The Diplomat's Diplomat

Tal Becker, a consummate negotiator and expert in international law, impresses even his Palestinian interlocutors. The political adviser to Tzipi Livni will likely follow her to the Prime Minister's Office, should she move there.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Last Sunday, Tal Becker, the political adviser of Foreign Minister and prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, arrived for the umpteenth time this year at a conference room in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, for a meeting with his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat. The two have spent more time in each other's company in the past year than either one has with his own family. Their discussions are low profile, almost clandestine, but take place as often as three times a week. Although an agreement is not on the horizon, certainly not by the end of the year, the two remain optimistic. At the meeting this week as well, they emphasized to one another that "the most important thing is to keep the negotiations going" and to enable them to survive the transition period between administrations in Washington, in Jerusalem, and perhaps in Ramallah as well.

In recent months, when Livni was concentrating almost totally on the campaign for the leadership of Kadima, she left the negotiations with the Palestinians, the issue closest to her heart as foreign minister, almost exclusively in Becker's hands. Even as others have departed Livni's office, Becker, 36, has remained a key figure in almost every one of her diplomatic initiatives.

Becker's original name was Tal-Av Moshe Zarihan; his father, a professor of ancient Semitic languages, took his name from Aramaic. His parents met in the late 1960s in Jerusalem, when they were both new immigrants. His father came from Morocco and his mother from Australia, where her parents ended up after a difficult journey that began with their escape from Poland during World War II. His parents' marriage broke up, and at the age of 4, Tal-Av found himself with his mother and her parents in Melbourne, where they opened a chocolate factory. His relationship with his father, who was then living in France, began to deteriorate, and in the end he adopted his mother's maiden name.

In the Melbourne Jewish community at the time, if you weren't immigrating to Israel, you had to have a good reason; the message was that Israel was the real home of the Jews. Tal spent a year after high school in Israel, studying at the Har Etzion yeshiva in Alon Shvut. After receiving his bachelor's degree back in Melbourne in law and international relations, he immigrated to Israel in 1994. (One of his dreams had been to be a professional Australian cricket or football player; another was to be a diplomat. Today cricket remains a hobby.)

In the army, Becker served as a legal advisor to the Gaza Division. Those were days of the implementation of the interim agreements of the Oslo process and he was involved, among other things, in negotiations over operating the "safe passage" between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At the same time he completed a master's degree in international law.

Becker began working in the Foreign Ministry in 1998, and during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister, he was a member of the team that prepared the draft framework of a final-status agreement. When the Camp David summit began, in 2000, the members of the delegation would call him daily to clarify legal points on such issues as borders and refugees.

In 2001 Becker moved to New York to write a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, while also working as the legal adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. "Officially he was the legal adviser, but de facto he was the most important professional in the delegation," says Aryeh Mekel, who was serving as Israel's deputy UN ambassador at the time.

Becker arrived the week before the 9/11 attacks. It is thus fitting, perhaps, that his doctoral thesis concerned states' responsibility for terror organizations operating within their territory. His wealth of knowledge on the topic became a priceless asset at the time for the Israeli delegation as well as many other delegations, especially that of the United States. Out of his doctorate came the book "Terrorism and the State: Rethinking the Rules of State Responsibility" (Hart Publishing), which was awarded the 2007 Paul Guggenheim Prize for an international law publication. In it, Becker compared Iran and Syria to a fireman who stands next to a store and hands out matches and kerosene to arsonists.

The UN committee

During the next four years senior foreign ambassadors often sent him speeches or drafts in order receive his opinion. "I remember that the deputy French ambassador invited me to dinner," recalls Mekel. "I accepted, and then he said, 'If you don't mind, bring Tal Becker with you. I want to consult with him.' I understood that the dinner was only an excuse."

In recent years international politics has undergone an accelerated process of "legalization," which has greatly increased the influence of the narrow "clique" of international legal scholars in the world in general, and at the UN in particular. Due to the great admiration for him and his network of contacts, in 2003 Becker became the first Israeli chosen to chair the UN Legal Committee.

On the eve of Yom Kippur 2003, the Israel Defense Forces bombed the base of Ahmed Jibril's organization in Syria, as a response to an Islamic Jihad suicide attack on the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa, in which 21 people were murdered. "The Syrians requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council," says Mekel. "We asked to speak first in order to be able to leave before the Kol Nidre prayer. I summoned Tal and within two hours he had written a speech that was an indictment of Syria and its support for terror. The speech was so strong and created such a negative attitude toward Syria in the Council that Syria was forced to withdraw its proposal to condemn Israel."

When Livni first traveled to the U.S. as foreign minister, she met with Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, and his deputy, Mekel. They raved to her about Becker. When she returned home, and asked a senior ministry official about him, she was told that having Becker around was "like having a million dollars in the bank."

Livni offered Becker, who was now back in Jerusalem, to be her diplomatic adviser with relatively general areas of responsibility: Everything related to war or peace. And indeed, on the second day of the Second Lebanon War, in July 2006, he decided to write a proposal for a "diplomatic exit" from the war. It eventually became the basis for Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war. After the war Becker hung a framed copy of the resolution in his office, but made sure that the frame was crooked. "In order not to forget that the resolution is far from perfect," he said at the time to one of his colleagues.

Becker began to work with Livni shortly before the kidnapping of soldier Gilad Shalit, in June 2006, and within a short time he had become one of her closest confidantes on diplomatic issues, with an emphasis on the negotiations with the Palestinians. "The woman relies on him and I saw that already when I first met him before the Annapolis conference," says Saeb Erekat. "She is a person who likes to centralize power, and when she trusts someone in that way, it's a big deal."

Says one senior ministry official, who has worked closely with Livni and Becker in the past two years: "He's very close to Tzipi and she doesn't make a move without him. He will definitely move with her to the Prime Minister's Office and will be involved in all the diplomatic issues." Livni has reportedly told colleagues that Becker "puts his ego aside and doesn't let things go to his head, and that's why he is able to influence."

Even before he began advising Livni, Becker visited her office for a discussion of the Hamas election victory. He proposed during the discussion compiling a list of conditions that the international community would demand of the Islamic movement for its government to gain legitimacy. "We can achieve the isolation of Hamas only on the basis of decisions that have already been made in the past, and combining them," he said. Several weeks later the members of the Quartet demanded that Hamas recognize Israel, acknowledge previous signed agreements and stop using terror.

"Everyone wants to hear what he has to say," says another senior official in the Foreign Ministry. "He has tremendous influence, but at the same time he's a very modest guy. He speaks softly and does everything in a pleasant manner. As opposed to 99 percent of diplomats, he didn't leave scorched earth behind him anywhere." Those in the Foreign Ministry who do criticize Becker say that he is "not one of the guys" or "the only thing that interests him is work."

Bombards the boss

"It's not easy to advise Tzipi," admitted Becker in a conversation with friends a few months ago. "When she makes a decision, it's very difficult to reopen the subject." His method is based on perseverance; if he "loses" an argument he sends Livni a document that explains his position once again; if that doesn't work he bombards her with notes at meetings. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn't.

They speak at least five times a day (during the primaries somewhat less) and most of the documents that Livni regularly keeps on her desk were written by him. She still uses an in-depth survey he wrote at the beginning of 2007 about the negotiation options. "If a door is closed, he immediately finds a way to open another door," she told her associates. "He also immediately thinks a few moves ahead and even before an event takes place, he already has an orderly document with all the scenarios, the alternatives and the possible modes of operation."

Becker joined the talks with the Palestinians before the Annapolis conference, when Livni was appointed to head the negotiating team. Since then he has participated in Livni's most restricted meetings with senior Arab and Palestinian officials. "He's the computer of those talks," says a senior official from the Foreign Ministry. "He knows more than anyone else about what did and did not take place."

In the period leading up to the Annapolis conference, there was a great deal of suspicion on the Palestinian side regarding Israel's intentions, and a large part of Becker's work was to convince his counterpart, Erekat, that Israel wasn't pulling any "shticks."

The two continued with intensive negotiations over the final declaration that was to emerge from conference, and carried on up to the night before its opening. At a certain stage the two decided to go to sleep, but when they arrived at the hotel they continued to work on the paper over the phone, with half-hour breaks for a nap. When he arrived in Annapolis with the Israeli delegation, Becker handed a final version of the document to the Palestinians and the Americans and entered the waiting room of the junior advisers.

Suddenly two agents of the U.S. Secret Service arrived, and escorted him to the room where Livni, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and chairman of the Palestinian negotiating team Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) were sitting, so that he would approve the last amendments that the Palestinians wanted to introduce into the declaration. "What's your opinion," asked Rice. "It looks all right," Becker said. The surprised Palestinians, who saw he was giving his approval, announced that they had retracted the changes. After additional discussion the joint declaration was approved, and Becker received a hug and a kiss from Rice, who had already envisioned the Annapolis conference collapsing before her eyes.

"I don't want to say too many good things about him, because when it comes from me it doesn't sound good," says Erekat. "He's very professional, smart, tough, but also fair. I sometimes feel that I have to bring the whole negotiating department with me in order to deal with him."

"I'm not naive," Becker once told the staff of the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment, who did not pin many hopes on the discussions. "There are many shortcomings and it's not certain that the Palestinians will be able to deliver the goods, but it's the least bad alternative. Inaction is the worst thing."

Becker and Erekat already have good chemistry, but occasionally Becker tells close friends that "it's lucky that he grew up in Australia rather than Israel, so his level of tolerance is much higher." In discussions with Erekat and Abu Ala, Becker often has to listen to long speeches, or to allow the two to "vent their anger" after they have gotten stuck at a checkpoint. "You always have to think about the victory speech of the other side," he said during one meeting of the Israeli negotiating team. "It's also important for us to tell them things frankly, even if they don't like hearing it."

About two weeks ago, Becker met with foreign diplomats and briefed them about the state of the diplomatic process. "The negotiations are serious," he said. "But we're not on the verge of an agreement. If you're looking for proof of the seriousness of the talks, you should note to date almost nothing has been leaked from them."