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The Disengagement Summer As Withdrawal Begins, Ambassador Takes to Airwaves to Build Support

August 17, 2005
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Every few minutes, Daniel Ayalon checks the television in the corner of his office, seeking the latest images from the Gaza Strip. Like many American Jewish supporters of Israel, Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, is concerned about the images people will see in coming days and weeks — settlers and their supporters forming blockades against Israeli troops who have come to evict them, defiant residents being dragged from their homes — as Israel evacuates settlers from the Gaza Strip and four communities in the West Bank.

While the Gaza withdrawal has been a hot topic in Israel for months, it’s just beginning to take top billing on American television screens. For the next few weeks, Ayalon’s key task will be highlighting the positive elements of the withdrawal and capitalizing on the goodwill it has prompted from U.S. officials.

“I think there is a growing understanding and a growing realization of the enormity of the task and the sacrifice by the Israeli people and the Jewish state,” Ayalon told JTA in an interview Monday. “It will be our task and the objective of the embassy to make sure to translate this empathy into active support for Israeli policies.”

While some U.S. lawmakers were focused on providing assistance for the withdrawal to Israel and the Palestinians and American Jewish organizations were sending out their last messages for and against the plan, Ayalon’s was the loudest voice in the United States on the issue.

The 49-year-old Ayalon, a foreign policy adviser to the last three Israeli prime ministers, is no stranger to the United States. He received a master’s in business from Bowling Green University in Ohio in 1983, and his wife is an American.

Ayalon calls the withdrawal plan “dramatic and traumatic.” He has upped his media exposure, booking appearances on numerous television news programs this week. He also gave a well-received address at the National Press Club on Friday, taking questions from Arab reporters on the details of the withdrawal and on Israel’s future plans.

Ayalon’s message focuses heavily on the “day after” withdrawal. He’s urging the wider world, including the United States and Arab leaders, to pressure Gaza’s future rulers to “put the ‘authority’ in Palestinian Authority.”

“Just as Israel is paying this heavy price, it is important that the Palestinians will take the same attitude, and also they have to make very important decisions about how to go forward from here,” Ayalon said. “The onus, quite frankly, is on them.”

He said Israel wants Gaza to be “free, secure and democratic” but that the Palestinians must show their willingness to fight terrorism before they receive more arms or a seaport, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urges.

P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas “has the mandate to act and he has the means to act,” Ayalon said. “It’s just a matter of a strategic decision, with a political will to push the strategic decision to do it.”

U.S. lawmakers were circulating a letter Monday, spearheaded by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), calling on Rice not to provide arms or other “legal instruments” to the Palestinian Authority.

“We certainly understand the need to strengthen moderate Palestinian leaders and to provide the Palestinian people with the humanitarian assistance they need to improve their daily lives,” the letter said. “However, we believe it would be a mistake to supply weapons to the P.A., particularly before its leadership acts to control the terrorist groups.”

Ayalon also is likely to press for increased U.S. aid to Israel. He notes that President Bush offered additional assistance in April 2004, when he endorsed the withdrawal plan, and says Israel will need foreign aid as it develops the Negev and Galilee, two areas expected to absorb settlers.

An aid package “epitomizes the friendship and the alliance between the two countries,” Ayalon said. “Every time we have made a major breakthrough politically, and it involved sacrifice from Israel, the U.S. was compensating Israel for that.”

Ayalon said American aid would show the Arab world that Israel has not been weakened by withdrawal, a concern for Israel supporters. He said the aid also would reassure Israelis.

The aid request should be finalized in coming months. Ayalon would not confirm the amount, but sources said Israel is seeking $2.2 billion on top of its annual $2.5 billion aid package.

Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers are touring Israel this month and have expressed support for the package.

Ayalon says he believes Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be able to revert to the sequence of steps outlined in the “road map” peace plan the United States authored in 2003 with the help of the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. Though the drafters proposed a timeline for the plan, they also made clear that it is performance-based, meaning that the sides will not progress to the plan’s later stages until the commitments enumerated in earlier stages have been met, a major change from the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

Ayalon said he expects Abbas to be held to the Palestinians’ road-map commitments to dismantle terrorist organizations and stop anti-Israel incitement. But he said Israel did not agree with its own road-map obligation to freeze all settlement activity, including so-called natural growth.

“We have never accepted it,” he said. “I don’t think it is logical, it is not feasible, it is not realistic, and it is not even moral.”

Ayalon said Israel has been working with the United States to define natural growth. After withdrawal, he said, no one will be able to claim that Israel has not done its share under the road map.

Though some critics have said the American Jewish community has given insufficient backing to the withdrawal, Ayalon said he isn’t disappointed with the support from American Jewish organizations. He said many groups have been productive in blocking “fringe groups” from actively opposing Israel’s plans.

Many U.S. Jewish groups have endorsed the plan, but few are actively touting it this week. Congress is in summer recess, and Jewish leaders said they’re answering media questions about withdrawal but not actively promoting it.

The Israel Policy Forum will launch a primer on disengagement this week, and Americans for Peace Now is taking out ads in Jewish newspapers, showcasing rabbis from Southern California who support the plan.

Opponents of the Gaza plan are more active: The Zionist Organization of America and the Israel Concert in the Park Committee were planning a protest Tuesday in front of the United Nations in New York.

“We still have a slight hope that more Israeli leaders will step forward and realize this rewards terror and increases terror,” said Morton Klein, the ZOA’s national president.

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