Top Israeli Diplomat Heads Home Amid Rumors of Uncertain Future

Amid growing strains between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar has returned to Jerusalem for consultations about his future, according to Israeli officials.

Ben-Elissar has no intention of stepping down and wants to put an end to rumors that he will not serve out the remainder of his tour as Israel’s top American- based diplomat, an Israeli official said.

But in a sign of the uncertainty surrounding his future, another official said Ben-Elissar will not serve in the post much longer.

The ambassador, who is eight months into the customary two- year posting, was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Netanyahu and Foreign Minister David Levy.

Israeli officials here long have complained that Netanyahu has kept Ben-Elissar out of the loop.

The officials cite Netanyahu’s violation of protocol by using his foreign affairs adviser Dore Gold in place of the ambassador as a note-taker during meetings with President Clinton.

Rumors have swirled in the Hebrew media for weeks that Netanyahu would name Gold to replace Ben-Elissar as ambassador to the United States.

Ben-Elissar himself has told close associates that he may want to return to a post in Israel. But for now, sources said, nothing has been decided.

Embassy officials went out of their way to say that Netanyahu did not recall Ben-Elissar. Instead he traveled at his own request, an official said.

The trip comes as Ben-Elissar has called on Netanyahu to launch a formal protest against the United States for monitoring communications at his embassy.

Israel has officially told the United States that a misinterpretation led the FBI to investigate whether a U.S. government official is passing sensitive information to Israel.

The controversy erupted two weeks ago when the Washington Post reported that the FBI opened an investigation in January after the National Security Agency intercepted a telephone conversation between a senior Israeli intelligence official in Washington and a superior in Israel.

According to the Post, the two Israelis talked about whether to ask someone with the code-name “Mega” to obtain an unpublished letter that then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had sent to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

The Post said the intelligence officer told his superior that Ben-Elissar, the Israeli ambassador, had asked him to request the letter from “Mega.”

While the suggestion was rejected that “Mega” be asked for the letter, the intercepted conversation led officials to believe that “Mega may be someone in the U.S. government who has provided information to the Israelis in the past,” the Post reported.

According to the formal Israeli explanation, delivered last week through normal intelligence-sharing contacts, “Mega” is the code word for the head of the CIA’s Israel desk, a normal “above board” U.S.-Israel contact, an Israeli official here said.

U.S. officials continued to refuse to comment on the issue. Attorney General Janet Reno said last week that the FBI had opened an investigation into the incident.

Ben-Elissar, meanwhile, wrote in a cable to Netanyahu, “The Americans are eavesdropping and intercepting out messages and talks.

“And that cannot be considered a friendly act undertaken toward a friendly nation,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter published in Yediot Achronot.

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