By Simon Yaffe
ZALMAN Shoval is quick to correct me when I ask what life was like growing up in Poland.
“No, not Poland, it was the Free City of Danzig — there was nothing Polish about it,” Zalman explained about the city in which he was raised, now known as Gdansk, in present-day Poland.
It’s that assertiveness and eye for detail which saw him serve twice as Israel’s ambassador to America, as well as being involved with the country’s political and diplomatic fronts for more than half a century.
He has written about his life and long career in Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy (Rowman and Littlefield).
“There is a certain egotistical factor involved with every person who decided to write a memoir or autobiography,” 88-year-old Zalman told me from his Tel Aviv home.
“When one reaches a certain age, they think, ‘okay, maybe now is the time to do it’.
“I want people to know what I did and what I faced, but I also felt a certain historical responsibility to the new generation in Israel, as some of them know little about our history.”
He was not only a witness, but often a participant alongside every Israeli prime minister from David Ben-Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu.
But his role at the forefront of the Jewish state’s political and diplomatic affairs was a long way from his beginnings in Danzig.
“It was 95 per cent German and was a sort of League of Nations mandate, with its own money, stamps and council of governance,” Zalman recalled.
The family, whose original surname was Finklestein, moved to Mandate Palestine when he was eight, in 1938.
Zalman described how he caught the politician bug at a young age and remembered drawing a caricature of Hitler.
Once in then-Palestine, he was determined to join in the fight against the occupying British.
Zalman said: “It was the time when the British Colonial Office published the white paper which put an almost complete stop to Jewish immigration into Palestine. It precipitated huge demonstrations, which led to curfews.
“Before one of the demonstrations, I prepared a bag of stones to throw at the British policemen and military men, but my father took it away from me.
“I didn’t end up taking part in it, but I stood on the sidelines distributing glasses of water.”
He went on to obtain a BA at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Geneva.
After that, Zalman was a cadet in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, before becoming involved in finance, twice serving as chairman of the Bankers Association Council.
He also spent time as a liaison officer in Cyprus with the French army during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Zalman joined the other Young Turks of Israel’s Labour Party when they left in 1965, alongside Ben-Gurion, to form a new political party named Rafi.
And, when Ben-Gurion resigned from the Knesset in 1970, Zalman took his place.
He returned to the Knesset three years later as a Likud MK and, re-elected in 1977, joined the Foreign Affairs Ministry, where he was effectively second in command to Moshe Dayan.
Zalman, who also served in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, was involved with the 1978 Camp David Conference, which eventually led to the Camp David Accords signed by Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and, a year later, the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty.
“Ben-Gurion always thought peace between Israel and Egypt could be achieved,” Zalman said.
“In 1978, I was aware that something may be cooking because Dayan had gone to Morocco to meet the Egyptian vice-president (Ismail) Fahmy.
“The Americans were in constant contact with Eli Rubenstein, who was head of Dayan’s office.”
As the 1970s ended, Zalman and two other Likud MKs, Yigal Hurvitz and Yitzhak Peretz, formed a new party, Telem, alongside Dayan. But he lost his seat — regaining it in 1988 as as a Likud MK.
Two years later, Shoval received the appointment of a lifetime when he was named Israel’s ambassador to America when George Bush was president.
Zalman, who arrived in Washington just before the first Gulf War, explained: “My involvement was critical because the debate in Israel was whether it should actively involve itself in the war or show restraint.
“I was the contact person between then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Bush administration.
“My view was that Israel should refrain from taking an active role, even if we were attacked, because we could not be any more efficient than the Americans, and Shamir accepted my view.
“The Gulf War actually gave birth to the peace initiatives between the Israelis and the Palestinians, such as the Madrid Conference.”
Then-US Secretary of State James Baker, who was born on the same day and year as Zalman, was not exactly pro-Israel and had made alleged antisemitic comments.
“Everything was conditional on any Israel activity beyond the Green Line, including Jerusalem,” he recalled. “It meant a permanent situation of friction — and I was in the middle of it.
“You have to remember that Bush came from a different planet to Shamir.
“He was Anglo-Saxon, from a New England background, while Shamir was from Poland, with all his experiences of the Holocaust. They just didn’t have any chemistry.
“However, at the end of the day, the Bush administration never tried to do what Obama did insofar as it didn’t try to cut day-to-day co-operation in intelligence or military affairs, so it was not altogether a completely negative experience.”
Having left his post in 1993, Zalman returned as ambassador to Washington for two years from 1998.
There, he was a member of the Israeli delegation headed by PM Netanyahu at the American-sponsored Wye River Conference and was closely involved in the diplomatic negotiations with the Americans.
Bill Clinton was American president by the time Zalman returned to Washington.
Zalman continued: “Clinton was friendly, but his administration’s attitude on the Green Line and settlements were not any different to previous administrations.
“He was, however, more forthcoming in recognising Israel’s security needs, even if it involved matters beyond the Green Line, and he recognised that Israel did not have a partner for peace in Yasser Arafat which took the pressure off us to a certain degree.
“Clinton wanted to pursue his own peace plan, but it didn’t come to fruition because of Arafat and the political situation in Israel.
“Peace can only be achieved if there is a political will on both sides and that changed slowly, with the Second Intifada.
“There has been no reaching of an agreement with the Palestinians since 1937 because they will not reach an accommodation with the Jewish people on its right to have its own national state.
“I don’t see Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) as an extreme terrorist, but I think what guides him is that he does not want to be known in Arab history as the man who broke the accepted stand that the Jews do not have a right to a state of their own.”
Zalman was never in any doubt that a Jewish state would succeed.
“At the time, the British would ask how can a Jewish state survive with it not having an economy and only famous for its oranges,” he said.
“They believed it was too small for an influx of people, which was, of course, quickly proven false.
“Credit must go to the workers and industrialists and, today, to Netanyahu, who changed the whole economic atmosphere when he was minister of finance in Ariel Sharon’s government.
“It is no accident that Israel was one of the few Western countries which kept its flag flying high during the economic crisis which started in 2008.”
But how does he see the next 50 years in Israel? Many have been critical when it comes to the right of return, as in a Russian with one Jewish paternal grandparent can claim Israeli citizenship.
“I am not worried about that because many of them will integrate and then their children will serve in the army,” Zalman said.
“What does worry me is that not all Israelis are sufficiently aware of being Jewish, even before they are Israeli.
“I don’t necessarily mean in a religious sense, it is more about heritage, history and ethos of the Jewish people which is something that doesn’t compare to other people and culture in the history of the world. I believe it is the secret of our strength.”
A father of three and grandfather of four, he credits Kena, his wife of 62 years, as being his most important support over the years.
“She isn’t a political person and doesn’t like to be in the limelight, but being an ambassador in America means that a wife fulfils a prominent role.
“I sometimes had a bad conscience when I had to present her with de facto political developments, such as telling her I was going to return to America as ambassador for a second time.
“I think she would have preferred to remain in Israel with the children and grandchildren.”
One interesting anecdote he tells regarding Kena took place during one of his spells as ambassador.
It involved a conversation between Zalman, Kena and former American diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Zalman continued: “Brzezinski was completely ignorant of what went on before Israel was created.
“He asked Kena where she was from and she replied, ‘Pardes Hanna’, to which he asked when did her parents arrive in Palestine.
“When Kena replied, ‘1921’, Brzezinski looked aghast and said, ‘What? There were already Jews there?’.
“This kind of thought applies to quite a few Americans, including Obama, who believed that, had the Holocaust not taken place, the Jews would not have come to Palestine.
“They don’t see the whole antecedents and how Zionism came about.”
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