Israel’s highest-profile diplomat in the United States, who resigned this month in a feud with his foreign minister, has agreed to take a job as chief executive officer of the American Jewish Congress.
Alon Pinkas, who served as the Israeli consul general in New York until August 1, will assume a newly created post at AJCongress. The plan, a closely guarded secret until this week, is for the former diplomat to be based in New York and Israel, while traveling across the United States.
With the new appointment, AJCongress is being led not only by a former Israeli diplomat, but an outspoken supporter of territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Pinkas served as chief foreign policy adviser to Ehud Barak during his campaign for prime minister in 1999 and later was a senior aide to Barak’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami. In his three years as consul general he has been frequently critical of Yasser Arafat and Palestinian terrorism, but often reaffirmed his belief in the need for Israeli concessions in the peace process. During his consular stint, Pinkas developed a reputation for adeptly handling the media and emerged as arguably Israel’s most effective spokesman.
The selection of Pinkas is sure to spark a new round of discussion over the political direction of the historically liberal AJCongress. In 1987, under the professional leadership of Henry Siegman, it became the first major Jewish organization formally to endorse Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Since Siegman’s departure a decade ago, the organization has acquired an increasingly hard-line image, naming to senior posts several foreign policy hawks previously seen as tilting either toward Likud or the Republicans. Pinkas’s appointment seems likely to halt or reverse that drift.
The appointment is also likely to spark debate in Israel over the propriety of a diplomat staying abroad and taking a local job after completing a posting. Similar incidents, though not illegal, have led to a public furor several times in recent years.
The president of AJCongress, Paul Miller, said that Pinkas’s job would be to implement the organization’s current policy — which includes support for the disengagement plan of Prime Minister Sharon.
In a statement released by AJCongress, Pinkas said: “My entire career of service to the State of Israel has been focused on strengthening our relationship with the United States government and the American Jewish community, which I regard as Israel’s strategic reservoir. As I complete my most challenging and rewarding assignment to date, my singular priority is to continue expanding the dialogue between Israel and American Jews, and enhancing our commitment to one another.”
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reportedly pushed Pinkas, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University, out of his consul general post after three years on the job. On leaving his post, Pinkas sent a scathing letter to Foreign Ministry employees, attacking Shalom. In the letter, Pinkas sarcastically referred to Shalom as a “Churchillian diplomat” and detailed a list of objectives that the foreign minister had failed to achieve. In a tart response, Foreign Ministry officials that Pinkas was a political appointee, adding that it is “interesting that he had not brought up any such concerns prior to the announcement that he was leaving his post.” Shalom associates were quoted as calling Pinkas “Peres’s lapdog, who does everything based on the desires of his master.”
Miller said he initiated the talks with Pinkas after he finished up his stint with the Foreign Ministry several weeks ago, and quickly brought in the organization’s chairman, Jack Rosen. Several insiders said that choice was a closely guarded secret between the three men. But Miller said that the organization’s board and executive committee were kept in the loop. Another source said that executive director Neil Goldstein also became involved.
AJCongress officials are hoping to benefit from Pinkas’s experience in dealing with Jewish organizations and American Jewish audiences, as well as with the American media and American officials. Pinkas also brings an array of impressive business connections, after serving as the Israeli official tasked with cultivating Israel’s relationship with the financial community in New York.
According to Miller, as the organization’s top professional, Pinkas will be serving above Goldstein, though all three of them would have a role to play in representing the organization to the public.
In addition to laudatory quotes from Miller, Rosen and Goldstein, the AJCongress press release announcing the appointment included praise of Pinkas from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. “Ambassador Alon Pinkas is the best and most eloquent representative and spokesman Israel ever had in the United States in his values, ideals and abilities,” Wiesel said. “We became close friends in the last several years, and I believe his sensibility, openness and qualities will impress and inspire all those fortunate enough to listen to his commentaries.”
Arye Mekel, deputy head of Israel’s delegation to the United Nations, is replacing Pinkas as consul general. Mekel’s selection came after the Israeli Foreign Service rejected Shalom’s first pick, Ofra Preuss. Preuss reacted sharply to the decision and accused the appointments committee of rejecting her nomination because she is a woman and a single mother. Sources close to Preuss said the committee believed it was inappropriate to send a single mother to represent Israel in New York, which boasts a large Orthodox population.