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Ayalon: Israel must build bridges

WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 (JTA) — After more than four years representing Israel’s interests in Washington, Daniel Ayalon says the short-term picture for his successor as ambassador is rosy: U.S. support for Israel transcends party affiliation and remains rock solid. Longer-term, however, he sees challenges for Israel in reaching the shifting communities that make up the American fabric. “When we look decades ahead, beyond the relationship with Congress and this administration — and those are truly important — we must also connect with the communities,” Ayalon said last week at his final briefing for the Hebrew-speaking press. “America is a great puzzle, it is a nation that reinvents itself.” Ayalon leaves this month after serving four turbulent years that included part of the intifada, the launching of the U.S.-driven “road map” peace plan, the isolating of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the Columbia shuttle tragedy, Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program, President Bush’s recognition of an Israeli claim to some West Bank settlements, the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and this summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Succeeding him is Sallai Meridor, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel who is due to arrive next week, accompanying Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is meeting with Bush on Monday. Ayalon saw challenges for Israel in terms of decades, not just the coming years. Relations with the evangelical community are strong, he said, but outreach is needed in other areas. He cited African Americans, Asians and Roman Catholics — a community he believes will significantly expand with the rise of immigration from Latin America — and even the Jewish community. “We take the Jewish community for granted, which is a mistake,” he said, adding that Israel must seek new ways to engage the younger generation of Jews who did not live through some of its most trying wars. “They are an educated and curious community,” he said. It also is important to reach out to blacks, he said, noting with pride the friendship he cultivated with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who has had fraught relations with American Jews in the past. “He’s an asset,” Ayalon said of Jackson. The problems that afflicted the black-Jewish relationship are in the past, he said: From the black perspective, Israel’s relationship with apartheid South Africa ended when democracy came to that country, and affirmative action is no longer the hot button issue it once was. For their part, Ayalon said, Jews should accept Jackson’s apologies for his past jibes against Jews, including his 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown.” He noted that Jackson has tried to intervene on behalf of Israelis held hostage in Arab countries and dismissed a reporter’s comment that such interventions are self-serving. “The principle is his involvement,” Ayalon said. “Relations with the black community are very fraught, complex, and they did not have to get to that stage,” he said. “We must never neglect the black community. There are those who tell me ‘they have not advanced, others like the Asians have overtaken them’ — that’s just not correct.” Such challenges become apparent only when Israeli envoys get beyond the Beltway, Ayalon said, something he would recommend to his successor. He noted that in 2004 he discounted the conventional wisdom in Washington in the final weeks of the presidential election — that Bush would be ousted — only because of his chats with ordinary Americans in cities such as Cincinnati, San Diego and Kansas City. “Washington is the bubble,” he said. “You leave the Beltway and you discover whole other worlds.” Ayalon spoke a week before the congressional mid-term elections — which the Democrats ended up sweeping — but said he didn’t think the outcome would affect U.S.-Israel relations ahead of the 2008 presidential election. Deadlock between Congress and the White House “will influence domestic policy, immigration, health care, taxes, social policies, the Supreme Court — it won’t influence foreign policy, with the possible exception of Iraq. For sure, not the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said. He cited the bipartisan wall of support for Israel in Congress, but added that Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are determined not to force an Israeli-Palestinian peace process until the conditions are ripe. That’s certainly not the case now, he said, with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority refusing to renounce terrorism or recognize Israel. “I can promise you from my personal knowledge of Bush and Condi, they will not do artificial things, they won’t bang their heads against the wall,” Ayalon said. “If they don’t see an internal Palestinian process that reveals a real partner, one that gives and takes with the Israeli government, it will be more of the same.” The U.S. backing for democratization in the Middle East also helps protect Israel, he said: As the region’s pre-eminent democracy, Israel serves as a model. Additionally, Israel and the United States share concerns about terrorism and the need to contain Iran. “There will be no coercion, there will be cooperation,” Ayalon predicted. Ayalon described a determination in the Bush administration to confront Iran over its nuclear program, which international inspectors believe is a precursor to the manufacture of weapons. He predicted U.N. sanctions in place by December unless Iran relents. Ayalon clearly enjoyed his personal relationships with the powerful, and spoke of long conversations about Brahms with Rice, a trained concert pianist. “That is, she talked and I mostly nodded,” he said. Such friendly personal relations are key to relations between nations he said. Bush’s friendship with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon helped bring about the April 2004 U.S. recognition of Israel’s claims in the West Bank, he said, likening Bush’s letter of assurances to Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration envisioning Jewish statehood, as well as Bush’s unprecedented backing for Israel during this summer’s war in Lebanon. The first career diplomat to take the Washington job — others have been political appointees — Ayalon is retiring from the foreign service in January at age 51. After the top job, he has nowhere to go. He says he has job offers, including a run for the mayor of his hometown, Hod HaSharon, but will not even comment on them until Jan. 1, when he is no longer employed by Israel’s government. Before ending the interview, Ayalon had one final recommendation for Meridor: Tear down the ambassador’s residence in northwest Washington and build a new one. The house, built in the 1940s, is small and falling apart. Furthermore, its size led to tensions between Ayalon’s wife, Anne, and domestic staff, which played out in the Israeli tabloids. “It should be a dignified house,” he said. “Not fancy, but comfortable.”