JERUSALEM (Jul. 30)
With the appointment of Eliahu Ben-Elissar, America and American Jewry will be getting one of Israel’s most polished and debonair diplomats as the Jewish state’s new ambassador to Washington.
But will they also be getting one of Israel’s most hard-line politicians, a representative whose political views are to the right of the new Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu?
The key to this question lies in the shape of Netanyahu’s own policy positions, which have not yet clearly emerged.
The extent of the new premier’s embrace of the previous government’s peace policies with the Palestinians is still shrouded in uncertainty.
And conflicting trends within Netanyahu’s Cabinet — between hawks such as Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon and relative moderates such as Foreign Minister David Levy — have hardly come to the surface, let alone been played out to some stable resolution.
But some sense of where Ben-Elissar stands in the political spectrum may be gleaned from an interview he gave to The New York Times in 1980:
“Of course I’m married to my wife,” he said. “But for sure I’m married first of all to the land. She knows it. This land, this soil. I can’t define my attachment to it. It’s an attachment like to my mother. It is everything for me — everything.”
In the days since he was granted the Washington post, Ben-Elissar has said his basic views have not changed.
But as ambassador, he added, he would “not express myself as I did when I was a politician.”
“I will smile more,” he said.
Ben-Elissar, 64, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, won the appointment to Washington after failing to attain a Cabinet post in the Netanyahu government.
He ran earlier this month for Knesset speaker, but was defeated in a vote within the Likud faction by veteran parliamentarian Dan Tichon.
Offered a choice between the U.S. and the U.N. ambassadorial posts, he unhesitatingly pitched for Washington.
He visited Washington last week for meetings with the outgoing ambassador, Itamar Rabinovich. Ben-Elissar will officially take over the post in September.
At 10, Ben-Elissar escaped the Holocaust, leaving Radom, Poland, to go to Israel in 1942.
His parents had discovered that a group of Jews were going to be exchanged for German citizens in British hands. A family friend was on the list with her three children, but two of the children had disappeared in the camps. Ben- Elissar pretended to be the woman’s son. When he arrived in Israel, he changed his name from Gottlieb.
His father died in a labor camp from disease, and his sister and brother made their way to the United States.
Ben-Elissar’s mother was killed in 1947 when she was run over by an American military vehicle just before boarding a ship bound for Haifa.
The young Ben-Elissar reached Israel psychologically wounded, but from 1954 to 1965 he served with distinction in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence secret service, working as an agent, primarily in the French-speaking countries of Europe and Africa.
After resigning from the Mossad because of a dispute with the director, Ben- Elissar received a doctorate from the University of Geneva. He had previously studied political science and international studies at the University of Paris.
In 1970, he became spokesman for Herut, the nationalist party then led by Menachem Begin, and later served as chairman of the Herut World Executive.
In the 1977 elections, he sought a slot on the Likud Knesset list, but was edged out in the voting.
But when Begin became prime minister in the wake of that election, he made Ben- Elissar the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
When the momentous first breakthrough to peace came with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Ben-Elissar was deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes diplomacy leading up to that historic moment.
A month later, he was appointed to head the Israeli delegation to the first formal negotiations with the Egyptians.
Even then, he was seen as a hard-liner on everything connected with the Palestinian issue, which was part of the overall dialogue between Jerusalem and Cairo and which formed part of the Camp David accords signed in September 1978.
Despite his stances, his Egyptian counterparts grew to respect his integrity and to like his courtly manners and his genuine respect for their culture and ancient country.
He was a natural choice for ambassador when the two countries eventually set up full diplomatic relations under the peace treaty signed in March 1979.
He resigned as ambassador to Egypt in 1980, when he succeeded Moshe Arens as chairman of the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the 10th Knesset.
Remaining in that position through the 1980s, he won accolades from all sides for his polite, nearly always impartial and statesmanlike handling of the committee, and especially of its critically important secret subcommittees, which conduct their business far from the eyes of the media.
As the peace process with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization began unfolding in 1993, Ben-Elissar became one of its sharpest and most outspoken critics.
He refused to soften his attitude to the Palestinian leader, whom he regarded as a terrorist whose ultimate goal is the obliteration of Jewish independence.
Peace with the Arab world, he had told Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was a fantasy that existed “in the mind of one man only” — a reference to then- Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
He termed the Palestinian self-rule accords “the murder, or attempted murder, of a state.”
In an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz this week, the ambassador- designate said he did not retract a single word of his prior declarations.
“But something has changed: We have a different government now. Not a leftist government any longer, but a nationalist government. Certainly our policy will have to find a way to take account of the new realities.”
And while saying that his own beliefs would not change, he added that he would, as a diplomat, “change the style of my utterances.”
“I will not seem as tough as I have seemed in the past,” he said. “I will try to be open, pleasant and convivial with everyone.”
Registering perhaps the first such change of style, he professed himself entirely supportive of Levy’s meeting last week with Arafat, even though during the previous Knesset he had blasted Speaker Shevach Weiss for doing the same thing.
Weiss, he said, was looking for a photo-opportunity, “making a festival out of it.”
For Levy, he added, it was a “necessity.”
Fluent in French and comfortable in English, the goateed and exquisitely groomed Ben-Elissar should do well both on the diplomatic circuit and in public and televised appearances.
He expects, he says, a smooth relationship with the Clinton administration if the president is re-elected.
“I don’t think we’re on [a] confrontation course. The U.S. is interested in stability in the Middle East, as we are, too. They are interested in reaching as many peace agreements as possible, as we are, too.
“We are leaving enough space for negotiations, both with the Palestinians over the permanent status, and with Syria and Lebanon,” he told Ha’aretz.
Washington, he added, had learned over the years “where not to pressure us, where such pressure can produce contrary results.”
(JTA intern Heather Camlot in New York contributed to this report.)