US ex-diplomat who lashed out at Israel stands down

By Nathan Guttman, March 19, 2009

The ‘Israel lobby’ has been accused of derailing the nomination of veteran diplomat Charles (Chas) Freeman as the new chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Mr Freeman announced last week that he was withdrawing from the post, and attacked pro-Israel activists who, he argued, “plumb the depths of dishonour and indecency and include character assassination”.

Chas Freeman is known for his close ties to the Saudi Government and for his harsh rhetoric calling on the US to re-evaluate its pro-Israel policy in the Middle East.

Even more controversial has been Mr Freeman’s approach to China. He argued that more force should have been used to crush the Tiananmen Square uprising and he has spoken against Tibetan independence.

Although Jewish groups were cautious not to confront the administration over the initial decision to appoint Mr Freeman, for bloggers — and later for Mr Freeman himself — the case served as an opportunity to open the debate over the role of the pro-Israel lobby. “As soon as the appointment was announced, a bevy of allegedly ‘pro-Israel’ pundits leapt to attack it,” wrote Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor who in 2007 co-authored a notorious book critical of the “Israel lobby”.

On the other side of the debate stood several pro-Israel bloggers who, apart from accusing Mr Walt of being paranoid, pointed to a long list of issues surrounding Mr Freeman’s appointment, including receiving funds from Saudi Arabia for the think tank he headed, his close business ties with the Chinese Government and a lack of experience in the field of intelligence. Leading the campaign against Mr Freeman was an unlikely figure: Steve Rosen, who until 2004 was Aipac’s director of foreign policy and is now awaiting trial on charges of passing classified information to Israeli diplomats and others. Mr Rosen was among the first to point out Freeman’s anti-Israel views and later chronicled his remarks on this issue and his ties with the Saudi royal family. Soon afterwards this criticism was picked up by lawmakers who drew the attention of the Obama White House to the issue.

But Mr Freeman’s March 10 decision to withdraw from the appointment did not put an end to the pubic debate over the Israel lobby.

In a series of media interviews, Mr Freeman attacked pro-Israel activists, whom he referred to as the “Likud lobby” and put the blame solely on them.

Mr Freeman and his supporters further argued that the failure to approve his appointment revealed the Obama administration’s unwillingness to stand up to Israel and its American supporters.

The White House declined to comment in detail on the Freeman issue.

Last updated: 5:26pm, March 26 2009