WASHINGTON, March 13 (JTA) – When Israel’s ambassador to the United States briefs Ariel Sharon before the new prime minister’s inaugural visit to Washington next week, it won’t exactly be a “getting-to-know- you” session.
Sharon and David Ivry have crossed paths repeatedly in the half-century.
As the new Sharon government begins addressing its most pressing tasks – stopping the violent clashes with the Palestinians and making at least temporary steps toward peace – the two are quite familiar with the roles they will play: Sharon will be the fierce, charismatic leader and Ivry the behind-the-scenes team player.
If Israel’s best and brightest military men were gathered in one room, both Sharon and Ivry would be included. But only one of them likely would stand out, says Ivry.
“Even out of the normal routine of leaders which you had, Sharon was always one that everybody knew for a long time and he was very famous for his work as a military leader,” Ivry said.
That notoriety stands in sharp contrast to Ivry, 66, an unassuming, soft-spoken man who is well-regarded in the Israeli and American military communities from his dozen years as chief Israeli representative to the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue.
Ivry is nonpolitical, a man who has built a career on civil service rather than politics. Although he was appointed in 1999 by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, Ivry is apolitical enough that he can make a smooth transition to a Likud administration.
In fact, Ivry was the only member of the Barak government to sit in on meetings between Sharon and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell when Powell was in Israel late last month.
Ivry’s “credentials cross both parties,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “He is not partisan as much as he is committed to the process and programs he is involved in.”
Before beginning his diplomatic career, Ivry played a role in many of Israel’s battles – from the 1956 Sinai campaign to the 1982 Lebanon War. He is a former commander of the Israel Air Force and served an unprecedented decade-long stint as director general of the Defense Ministry.
In many of the tensest moments of Israeli history, Ivry and Sharon have served together.
In the 1950s, Ivry and Sharon met at military social gatherings that brought together members of the Israel Defense Force’s two elite units: the “Unit 101″ anti-terror force Sharon led and the fighter pilots, in which Ivry was a lieutenant.
“Those were the small units, which actually were taking the major responsibility for the security of the country at that time,” Ivry said.
During the Sinai War, Ivry and his unit provided protective cover for Sharon’s paratroopers as they dropped to forward positions at the war’s start.
“I can recall flying before dawn,” Ivry said. He watched as the sky began filling with paratroopers. “It wasn’t like a war, it was like a very nice show. But this was the start of the war.”
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Ivry always knew where the paratroopers were, a group known simply as Sharon’s Unit.
By the time the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition began along the Suez Canal in the late 1960s, both men had risen in rank. Ivry was head of air force operations, Sharon head of the IDF’s Southern Command.
“We used to coordinate the air attacks or the air support for the Southern Command on almost a daily basis,” Ivry said. “So I used to meet with him quite a lot.”
Sharon became defense minister in 1981 and led the invasion of Lebanon. It was the air force, under Ivry’s command, that destroyed Syrian missile batteries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister because of the Lebanon War and faded from the political spotlight for a while. Ivry, on the other hand, rose quietly through the military ranks, and became director-general of the Defense Ministry in 1986.
When Ivry was tapped to create Israel’s National Security Council in 1998 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he found an unlikely ally in Sharon, who was beginning a political revival as foreign minister.
The NSC acts as part of the Prime Minister’s Office, similar to the National Security Council in Washington. Many foreign ministry staffers didn’t like the idea of a new bureaucracy that might challenge their power, but Sharon understood the need for the NSC, Ivry said.
“He saw that the prime minister needed a staff to advise him,” Ivry said.
Under Barak, much of the U.S.-Israel communication went directly from Barak to President Clinton, because of their excellent personal ties. In the Sharon government, Ivry expects his responsibilities as ambassador to increase.
“It’s going to be all the easier to contact him if I want,” he said of Sharon.
Ivry has only praise for his former and current boss.
Sharon is “very practical and pragmatic,” Ivry said. “He’s looking to the issues themselves to see what really should be done.”
In Jerusalem this week, Ivry will give Sharon his assessment of the atmosphere in Washington and the young Bush administration’s emerging policy toward the Middle East.
His long-standing relationship with Sharon will make his mission that much easier, Ivry said.
“But we are not playing social games here,” he said. “This is political work which we have to do.”