WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (JTA) — During the last few weeks, Zalman Shoval put the finishing touches on what he describes as his “second coming” as Israel’s ambassador to the United States: He delivered a speech at the National Press Club, hosted a party at his official residence for more than 400 Beltway types and was feted by Jewish leaders in the posh New York home of cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder.
This time, however, Shoval believes his farewells are for good. He does not think he will become the first Israeli to serve as ambassador to Washington three times.
“When I left the last time, although I never rationalized it, I had a good sense that I might come back for a second time,” Shoval said in a recent interview before heading back to Israel.
“I had a feeling and I guess that was one of the reasons that I never wrote a book of my first term, although I had all the material for it, because I didn’t want to burn any bridges.”
While Shoval still has yet to decide if he is going to burn those bridges, he said he is planning to spend time with his family and return to his business ventures. He also has been asked to head the board of trustees of a new academic institution.
“I will try to remain involved, but you can be involved in different ways,” he said. Shoval, who has said he was bitten by the political bug early on in life, said he is not sure if he would run again for the Knesset, where he served some 13 years, mostly as a member of the Likud Party.
“I still have it, but even bugs get older,” said Shoval, 69, who left his post Saturday and was immediately replaced by Israel’s new ambassador, David Ivry, a former general who commanded Israel’s air force and has headed the Jewish state’s strategic relationship with the United States since 1986.
Shoval’s second stint as ambassador ended just like his first — the Likud prime minister that had sent him to Washington was defeated by the opposition candidate.
“Every time I come here, for some reason, the government falls down,” he said during the reception he and his wife, Kena, hosted.
Both times, Shoval continued to serve the new Labor governments until his replacement was named.
In 1992, when Yitzhak Shamir was defeated by Yitzhak Rabin, Shoval stayed on in Washington for nine months until he was replaced by Itamar Rabinovich.
This time around, Shoval has served the government of Ehud Barak, who defeated Benjamin
Netanyahu, the man who tapped Shoval for his second tour in 1998, last May.
Observers say Shoval has been able to serve four prime ministers of two different parties because of his professionalism and moderation.
Shoval is “one of the most interesting Likud politicians in my mind because he comes from a background and an ideology of moderation and compromise which reflects his Dayanist and Ben-Gurionist roots but he has also been a very effective spokesman for the Likud Party,” said Samuel Lewis, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“He is not an ideologue but a man of great wisdom, moderation, stature and very wise counsel which he has provided prime ministers with over the last 30 years,” Lewis added in introducing Shoval during one of his recent farewell speeches.
Shoval was elected to the Knesset for the first time in 1970 as a member of the independent Rafi Party founded by David Ben-Gurion, who had left the Labor Party.
Shoval said it has not been hard to serve prime ministers of both parties.
“The moment I became an ambassador I stopped being a politician,” he said. “Both my friends and my political opponents knew that. When I left this time to come here, Barak even came to my farewell party.”
But Shoval said it goes deeper than that.
Beyond what he calls the “the more ideologically inclined fringes on both sides of the political spectrum,” Shoval said there is a consensus in Israel on certain issues, including Jerusalem and not going back to the pre-1967 borders.
“It didn’t make much difference who was in power,” he said, adding that Netanyahu and Barak have been less ideological and more pragmatic than Shamir and Rabin. “In our case security must precede anything else.”
While Shoval says an agreement with Syria would contribute to that security, he has been warning that a peace deal with Syria and Lebanon will not lead to the “comprehensive peace” many in Washington, including President Clinton, have been talking about.
“Syria no longer holds a stranglehold in this respect, and in any case, comprehensive peace is not all that comprehensive, looking at Iran or Iraq in the not-too-distant neighborhood,” he said during a Jan. 11 speech at the National Press Club.
Contrary to what he called “rather half-baked theories that peace between Israel and Syria would automatically bring about the lessening of Iran’s anti-peace and anti-Israel stance,” he said, “the opposite may actually be true.”
During the interview, Shoval stressed several times that a peace deal between Israel and Syria is not only important for the Jewish state but for the United States, which will be expected to support the deal with billions of dollars in aid.
Since the deal will help “cement” the U.S. position in the region, Shoval warned against a repeat of the Wye aid battle, where the money became a political football between the White Hose and Congress.
“There is a lesson to learn from that and that lesson should be learned less perhaps by Israel and more by the administration,” Shoval said.
“Undoubtedly, it will be a very major proposition to get the probably very considerable amounts of aid — which will be needed over the next few years as a result of an agreement with Syria and Lebanon, let alone the Palestinians — through Congress,” he said, adding that this “should not objectively be seen as only aid to Israel but also as a vital American interest, namely to promote the stability in one of the few areas that the U.S. itself has declared to be a region where America has vital interests.”