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The Baltimore Jewish Times, 22nd December, 2000:

Jews Positive On Powell Nomination

By James D. Besser

Washington

 

For a community that is notoriously nervous about incoming secretaries of state - even George Shultz, today venerated by pro-Israel forces, was initially regarded as hostile - the reaction to Saturday's selection of retired Gen. Colin Powell has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Despite hints of concern about Mr. Powell's strong focus on the Persian Gulf and an approach to regional conflicts that some see as excessively cautious, the Yiddish-speaking nominee has drawn praise from a wide range of Jewish leaders, and from both peace process supporters and critics. 

At a news conference following the announcement of his selection, Mr. Powell briefly addressed the Mideast peace process. 

"It is absolutely a given that under a Bush administration, America will remain very much engaged," he said. "I expect it to be a major priority of mine and of the department. It will be based on the principle that we must always ensure that Israel lives in freedom and in security and peace. But at the same time, we have to do everything we can to deal with the aspirations of the Palestinians and other nations in the region who have an interest in this." 

Most Jewish leaders say this is precisely the kind of diplomatic formulation expected of an incoming secretary of state. 

"Any administration seeking to promote a settlement in the Middle East has to take other elements into account in addition to Israel," said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We have to wait and see how the new administration, and Powell in particular, balance these elements." 

American University political scientist Amos Perlmutter, who said he has known the Gulf War commander "for years," predicted that Mr. Powell's support for Palestinian aspirations will not translate into backing for Yasser Arafat. 

"This is not going to be a good administration for Arafat," he said. "Right now Arafat is getting ready to make another major mistake; he thinks he can raise an intifada now, and get a better deal with [George W.] Bush." 

But Colin Powell, Dr. Perlmutter said, is unlikely to offer a sympathetic ear. 

Privately, some Jewish leaders expressed concern that Mr. Powell, reflecting the big-oil background of the new president and vice president, will tilt U.S. policy in the region in favor of the oil-producing states. 

Mr. Powell is "very sensitive to the concerns and requirements of the Gulf countries," said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist, who predicted - but not for attribution - that the Jewish community "will, in the end, find little to be happy about in his nomination. His understanding of Israel as an asset is very much in the context of a number of other vital relationships in the region." 

But Shoshana Bryen, special projects director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said that "every secretary of state has to nod toward the oil-producing states. They have to do that as long as we want to keep heating our homes and driving our cars." 

But Mr. Powell "has always liked Israel, even though he will have to account for a variety of concerns," she said. "On balance, his program and his views will be good for Israel." 

Other analysts say that Mr. Powell will generally take pro-Israel positions, but warn that his ability to shape policy in the region will depend on his position relative to the other two stars in the Bush foreign policy constellation - Condoleezza Rice, the president-elect's choice as national security adviser, and the incoming vice president, Dick Cheney. 

Mr. Cheney, many predicted with concern, will be unusually involved in the new administration's foreign policy; some foresee a tug-of-war for influence between Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell, with Ms. Rice playing more of a supporting role. 

And some Jewish leaders worry that both Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice will give short shrift to the international human rights agenda. 

"Clinton and his two secretaries of state gave unprecedented attention to protecting the rights of Jews in the former Soviet Union," said an official with a Jewish human rights group. "Powell, who views the world more through a military and strategic lens, will not give human rights the same emphasis." 

But the critics were a distinct minority in Jewish boardrooms this week, reflecting both genuine admiration for the former Joint Chiefs chairman and a desire by Jewish leaders to say nothing that would impede their access to the man about to become the nation's top diplomat. 

"I have no reservations about him," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "He is a man of experience who appreciates America's role - and understands America's limitations." 

Mr. Foxman referred to Mr. Powell's early days in the Bronx. 

"He grew up in a Jewish environment; he continues to feel good about those days, and his time at City College, when he was surrounded by a generation of Jewish students who have gone on to greater achievements. Many of them are still his friends." 

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Powell worked closely with Israeli military leaders, he said - including Ehud Barak, his opposite number as Israel's chief of staff. 

"Military people who have had experience with the IDF come away with a sense of appreciation of Israel's value as an ally to the United States," he said. "Powell has had those contacts and that kind of appreciation." 

But Mr. Foxman agreed that there will be jarring shifts in emphasis as the new administration re-evaluates U.S. policy in the region. 

"There will always be a tug of war to find the proper balance in U.S. Middle East policy," he said. "Israel policy never plays alone; it has to be seen in the context of the broader region." 

He said that the fact that the incoming administration's three foreign policy superstars - Mr. Powell, Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney - have worked together in the past means "they can hit the ground running in the Middle East." 

That could prove particularly important as the new administration takes office in the midst of an Israeli-Palestinian flareup that threatens to spread across the region. 

Others expressed concern about Mr. Powell's well-known reservations about the use of U.S. military force. 

"I'm a little worried about his military doctrine, as expressed before the Gulf War," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. "He is hesitant about using U.S. troops even in places where we think they may be necessary." 

But Mr. Baum said that he is satisfied Mr. Powell will work to maintain the special U.S.-Israel relationship and that he will seek and listen to input from Jewish leaders.

 Mr. Powell's appointment won praise from both ardent peace process critics and backers. 

"He's a serious adult; he's an honorable man," said Michael Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a national security consultant to the Reagan administration. 

Mr. Ledeen said Mr. Powell will be more focused on U.S. interests, less on wispy notions of international brotherhood. 

Mr. Ledeen said that it's too early to spell out how Mr. Powell's worldview will play out in the explosive Middle East. But he offered some general guidelines. 

"Basically, you can expect these people will do less meddling in internal Israeli politics," he said. "I doubt we'll have an assistant secretary of state or ambassador to Israel who runs around publicly endorsing a candidate." 

Mr. Ledeen is a outspoken critic of the current peace process. But supporters also view Mr. Powell as a potential ally. 

"He has a clear understanding of the strategic relationship with Israel, all the secret things all the rest of us don't know about," said Judith Kipper, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. "But he also understands the Gulf; I think he will be very concerned about those countries." 

She described Mr. Powell as "a very cautious man." 

She said that Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell will have much less day-to-day involvement in Mideast negotiations than President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - "which is as it should be." 

She predicted that the new administration is likely to "re-evaluate our policy and start looking at the region from a broader level. That's good for American interests - and I think it would ultimately be good for Israel and for the peace process."

 


 


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