New US Mideast director takes the helm at White House

US Jewish establishment says "people didn't really know" his Israel experience; Simon says talking with Hezbollah best chance to disarm it.

Steven Simon_311(B&W) (photo credit: Courtesy)
Steven Simon_311(B&W)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Relations.
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.
“Their 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 different level.”
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 experts.”
Instead of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Simon has been more focused on issues connected to terrorism and larger regional dynamics.
His co-authored book The Age of Sacred Terror explored al-Qaida’s emergence and America’s response.
In a New York Times op-ed, he defended the idea of trying terror suspect Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in the US civil courts.
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 emerge.
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 Ideas.
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.”
They 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 group.
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 the conventions.”
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 said.
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 thinking.
And he stressed, “We’re not going to talk to Hezbollah, so case closed.”
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 region.”
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.”
But the 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 past.
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.
“The Jewish leaders are going to want to talk to the person who’s actually in charge,” he said.