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Envoy Looks Back on 2 Years of Tightly Knit U.s.-israel Ties

September 7, 2004
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Daniel Ayalon has served two years as Israel’s envoy to Washington, presiding over extraordinary closeness between the United States and Israel and radical changes in the American approach to Middle East peace that largely favor Israel. And he’s worried it could all be a career killer.

That’s because Ayalon, the first non-political appointee to Israel’s most sensitive overseas posting, has been involved in an intensely political process — one that guarantees an end to his career as a diplomat at the tender age of 48.

“I ruined my professional career, because from here on in there’s no going back,” said Ayalon, a compromise candidate in 2002 between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader. “This is a post which is much closer to political than to professional. It is a very political theater.”

Ayalon, speaking in an exclusive Rosh Hashanah interview with JTA,! says he has to consider his options after his likely return to Israel in two years — the typical term for an ambassador is four years — and will not get specific as to the possibilities.

Given his experience, a political career must be one option. In that case, he has an impressive resume: Israeli voters traditionally place great stock in candidates close to the American establishment. Ayalon has been a key player on a team that has seen unprecedented ties between the two countries.

In April, President Bush broke with decades of tradition and formally recognized that Israel was unlikely ever to return to the pre-1967 borders. He also rejected any right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) quickly echoed those assurances. Both Kerry and Bush have also pledged not to have dealings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“Israel-U.S. relations have never been better,” Ayalon said, suggesting tha! t in addition to Israel’s diplomatic achievements, intelligence and co unterterrorism cooperation was closer than ever.

“We pool resources together and a lot of work is being done.”

Ayalon spoke just days before revelations of an FBI investigation into the alleged involvement of Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists in the leaking of classified documents from the Pentagon.

Bipartisan support for the Jewish state is critical, Ayalon said.

“I’m always very impressed in all my meetings on the Hill, they will oppose each other on every issue except one which unites them, and this is Israel,” he said. Such bipartisanship helped nudge through sanctions against Syria this year.

The reverse is also true, he said: Ayalon cultivates both parties and attended both Democrats’ and the Republicans’ conventions this summer.

The ambassador likes to emphasize areas of cooperation that rarely get coverage: Israel, he says, accounts for a third of all U.S. imports to the Middle East, although its people make up only 2 percent of the pop! ulation of the region. Israel is about to celebrate 20 years of a free trade agreement with the United States — the first of its kind, and the model for subsequent U.S. agreements with other nations.

“The good experience the United States had with Israel opened the way for the United States to have free trade agreements with other countries,” he said, citing the North American and Central American agreements as examples.

Ayalon credits a number of factors contributing to the tight-knit relationship: shared democratic values, shared strategic interests and, since Sept. 11, 2001, a shared understanding of the effects of terrorism.

“We came together,” he said. “The same experience that Americans felt, the scourge of terrorism, bound us together even more than before.”

Especially critical, Ayalon said, has been the role of the U.S. Jewish community. He expressed concern about the younger Jewish generation and data that show that Israel has dropped to second pla! ce as a priority for many younger Jews.

“The older generations had firsthand experience of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, the existential threat against the Jewish people and then the miracle of the rising from the ashes, the redemption,” he said. “The challenge is to explain no matter how far removed we are from these historic events, the threats are still there and the opportunities are still there, there is a common fate.”

He sees the key in Jewish education. “I see more Jewish schools being built now, I see more Jews sending their kids to Jewish schools than before,” he said. “We have to strengthen this trend.”

Broader Jewish education would help Jews who face an onslaught of anti-Israel activity on university campuses, Ayalon said.

“The situation would change immediately,” he said. “Oftentimes, Jewish students are dumbfounded and they are not retorting, they are not sure enough about the facts and the history. We have a very strong, compelling narrative and case and it is important that we all know about it.”

! Ayalon could be forgiven for perceiving much of that “compelling narrative” as taking place in the last two years. He recites a litany of mini-crises and triumphs: the intensification of the intifada in the spring of 2002; the run-up to the Iraq war and the war itself; the highs and lows of the “road map;” the Israeli decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Chief among them — emotionally — is the saga of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in last year’s Columbia space shuttle tragedy.

“It wasn’t just a story of Israel being on the cutting edge of science and exploration, but the personal story of Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor,” Ayalon said, describing the arc of the tragedy as rising to “great pride” and then descending into “devastating shock.”

One hopeful outcome, he said, is increased closeness with Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator. Ayalon predicts more Israeli astronauts participating in space missions. “There is a great! basis for much more cooperation,” he said.

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