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Morris J. Amitay

Column for January, 2009



Israeli leaders should not be expected to try to make life easier for Israel’s friends here in America. But at the very least they should avoid needlessly embarrassing them—and themselves. Israel is challenged enough by a new administration’s Middle East policies without having a discredited Israeli Prime Minister publicly boasting of his decisive influence (according to him) over the US vote to abstain on the UN Gaza resolution. Yet this incredible gaffe, which only gave fodder to Israel’s detractors, may be the least of Israel’s problems in the coming year. Despite some sighs of relief in the pro-Israel community over President Obama’s “centrist” national security choices, their prominence and background could provide cover for worrisome policies in the future. So with the new administration barely in place, the appropriate message should be “start worrying—details to follow”.

With a “cease fire” of sorts in place in Gaza, it is all but certain that Hamas will maintain its control of Gaza and begin to replenish its rocket arsenal, while remaining committed to its same goal—Israel’s destruction. Although the IDF may have accomplished some tactical gains, it also demonstrated the growing constraints on democracies when confronting a ruthless enemy with total disregard for the killing and maiming of its own civilian population and contributing to the carnage for political gain.

One recalls the indiscriminate bombing by both sides during World War II leading to far more civilian than military deaths that ultimately led to Allied victory. In the media age we now live in, and with the ascendancy of a liberal ethos which seeks to understand your enemies’ grievances rather than defeat them, we can expect that Israel’s freedom of action against both Iran and terrorist groups will be circumscribed. Ironically, a disproportionate number of those likely to be involved with policies toward Israel in the new administration are Jewish. This might be seen more as by design than by coincidence. Who could be better suited to deliver bad news to Jerusalem? By now we should have a pretty good idea of what to expect, both positive and negative, from former advisers like Dennis Ross, Richard Haass, Martin Indyk, Dan Kurtzer, and Aaron Miller. In this grouping, Ross would be the most preferable for a future role—and Miller, the least.

If past experience offers any guidance as to their future behavior, the answer to the perennial question “is it good for the Jews?” is probably “No”. All of the above have been tainted by their service in the State Department and/or the foreign policy establishment, and afflicted in varying degrees by the “bending over backwards” syndrome. That is, having to demonstrate that despite being Jewish, they are not perceived as favoring Israel. A number of newcomers also are likely to be directly involved, including Dan Shapiro and Eric Lynn, along with Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew, who have already been chosen as deputies to Hillary Clinton at State. Since they do not have the track records of the first group of veterans, perhaps there is more hope.

In the past, this syndrome has had one notable and important exception, in the person of Arthur Goldberg. He was the Supreme Court Justice that President Lyndon Johnson convinced to leave the bench to be the US ambassador to the UN. There, Goldberg was instrumental in the drafting of UN Security Council Resolution 242 following the Six-Day War in 1967. Goldberg, who had never been part of the foreign policy establishment, successfully fought for inclusion of language favorable to Israel which still has reverence today. A few years later, Henry Kissinger, a Jew who escaped from Germany as a youth, emerged on the national scene as a powerful National Security Adviser, and later as Secretary of State. His critical role in US diplomacy toward Israel has been the subject of much debate as to whether he was “good for the Jews”. In a private conversation with Golda Meir after her retirement going over what had transpired during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and its aftermath, she concluded “I suppose as an American Secretary of State he could have done more for us”. This comment summed it up well. Since he left office, however, Kissinger’s views have become more favorable to Israel, which helps prove the point.

Involving Jewish Foreign Service Officers (FSO) in dealing with Israel started in the late seventies when the State Department’s Near East Bureau Arabists realized how this could be to their advantage. This was not always the case. In 1966, as a young FSO already with two quick promotions and some proficiency in Hebrew, I inquired about filling a junior political slot at the US Embassy in Tel-Aviv. I was bluntly told “there is no way that we would send someone with your background to Tel-Aviv.” Besides being Jewish, I had visited Israel, had relatives there, and had attended a Jewish Day School for twelve years. This obviously explains the “background” referred to. Not very long afterwards, however, State realized that sending Jewish FSOs to Israel could pay dividends in terms of their access and receptivity. Since then there have been a succession of Jewish FSOs sent to Tel-Aviv who invariably served the State Department well, while at the same time advancing their own careers by scrupulously promoting “even-handed” policies. In recent years, a number of Jewish Americans have become key players in diplomatic dealings with Israel.

Former Senator George Mitchell has been given the title of Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, which naturally includes the task of bringing Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Being of Lebanese descent, it is highly doubtful Mitchell will bend over backwards to prove he is not pro-Arab, as demonstrated by the 2001 “Mitchell Commission” report. Quintessentially even-handed, it called on “both sides” to act, and was particularly critical of any Israeli settlement activity. At the time, Palestinian leaders embraced the Commission’s suggestions, while P.M. Sharon, with much less enthusiasm, only said it could be the basis for future negotiations. During his two terms in the Senate, Mitchell had compiled a good record on Israel-related matters, with his emphasis on Lebanon. But his report was not a very promising sign, and the situation now is far different than the Irish agreement he negotiated. Clearly, the IRA did not seek the eradication of the United Kingdom.

Arabs have often expressed fears that having Jews involved in American policies toward the Middle East might result in a strong tilt toward Israel. Unfortunately, they can rest assured that it is highly unlikely that any Jews who will be involved in Middle East policies will embark on a Zionist crusade. Those who fear for Israel’s future security and survival will have to look for support from many committed friends untainted by the culture of the State Department or by any hang-ups over their being Jewish. There are still many clear-eyed Americans who realize that the Islamic extremists we face today really do not want the same things that we do, and thus these basic differences cannot be reconciled by negotiations. Experience has also shown that agreements reached with the Palestinians have been more honored in the breach. Iran, Hizbollah, Al-Qaeda, and Hamas—along with their (many) millions of followers—simply do not share our own goals and aspirations and view our willingness to negotiate as only weakness. Recent events in Gaza have once more demonstrated that terrorists like Hamas do not care about the welfare of their children, the fate of innocents, or finding ways to live in peace with people of different faiths and societies. If their ultimate goal is your destruction, you do not try to bargain. Instead, you must defeat them. As President Obama now assumes office, the question is whether he will carry out the call in his inaugural address to defeat the terrorists, or will he follow his call in the same speech for “restraint” in the use of our power?

Morrie Amitay, a Washington attorney, is a former Executive Director of AIPAC and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC (