WASHINGTON - The very quality that helped get Susan Rice in hot water with some in Washington is what pro-Israel groups have come to appreciate -- she is a vigorous and reliable defender of the Obama administration’s foreign policies.
Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations who is widely seen as a leading candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has garnered plaudits from Jewish communal leaders over her defenses of Israel at the world body.
“She has proven herself as an ardent defender of major Israeli positions in an unfriendly forum,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director. “And I'm more comfortable with the person I know than the person I don't know. She is close to the president and that's important in that position if you have someone you can relate to and understands us.”
If Obama nominates Rice, however, she would likely face opposition from Senate Republicans.
She has been under fire from Republicans since September, when she blitzed Sunday talk shows with what turned out to be misleading information prepared by intelligence agencies suggesting that a deadly attack on a US diplomatic outpost in Libya began with a spontaneous protest. Media reports have suggested that Rice had been eager to go on the talk show circuit to defend the administration, which was facing strong criticism from Republicans over its handling of the attack and its public explanations of what happened.
President Obama has vigorously defended Rice, although he has not said whom he will nominate to succeed Clinton when she steps down early next year. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, also is considered a leading contender, while several other names of potential nominees have been cited in media reports.
Rice, 48, began her career as a youthful protege of Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. Albright landed Rice an influential position on the National Security Council as Africa adviser.
Rice has been a key player in pitching Obama’s foreign policy, notably using friendships forged at the United Nations -- particularly with Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador -- to create space for some of Obama’s key international initiatives. These have included enhanced sanctions targeting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and the effort that helped topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi last year.
A blunt and forceful speaker in private -- she once famously gave the finger to diplomat Richard Holbrooke during a staff meeting when both were serving in the Clinton administration -- Rice has bonded with the president over basketball, a shared passion.
Jewish groups see Rice’s trajectory at the United Nations -- from tussles over Israel’s settlements and membership on the Human Rights Council at the outset of her term four years ago to close cooperation more recently -- as reflective of the Obama administration’s evolving approach to Israel.
“One thing important to point out is that the votes have reflected administration policy,” said Daniel Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith International’s executive vice president. By contrast, he said, a secretary of state is more a shaper of policy than just its messenger.
Still, Mariaschin said, Rice as UN ambassador has demonstrated an understanding of Israel’s difficulties in the international arena.
“There are ways of explaining your vote and ways of explaining your vote,” he said. Mariaschin noted that Rice’s explanation of the US “no” vote last week when the UN General Assembly elevated Palestine to non-member state status incorporated many of the talking points conveyed to her by pro-Israel groups.
“She made kind of a good end to an otherwise disappointing day,” Mariaschin said.
Rice in her post-vote explanation was dismissive of whatever hopes that the lopsided vote -- 138 for, 9 against and 41 abstentions -- might have engendered for the Palestinians.
“Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” she said, “and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Rice routinely meets with Jewish groups.
“We had a meeting right before the General Assembly, and we covered the wide range of prospects,” Hoenlein said. “I can't say there were big areas of disagreement -- and where there might have been, she's always been forthright and honest.”
Some Jewish conservatives, however, have warned against Rice being elevated to secretary of state, citing disagreements related to Israel from the first part of Obama’s first term. They have criticized Rice over the US decision to join the UN Human Rights Council, a body that has disproportionately targeted Israel for criticism, and over her criticism of Israel’s settlements in explanatory remarks after the US vetoed a Security Council resolution in February 2011 that would have condemned Israel for its settlement policy.
A November 29 Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal by Anne Bayefsky, who directs Touro College’s Institute of Human Rights and the Holocaust, and Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, noted two issues, among others, in questioning her “moral fitness” for the job of secretary of state.
“Though the president, not the UN ambassador, makes foreign policy, one is entitled to ask how a Secretary Rice would view the acts and omissions of Ambassador Rice,” they wrote.
Foxman was furious with the Bayefsky-Mukasey Op-Ed, saying it was an unseemly attempt to drag the Jewish community into a political fight.
“People may differ about the effectiveness of certain tactics or, as we have often done, even seriously question whether bodies like the UN Human Rights Council will ever give Israel a fair hearing,” he wrote in a letter to the Journal that it has not published. “But no one should use the UN’s anti-Israel record to cast aspersions on Ambassador Rice. She has earned her reputation as a fighter for Israel’s equality in a hostile forum where an automatic majority reflexively expresses its bias against Israel.”
David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said he had come around to the idea that joining the Human Rights Council was a reasonable decision after having earlier opposed the move.
“The decision to go back in was understandable,” Harris said, adding that in retrospect, he accepts that “the determination that influence was probably best achieved from inside rather than outside.”
Regarding the speech on settlements, leaders of Jewish groups said that Rice was reflecting the policy of the Obama administration, which later retreated considerably from its approach of publicly criticizing Israel over its settlement policy.
“It was a concern at the time, but in the context of this question, was this a decision that Susan Rice made or was this a speech made by the Obama administration and that she had to carry out?” Harris said. “US ambassadors, when they speak on issues of importance, don't do so without full consultation with the administration.”