Israel can’t take US support for granted

For the first time since 1948, there are serious questions over the US’s automatic support for Israel

By Alex Brummer, March 12, 2009

The great taboo of Washington politics is to criticise Israel or the support of successive US administrations for the Jewish state. All seemed well on this front in the Barack Obama camp with the choice of former New York senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and ex-IDF volunteer Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff.

But forming a new US administration is not like changing government in Britain, when only a handful of special advisers are switched. In the US, the changes go deep into every aspect of policymaking and occasionally a controversial figure creeps in.

Just such an event was recorded by Andrew Sullivan in his US column in the Sunday Times which provides commentary on events in the American capital.

He noted that a furore had broken out over the choice of former US ambassador Charles Freeman to be chairman of the influential National Intelligence Agency.

A person of impeccable credentials, Freeman attended Yale and Harvard Law School, was an interpreter for Richard Nixon on his famous first visit to China and a diplomat in Beijing and Bangkok before landing a top job on the State Department’s Africa desk. He was ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1989 and was in place during the first Gulf War. He left for academe in 1992.

It was as president of the Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council that his views attracted attention. In 2002 he responded to the 9/11 attacks by suggesting that there was “an ugly mood of chauvinism” in the US.

Speaking in 2007 to the Pacific Council on International Policy he went a step further. In the context of the Iraq war he said: “We embraced Israel’s enemies as our own; they responded by equating Americans with Israelis as their enemies. We abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back Israel’s effort to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations.We wring our hands while sitting on them as the Jewish state continues to seize ever more Arab land.”

Israel’s friends in the US media have seized on these views as reason to rescind his appointment. Reaching out the hand of friendship to Muslims, as Obama suggested in his inaugural speech, is one thing; ditching Israel is quite another.

The initial criticism came from pro-Israel bloggers including ex policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Steve Rosen, who accused Freeman of being “a strident critic of Israel and a textbook case of old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy” in 1948.

Rosen is somewhat discredited after being indicted for allegedly passing national defence information to Israel, but his diatribe found support in the mainstream US press. Among those joining the attack on Freeman were Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Gabriel Schoenfeld in the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. On the other side of the debate, David Rothkopf writing in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine praised Freeman’s “intellectual honesty”, and the left wing Nation described criticism of Freeman as a “thunderous, coordinated assault”.

In the Sunday Times, Sullivan sees the attacks on Freeman in a wider context, suggesting it could be the “first skirmish in what could be an intense war for the soul of Obama’s foreign policy”. The battle has not yet broken fully into the open because of the new president’s focus on the economy.

Yet there is polling evidence to suggest that despite the almost unanimous backing of Congress for the Jewish state, some 71 per cent of Americans would like the US, post Gaza, to be more neutral in the Mideast conflict.

The Freeman appointment may only be a blip in America’s love affair with the Jewish state, but the media battle suggests wholehearted US support for Israel cannot be taken for granted.

Alex Brummer is the City Editor of the Daily Mail. He has just returned from Washington

Last updated: 12:19pm, March 12 2009