When Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents
of Major Jewish American Organizations, was asked on the sidelines of his
organization’s annual gathering here this week what exactly he was doing in
Syria last December, he smiled broadly in a way which seemed to suggest some
sort of secret knowledge.
“Would you believe I went there for the beach?”
he answered in jest. “I was invited by an official; I did not go as an emissary
of the prime minister or anyone else. I went on a humanitarian agenda and have
never discussed what happened.
All of these quotes in the media are not
Later that day, he told the Associated Press that the unnamed
“official” was Syrian President Bashar Assad but, again, he refused to go into
details and claimed he had been there on a strictly humanitarian
Whatever Hoenlein was doing in Damascus, it is unlikely he went
without speaking to his friend Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu first. What
kind of information was exchanged in his meeting with Assad is a matter of
speculation, but the mysterious invitation illustrates the powerful diplomatic
position that the head of the Presidents Conference has attained during his long
BY HIS own admission, the world has changed since he took the
reins of the Presidents Conference – which coordinates and represents 50 US
Jewish groups on national and international issues – 24 years ago.
the age of globalization, everything is interrelated,” he said at the
conference’s annual gathering at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, an event which he
joked was his “24th bar mitzva.” “I tell people about the Soviet Jewry movement;
it was a great thing. We dealt with the Soviet empire, but you didn’t have to
worry about what were the ramifications in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia. Today any
issue you touch, you talk about Saudi Arabia, you talk about South America, you
talk about Morocco, the Gulf.
You talk about the whole
Hoenlein has been to most, if not all of those countries on
either personal invitations from their governments, accompanying US diplomats on
state visits or on his own initiative.
Still, even his deep familiarity
with the Middle East could not have prepared him for the tumult the region is
One by one, pro-Western leaders in Tunisia, Egypt
and Lebanon have fallen.
Bahrain is currently violently quelling an
uprising, and Jordan’s King Abdullah dismissed his government in an attempt to
preempt popular protests.
At the same time, while anti-Western regimes in
Syria, Libya and Iran haven’t managed to completely escape the effects of the
turmoil, so far they seem to be relatively robust.
Is the West’s power in
the region on the wane and if so what can be done to regain it? “We have to look
forward, we have to anticipate problems,” Hoenlein said. “I think that some of
it was unpredictable that it would happen now, not that it would never. We have
to look at whether we are giving enough support to the Hariri
but the role of the West in the last month we see has become
Qatar and Turkey and Syria and Saudi Arabia are trying
to sort things out, they didn’t get very far, but it’s not the West. There has
to be a strategic plan.”
Lebanon, where the pro-Western government of
Saad Hariri was recently replaced by the Hezbollahled opposition, is a missed
opportunity, he said.
“We should have demanded enforcement of 1701,” the
Security Council resolution passed in 2006 which called for a cease-fire between
Israel and Hezbollah as well as the disarmament of the militant group. “There’s
no reason Hezbollah should have gotten 60,000 missiles.
And it’s a
failure on our part; we let it go, collectively, the whole West, UN, everybody.
We can put every demand on Israel, but we can’t counter 60,000 missiles in the
hands of a terrorist organization run by Iran.”
At the same time,
Hoenlein is aware of the limits of Western diplomacy. On Egypt, for instance,
where a power vacuum exists following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, he said
“the Egyptian people will have to decide” who they want to lead
That said, Hoenlein would probably prefer not seeing former
International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei as the new head of
state. Last month in an interview that was widely quoted, he dubbed ElBaradei a
“stooge for Iran.”
“I made a reference in an obscure place and I simply
said... he tends to be lionized as this human rights guy,” Hoenlein told The
. “Look at his record at the IAEA and the report in the Egyptian
press that he got $7 million from Iran for his presidential
People don’t understand who he is and I can tell you I got
calls from some Egyptian intellectuals a week later who were really
HOENLEIN’S SENIORITY is a double-edged sword: He has
profound foreign policy experience and close personal ties with US and Israeli
leaders. But sometime in the future, Hoenlein, who is in his mid-60s, will have to step down.
Considering the number of years he has headed the Presidents Conference, and the
ossification of Jewish leadership in the US in general, some wonder whether
there will be anyone ready to replace him when that happens, but not
“I search all the time for amazing young people wanting to be
involved, who want to be part of the community and looking for ways to be
involved,” he said. “I look all over the country both for myself and for others
to identify good young talent and there’s a lot out there.”