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Israel appoints new U.N. ambassador; Washington post won’t change

WASHINGTON, May 21 (JTA) — It looks like Israel’s ambassador to the United States is staying — and a new one is headed to the United Nations. Amid growing strains with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Eliahu Ben-Elissar returned to Jerusalem this week for consultations about his future. But Ben-Elissar made it clear he had no intention of stepping down, and wanted to put an end to rumors that he would not serve out the remainder of his tour as Israel’s top American-based diplomat. After meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday, Ben-Elissar said there were no plans to replace him. And on Wednesday, Netanyahu appointed his top political adviser, Dore Gold, to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Rumors had swirled in the Hebrew media for weeks that Netanyahu would name Gold to replace Ben-Elissar as ambassador in Washington. But it appears that Gold, a native of Hartford, Conn. will go to the United Nations instead. David Peleg has been acting U.N. ambassador since the departure last year of Gad Ya’acobi. It was not immediately clear what kind of agreement Ben-Elissar reached with Netanyahu. 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 Gold in place of the ambassador as a note-taker during meetings with President Clinton. Ben-Elissar himself had told close associates that he may want to return to a post in Israel. When Ben-Elissar departed for Jerusalem earlier in the week, 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 came 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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