Colin Powell: Quintessential officer, gentleman, true friend to Israel

Powell was always calm, determined, focused, and emphasized that the US would always care for Israel’s interests.

 Danny Ayalon with Colin Powell. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Ayalon with Colin Powell.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Colin Powell was the quintessential officer and a gentleman. Tall in stature and soft-spoken, he was the first Black man to reach the highest diplomatic post as US secretary of state as well as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a four-star general. Although he made history, Powell carried it with ease and dignity.

In my first meeting with Powell in Washington, DC, he welcomed me with a wide smile and a phrase in Yiddish that he was very proud of. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s, Powell worked at a drugstore owned by a Jewish family that took him in. He was emotional talking about them and how he learned to appreciate Jewish customs, holidays and family values. This formative experience gave him the basis for his great affinity and respect for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Colin Powell’s tenure as secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, during George W. Bush’s presidency, was turbulent and intense, when both Israeli and American interests were intertwined. With the Second Intifada, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the preparation for the disengagement from Gaza, we spent so much time together, and he would “chastise” me that I was taking more of his time than most other ambassadors in Washington combined.

He was always calm, determined and focused, and he emphasized that the US would always care for Israel’s interests. He told me a number of times that regarding terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we were in the same boat.

Regarding the Palestinian issue, we had our differences. In the Bush administration, Powell was a key figure in devising the US plan for a two-state solution, as well as introducing the Quartet (the US, UN, Russia and the European Union). International involvement was always to the detriment of Israeli interests, but he claimed that by bringing them into the tent, they would be better controlled and less damaging to the political process between Israel and the Palestinians. And indeed, the US kept the Quartet fairly balanced.

 US President George W. Bush speaks about the Middle East from the Rose Garden of the White House as US Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) stands at his side April 4, 2002.  (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE) US President George W. Bush speaks about the Middle East from the Rose Garden of the White House as US Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) stands at his side April 4, 2002. (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

Powell supported Israel’s and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s demand for a complete cessation of terrorism before negotiations could restart. During his press conference in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s Residence in 2001, he held PLO chairman Yasser Arafat responsible for the terrorism and told the world Israel had the right to defend itself.

Colin Powell will be remembered as a true friend of Israel. May his memory be blessed.

The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the US.