Washington’s fractious Middle East policy community is speaking in one voice in support of Danny Arbell, an Israeli diplomat widely admired for his capacity for listening.
Arbell made headlines in Israel last month when the Foreign Ministry removed him from his post as the Israeli embassy’s deputy chief of mission, allegedly for a leak to a reporter 2 1/2 years ago.
The news took aback a community—left to right, Jewish and non-Jewish, within the Israeli Embassy and within the Obama administration—that has valued Arbell for his soft-spoken openness.
“He’s highly respected by people on the left and the right,” said Steve Rosen, the former foreign policy chief for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who says he has known Arbell for decades. “He’s got credibility with all ideological camps, and he’s very discreet.”
Arbell’s job as deputy chief of mission, or DCM, made him the right-hand man to the U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren. It’s one of the most demanding behind-the-scenes jobs for a diplomat. The DCM manages the embassy’s operations day to day and lays the groundwork in the diplomatic and political communities to make sure the ambassador’s dealings and appearances run smoothly.
Arbell, 46, brought a wealth of experience in Israel’s most sensitive diplomatic sphere, its relations with the United States, when he assumed the post in August 2009, arriving in Washington with his wife and four children. He had served previously in Washington as chief of staff to two Israeli ambassadors, Itamar Rabinovitch and Eliahu Ben-Elissar, during the 1990s. Prior to becoming DCM, Arbell ran the U.S. desk at the Foreign Ministry.
It was in his most recent post that Arbell allegedly made the leak that got him into trouble in the spring of 2009. The content of the leak is not known, but those close to Arbell insist it was merely a confirmation of news that a reporter had from another source.
It was a time when the nascent Obama and Netanyahu administrations were warily circling one another, and Haaretz reported that the leak had to do with Iran strategy—and that the Obama administration, outraged at the leak, pressed for consequences. Another diplomat, Alon Bar, reportedly was cleared recently in the case.
Arbell flew to Israel and acknowledged the leak. Now his career is in jeopardy
“He would have been better off telling them to talk to his lawyers,” said Yitzhak Ben-Horin, a veteran Washington correspondent for Ynet, the online version of Yediot Achronot. “But because he is an honest diplomat and an honest man, he found himself in a situation challenging his integrity and coming back to Israel in the midst of the school year.”
In fact, it is not yet clear whether Arbell will be required to return immediately to Israel; officials reportedly are considering allowing him to stay in Washington for the school year in another capacity. His children attend the nondenominational Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital.
Arbell’s Jewish sensibility endeared him to American Jewish religious leaders, a relationship that at times has been fraught for other diplomats who often are more rooted in Israeli secularism.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Potomac, Md., recalled that Arbell and his wife hosted a Chanukah celebration last year at their home for a number of DCMs of other embassies, and that Arbell asked Weinblatt to prepare a short Torah discussion geared toward non-Jewish listeners.
“That’s a sensitivity and appreciation of the Jewish connection,” Weinblatt said.
Those who know Arbell find the current affair baffling in light of his reputation for discretion.
“When we were sitting and talking, he would listen mostly—and didn’t give me an inch!” Ben-Horin said.
Natasha Mozgovoya, the Washington correspondent for Haaretz, said that Arbell might be the victim of an Israeli government that is growing more insular and closed off. She alluded to the Foreign Ministry’s investigations of leaks and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s rough treatment of diplomats from countries that are in disputes with Israel.
“Transparency is probably not one of the current Israeli government’s priorities, and some of the recent tactics dealing with diplomats—not only Israeli, I must mention—should be of concern for the public,” Mozgovoya said in an e-mail.
Arbell’s interlocutors said that he smoothly traversed both sides of an Obama-Netanyahu relationship that otherwise has known tensions.
“He has the respect of people he works with both at the embassy and in the administration,” said Jess Hordes, until recently the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office and still a consultant to the group. “He was a soft spoken but professional advocate, knowledgeable about Israel’s situation and able to in his own quiet way explain its position.”
Steve Rabinowitz, a top publicist who represents a number of Jewish community organizations, including left-of-center groups such as J Street, said that Arbell’s talent was in making any interlocutor comfortable.
“He is always at the table, he talks very comfortably and freely between Jerusalem and Washington,” Rabinowitz said. “He is liked and respected so much by both sides.”
Arbell, who often observed Oren from the back of the room—and who greeted even the most anonymous of guests with a smile and a handshake—was modest except perhaps for his pride in being able to establish relationships with all comers. His office walls featured photos of him speaking amiably with Republicans and Democrats, as well as Likud, Labor and Kadima politicians.
Arbell’s predicament earned on-the-record sympathy from the Israeli establishment.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that he knew Arbell dating back to the mid-1990s, when Barak was the foreign minister in the government of Shimon Peres.
“I don’t know the details of this affair that Lieberman is dealing with, but I do know Dan Arbell,” he said. “I must say from my contacts with him, he is a talented man and an experienced diplomat.”
Israeli insiders said Arbell was well liked at the embassy; he had an open-door policy and was always sensitive to personal issues.
“Everyone who had the slightest interaction with him could see that this guy was a real mensch,” said one Israeli official.