Appointment of Power angers some Jews

Dennis Ross's role in new administration unclear; State Department mulls sending envoy to Syria.

samantha power 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
samantha power 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama faced a host of personnel problems this week, as two top appointees bowed out because of unpaid income taxes and another pick distressed some in the Jewish community. Samantha Power, a Harvard University genocide expert and former Obama campaign adviser, has been appointed to the the National Security Council's multilateral institutions office. She has been criticized in the past for making statements critical of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. In one clip making the rounds courtesy of YouTube, Power accuses Israel of "major human rights abuses," though she distinguishes those actions from genocide. The interview was conducted in 2002, when media attention was focused on the IDF's incursion into Jenin during the second intifada's Operation Defensive Shield. Power argued that if the United States were serious about ending such abuses, "external intervention" was needed, even though "putting something on the line might alienate a traditional domestic constituency of political and financial import," a reference to the American Jewish community. "Imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful. I mean it's a terrible thing to do, it's fundamentally undemocratic," she said, but "it's essential that some set of principles become the benchmark, rather than a deference to people who are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people." She also talked about imposing a "mammoth protection force" and "meaningful military presence." When asked about that force during the US presidential election campaign, however, Power distanced herself from the remarks. She told Shmuel Rosner, whose blog appears on The Jerusalem Post's Web site, "Even I don't understand it" and, "This makes no sense to me," positing that she made the comments in the context of discussing the deployment of international peacekeepers. Power concluded by stressing that whatever she might have said five years ago, she "absolutely does not believe in 'imposing a settlement.' Israelis and Arabs 'will negotiate their own peace.'" Still, hawkish groups like the Zionist Organization of America seized on her comments as a sign of an anti-Israel perspective and criticized her appointment. "We're really disappointed that he's appointed someone who's not only not sympathetic to Israel, but is hostile to Israel," ZOA National President Mort Klein said. He also criticized Obama for making another pick, like the nominees who hadn't paid taxes, that hurts his "integrity," since during the presidential campaign Obama had cut off Power as an adviser after she called rival candidate Hillary Clinton a "monster" and went off-message on Iraq policy. "Given her apparent anti-Israel bias, we are deeply concerned about her new role as head of multinational institutions, where she will have responsibilities for international organizations that are already unfriendly to Israel, such as the UN and UNRWA," said the leader of a more centrist pro-Israel organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity so his relationship with the new administration wouldn't be jeopardized. "Israel needs a friend, not another critic, when it comes to dealing with the 'blame Israel first' crowd at the UN," he said. He did point out that Power didn't have the Israel portfolio at the National Security Council, so her role on those issues would be somewhat curtailed, making the result of her selection still unclear: "The proof will be in the pudding - and that pudding is still being mixed," he said. Israeli officials are also somewhat comforted by the fact that Power has not been placed in direct contact with Middle East issues and are willing to take a wait and see approach. While she would not be the Israeli government's first choice, officials are waiting to see how much authority she will have and what she does once she is in office. Power's appointment comes amid confusion on other administration posts connected to the Middle East, one of them over what role Dennis Ross will play. A memo prematurely circulated by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he once ran, described his position as a "ambassador-at-large and senior adviser" to Secretary of State Clinton. But that announcement - as opposed to several others connected to the region, including the appointment of George Mitchell to the role of Middle East peace envoy held by Ross under the Clinton administration - has not yet come. Mitchell's appointment, among others, has raised questions about turf battles and the chain of command, which some blame for the postponement in Ross's case. Now it seems that his role might be limited to Iran-related issues, according to Time magazine. The publication also wrote that part of the delay stemmed from the administration's own slow-moving Iran policy review. "We want to do a very swift review. But the review is going to be comprehensive. So, what's important is getting the review right and not rushing it," US State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood said on Wednesday. "But it is something that the secretary and the president are very committed to in trying to get, you know, a policy in place with regard to Iran as early as possible." The State Department is also reviewing whether to send an ambassador to Syria for the first time since the assassination of anti-Syrian Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri in 2005, though officials said no decision had yet been made. "It wouldn't be such a surprise if there's a change toward Syria," said one Israeli official, noting that Obama has spoken of engaging Damascus and taking a stance much different than that of his predecessor. Israel itself engaged in indirect talks with Syrian officials before the war in Gaza last month, and an Israeli source indicated the return of a US ambassador wouldn't be problematic "as long as it's clear that the onus is on the Syrians to show they're serious about negotiations."