Menu JTA Search

New Israeli ambassador takes post


New Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, right, sits next to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington on June 10. (Robert A. Cumins)

New Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, right, sits next to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington on June 10. (Robert A. Cumins)

WASHINGTON, July 30 (JTA) — As Israel’s next ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon enters an empty space in the American capital, both literally and figuratively. Sitting on a couch in his sparsely decorated office, Ayalon speaks of his new position, which has been vacant since David Ivry returned to Israel in April after a two-year posting. But even though the chair at Ayalon’s desk has been empty for just a few months, many in the American Jewish community and the public at large feel Israel has not had a public face in America for quite some time. Ivry, a former air force commander who spoke heavily accented English, shunned television cameras and did not interact with Jewish groups to the extent that many Jewish leaders wanted. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spun violently out of control, the frustration level among American Jewish officials increased. The task of presenting Israel’s case often fell to ad hoc spokesmen like former Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak — neither of whom currently holds an official position — or aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Now Jewish groups hope that Ayalon will fill the void of a public spokesman for the Jewish state who carries diplomatic rank. “I am looking forward to working with the administration and with the media and all facets of American society,” Ayalon said Tuesday, when he officially presented his credentials to President Bush. While not a fixture on American television, Ayalon has done interviews in the past, and is expected to continue to take media calls. A foreign policy adviser to the last three Israeli prime ministers, Ayalon, 46, brings a youthful spirit to the Washington post, coupled with significant experience with the U.S.-Israeli relationship. He is considered to have a strong relationship with the Bush administration, particularly National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was Ayalon’s counterpart until he got the Washington job. “It’s rare to have somebody walking in the door who is already on the front lines of the relationship,” said an official with a Jewish organization. “He is going to be very popular here.” Ayalon is no stranger to the United States, having received a master’s in business from Bowling Green University in Ohio in 1983. His wife also is American. By all accounts, the Washington-Jerusalem relationship has not been hampered by the lack of an Israeli envoy for the past few months. During that interval, Bush presented what historically is one of the most Israel-friendly plans for Middle Eastern diplomacy, calling for a change of Palestinian leadership and significant institutional changes before a Palestinian state can be established. Ayalon acknowledges that the White House and Israel seem to be largely on the same page at the moment. “It’s a very valid question, what can an ambassador do when relations are so good,” he said. “The understanding is so clear and so deep, some would say ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ ” But Ayalon says Israel must continue trying to strengthen ties. He specifically cites trade and investments, hoping to boost the current level of $15 billion in annual bilateral trade to $20 billion. He also said it is important to reiterate that Israel “will never give up the quest to make progress” in its conflict with the Palestinians. Ayalon welcomed the news that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will meet next week with Palestinian officials. “We would like to see it as an opportunity,” he said. While Israel and the United States should not dictate who the Palestinians’ leaders should be, Ayalon said “it’s important for the Palestinian people to understand the impact of their leadership on all of their plights.” New challenges for Ayalon are emerging. With talk rife of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, Ayalon will need to know of attack plans in advance so Israel can prepare as best as possible for any Iraqi retaliation. “There is an understanding here in Washington that should there be an operation, Israel might be affected, and toward that end we expect to get enough early warning to prepare and protect our population,” he said. The increasing threat from Hezbollah, and the organization’s deepening ties to Syria, also is beginning to garner attention in the United States. “We are not sure that the new president of Syria, who is not seasoned or experienced like his father, understands the complexity of the situation or the limits of his power,” Ayalon said of Bashar Assad. Ayalon says he will use the current stability in bilateral ties to focus on relations with American Jewish groups. And he said he would like to urge American Jews to take a larger responsibility for Israel’s fate. “The State of Israel is a Jewish state not by virtue of the characteristics of the state, but it’s a Jewish state in the sense that it is the state of the Jews,” he said. “It’s a joint enterprise, and we have an equal share of it.”