WASHINGTON – When Steven Simon, the new US National Security Council senior
director for the Middle East and North Africa, kicked off his introductory phone
call with leaders of the Jewish community recently, he touched on a lengthy
résumé including stints at the NSC in the Clinton White House and as a Middle
East expert at the RAND Corporation and the Council on Foreign
But Simon also mentioned having traveled to Israel several
times, not only professionally but personally as well.
“Clearly he did
that to establish some kind of Jewish rapport,” said one Washington Jewish
official on the off-record call, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People
didn’t really know” about his experience with Israel.
The official said
making such a connection was important because as opposed to the figures who
preceded him in the role – Dan Shapiro, who was recently appointed US ambassador
to Israel, and Elliott Abrams, who served in the Bush White House – who were
familiar to the Jewish community, Simon is a relative unknown.
being Jewish and Jewishly active and known commodities within the Jewish
community played a role in their selection,” he said of Shapiro and Abrams.
“Steven Simon is Jewish and has some Jewish contacts, but it’s on a very
Simon is also less well-known in the Washington circles
focusing on peace process issues, with the Jewish official describing him as
“not a member of the front row of Washington Middle East
Instead of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Simon has been
more focused on issues connected to terrorism and larger regional
His co-authored book The Age of Sacred Terror explored
al-Qaida’s emergence and America’s response.
In a New York Times
he defended the idea of trying terror suspect Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in the US
He dealt with the potential for an Israeli attack on Iran’s
nuclear facilities in another book he co-authored, The Sixth Crisis: Iran,
Israel, America and the Rumors of War. A reviewer on Foreign Affairs’s website
described the book’s major policy recommendation as that “given the likely
failure to reach a negotiated settlement, a regional variant of the Cold War
containment policy might be the best default position.”
Simon delved into
the Palestinian issue in a short book he wrote with four others at RAND on
building the necessary physical infrastructure for a Palestinian state to
And just last year, he addressed the potential for de-arming
Hezbollah in order to diminish Iran’s influence while safeguarding US and
Israeli interests in a piece last summer in Democracy: A Journal of
Simon and his co-author argued that talking with Hezbollah offered
the best chance for success.
“Certainly a US initiative to talk to
Hezbollah would be a sensitive and controversial diplomatic effort,” they
acknowledged, noting the delicate political balance in Lebanon could be
disrupted with such an overture. “To avoid this sort of blowback, the United
States would have to acknowledge to Hezbollah that demilitarization could not
proceed without Hezbollah’s voluntary consent and participation.”
continued, “At the same time, Hezbollah itself would be more inclined to go
along with a process involving quiet, negotiated demilitarization than one
driven solely or mainly by magisterial pronouncements by outside powers. Thus,
sustained ground-level diplomatic contact would be necessary to give the effort
the best chance of succeeding.”
The White House did not grant a request
for an interview with Simon or respond to a request for comment on how Simon’s
views squared with Obama administration policy toward the Lebanese militant
The American Jewish official suggested that the fact that the
White House would choose to take on someone who had proposed such a policy
indicated that they wanted “someone with an open mind, who would think outside
But a former White House official said that it was
indicative of the policy orientation of those in charge.
“This is the
Obama administration. It’s not the Clinton administration or the Bush
administration. Steve’s views are in line with the administration’s,” he
But Middle East expert Aaron David Miller, who himself worked for
several administrations and calls Simon a friend, questioned the extent to which
Simon believed in talking to Hezbollah or whether it was defining of his
And he stressed, “We’re not going to talk to Hezbollah, so case
Miller also felt it was a positive that Simon hasn’t been as
focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I would rather bring in
somebody with a broad perspective on the region than a ‘peace process-er,’” he
said. “It’s not the most important issue this country faces in this
He added, “Steve’s one of the smartest people I know. He’s also
one of the best analysts I know. Since it’s my opinion, what’s needed... is
cruel and unforgiving analysis. Steve, I would argue is a perfect choice.
He understands the Arabs. He understands the Israelis.”
former White House official suggested that choosing someone from outside the
narrower Israeli-Palestinian orbit could be an indication of the turf concerns
within the National Security Council.
Dennis Ross, special assistant to
the president on the Middle East and a peace process veteran, has been doing
much of the shuttling between the parties. Just this week he accompanied Acting
US Middle East envoy David Hale to the region, something Shapiro has done in the
He suggested such a “division of labor” could be effective in a
complex and crucially important region. But he said that if Simon isn’t as
intimately involved in that area of policy, it’s going to complicate his efforts
to be the point person briefing American Jewish officials.
leaders are going to want to talk to the person who’s actually in charge,” he