also an unusually smooth, articulate spokesman — played a major role in boosting pro-Israel public opinion. Ayalon could face a similar challenge in the days ahead.
Ayalon takes a pragmatic view of the American media, refusing to echo complaints by many Jewish leaders here about how it treats Israel.
“The American media [runs] the gamut,” he said. “I would say all in all, we have the highest appreciation of the American media for being fair, for being honest, for being investigative and for being serious. Of course we don’t like everything that is printed, but we understand the importance of free speech and free media.”
Ayalon said Israeli leaders have good reason to understand the perils of a free press.
“I would say to you that the Israeli media is probably much more critical of Israeli policies than the American media. It’s part of democracy and we’re proud of it,” he said.
On the other hand, he termed growing anti-Israel incitement in the Arab media as “a strategic threat because they are poisoning the hearts and minds of the younger generations, and they are preventing any kind of reconciliation.”
Ayalon said the issue of incitement has already come up in his meetings with U.S. officials. “The Americans are very concerned about it, and they convey these concerns to relevant authorities in the Arab world.”
Jewish leaders again are engaged in communal hand-wringing over what some say is the sorry state of hasbara in this difficult time. Many lay the blame at the doorstep of the Israeli government.
Ayalon made it clear that in his view, pro-Israel outreach is mostly effective — and that the best kind of outreach is for Jewish leaders to “be good, strong Jews.”
Hasbara starts at home, he argued, in Jewish communities across America. “Hasbara is not just officials coming from Israel; it’s not just ‘talking heads,’ ” he said. “It is also the community raising its voice on our issues. It’s people writing letters to their newspapers, coming to Washington, simply stating the facts. It’s just being Jews. And it means participating more in Israel: coming to visit during these difficult times, sending the kids, doing business with Israel, buying Israeli products. All these things are very important.”
Ayalon plans to carry that message to an array of American Jewish groups, and not just in New York and Washington.
He said he also will continue the embassy’s active outreach to Evangelical Christians, whose support for Israel has become more visible and important as their leaders gain political influence.
Ayalon dismissed charges by some that the religious conservatives are not reliable allies because some of their support is based on apocalyptic prophecies that demand continued bloodshed in the Middle East.
“They are great supporters; we have a lot in common,” he said. “They always emphasize the Judeo-Christian heritage, and I think we should not be discouraging that. To the contrary.”
He expressed satisfaction with the current Bush administration strategy of isolating Yasir Arafat and demanding “new leadership” for the Palestinians. “It has been very effective,” he said, pointing to signs of growing dissatisfaction among Palestinians with Arafat’s leadership and the corruption of so much of his Palestinian Authority.
Ayalon also expressed support for the Bush administration’s growing emphasis on democratization through the region.
“I would very much like to see Israel not as the only democracy, but the first democracy in the Middle East,” Bush said