Before the current row between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, is dismissed as just another political sideshow, Jerusalem should understand that with the job of a successful ambassador in question, the continuity of Israeli-American relations is at stake.
Having worked with Ayalon as his former speechwriter and aide, I admittedly view this melee with a touch of bias. But my loyalties aside, I worry that by firing the ambassador, Israel would be showing the United States that even its most important bilateral relationship can’t withstand domestic squabbles.
With sensitive issues like the upcoming Gaza disengagement requiring close support and understanding from the United States, it would be harmful to sacrifice Israel’s most effective advocate in Washington to the politics of personal destruction. Sacking a successful ambassador could have negative implications inside the Beltway.
Shalom has made himself irrelevant in Washington by opposing Prime Minister Sharon’s policies. By contrast, Ayalon has earned the trust and respect of the White House. His success is what is bringing him down at the hands of Shalom, who feels left out of the Washington loop.
With relations between the White House and the Israeli embassy in Washington running at their smoothest point, Shalom suddenly claims that he has “lost faith” in Ayalon and wants to quickly sack him from his post. But really it is Washington that has lost faith in Shalom.
The foreign minister is reportedly angered that President Bush wouldn’t meet him during a recent visit to the United States. Since Shalom has used his power to try and derail Israel’s disengagement plan and weaken Sharon’s standing within his own Likud Party, Washington has apparently decided that it has a better path to Jerusalem through Ayalon than through the foreign minister. What did Shalom expect?
I witnessed firsthand the tireless effort that Ayalon put into securing what is said to be the best ties Israel has ever enjoyed with the United States. The ambassador’s skill at delivering Israel’s message has opened minds and doors throughout Washington.
When Ayalon first assumed his post, Condoleezza Rice — already used to working with him when he was senior adviser to the prime minister — joked that now they would only need to make a local phone call to do business.
While previous Israeli ambassadors frequently hid behind the confines of the embassy’s secure gates, Ayalon has been personable, speaking in clear and eloquent English that has allowed him to reach out in unprecedented ways to the White House, Congress, Jewish groups and American media. The ambassador is widely admired by both parties on Capitol Hill, as many congressional staffers have told me personally.
The current investigation into the conduct of Ayalon’s wife, Anne, is nothing more than a deliberate attempt to stymie the ambassador’s popularity in Washington and thwart the role he earned as a trusted liaison between Jerusalem and the White House.
I spent a great deal of time with Anne in the embassy, and I never saw her exhibit anything like the behavior that has been attributed to her. The decision to investigate a dubious report — published in a newspaper run by the family of Shalom’s wife, and based largely on the complaints of an employee fired years earlier — carries more the mark of a personal vendetta launched by the foreign minister.
Escalating the already sensational nature of the scandal, the foreign minister’s audacious wife, Judy Nir Mozes Shalom, is suspected to have meddled in this affair after reportedly being upset at the failure of the ambassador’s office to arrange a photo-op for her with Madonna.
The United States is watching this time, and the stakes could be serious. If Shalom succeeds in firing Ayalon, it is doubtful that Washington will put much trust in whomever Shalom picks as the next ambassador. This outcome would fray the open channels between Washington and Jerusalem, damaging the crucial relationship.
Members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee looking into the affair already have accused Shalom of faulty leadership, calling on him to quit “before a wave of revelations and humiliation turns into a tsunami.” After hearing Shalom’s explanation of this diplomatic and media mess, the committee will likely conclude that the foreign minister is letting American-Israeli relations fall victim to his personal disappointment at being passed over by Washington — and to his wife’s disappointment at being passed over by Madonna.
Ayalon is doing a superb job, as anyone in Washington can attest. His job must not be consumed by this embarrassing case of political pettiness.
Jordan Nodel is a former speechwriter and aide to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.