News Analysis: New Israeli ambassador to U.S. ready for confrontation

WASHINGTON — When Zalman Shoval arrived here last month, one Middle East analyst gave Israel's new ambassador a bottle of aspirin.

But Shoval, a veteran of the Washington political minefield, remained one step ahead. Pulling a small container from his suit pocket, Israel's new chief diplomat in the United States told the audience gathered for his inaugural speech that he already carries aspirin with him.

This should come as no surprise, given his first tenure as ambassador earlier this decade. Shoval said at the time the years 1990 to 1993 were "probably been the most difficult period ever" in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.

The period was marked by open strife between Jerusalem and Washington over the expansion of Israeli settlements, U.S. loan guarantees to assist Israel with the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, the 1991 Gulf War and the start of Arab-Israeli peace talks in Madrid later that year.

For his experience of managing bilateral tensions while serving the last Likud prime minister, Shoval, 68, was tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to return to Israel's Embassy here.

This time around, too, Shoval's tenure is likely to be fraught with difficulty.

He re-enters the embassy at a time of friction between the White House and the Israeli government over the peace process, specifically over a U.S. proposal for Israel to transfer an additional 13.1 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

Shoval also is likely to find himself doing battle with the Israeli opposition — on American soil.

Indeed, Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak was in Washington this week. He lead a delegation of senior officials from his party that met with Clinton administration and congressional officials, as part of an ongoing lobbying drive to push Netanyahu's hand in the peace process.

But Shoval also faces a challenge that he did not encounter on his last tour — the task of rebuilding the embassy's stature. Many pro-Israel activists hope that Shoval's arrival will mark the end of what many call a "sad chapter" in the embassy's history.

His predecessor, former Likud Knesset member Eliahu Ben-Elissar, was the subject of frequent rumors — he flew to Israel twice to fight to keep his job — and of embarrassing reports. Visiting Israeli Cabinet members left him in the car outside the State Department at least once. Ben-Elissar was also once left cooling his heels in a hotel lobby so that he would not overhear an important conversation.

While Ben-Elissar's two-year tenure was marked by such isolation and by conflict with Netanyahu, the Likud centrist Shoval has direct access to the Prime Minister's Office. In fact, during an hour-long interview last week at the ambassador's office, Shoval received his "daily" call from Netanyahu.

Ben-Elissar is now serving as ambassador to France.

By all accounts, restoring the embassy's reputation will not be easy.

Middle East analysts from all sides of the political spectrum say U.S.-Israel relations are likely headed for renewed confrontation. Even if Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reach an agreement on a U.S. plan to break the deadlocked peace process, many fundamental disagreements loom ahead over issues reserved for the final-status talks.

If those negotiations commence, Shoval could again find himself in the midst of an open conflict between the United States and Israel on such contentious matters as settlements, Palestinian statehood and the status of Jerusalem.

To keep relations smooth, Shoval hopes to take a lesson from his last tour here.

President Bush thought that he had received a commitment from then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to stop building new settlements. As Israel continued to break ground on new settlements, the Bush administration seethed and threatened to hold up the loan guarantees.

In order to maintain good relations, Shoval wants to "avoid misunderstandings or accusations of not having said the truth or the whole truth."

Therefore, he said, the time is coming to communicate Israel's "red lines" on final-status issues to the Clinton administration, he said.

With decision time "getting much nearer," Shoval said some of the disagreements between Israel and the United States "may become much more concrete now."

"In the past we said, and the Americans said, `OK, one day when we come to the actual negotiations we will have to see.'"

But the envoy added, "Maybe we disagree and we have to fight about it."

Anticipating these possible disagreements, Shoval wants to see the American role in the peace process revert back to that of a mediator.

Ironically, at Israel's request, U.S. negotiators have sat at the table with the parties as an active participant since last year.

What Shoval wants has recently transpired. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently urged the two sides to meet alone to resolve the differences that have stalled the peace process, and, as a result, Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting in Israel without the presence of American representatives.

When Shoval ended his first tour as ambassador, he cautioned: "We can't let the Arabs think that they have to negotiate with America instead of Israel."

Many fear that the current U.S. plan has created exactly that dynamic.

"I would not use the terms `a smaller United States role,'" Shoval said when asked about the proper balance for American intervention. "Ideally, it should be a somewhat different American role."

At his speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he was offered the aspirin, Shoval said that if the United States becomes a "judge" in the peace talks, it "could create bilateral disagreements in the future between us and the U.S."

"We would rather have disagreement with our Arab interlocutors than with America," he said.

Indicative of his diplomatic skills, Shoval danced around his opposition to the Oslo accords with the help of a dictionary.

"I wouldn't say that my government is devoted to the Oslo agreement — that we are affectionate, fond or loving towards it," he said.

"But I can say, unequivocally, that we are committed to it. I know that committed also means to be consigned to a mental institution for the insane — some on the right may think so," he said.

"But this is not what I mean."