The space shuttle Columbia had barely disappeared into the sky over Cape Canaveral on Thursday, carrying the first Israeli astronaut into space, when Ambassador Daniel Ayalon rushed back to Washington. There was important business to attend to here, and he arrived just before a voting booth in the embassy closed at 8 p.m.

His ballot was among 4,500 collected at 91 polling stations around the world, to be counted along with those cast in Tuesday's general election in Israel.

Spokesman Mark Regev said the voting went smoothly at the embassy, starting at 9 a.m., and that the 176 ballots cast here were sent by diplomatic pouch to Israel along with those from seven consulates in the United States.

The embassy has 200 registered voters. Israeli citizens who live in foreign countries but don't work for the government or a related agency or company cannot vote.

It used to be that no Israeli outside the country could vote. David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel's founding fathers, saw to it that the only Israelis who could vote were those who shared in the travails and tests of life and death in the Jewish state. But 10 years ago, the law was modified to include officials sent abroad by the government or its affiliates. Regev said the first time he got to vote as a diplomat was in Hong Kong in 1992.

In the upcoming election, Israel is going back to its old system of proportional representation, Regev explained. Each Israeli gets one vote to cast for a party list in the parliament, or Knesset.

Under the previous system, voters cast two ballots, one for the prime minister and one for individual Knesset candidates from a spectrum of religious and secular parties. The outcome gave smaller parties such as Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party representing Sephardic Jews, more influence in the parliament.

Under the new system, the head of the party that wins the most seats will try to form a government.

Good Ties on the Hill

Ecuador's former ambassador to Washington, Ivonne Abdel Baki, will likely visit the city again as part of her new job. Ecuador's new president, Lucio Gutierrez, last week named her minister of external trade.

Abdel Baki, who cultivated good working relationships with leading figures in Washington's international financial institutions and on Capitol Hill, will be entrusted with boosting Ecuador's foreign trade. Her responsibilities will cover Ecuador's fisheries exports, industrialization and Andean integration efforts, according to Carlos Jativa, Ecuador's acting ambassador here.

Abdel Baki was Ecuador's first female ambassador to the United States. She served from 1999 until late last year, when she made a bid for the presidency as one of 13 candidates. She was eliminated in the first round of balloting but said she would work with whoever would champion the rights of the poor and underprivileged in Ecuadoran society.

Gutierrez, a retired colonel, left the army after leading a military revolt in 2000 that forced President Jamil Mahuad out of his palace. Gutierrez won election two months ago with support from indigenous and rural people who had supported the uprising. On Monday, he appointed new army and navy chiefs to replace commanders who quit or who were forced out through a selection process promoting junior officers.

President Bush is scheduled to meet with Gutierrez in Washington on Feb. 11, Jativa disclosed yesterday.

Response to Weapons Report

Greece's ambassador to Washington, George Savvaides, said in an interview yesterday that European Union governments are focusing on forging "the maximum common view" in their response to the U.N. inspectors' report on Iraq's weapons programs. The report is to be presented to the Security Council on Monday by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix.

As current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, Greece is at the center of those efforts. And it won't be easy to find common ground between Britain's staunch support of the United States and France's suggestion it might veto any Security Council resolution authorizing war.

In the interview, Savvaides seemed to place his government somewhere between those two. "We wish to make sure that all the efforts that are necessary are undertaken by all parties involved," he said of Iraq's obligation to disclose its weapons. But he noted that "the majority of the EU members would like to see the Security Council follow up on the situation, especially if the report is not clear on implementation."

EU governments are conferring and reconferring daily, he said. "Of critical importance is the discussion that will take place next Monday within the EU at the Brussels meeting of the council of ministers," which brings together cabinet members from the 15 EU countries. The meeting will be chaired by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou.

After the discussion on Monday, Greece, as president, will summarize and present the EU position, Savvaides said.

"Common policy does not always mean a common voice," he said. "We will follow developments and try to act accordingly, avoiding the military option but obliging Iraq to comply fully with United Nations obligations. We are not magicians and we are not prophets, but we will do what we can."