Israeli hard-liner historian to assume hot seat in U.S. as diplomat, go-between Eliahu Ben-Elissar arrives in Washington in a few weeks to take up his post

July 11, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli prime ministers move through Washington attracting more attention and stirring up more commotion than the leaders of nations 20 times the size of the Jewish state.

But the Israeli ambassador to the United States has the full-time job of guiding and coaxing the complex relationship between Israel and its most powerfully committed ally.

Beginning in a few weeks, that man will be Eliahu Ben-Elissar, a one-time spy who served as Israel's first ambassador to Egypt, a historian who likes French food and a political hard-liner on his country's sovereignty over the Palestinian territories.

Ben-Elissar, a veteran member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, was appointed to Israel's most important diplomatic post this week, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for his first visit to Washington since he was elected last month.

The Israeli ambassador to Washington actually has two jobs: one as his country's representative to the U.S. government; the other as Israel's chief representative to the wealthy and powerful American-Jewish community.

"There probably is no more important position than the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. in terms of the American Jewish community's perspective," Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Community Council, said in a telephone interview.

"In addition to interpreting Israeli policies to the U.S. government, the ambassador also explains Israeli policies to the Jewish community," said Mr. Abramson.

With some understatement, he added, "that dialogue as waged through the ambassador is often private, allowing for a heightened level of discourse."

European-style diplomat

Friends and colleagues describe Ben-Elissar as a European-style diplomat in manner and dress. Ideologically, he has been a Likud loyalist in the tradition of the late Menachem Begin, whom he served as chief of staff.

"He is very accomplished, very careful in the way he expresses himself. He doesn't like monkeying around," said Yossi Ben Aharon, who served as director general of the prime minister's office under Yitzhak Shamir.

"He's no novice to international diplomacy," added Joseph Alpher, director of the Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee.

He will replace Itamar Rabinovich, the dapper, British-looking appointee of the previous Labor government who has said that he could not defend the positions of the new Israeli government.

Ben-Elissar, 64, was a child of the Holocaust. Educated in France and Switzerland, he speaks six languages. He served on the Israeli team that negotiated the details of peace with Egypt in the 1970s and was Israel's first ambassador to Egypt in 1980-81.

In an interview this week about his Washington appointment he said he was looking forward to a "best of honeymoons. I'm looking forward to fostering the relations between the two countries."

He may have his work cut out for him.

Despite the fanfare over Netanyahu's trip to Washington, the prime minister's stated positions on the peace process differ substantively from those of the Clinton administration, the facilitator of the 1993 Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sounds like Netanyahu

In Washington, Ben-Elissar is not likely to leave any confusion between his views and those of the Netanyahu government. "He will represent this government. Period," said Ze'ev Schiff, a boyhood friend of Ben-Elissar and Israeli journalist who co-authored a book with the new ambassador.

In interviews this week he has sounded much like his newly-elected boss on such issues as a Palestinian state and the Palestinian demand for Jerusalem as its capital. "We're not going to be as hasty as the previous government was," he told Israeli radio. "We are not going to gamble."

Born Eliahu Gottleib in Poland in 1932, he lost his parents during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Posing as the son of a woman visiting Poland, he was smuggled out of the country and emigrated to Israel as a 10-year-old boy. He eventually adopted the name Ben-Elissar, a combination of his parent's names.

While a student in France, he began working as a security guard at the Israeli Embassy in Paris, according to Schiff. From there, he joined Israel's spy agency, the Mossad. He served with the agency from 1950 to 1965.

Ben-Elissar first ran for a seat in the Knesset in 1977. He lost, but Prime Minister Begin tapped Ben-Elissar as his director general. After Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, Ben-Elissar was sent to Cairo as Israel's first ambassador there.

In 1981, he won a seat in the Knesset and served twice as as chairman of the foreign affairs and defense committee.

Not the first choice

The historian seemed a likely candidate for the Washington job even though he reportedly wasn't the prime minister's first choice.

Ben-Elissar is married and has one son.

"I think he will go over quite well with the American political community in Washington and the American Jewish community," said David Clayman, Israel director of the American Jewish Congress. "He is quite elegant looking. His English is quite good. He will be a diplomat among diplomats."

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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