Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to Britain, now lying in critical condition after an assassination attempt, is remembered from his seven years in Washington as a passionate hawk who made friends of his sparring partners.
"We disagreed vigorously but it didn't affect our friendship," says Joseph J. Sisco, who was the assistant secretary of state dealing with the Middle East at the time Argov was No. 2 at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "He was tough-minded, a very strong Israeli nationalist, a warrior. Also intelligent and warm and a joy to be with. A dear, dear friend."
Argov, 52, was shot in the head by a gunman last Thursday on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Three Arabs have been charged with attempting to murder him. Israel has retaliated by a large-scale attack on Palestinian positions in Lebanon.
Argov would have approved of Israel's response. He argued for a policy of prompt and massive retaliation even when serving a Labor government that was careful to limit its application of force and mindful of negative U.S. reaction.
Appointed as minister plenipotentiary at Israel's Washington embassy in 1968, Argov served under Yitzhak Rabin for three years. Argov was the America expert and the diplomatist; he was supposed to "balance" the general who became ambassador following his stint as chief-of-staff in the 1967 war. They made a strange pair: Argov, tall with a scholar's stoop, had a long, fast stride; Rabin, a head shorter, ambled like a soldier on furlough looking for some diversion.
"Yitzhak and Shlomo were in constant conflict, and Shlomo was always a hawk," says I.L. Kenen, himself a dove and the founder of the American Jewish lobby for Israel. "But he was my very best friend, and one of Israel's three or four most brilliant people." Argov tutored Kenen in Hebrew about 30 years ago when Argov was studying for his B.S. at Georgetown.
"He was a typical Israeli," a Jewish community leader recalls. "Impulsive, smart, arrogant. A diplomat knows how to eat crow. Shlomo wouldn't do it. He once turned down an invitation to a White House dinner because his wife was not invited."
A correspondent working for an Israeli newspaper remembers that after Rabin's briefings, Argov used to give a second briefing to the reporters he liked. Argov's view was outspoken, blunt, critical of the softness of Israel's approach and pessimistic about America's intentions. He was burning with indignation, and his evocation of the Jewish past had a rabbinical eloquence. He was one diplomat in Washington who didn't fit the description of the diplomat as a man who is sent abroad to lie for his country.
On quite a few occasions, Argov was furious with Israeli correspondents filing from Washington. But he only lost his temper with people he liked.
"Why did you have to write that?" he once demanded of a correspondent who had reported a sharp State Department condemnation of an Israeli raid.
"Because that's the truth," the correspondent replied.
"But do you always have to write the truth?" Argov said, his voice shrill.
"That's my job," the correspondent answered.
"Okay, okay," Argov said, and his voice dropped an octave. "But don't you wish reality was different?"
On one occasion Argov told a friend how he envied religious Jews who had faith in Providence. "What comfort it is to believe," he said with a deep sigh, and switched the conversation to terrorist incidents. He was sure that more of them were in the offing.
"I always trusted Shlomo," says Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee, a veteran Washington hand in politics and diplomacy. "He would level with me and he liked leveling. I have never been misled by him. And I never felt our occasional disagreements threatened our friendship."
Bookbinder last saw Argov a few years ago, at a Sabbath dinner in the Argovs' Jerusalem home. Son Gideon was on leave from army duty and conversation focused on the father's hope that the son wouldn't have to fight in a war. But the world situation depressed the diplomat. "He was deeply affected by Israel's growing isolation in the world," Bookbinder remembers. "He was a very sad man."