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After Three Quiet Years in U.s., Ambassador Ivry Speaks out

April 15, 2002
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Don’t look for Israel’s ambassador to the United States on television; you’re not likely to find him.

Though Abba Eban and Yitzhak Rabin used the Washington posting as a stepping-stone to higher office in Jerusalem, David Ivry has led a relatively quiet existence in Washington for the three years he served as Israel’s envoy to the United States.

There have been no television cameras and very few public speeches. That strategy — to avoid the spotlight rather than publicly fighting on Israel’s behalf as terror attacks rocked Jerusalem — has drawn criticism both in Washington and internationally.

During one tiff between Israel and the United States, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman rhetorically asked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon whether there was an Israeli ambassador in Washington.

“Everyone liked Ivry,” said one Jewish official, “but he wasn’t visible.”

Now, as he prepares to leave Washington to return to his homeland, Ivry is doing something he rarely did during his tenure — speaking out and defending himself, his style and the work his office has done in the past three years.

As Palestinian commentators on a small television in his office decry the latest Israeli incursions into the West Bank, Ivry explains why he does not join the public fight.

In heavily-accented English, Israel’s former national security adviser and director general of the Defense Ministry says his quiet demeanor during the violent months was a strategic decision to gain favor with the Bush administration.

By not running to television cameras after each meeting at the State Department or the White House — as so many of his Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic colleagues do — he was able to gain the trust of the American decision makers, Ivry says.

“If I am going to have a meeting and I am not going to go to the media, we can go on a very deeper level of consultation, of assessment, of discussing what should be done,” Ivry told JTA last week. “What I learned here, and learned it quite fast, is that credibility and integrity are much more powerful factors in diplomacy than getting out to the media, speaking all kinds of mantras.”

Ivry believes he was able to affect the Bush administration’s views on many issues, thereby changing the national dialogue and influencing the American media.

“Before the spokesmen came out we had some effect on what they were going to say, because we explained our position,” Ivry says “It could have been much more on the extreme side.”

Ivry admits it may not have been enough for the American Jewish community, which wanted marching orders and a more public Israeli face for their conferences and conventions.

“They wanted to have very much a spokesman rather than an ambassador, not understanding the other part of an ambassador,” he said.

The American Jewish official says that, by leaving it to others to represent Israel publicly, Ivry neglected a key function of his job.

“That may be fine in certain circumstances, but a spokesman can’t be everywhere at once, and its not the same thing as having someone with the stature of an ambassador” on television, said the official, who worked closely with the embassy. “Israel’s image in part is formed by the actions of its ambassadors, and without him there is a vacuum that anyone can fill.

“I don’t think anyone has a bad thing to say about him as a diplomat,” the official continued, “but as an ambassador, I can’t say he fulfilled what many might have wanted.”

When Ivry was appointed to the position in 1999 by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the American Jewish community was one of the few groups he was dealing with.

Barak was talking directly to President Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. There was no real need for another intermediary, Ivry says.

But as the peace process failed and both Clinton and Barak left office, Ivry’s role changed.

Anticipating the victory of George W. Bush, Ivry says he courted some 20 senior Republicans, including Bush running mate Dick Cheney. His office’s work, in his view, made for a smooth transition when the U.S. administration changed from Democrat to Republican and when Ariel Sharon’s unity government replaced Barak’s Labor government.

Ivry says he has had all the access he needed in this administration, and points to the Karine A affair in early January as a sign of his office’s influence on the Mideast agenda.

For the first week after Israeli soldiers captured the ship sailing from Iran to the Gaza Strip with 50 tons of weapons, it was not a hot topic of conversation.

But Ivry says he pushed the issue with the White House and State Department, explaining how the capture revealed Arafat’s true intentions.

“The media here was not very supportive until the administration came out with their declaration” — which in effect blamed the Palestinian Authority for the shipment — “and we had to work with the administration directly to convince them about the strategic impact,” he said. “Only then did the media come out with major support. It took us one week.”

Ivry sees the Karine A affair as a watershed event in his American tenure, ranking with the Camp David peace talks of July 2000 and the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Ivry’s last days in office have coincided with the most deadly Israeli-Palestinian fighting since the intifada began in September 2000, and he says he has been in contact with State Department and White House officials to defend Israeli military actions.

Some claim to see a rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in the past few weeks — when Sharon refused Bush’s demand to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank immediately — but Ivry says the two countries are just quarreling over details.

“There is a risk for some more tension, but I don’t think there is a break,” he says. “The strategic common interests are really equal and identical in my opinion without hesitation.”

Even if U.S. and Israeli viewpoints do diverge, it would not be new territory for Ivry. After all, as commander of the Israel Air Force in 1981, he led the mission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor, a mission condemned by the United States and most of the world.

It took a decade for the United States — specifically, then-Defense Secretary Cheney — to realize Israel’s foresight, when Iraq’s lack of nuclear capability made the 1991 Persian Gulf War easier for the American-led coalition.

Before Ivry even announced his intention to leave Washington, rumors already were circulating about who would replace him. With both Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres required to sign off on a replacement, the Washington post has come to symbolize the tug of war within Israel’s unity government.

Speculation has focused on Ephraim Halevy, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, and Dore Gold, a Sharon adviser and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

Already a familiar face to American television audiences, Gold has been referred to in jest as the “anti-Ivry,” as he would be expected to focus more on courting the media and presenting a more public face for Israel.

The controversy over choosing a successor has cast a shadow over his job for months, Ivry says, with people less interested in doing business with a lame duck.

Frustrated with the situation, Ivry announced several months ago that he would leave after this months’ Israel Independence Day celebrations, whether or not a successor had been chosen.

Ivry will divulge little about his future options, saying he does not think proper to discuss future plans while still serving as ambassador. While shrugging off the idea of political office, he says people have approached him for public service positions in Israel.

Alternatively, he says, he may go into private industry — or even join the media.

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