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Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”

JTA

 
 

Israel’s cooperation on U.N. inquiry signals tactical shift

The decision by Israel to participate in the U.N. probe of the Turkish flotilla incident marks a stark departure from Jerusalem’s practice of opposing the world body’s investigations of Israeli actions.

A year and a half ago, faced with a similar decision when the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel and Hamas’ actions during the Gaza war, Israel boycotted the inquiry led by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone. Israel would pay a heavy diplomatic price: The Goldstone report was harshly critical of Israel and generated months of negative publicity for the Jewish state.

News Analysis

A year later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking the opposite course with the U.N. review panel looking into the May 31 flotilla confrontation. Nine Turks, including a Turkish-American, were killed in the mélée that ensued when Israeli commandos tried to board the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla of ships sailing for Gaza in a bid to break Israel’s blockade of the strip. The incident drew worldwide condemnation of Israel.

“Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “It is in the national interest of the State of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world, and this is exactly the principle that we are advancing.”

The U.N. inquiry out of New York will be led by a former prime minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, and will include the outgoing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, as well as a Turkish and an Israeli representative who have yet to be named. The panel is expected to begin its work Aug. 10 and submit a progress report in mid-September.

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Footage taken from cameras aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31 shows passengers apparently preparing for a confrontation with Israeli soldiers, May 31. IDF/Flash90/JTA

The decision to cooperate with the U.N. probe comes after two months of Israel resisting calls for an international inquiry and signals a tactical shift for Israel when it comes to dealing with U.N. investigations of its actions. It marks the first time that Israel will be part on a U.N. committee looking into Israeli actions.

“This could be viewed as a new approach,” confirmed a source at Israel’s embassy in Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed it as an “unprecedented development.”

Israel’s decision to cooperate on the probe follows weeks of urging by the Obama administration, but it’s also a way for Israel to mollify Turkey, which had threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the Jewish state unless Israel acceded to an international probe or apologized for the flotilla deaths.

Israel had launched its own investigations of the incident. An Israel Defense Forces investigation found intelligence failures in the IDF’s preparations for stopping the flotilla but no fault with the soldiers’ actions, and a government committee probe is still ongoing. Turkey, however, was not satisfied.

Concerned about the rupture between Turkey and Israel over the incident and its long-term implications for the future of the Middle East, the Obama administration was keen on finding a way for a probe that would satisfy both Turkey’s demands for an international inquiry and Israel’s concerns about bias against it. The new probe was the result of negotiations with Israel and Turkey.

“For the past two months, I have engaged in intensive consultation with the leaders of Israel and Turkey on the setting up of a panel of inquiry on the flotilla incident of 31 May,” the U.N. secretary-general said in a statement Monday. Ban said he hoped the inquiry would “impact positively on the relationship between Turkey and Israel as well as the overall situation in the Middle East.”

After the Goldstone report was issued a year ago with findings that tarnished Israel’s international image, some in Israel argued that it had been a mistake to boycott the inquiry. Rather, they said, Israel should have cooperated in a bid to ensure the least damaging report possible. With Israel now choosing cooperation over rejection on the new flotilla probe, some in Israel are cautioning against comparisons between the two.

In the Goldstone case, they note, the original mandate for the inquiry prejudged Israel as guilty and came from the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a record of singling out Israel for opprobrium while ignoring human rights violators around the world. In the flotilla case, the probe will be conducted under the aegis of the U.N. secretary-general, who is seen as mindful of Israeli concerns.

“You have to make a distinction between the Human Rights Council, which is partisan and has an anti-Israel obsession, and between the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, whom we hold in the highest esteem,” a senior Israeli official told JTA on condition of anonymity. “After ongoing discussion with the secretary-general, we are convinced that what he is proposing is credible and objective. I wouldn’t apply either of those two adjectives to the Human Rights Council, which is a travesty.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, implied that she hoped it would cancel out the Human Rights Council inquiry into the flotilla raid.

“The United States expects that the panel will operate in a transparent and credible manner, and that its work will be the primary method for the international community to review the incident, obviating the need for any overlapping international inquiries,” Rice said.

“That was an unmistakably derogatory reference to the U.N. Human Rights Council probe,” observed Hillel Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based pro-Israel watchdog organization. “A shadow has been cast on the U.N. Human Rights Council probe, and it was done so expressly.”

Neither the U.N. probe in New York nor the one being carried out in Geneva by the Human Rights Council will have legally binding consequences. JTA

 
 

After U.N. votes for Durban III, battle lines are drawn

Marcy OsterWorld
Published: 31 December 2010
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva on April 20, 2009 prompted walkouts by numerous European countries. Michael J. Jordan

When the original U.N. anti-racism conference, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, devolved into an anti-Israel hate fest, Jewish groups around the world were caught unaware.

So when the Durban Review Conference was called for Geneva in 2009, Jewish activists started their fight early, persuading numerous countries to boycott the conference, dubbed Durban II, effectively blocking it from becoming a repeat of Durban I.

Now, with last week’s U.N. vote to authorize Durban III — a U.N. General Assembly session planned for September 2011 to commemorate the original Durban conference — the battle lines again are being drawn.

“The vote of the U.N. General Assembly, while not unexpected, sets the stage for a celebration of the outrageous events that took place during Durban I, which were permeated by manifestations of bigotry and hatred,” said a statement from the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The event is scheduled to be held shortly after the 10th anniversary commemoration of September 11th. It is hard to imagine a more insensitive action, recalling that the attack on the World Trade Center that killed thousands was carried out by those influenced by the same hateful ideologies that Durban I came to represent.”

The first plans to boycott Durban III already are taking shape. Canada announced in November that it would boycott the September 2011 session on “Combating racism and follow-up of the Durban Program of Action.”

“Canada will not participate in this charade,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said at a Nov. 25 news conference. “Canada is clearly committed to the fight against racism, but the Durban process commemorates an agenda that actually promotes racism rather than combats it.”

Both the United States and Israel have warned about Durban III turning into another occasion for gratuitous Israel-bashing.

When the matter came to a vote last Friday, the vote was 104-22 in favor of the special General Assembly session; 33 countries abstained.

“We voted ‘no’ because the Durban Declaration process has included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we do not want to see that commemorated,” said a statement by the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice. “The United States is fully committed to upholding the human rights of all individuals and to combating racial discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry. We stand ready to work with all partners to uphold human rights and fight racism around the world.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement announcing its intention to skip the session.

“Under the present circumstances, as long as the meeting is defined as part of the infamous ‘Durban process,’ Israel will not participate in the meeting,” the statement said. “Israel expects the participants to deal appropriately with the serious manifestations of racism throughout the world, and to reject attempts to once again divert world attention from this dangerous phenomenon by means of cheap politicization.”

Condemnation of the U.N. vote by Jewish groups was fast and furious.

“The original Durban conference attempted to validate the perverse theory that Zionism is racism,” the B’nai B’rith International executive vice president, Daniel Mariaschin, said. “Durban’s legacy of hate, intolerance, and double standards should never be forgotten, and should certainly never be celebrated.”

The Anti-Defamation League called for a boycott of Durban III.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the anti-racism agenda has been misappropriated. “The global campaign against racism has been hijacked by countries that have little regard for human rights and whose primary goal is to advance highly political agendas,” Harris said. “To bring this traveling show of hatred to New York is scandalous and will not advance the noble U.N. mission of defending and protecting human rights.”

At the original U.N. conference against racism in Durban, the United States and Israel walked out when it became clear that it had devolved into little more than an opportunity for vitriolic Israel-bashing that many said bordered on anti-Semitism. The conference’s final document singled out Israel for special condemnation.

In Geneva in 2009, several European and North American countries announced ahead of time that they would not attend the conference out of concern that its special focus on Israel would make a mockery of the issue of fighting racism, and several more walked out of the conference when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the occasion to bash Israel.

The countries that voted last week against the Durban III session were Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, the Netherlands, Palau, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Among the countries abstaining were Austria, Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, and Spain.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Pressing Israel in U.N. remains a U.S. taboo, veto on settlements resolution shows

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Construction workers labor at a construction site in the Har Homa neighborhood, south of Jerusalem, a day after the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction as illegal. Gili Yaari/Flash 90/JTA

NEW YORK – In the run-up to last week’s U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal, the Obama administration faced a dilemma.

The administration views Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegitimate, and has made few bones about saying so, but it also rejects the notion that the place to settle the matter is the United Nations, with its long tradition of anti-Israel resolutions.

Put in a seemingly awkward position, the administration had to decide whether to veto a resolution whose substance it essentially agreed with at a time when the Arab street is looking for signs of the Obama administration’s proclivities on Middle Eastern issues, or discard America’s usual practice of vetoing one-sided U.N. resolutions on Israel and anger many Israel supporters.

While some left-wing Jewish groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now urged the president to shun the veto, adding to the pressure on Israel, the reaction from Capitol Hill showed that it wasn’t a stance endorsed by the left or right wing in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats both said that using the United Nations to pressure Israel was out of bounds. Leading members of both parties -- including Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip -- urged the president last week to veto “any U.N. Security Council resolution that criticizes Israel regarding final status issues.”

When the resolution finally came to a vote at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 18, the administration’s decision to exercise its veto earned praise from fellow Democrats.

“I praise the Obama administration’s veto, and call on the U.S. to reject any future resolutions at the U.N. that unfairly target Israel, and instead push the Palestinians back to negotiations where they belong,” said Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.). “I hope the Arabs, having failed to force the issue at the U.N., will return to the negotiating table immediately and begin the real process of reaching a solution.”

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, B’nai B’rith International and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee all issued statements expressing appreciation for the veto.

“Exercising the veto is a painful decision, particularly for an administration with a deep and sincere commitment to multilateralism,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “That is why we salute President Obama and his team for their courage in vetoing this mischievous resolution, which would have caused irreparable damage to the future prospects of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Obama used the veto for the first time after pursuing a compromise proposal -- a nonbinding Security Council statement calling settlements a “serious obstacle to the peace process” -- that ultimately failed.

The United States has vetoed dozens of Security Council resolutions condemning Israel going back nearly four decades. Occasionally, however, the United States has withheld the veto on resolutions focused on criticizing Israel, abstaining instead. On May 19, 2004, for example, the George W. Bush administration abstained from a resolution expressing grave concern for Israel’s demolishing of Palestinian homes in Gaza and criticized Israel’s killing of a Palestinian civilian in the area of Rafah, Gaza.

This time, the Obama administration’s willingness to countenance a compromise resolution, and its refusal to say in advance whether it would veto the resolution, suggested to many that its reliability with the veto was in question.

Obama has put the issue of settlements squarely in his sights as part of his Middle East peace push, and he has been generally warm toward J Street, dispatching top Middle East adviser Dennis Ross to address the group’s upcoming conference even as Israeli officials have shunned it.

While not fundamentally altering U.S. policy, which under several presidents officially has opposed settlement expansion, Obama has been far more vocal on the subject. All of which prompted reactions from Israel’s allies on Capitol Hill and beyond, several of whom reacted strongly to reports that the administration was pursuing a compromise.

Speaking in the council chamber on the day of the vote, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, rejected the resolution as unhelpful to restarting negotiations between the parties. But she was withering about the administration’s view of settlement activity.

“Our opposition to the resolution before this council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity,” Rice said. “On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.

“For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties and threatens the prospects for peace.”

Americans for Peace Now said Obama’s use of the veto represented a missed chance to exercise leadership that could yield a peace agre

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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