Thursday, October 5, 2006

TEL AVIV — Sallai Meridor, Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States, is not known to be a close associate of his boss, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But whatever they lack in a personal friendship may be offset by the understanding that comes from traveling a parallel ideological journey.

Both come from the same political lineage of prominent revisionist Zionist families who dreamed of a Jewish state stretching from the Mediterranean eastward beyond the Jordan River. In recent years, both have departed with that mind-set, moving to Israel’s pragmatic center and acknowledging that holding on to all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip doesn’t square with the concept of a Jewish state.

To be sure, when Mr. Meridor, the consensus nomination for ambassador by Mr. Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, arrives in Washington in the coming weeks, his top duty will be keeping Israel in step with U.S. policy on confronting Iran’s drive to nuclear power, analysts said.

The media-shy ambassador-appointee is the most genuine reflection of Mr. Olmert because of his recognition of the need for a Palestinian state and territorial compromise after years of activism in the right-wing Likud Party.

Mr. Meridor’s transformation is perhaps even more complete because of his three-decade residency in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

“The prime minister views Sallai as a figure who can transcend his pro-settler orientation by putting a premium on some of the broader issues that confront Israel,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Judge him more by the positions he puts forward than where he lives.”

After finishing a six-year tenure last year as head of the Jewish Agency — the quasi-governmental agency that cultivates ties between Israel and the Jewish diaspora — Mr. Meridor may hold his most valuable asset in the relationships forged with the United States rather than his geopolitical expertise.

The 51-year-old envoy-designate sharpened his diplomatic skills as a top aide to the Likud’s Moshe Arens, who was defense minister during the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

The new Washington diplomat is less comfortable in the limelight than his father, who served in the first Israeli parliament, and an older brother, Dan, who was appointed as a minister in several Likud governments.

While on visits in the United States for the Jewish Agency, he was known to have preferred cabs to Lincoln Town Car limousines.

“As a human being he’s shy and modest,” said Michael Jankelowitz, the foreign press spokesman at the Jewish Agency.

“Everything he does is low-profile. Nothing he does is bombastic. He’s not going to steal Olmert’s thunder. Sallai is going to be behind the scene.”

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