Netanyahus U.S. diplomatic selections stir rivalries

NEW YORK — The Israeli prime minister's pick of two American immigrants for top U.S. diplomatic postings is exacerbating tensions in Israel's foreign policy arena.

Both Dore Gold, Israel's ambassador-designate to the United Nations, and Leonard Davis, slated to be No. 2 at the embassy in Washington, are veterans in U.S. policy and politics.

It is clear they are being tapped to sharpen Israel's muddled message and restore its tarnished international image as the peace process has ground to a halt.

But the confirmation process has run into a snag that reflects an internal Israeli tussle for control of foreign policy.

The appointments committee, expected to put its stamp on the nominations, postponed a meeting this week in response to pressure within the Foreign Ministry.

The ministry's ranks are concerned that the latest political appointments represent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's effort to wrest control over U.S. diplomacy and the peace process from the professional diplomatic corps.

This is despite the fact that Foreign Minister David Levy had approved the appointments.

For his part, Gold is seen as having the potential to eclipse both the Israeli ambassador in Washington and the incoming consul general in New York, partially because he has a direct line to the prime minister.

The 43-year-old Connecticut native has been serving as Netanyahu's top foreign policy adviser since the premier came to power a year ago.

As for the Davis pick, some in Israel and Washington fear that it will reinforce the canard spread by Israel's detractors that the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is merely an arm of the Israeli government. Until a few months ago, Davis was the longtime head of the Israel office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC.

For weeks, rumors had swirled that Gold would replace the Israeli ambassador in Washington.

Eliahu Ben-Elissar had been getting poor reviews. Characterized as ideological and undiplomatic, he was overshadowed by Gold whenever Netanyahu visited the White House.

But Ben-Elissar saved his job. During urgent consultations in Jerusalem last month, he apparently made it clear to his boss that he would not go gracefully. Netanyahu bowed to the pressure, unwilling to risk another crisis.

So Gold, who made aliyah in 1980, was enlisted to fill the post of U.N. ambassador, which was held temporarily for a year by David Peleg.

The news of the Gold nomination was greeted mostly with relief and praise. Most analysts tout Gold, an academician, as a highly knowledgeable and articulate spokesman for Israeli policies at a time when Israel desperately needs to bolster its image.

Gold is known as a hawk on security matters, but also as a political moderate in the Likud camp.

"To the extent he has to justify and explain Israel's reticence to move ahead with the peace process as rapidly as Israel would have done under the previous government, there is no better spokesman," said David Clayman, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Congress and a friend of Gold's. "Dore's focus on Israel's strategic interests and security needs is the best face the Netanyahu government will be able to put on its policies."

Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, formerly known as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, added: "I think those in the United Nations who are open-minded will be forced to question some of their positions."

Before the prime minister tapped him as an adviser, Gold was the director of the department of U.S. foreign and defense policy at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He has a doctoral degree in political science from Columbia University.

But even as Gold prepares for his new post, some are questioning why Netanyahu named Gold. Some also are wondering whether the post is, in fact, a promotion.

As one observer put it, Gold is going from "the prime minister's inner circle to debating Israeli policy with Bulgaria" on the floor of the United Nations.

Some believe that Gold's star may have dimmed as the peace process has unraveled. Although he started out shuttling to different Arab capitals, his relationships soon deteriorated with the Jordanians and the Egyptians, sources say, because of developments in the government beyond his control. As a result, he evidently lost some of his value to Netanyahu.

According to one source, he was in Jordan last fall when the Israelis ignited Arab anger by opening a new entrance to an ancient tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City.

The Jordanians, whose trust Gold had enjoyed, evidently felt betrayed, never believing Gold's claim that he knew nothing about it. He has also been marginalized in the talks with the Palestinians, sources say.

So while Netanyahu remains closer to Gold than to Ben-Elissar, some suggest that the prime minister wanted some distance from him and sought an adviser who is a more "mainstream" Israeli.