Jewish World: Malcolm in the middle

What was a prominent US-Jewish leader doing in Damascus at the invitation of Bashar Assad? Malcolm Hoenlein isn’t saying.

Hoenlein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hoenlein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 from me.”
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 mission.
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 career.
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.
“In 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 world.”
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 currently undergoing.
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 forces...
but the role of the West in the last month we see has become more marginal...
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 them.
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 Jerusalem Post. “Look at his record at the IAEA and the report in the Egyptian press that he got $7 million from Iran for his presidential aspirations...
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 appreciative.”
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 Hoenlein.
“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.”