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(photo credit: AP [file])
Ending four-and-a-half years as Israel's top diplomat in Washington, Danny Ayalon proudly points out the great cooperation between Israel and the US and stresses that the relationship between the two countries has never been better.
Yet the outgoing ambassador will go down in history not only as one who took part in making the seamless relationship between Israel and its major ally a reality, but also for his own rocky relations with his bosses at home that exposed the dirty laundry of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Ayalon will be replaced by Salai Meridor, but he will not return to the Foreign Ministry. After 18 years, and reaching the top position for an Israeli diplomat, he is looking to go into business, working on bringing US investors to Israel.
"There is no post in the Foreign Ministry that can attract me now," Ayalon tells The Jerusalem Post.
He is leaving at a time when Washington and Jerusalem might be facing difficult decisions. With efforts to solve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict at a standstill and with the looming Iranian threat, the two countries will need the highest level of cooperation to ensure that no frustration builds up on either side of the transatlantic relationship.
Ayalon believes that the Israeli-American friendship is strong enough to withstand differences of opinion. He points out not only the good relations between the leaders of the two countries, but also polls showing a huge increase in the American public's support for Israel and a much greater identification with Israel than with the Palestinians or any other Arab country. He also stresses the importance of the thriving economic relations between the US and Israel and the strong trade contacts, as a sign of a healthy relationship.
Three major challenges have shaped the US-Israel ties during the years in which Ayalon served as ambassador: Operation Defensive Shield during the Intifada, the roadmap peace plan and the war in Lebanon. Yet Ayalon sees his most important diplomatic work in the weeks and days that led up to the US endorsement of the Gaza disengagement plan and the exchange of letters between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In the April 14th letters, Bush acknowledges for the first time the existence of Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank and the need to solve the Palestinian refugee problem within the future Palestinian state.
"This is a historic document that can be compared only to the Balfour Declaration," Ayalon says, equating the letter to the British document from 1917 which promised the Jewish people a homeland in what was then known as Palestine.
The credit for the April 14th exchange of letters, as well as for the US agreement to provide Israel with loan guarantees and the administration's backing of the separation barrier, did not all fall to Ayalon. In Israeli public opinion, as well as in government circles, the point man for high-level discussions with the US administration was not the ambassador but rather Dov Weisglass, who served as an adviser to Sharon. More than once, Sharon dispatched his trusted adviser to close deals with the Americans, instead of using the Israeli diplomats on the ground.
Ayalon, who served on Sharon's staff and was a surprise appointment by the former prime minister, says he does not feel frustrated with Jerusalem's keeping its own direct channel with Washington, above the embassy staff's heads.
"As someone who worked in the prime minister's office, I understand better than anyone else the need for direct relations between the prime minister's office in Jerusalem and the White House," the ambassador says.
"We worked as a team. Dubi [Weisglass] and me complemented each other."
But the great shock for Ayalon did not come from the prime minister's office, but from his own Foreign Ministry. The open and public dispute between Danny Ayalon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom dragged the two officials, their wives and the entire Israeli foreign service through the mud, for the eyes of the Israeli and international public.
Ayalon complained that Shalom was forcing him to fire his personal assistant, because the assistant did not arrange a meeting between performer Madonna and the minister's wife. Shalom snapped back with an investigation into the conduct of the ambassador's wife in their formal residence, based on reports in the Israeli press of mistreatment of the residence's staff. The dispute just got dirtier, with Ayalon allegedly secretly recording senior officials in the Foreign Ministry, Shalom trying to get him fired and investigations by the Government Service Office.
"I have no lessons to draw from the affair," Ayalon says, looking back at the year-and-a-half of an open fight with his minister, "It is something strange, anecdotal, which did not affect in any way the relationship with the US."
He turns down any attempt to get back at the former minister of foreign affairs, saying he was not offended personally and that it was all "no more than gossip."
"I knew that it was baseless and that is what gave me the strength to focus on my job and not to get offended," Ayalon adds.
One of Ayalon's most important assets, as ambassador to Washington, was his good relationship with Sharon. This backing not only enabled Ayalon to survive the feud with Shalom, but also to demonstrate to his American counterparts that the ambassador has the ear of the prime minister and thus an important channel for communications.
Ayalon used this advantage to forge warm relations with all levels of the US administration and congress. He was praised by the US president, welcomed by senior administration staff members and liked by the media and the Jewish community, who appreciated his ability to make the case for Israel even during the tough days of the Intifada and the war in Lebanon.
After being elected prime minister, Ehud Olmert, together with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed their confidence in Ayalon and asked him to stay on, at least for an interim period, praising his work in Washington.
But it was clear to Ayalon, whose family already returned to Israel, that it was time to move on. "I had a wonderful service, but one should not get stuck at one place for too long."