Obama Appointee: Bad News or Shultz II?

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Members of our local Jewish community have expressed deep concern on the heels of an op-ed piece in the Feb. 24 edition of the Wall Street Journal by Gabriel Schoenfeld. The article discussed the appointment of Charles “Chas” Freeman Jr. as President Barack Obama’s choice to head the National Intelligence Council, the agency that produces the daily National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs).

The article, with a headline that referred to Freeman as an “Israel basher,” raises serious questions about the appointee, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. We share the concern that Freeman’s record regarding Israel raises warning flags:

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* In 1997, Freeman succeeded George McGovern as president of what is now called the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), originally the American-Arab Affairs Council. Freeman himself acknowledged, in a 2006 interview that the pro-Arab think tank “owes its endowment to the ‘generosity’ of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

* The MEPC has some notorious baggage. It published a so-called “unabridged” version of the blatantly anti-Israel book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by Professors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. This highly controversial book alleged that American pro-Israel Jews have a “stranglehold” on the U.S. Congress, which they use to tilt U.S. policy toward Israel at the expense of other, “legitimate” American interests.

* Freeman has questioned the sincerity of Israel’s efforts to seek peace with the Palestinians, stating in a 2007 address to the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs that “Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians, it strives instead to pacify them.”

All of the above positions are indeed cause for real concern about Freeman. At the same time, the same Wall Street Journal article points out that, “Without question, Mr. Freeman has a distinguished resume, having served in a long list of State and Defense Department slots.” But perhaps more importantly, before Freeman is adjudged “guilty” by overzealous advocates, history informs us to be patient with the expectations surrounding key appointees.

One notable example relates to President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of George P. Shultz to succeed Alexander Haig as Secretary of State in 1982. Shultz was a former head of Bechtel, the international engineering firm which oversaw major infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Jewish Light and others indicated that Schultz would be a disaster. We suggested that Israel was doomed, as this pro-Arab business tycoon who owed his personal fortune to the oil-rich Arab states, was bound to be anti-Israel and “bad for the Jews.

As things turned out, Secretary Shultz came to be regarded as one of the most effective in his position with regard both to support for Israel and the rights of Soviet Jewry. Shultz was steadfast in the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War in negotiating a peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel; his efforts would well have succeeded but for the assassination of President Bashir Gemayel. Shultz said many times that he could trust the Israelis to keep their side of any agreement.

Regarding Soviet Jewry, Shultz was strongly supportive of the call by President Reagan to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to respond to the 250,000 demonstrators in Washington in 1986 to “Let Our People Go.”

When Shultz addressed the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (now the United Jewish Communities) in 1990, he was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation, having become immensely popular among American Jews.

Freeman’s appointment also must be taken in the context of the Obama Administration’s overall positions regarding Israel and world affairs. One early indication that the Obama Team “gets it” concerning Israel’s position in the international community was its decision last week to boycott the upcoming Durban II Conference on Racism. The 2001 Durban Conference on Racism turned into an orgy of Israel-bashing and outright anti-Semitism. We applaud Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for this principled action.

The U.S. action regarding Durban II is one sign that the Freeman appointment won’t derail the historic bipartisan support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship based on shared interests and values. We do not know at this stage if Charles Freeman will be another George Shultz. But the Shultz precedent, along with the administration’s other conduct, suggests a “wait and see” reaction to Freeman’s appointment. Let us be patient and not rush to judgment before he has taken a single action in his important new position.