WASHINGTON – One of Sallai Meridor’s first acts as chairman-elect of the Jewish Agency for Israel was to deliver relief to a Muslim country, Albania.
The delivery of food and medicine to refugees from the Kosovo crisis in April 1999 was a first for the organization best known for rescuing Jews — and was a sign that the scion of one of Israel’s founding families had a perpetual yearning for a wider diplomatic role.
A little more than a year after Meridor shocked the Jewish world by quitting the agency before his term ended, telling friends he hankered for a diplomatic role, his wish is about to come true: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nominated him Wednesday to be Israel’s next ambassador to Washington.
The one sentence statement from the Prime Minister’s Office simply said Olmert and Livni “decided that Mr. Sallai Meridor will be appointed as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in place of Danny Ayalon, who is completing his four-year term.”
Meridor, 51, still faces confirmation by the Cabinet and must be cleared by the Foreign Ministry’s legal team. But with Livni and Olmert in agreement — and they are at odds on just about everything else recently — his appointment is a sure thing.
Sources said he is set to start in January.
Meridor’s appointment comes at a critical time. The U.S.-Israel relationship has arguably never been stronger, but the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace that both countries had embraced has been crumbling amid chaos among the Palestinians and growing regional threats from Iran and Iraq.
It also comes after Olmert’s political fortunes were severely hampered by the damage Israel suffered this summer during its war with Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israeli prime minister is hoping to revive talks with the Palestinians.
Traditionally, Israel’s ambassador to Washington goes beyond the role of intermediary between Jerusalem and Washington, with the ambassador often involved in helping to set Israeli policy.
Meridor had already been seen as a shoo-in because of his decades-old friendship with Olmert.
Both men are “princes” of the Likud Party establishment who have moderated their hawkish views. Olmert now leads the centrist Kadima Party, which broke away from the Likud last year.
That friendship is probably the critical element explaining Meridor’s appointment, according to Jewish leaders who have known both men for decades.
“The most important thing for an ambassador to the United States is to have the confidence of the prime minister, and they go back many years,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Meridor also has a reputation for integrity, rolling back the Jewish Agency’s notoriety for patronage during his 1999-2005 term, and cutting its expenses.
The Jewish Agency, involved in the rescue and absorption of Jewish immigrants to Israel as well as Jewish education around the world, is the primary overseas recipient of North American federation funds.
As head of the agency, he pushed for the accelerated immigration of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia, and the establishing of MASA — a program to bring thousands of Diaspora youth to Israel for long-term study and visits. He advocated aliyah from Western countries and established a partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helped boost immigration to Israel from North America and most recently, England.
He is well-known — and praised by American Jewish officials of both political and philanthropic organizations.
“Sallai has a tremendous intellect and the capacity to multitask at the highest level of detail,” said Jay Sarver, the chairman of the agency’s budget and finance committee. “He has a deep, deep Jewish identity and neshama, and a deep belief in Zionist action.”
Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and the former president of the United Jewish Communities, worked closely with him during his term at the agency.
“He is a good listener and he is articulate in English as well as Hebrew,” Hoffman said. “He thinks strategically and looks at a lot of different angles, is cautious and gathers a lot of opinions before he makes a move.” Friends say that the more recent role at the helm of the Jewish Agency obscures his talents as a diplomat. As an adviser to Moshe Arens, who served as foreign minister and defense minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he cultivated a friendship with James Baker. That was exceptional because Baker, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was not known for friendly relations with Israel.
“Sallai Meridor has a long and distinguished career in the service of the state of Israel,” said Josh Block, the spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
“He is a highly effective advocate, is well-acquainted with the ways of Washington, D.C., and will surely bring his considerable talents to bear in his new post.”
Meridor has often straddled two worlds — as a West Bank settler who lives in Kfar Adumim, a settlement near Jericho likely to be dismantled in the withdrawals that Olmert has advocated.
His dual majors at Hebrew University were in the history of Islamic peoples and the history of the Jews. He speaks Arabic.
“Sallai has the ability to take people, to appeal to people from the right and the left and make people feel comfortable whether he agrees with their opinions or not,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who admires Meridor despite their disagreements on last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “In this kind of job, that’s an important trait.”
Klein noted Meridor’s profound affection for the whole biblical land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.
“A number of times, he took me in his car all over Judea and Samaria,” Klein recalled, using the biblical names for the West Bank, “and he knew every inch, he knew the biblical significance of each area. This is someone who understands the holiness of that land, unlike others in government. He supported the Gaza withdrawal, but his heart broke.”
Speaking last year to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Meridor said his concern for the health of Israel’s democracy trumped his love for the land.
“Israel was created to be a state of and for the Jewish people,” he said “And in order to have a Jewish and democratic state, you have to maintain” a “significant, large, Jewish majority.”
As the World Zionist Organization settlement chief from 1992-1997, and then as Jewish Agency boss, Meridor presided over an end to the long-standing agency policy of not directing funds to West Bank settlements, a practice that earned him reproaches from the Israeli left.
However, U.S. Jewish officials say that was more a result of hawkish U.S. funders who were pressing the agency to end the policy, and less Meridor’s personal preference.
The settlement legacy will not harm him now, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“His politics are seen as moderate, he’s someone who gets along with all sides of the spectrum,” he said.
Meridor’s familiarity with Jewish leaders, cultivated over those years, will also serve him well in his new job, Jewish leaders said.
Seymour Reich, the president of the Israel Policy Forum, said Meridor didn’t just come asking for money; he wanted input on policy from U.S. Jews.
“He was constantly in contact with American Jewish leadership, not just on philanthropic issues, but on social issues as well,” he said.
Meridor, who speaks flawless if heavily accented English, is a quick learner, his associates say.
“He understands politics very well in the positive meaning of the word — where the centers of power are, how to mobilize people in power for your causes,” said Yarden Vatikay, who was Meridor’s spokesman at the Jewish Agency for two years.
Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who is an associate member of JAFI’s board of governors said that Meridor is the right choice for ambassador now — especially given his experience in Washington.
“I think it is an inspired choice,” said Nasatir. “He has all the right stuff; he understands America. He is a great advocate for Israel. He has connections to the Jewish community; he is not a neophyte.”
JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv and staff writer Jacob Berkman in New York contributed to this report.