Ambassador to Israel gets earful on visits to Bay Area, U.S. cities

Is the U.S. preoccupation with the Clinton scandal hindering America's role in the Middle East peace process?

Edward Walker, U.S. ambassador to Israel, doesn't think so.

"There's been no lack of attention by the president or the secretary of state to that issue," he said in an interview with the Bulletin Friday of last week. "In fact, we've made some of our most dramatic progress since this whole thing broke."

Still, as an American citizen who has devoted his career to foreign policy, Walker can't help but worry about international fallout from the superpower scandal.

"We have enormous problems in the world today, both economic and political," he said. "Things are going on in Russia which will have an impact on our lives many years into the future. We've got economic problems in Brazil."

These troubles, "need the attention of the United States, the attention of Congress."

Walker, who began his duty as ambassador in December, visited the Bay Area as part of a tour to Jewish communities around the country. He said he wants to take the pulse of American organizations with a stake in the Middle East.

"I can't make a very convincing case to the secretary of state or the president if I don't understand the domestic concerns for policy."

The tall, stately ambassador stopped in the Bay Area after visiting Los Angeles and plans to visit Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Here, he met with representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League and spoke at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

"The feedback I'm getting thus far is a very serious concern about the future, particularly because of the development of missiles in Iran and what this implies for the future of Israel and its strategic security," he said.

Not surprisingly, he's also getting an earful on concerns about the peace process, which he believes is actually progressing much more smoothly than most Americans think.

"People forget we're dealing with very serious subjects here," he said. "These are decisions that impact on the final-status talks. They are decisions that impact on security, on people's lives. I don't ever expect it to be easy to make these agreements."

As ambassador to Israel, Walker has fairly regular contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He spends a good deal of time with other Israeli government officials, relaying their views to U.S. officials and advising Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.

Walker also hosts discussions on such peace-related issues as safe passage for Palestinians between non-Palestinian-controlled areas.

Though he has frequent contact with Palestinian leaders, he does not represent the United States to the Palestinian Authority. That is the purview of the Jerusalem-based U.S. consul general, who unlike most consuls general, does not report to the ambassador, but directly to Washington.

The Middle East is familiar terrain for Walker, a Pennsylvania native with degrees from Hamilton College and Boston University. He has served extensively in the Middle East since his entry into the foreign service in 1967.

From 1969 to 1973, he worked in the U.S. Embassy in Israel. He has held posts in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt. And he was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

He has studied both Arabic and Hebrew and is now at the stage where he can read Israeli newspapers and deliver speeches in Hebrew.

Asked if his service in the Arab world has created a perception of bias in the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said no. Rather, he believes his background works to his advantage.

"It has given me a sense of the incredible complexity of the issue," he said. "It is not an Arab-Israel problem. It's a Saudi-Israel problem. It's a Jordanian-Israel problem. It's an Egyptian-Israel problem."

Walker, unlike his predecessor Martin Indyk, is not Jewish.

"I don't think your religion or your origin makes a whole lot of difference in diplomacy, or your sex for that matter," he said.

Though his tour of duty began only recently, Walker has already given thought to what he'd like to see accomplished during his tenure.

He would like Israel to come up with a clear strategy for meeting the threat of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

He would like to see the beginning of final-status talks, whose completion deadline is slated by the Oslo Accords for May 4, 1999.

He'd then like to see a greater emphasis on the fundamentals of peace, "not just the treaties, not just the pieces of paper, but the sense that people have to accept one another and need to work with one another."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.