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(photo credit: AP [file])
Departing Ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon said Thursday that he expected Israel's strong strategic relationship with the US to continue should Robert Gates be confirmed as the next secretary of defense.
Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post by telephone from Washington that Gates would be heading a department which is "very supportive and cooperative with Israel," and that he believed the nominee would continue that tradition.
President George W. Bush nominated Gates Wednesday to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned earlier in the day after the Republicans suffered heavy congressional election losses in a race largely focused on the war in Iraq.
Gates served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under president George H. W. Bush, working closely with secretary of state James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Many American Jews and Israelis expressed reservations about that team, feeling its approach to Israel was more critical and tension-filled than those of more recent administrations.
But Ayalon, who is returning after more than four years in the US capital, said that these figures weren't anti-Israel. They viewed their approach of "engaging" Arab countries as being "in Israel's interests."
At any rate, some in the American Jewish community have suggested that Gates was more positively disposed toward Israel than Baker and Scowcroft.
Gates, however, has reportedly been critical of the handling of the Iraq war and has spent the last eight months serving on Baker's bipartisan Iraq Study Group examining the problems of the war.
Ayalon suggested that Bush's swift personnel move was a gesture to Democrats and disaffected voters, many of whom have blamed Rumsfeld for mishandling the war, as well as the international community.
"Rumsfeld was a little bit tough and Gates will have a gentler face," he said.
Ayalon described the midterm elections as centering on the Iraq war, but said that even with greater Democratic power in Congress "nobody's talking about cutting and running. Maybe [they'll] change tactics."
Similarly, he predicted that America's national defense policy would stay largely the same.
"I don't think we will see such deep differences - maybe different nuance, different rhetoric, different emphasis," he explained.
And he stressed that when it came to the strong Israel-US relationship, the shake-up in Congress "will not change it at all."
According to Ayalon, "We always were reaching out to Democrats and Republicans. We develop and cherish bipartisan support at all times, and I think it will pay off now as it always has."