For the new Israeli ambassador to America, the Middle East peace process is about more than mere diplomacy. Sallai Meridor is the first Israeli ambassador to come from a West Bank settlement.
Meridor is scheduled to present his credentials to President Bush at the White House on Friday. As Israel’s chief diplomat in Washington, he is expected to represent the views of the first Israeli government elected on a platform of evacuating territories and dismantling settlements, among them perhaps his hometown of Kfar Adumim. “If the time comes and there is a decision that Kfar Adumim is to be removed, I will get up and leave peacefully,” Meridor told the Forward.
Though the realignment plan calling for a unilateral withdrawal of Israel from most of the West Bank is formally off the table, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech last week in Sde Boker renewed the Israeli government’s commitment to bring about a two-state solution in the near future. For Meridor, this vision was one of his major concerns before taking on the post in Washington. In accepting the position, he reached the end of a personal and political journey that began almost a decade ago and turned the former supporter of Greater Israel into an advocate of dividing the land.
This process, Meridor says, was driven by the realization that Israel never will be able to maintain a Jewish majority in all the land, and by the refusal of the Palestinians to agree to any political solution short of an independent state. “It all leads back to the first Zionist Congress in Basel, which set the three basic parameters: a Jewish state, in the land of Israel, secured by the law of nations,” he said.
A settler who grew up in the heart of the revisionist establishment, Meridor arrived at the same conclusion that Olmert and Ariel Sharon had reached before him — that these three parameters couldn’t be fulfilled without giving up control over most of the Palestinian population.
Meridor, 52, believes that his personal voyage, from living the dream of Greater Israel to realizing that the dream must be abandoned, can serve as a source of strength in his new diplomatic post. “Maybe my story,” he said, “can demonstrate the tremendous change that the Israeli society has gone through and the real sacrifice Israel is making when it states its willingness to give up land.”
A son of a member of Knesset from Menachem Begin’s Herut party, Meridor was born into politics. Living in Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood, the Meridors lived a life of political isolation at a time when David Ben Gurion’s Mapai party dominated Israeli politics. Two of the Meridor sons, Dan and Sallai, turned to politics at an early age, following in the footsteps of their father in Herut, which later became part of the Likud.
While Dan’s political star rose quickly, making him a possible contender for leadership during the past two decades, Sallai took the slower track: He started off as a political adviser to Moshe Arens, the foreign minister and minister of defense. From there he moved on to the Jewish Agency for Israel, where he began as head of the settlement division and worked his way up until he became chairman in 1999.
The gray bureaucratic image of the Jewish Agency seemed to suit Meridor, who shies away from the press. His polite manners, hoarse voice and intellectual approach to issues never made him an ideal candidate for politics; yet he is admired by peers for his honesty and integrity, standing out in the corruption-tarred Israeli political system. One of his former advisers says that in Meridor’s case, looks might be deceiving: He has a unique flair for convincing adversaries, and a kind of closed-doors charisma that makes him extremely effective in small decision-making meetings.
Meridor was Olmert’s first pick to replace Danny Ayalon as ambassador to Washington. While formally under the authority of the foreign ministry, the ambassador is appointed by the prime minister, who controls the ties with Israel’s major ally and has his own envoys rushing to Washington when major issues come up. Ayalon had realized this dichotomy in a painful way, which led him to an all-out clash with the foreign minister and to a chain of embarrassing mutual complaints and investigations.
Meridor sought in advance a set of understandings with Olmert to ensure that Ayalon’s situation would not repeat itself. Though Olmert made clear to Meridor that he still will be sending personal envoys to America, he promised that the ambassador will be kept in the loop and that nothing will be done behind his back. “An ambassador in Washington needs to know how to maintain a very good relationship with both the prime minister and the foreign minister,” Meridor said. “I didn’t leave my home, my daughters and my grandchildren in order to come over here and fight with anyone. We all represent the same country.”
Meridor’s six-year tenure as head of the Jewish Agency was at times rough, mainly when it came to dealing with the American Jewish community, the principal funder of the agency. His drive to increase the share of donations sent to Israel out of the federations’ annual campaigns led to friction with some community leaders, and his criticism of the Birthright program — which he sees as too short and ineffective — was a source of tension between Meridor and Charles Bronfman, one of the program’s chief sponsors.
On the issue of bringing the Falash Mura to Israel from Ethiopia, Meridor found himself pressured by American Jews wanting to see the process sped up and by the Israeli government, which, he felt, did not supply enough funds for such an operation.
Meridor also confronted the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the World Jewish Congress and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany over funding issues, and spoke out against American groups raising money to fight hunger in Israel. He initiated a government resolution banning that kind of solicitation, declaring that there is no need for Diaspora Jews to fund soup kitchens in Israel.
Like many Israelis, he is still sensitive to American Jews’ criticism of Israeli policy. “People should express their feelings,” Meridor said, “but on existential issues, each side should respect the responsibility of the party that is under threat to make its own decisions.” According to the new ambassador, those in the Diaspora who feel that Israel is part of their family must act appropriately. “An intimate dialogue,” he said, “should be conducted within the family, not outside.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.