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 on Oct. 4 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.
Dennis Ross, the veteran peace negotiator and diplomat, worked for Baker at the time. Meridor knows how to explain Israel’s needs, he knows how to work effectively with American administrations, he knows how to see the big picture,” Ross said. “Israel could not have made a better choice.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, said they looked forward to working with someone with solid Washington experience.
“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,” said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.
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.