Friday, 8 February 2019

Tales from a Diplomatic Life

This review of Zalman Shoval's memoirs: "Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy" appears in the Jerusalem Post magazine of 8 February 2019

          Zalman Shoval made aliyah in 1936 at the age of 6. Mandate Palestine was in turmoil, and it was not long before he got caught up in the political excitement. Aged 14, the enthusiastic young Zionist penned an essay describing the future Jewish state that he was certain would soon emerge. His headmaster gathered the higher grade students together, and had Shoval read it out to them. This, Shoval recalls in his “Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy”, was his first political appearance in public.

          It was to be the beginning of a life largely devoted to the internal politics and foreign policy of Israel. Starting with the pre-State struggle against the British administration, Shoval’s career in the political sphere mirrors the history of Israel itself. Along the way he was elected to the Knesset from time to time, and also served two terms between 1990 and 2000 as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

          So for most of his working life Shoval was at the heart of Israel’s political machine, and his take on the nation’s major political and diplomatic events is unflinchingly honest. In describing the period leading up to his first ambassadorial appointment, Shoval provides an uninhibited account of some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings and political back-stabbings that seem an inextricable part of Israel’s statecraft. He is equally frank when, as Israeli ambassador, he turns to his dealings with various US administrations and his experiences on the world stage.

          Party labels change with bewildering rapidity in Israeli politics, but the political inclinations of individuals are more constant. Throughout his long and distinguished career in public affairs, Shoval leaned to the right of the old Ashkenazi élite. So when in 1965 David Ben Gurion broke from the centre-left Mapai to form a new party, to be called Rafi, Shoval went with him.

          Rafi’s fortunes waxed and waned. They were at a particularly low ebb in 1968 when a number of powerful voices in the party advocated reunifying Rafi with Mapai, a proposal which Ben Gurion strongly opposed. He was outvoted. The reunification went ahead and, together with a smaller left-wing group, this new political entity became the Labor party. Neither BG nor Shoval approved of its political direction, and as soon as Shimon Peres entered the government, Shoval left Labor.

          Just before the 1969 Knesset elections Ben Gurion, then aged 80, gave his approval to suggestions from his closest political allies to revive Rafi. Shoval was among the leading figures in its reconstitution, and was placed fifth on its list in the general election. In the event Rafi won four seats – but when Ben Gurion resigned in 1970, Shoval found himself shoe-horned into the Knesset for the first time.

          During his time in parliament, and subsequently, Shoval became well-known in political circles as a powerful advocate, both in private and in public, for policies he believed in. The general election of 1977 was a triumph for Menachim Begin, but his success in the polls generated a torrent of adverse publicity. Once a commander in Etzel (or the Irgun as it is more commonly known in English), Begin was being castigated in the international media as a terrorist. Shoval was drafted in to brief foreign correspondents with a more favourable view, which he did with great success.

          It was partly for these skills that he was seconded to Israel’s delegation to the UN where he honed his abilities in political public diplomacy. Following the historic visit of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, Shoval was directly involved in the negotiations which led to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and was present throughout the Camp David discussions between Begin, Sadat and US President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

          It was during the days of the Shamir-Peres unity government that his name was bandied about as a possible ambassador to the US. Shoval is frank about the political machinations that underlay his delayed, but eventual, appointment, and about the problems and tensions generated by the fact that although appointed by prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, foreign minister David Levy regarded himself as Shoval’s direct superior.

          Certain major themes dominate Shoval’s account of his public service. The most persistent was the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the continuing attempts to achieve some sort of breakthrough. One stumbling block was the settlement issue, and Shoval’s insider account describes the tensions between the US and Israel on the matter. An authoritative legal opinion by President George H W Bush’s special legal adviser on international law debarred Washington from describing them as “illegal”, but they were a constant bone of contention, described by various US administrations an “obstacle to the peace process”.

          He was involved in peace effort after peace effort – Madrid, Oslo, Annapolis, Wye River, the Quartet’s Road Map – all to no effect. Shoval sets out the background to each, describes the personalities and the clash of political opinions involved, and explains as only someone on the inside could, the reasons for failure on each occasion.

          Anyone fascinated by the minutiae of Israel’s politics, its intrigues and machinations, but also its successes and failures, will be delighted to be led by Zalman Shoval through his personal account of his country’s high points and low during a major period of its history.

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