Washington Watch: The many kippot of an Israeli ambassador

The job description covers everything from chief lobbyist to concierge.

michael oren 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
michael oren 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The new ambassador moving into the Israeli Embassy on International Drive brings unique qualifications to the job. Michael Oren was born, raised and educated in the United States and is the author of a best-selling history of US Middle East policy. For the past year he has been a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Picking an envoy to Washington can be one of the most important decisions a prime minister makes, but it is not always taken as seriously as it should be. Some stellar envoys have represented Jerusalem in Washington - Abba Eban, Abe Harman and Yitzhak Rabin. Other ambassadors have been third-choice compromises between the prime minister and foreign minister without the full backing and confidence of either. And it showed. Ambassador to Washington is the top posting for an Israeli diplomat and he (so far all 16 have been men) wears many hats. The job differs with each ambassador and prime minister, according to the former's talents and the latter's needs. "WHAT MAKES a good ambassador is whether he can affect US policy and influence his own government as a result of his knowledge and experience here," said Avi Becker, a visiting professor at Georgetown University. "He has to do more than give Israel's viewpoint, he has to communicate it with passion and conviction." "The most important factor is whether an ambassador is seen as speaking in the name of the PM or not. If not, he will never succeed," a former Israeli ambassador told me. "The way to tell is whether he accompanies the prime minister to meetings with the president or secretary of state." When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Jerusalem two months ago with then-prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu, ambassador Sallai Meridor was told to wait outside. Right afterward he announced his resignation. About a dozen years ago I walked into the Madison Hotel in Washington and saw ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar cooling his heels in the lobby. He told me that Dore Gold, Netanyahu's aide, was up in his room reporting to the PM in Jerusalem about a meeting he'd just had at the State Department that had also excluded the ambassador. Israel's first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, used to say that the Israeli ambassador wears two hats as ambassador to the country and minister to the Jewish community. He later added a third one in recognition of Abba Eban's great talent: the voice of Israel. The hat rack has steadily expanded since then. "Oren was picked because he'll be an excellent voice of Israel, but I doubt Bibi will let him do much more. He'll be a glorified spokesman," said a senior Israeli diplomat. "Bibi will want to do the heavy diplomatic lifting himself or send Uzi Arad [his national security adviser]. Oren's job will be to sell his policies to the American public and the Jews." Netanyahu grew up, went to school and spent many years as a businessman and diplomat here, so he knows the United States as well as almost anyone he could send. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a stranger here, is free to roam the rest of the world, but America is Bibi's turf. An Israeli friend of Oren disagrees. "There is some reluctance to deal with Bibi in this administration because of his history and reputation; he's not greatly liked in Washington, so he'll need a likable ambassador, and Michael fits that need." TODAY'S ISRAELI ambassador wears many hats, including: • Diplomat - He must be an authoritative voice of his prime minister at the highest levels. • Chief lobbyist - "A good ambassador should be a consummate politician and a backroom lobbyist who knows his way around Capitol Hill," said an Israeli diplomat. He operates in the political arenas of both countries. • Voice - He explains Israel to the United States, and vice versa. • Minister to the Jews - He fills a vacuum created by the lack of any central Jewish authority in the United States. • Manager - He runs Israel's biggest embassy, filled with competing factions representing many agencies with strong Washington connections and agendas of their own. He has to keep everyone on message. • Spokesman - "He has to do more than give Israel's viewpoint; he has to communicate it clearly, comfortably and persuasively, and he has to enjoy doing it," said a foreign ministry official. • Concierge - Visiting Israeli officials and other VIPs want to be pampered, and if they feel they haven't been treated right, they'll go home and create problems for the ambassador and his staff. "Washington is the top posting for an Israeli ambassador because the relationship is so critical. There's absolutely no room for mistakes and no time to learn on the job, especially with a large Israeli press corps watching every single move and reporting it home," said Tova Herzl, a Washington veteran who has served as ambassador to several countries. "Being an ambassador is like being a juggler. You've got to keep a dozen glass balls in the air, and everyone will remember the one you dropped, not the 11 you kept going."