Whose Ambassador Is He Anyway?

Netanyahu needs a fluent spokesman in Washington, a young clone of Netanyahu himself.

Sallai Meridor's resignation as ambassador to the United States has left the most important job in Israel's foreign service open; The question now is who and what will influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision on a replacement.

Netanyahu, who has served in both Washington and New York, knows the skills needed for a diplomat to succeed in America: a deep acquaintance with the political environmental, Congress and the administration's centers of power; an ability to manage a large professional staff representing various government ministries; and an impressive television presence in the spirit of the times. This last quality is now more important than ever because the worse the policy, the greater the need for propaganda.

Given the paltry television presence of U.N. ambassador Gabriela Shalev and Consul General Asaf Shariv, Netanyahu needs a fluent spokesman in Washington, a young clone of Netanyahu himself.

It was clear at the NATO summit in Strasbourg how important form and body language were in leading strangers to ignore the issues. Diplomats and journalists expressed amazement to Israelis about the behavior of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whom they superficially depicted as a mixture of thug and clown. For the world, until further notice, Lieberman is not only the architect of the Netanyahu government's foreign policy, he's also the chief explainer.

Lieberman can appoint anyone he wants - ambassadors as well as deputy directors general and department heads in the foreign ministry, along with dozens of consuls and other diplomats, in particular in the former Soviet Union. For this he needs the approval of two weak institutions - the foreign ministry's appointments committee and the cabinet. And he can make such appointments in Washington, but only up to the level of deputy ambassador. Lieberman's appointments will remain in office long after Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, well known for his lack of patience and many criminal investigations, exits the ministry with his deputy, Daniel Ayalon, a previous ambassador to Washington.

When a prime minister avoids disputes with his foreign minister, the appointment of the ambassador to the United States requires both of them to agree. Disagreements between the prime minister and foreign minister have more than once caused the biggest prize in the Israeli diplomatic service to go to a compromise candidate, one considered not brilliant but not damaging. Unfortunately, this first assessment is often the only one to prove right.

But even if Netanyahu and Lieberman divide the world between themselves, the West to one and the East to the other - with the possible interesting addition of Austria and Cyprus - Netanyahu still has the burden of deciding. As a wary politician, he may prefer loyalty over skill. Political loyalty means identifying with the party line, but more importantly, it's personal.

This phenomenon can rule out many reasonable candidates. For example, Dan Meridor - the outgoing ambassador's brother, who showed self-restraint after Netanyahu broke his promise to give him the defense, foreign affairs, finance or justice portfolio. Meridor made do with an empty seat in the cabinet, where he is lost in the multitude.

Like Lord Halifax, who lost to Winston Churchill during World War II in the competition to become British prime minister and went to Washington as ambassador, Meridor can be appointed "ambassador with the status of minister."

He would not really be a minister, since that would violate the separation of powers, but Yaakov Litzman was appointed deputy minister with the status of minister in the Health Ministry. (It will be interesting to see if Netanyahu and his ministers are willing to be operated on by a paramedic with the status of surgeon.)

In any case, the influence of the ambassador in Washington depends on how close people think he is to the powers that be in Jerusalem, and he will be tested on this constantly. No one will heed an ambassador Netanyahu bypasses, while maintaining relations through private mediators, American or Israeli.

Netanyahu will be forced to find new powers to say no to the wealthy American Jews who have showered him with spiritual and material support. They will lobby him to appoint an ambassador close to them as well.

Fears about outside influences must concern the committee that approves all senior public service appointments. This committee was established after the failure of Netanyahu's first government - specifically the appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general. The Israeli ambassador must not be Netanyahu's personal representative to his backers.