- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sallai Meridor readily admits that he is “new to the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” and that he was surprised by the depth and breadth of the everyday engagement between the two countries when he was appointed ambassador to Washington nearly two years ago.

“I’m so profoundly touched by the nature of the relationship between America and Israel,” Mr. Meridor told editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Tuesday. “So many people in America have Israel in their heart.”

He was hardly an obvious choice to replace Daniel Ayalon, a seasoned career diplomat who headed the embassy here for four years. A former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAI) and the World Zionist Organization (WZO), Mr. Meridor had not spent too much time in government service, even though he came from a political family.

His brother, Dan, is a scion of the Likud party and a former Cabinet minister who many Israelis expected would one day become prime minister.

“Many people thought he would succeed [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon,” said Ori Nir, a former Israeli journalist who is now the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a group that promotes an active U.S. role in Arab-Israeli negotiations. “The promise didn’t fulfill itself.”

What mattered were the future ambassador’s close ties with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. His connections in Jerusalem have given him the courage to be direct with and even stand up against other top officials when he disagrees with them.

Last month, Mr. Meridor sent a scathing letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, criticizing his decision to exclude the ambassador or any diplomat from meetings with U.S. officials during a recent visit to Washington.

“Your behavior seriously damaged that ability [to negotiate], and that of Israel to affect processes in the U.S. capital,” Mr. Meridor wrote in his letter, which was disclosed by Israel’s Channel 2.

Mr. Barak’s office said that the ambassador had been included in meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but not with National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley because of a lack of space.

Before coming to Washington, Mr. Meridor was best known as an outspoken advocate of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. His home is, in fact, in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim.

Nevertheless, he supported the so-called disengagement plan in 2005, which led to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He said on Tuesday that he would back any decision that “would advance the future of Israel as a strong Jewish democratic state.”

Israel has a “record of removing settlements for a greater cause,” he said, citing the pullout from the Sinai peninsula in the 1970s as part of a historic peace agreement with Egypt. The Gaza withdrawal was followed by a takeover of the strip by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which still controls it.

Settlement activity is often criticized by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been negotiating with the Israelis for about a year. Mr. Olmert’s government has made several announcements about expanding West Bank settlements since the negotiations began, which Miss Rice recently criticized as well.

“I’m not objective, but if there is an obstacle to peace, it’s not been in the past Israeli settlements,” Mr. Meridor said.

Then he became more philosophical.

“The settlements have been an expression of our right to settle in the land of Israel,” he said. “Negotiations are an expression of our realization that we are ready to compromise on part of our right in order to bring about an end to the conflict and a solution of two states living side by side in peace, security and dignity - dividing the land between us, where each side gives up on its dreams and perceived rights in what will be the state of the other side.”

Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in “very serious political negotiations dealing with core issues” on a daily basis, Mr. Meridor said.

The outgoing Egyptian ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy, told The Times in July that what has been going on is closer to “discussions,” rather than “negotiations,” and that the United States has yet to put a specific proposal on the table.

Asked whether such a proposal would help, Mr. Meridor said: “I very much doubt it.”

Still, he said, “I can hardly think of a peace effort concluded between Israel and any of its neighbors without the support of the United States,” but “to be real, the parties have to reach an agreement” themselves.

It is vital for the Palestinians to build an adequate infrastructure for their future state, and “we are making many efforts to help them move in this direction,” he said.

The Bush administration still maintains publicly that it hopes to secure an agreement that would lead to the establishment of a state before President Bush leaves office in January, but most Arab officials and outside experts doubt that will happen.

“It’s possible but not probable,” Mr. Fahmy said in July.

Soft-spoken and often described as introverted, Mr. Meridor is a former intelligence officer who also served in the Israeli army. He was born in 1955 in Jerusalem and graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He and his wife No’a have three daughters.

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, he held positions as an adviser to the ministers for minority affairs, defense and foreign affairs. In 1992, he became head of the WZO’s settlement division, then treasurer of both WZO and JAI, before heading the two organizations in 1999.

In this interview with The Times, Mr. Meridor urged Russia not to sell advanced weapons to Iran and Syria despite Moscow’s anger over Israeli military cooperation with Georgia. He also said that the main reason his government began indirect talks with Syria earlier this year was to “bring about a strategic repositioning” in the region by breaking up Damascus’ alliance with Iran.

“Ambassador Meridor is a good friend of America,” a State Department official said. “He is an effective advocate for Israel and for a strong and multifaceted relationship between Israel and the United States.”

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