- March 14, 2009
Obama backs off on Israel, again
President Barack Obama”s controversial pick for a top intelligence post blasted the “Israel lobby” on his way out the door Tuesday, intensifying a debate on the role Israel”s allies played in the latest failed Obama appointment.
Charles W. Freeman Jr.”s abrupt withdrawal from his appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council came after he drew fire on a number of fronts – including questions about his financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia.
But the most heated opposition came from supporters of Israel – and Freeman”s departure shows Obama”s reluctance to signal a dramatic change to a U.S. policy in the Middle East that centers on standing beside Israel.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama jettisoned aides and backed off statements that appeared to imply a change in the Bush Administration”s firm support for hawkish Israeli governments.
As president, Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East last week with a tough message for the Palestinians, saying it was hard for Israel to make peace with people who are hurling rockets into their country.
And the attacks on Freeman, in the end, hinged primarily on the question of Israel, something the Democratic senators who helped break the back of the nomination Tuesday made clear.
“His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration,” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a statement. “I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”
Hours before the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, expressed his “regret” at Freeman”s withdrawal, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) told Blair he was concerned about “statements that [Freeman]”s made that appear either to be inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China.”
In particular, Freeman has described “Israeli violence against Palestinians” as a key barrier to Mideast peace, and referred to violence in Tibet last year – widely seen in the United States as a revolt against Chinese occupation – as a “race riot.”
Freeman left no doubt about where he places blame in a written statement after his withdrawal.
“The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East,” he wrote.
“The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.”
Freeman”s departure echoed moments during last year”s presidential campaign when Obama – generally willing to ignore the daily political tempests – abandoned aides and advisers who drew strong, persistent criticism on the question of Israel, which became, in the politics of the presidential campaign, a proxy issue for more general toughness on Islamic terrorism.
He forced an informal advisor, former Clinton administration peace negotiator Rob Malley, to resign after he met with Hamas officials on behalf of the International Crisis Group. And he distanced himself from Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been, briefly, a high-profile campaign figure. Later Obama, asked about his views on Israel, dismissed Brzezinski as “not one of my key advisers.”