Waiting for Obama to fill out the Mideast policy machine

Waiting for Obama to fill out the Mideast policy machine

WASHINGTON — Pro-Israel activists already have a feel for the major players on the Obama administration’s foreign policy team, but the picture remains fuzzy when it comes to the midlevel appointees and nominees — the ones who on a day-to-day level often play the main role in making policy.

Still, as Barack Obama assumed the U.S. presidency this week and faced the fallout from the recent fighting in Gaza, plenty of names were in the mix:

* Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East peace broker, will be back in a job that — it’s hard to finish the sentence, even when you hear it from the closest insiders. Depending on whom you believe, he’ll be the last stop on Middle East policy, except Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton will still have a say. And then, Ross’ emphasis is supposed to be Iran — but will that decrease his influence on Israel-Palestinian talks? During the campaign, Ross said the Israel-Palestinian track should be de-emphasized because as long as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank could not come together, it was futile. Obama has sent out strong signals, especially in the wake of the Gaza Strip war, that he plans to be very much involved.

Ross also favors accelerating the Iran process — in other words, intensifying sanctions now, and when the punishment has sunk in, holding out the carrots of engagement.

It’s an approach that would play out against a behind-the-scenes Iran policy battle now under way in Washington: Doves want to wait out the Iranian presidential election in June because they don’t want to hand incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a prize for his extremism (“You see, my Holocaust denial worked!”). Hawks say that if there’s going to be outreach, do it now, that we need to assess where Iran is before it manufactures a nuclear weapon — an eventuality Israelis believe may happen before the year ends.

Ross’ approach — hurrying along sanctions, delaying outreach — would seem to draw on strategies from both camps.

* Dan Shapiro and Puneet Talwar are said to be splitting Middle East policy at the National Security Council. Shapiro, who is to handle Israel-related issues, was a senior adviser on Jewish issues to Obama during the campaign and one of his top surrogates to the community. Until he joined the campaign, Shapiro was a private consultant, but has many years as a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate behind him. As a staffer for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2003, Shapiro was key in shepherding the Syrian Accountability Act through the Senate; the measure imposed tough sanctions on Syria until it stops backing terrorists and developing weapons of mass destruction. Shapiro helped draft Obama’s hugely successful speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in May.

Talwar, who will handle Persian Gulf issues — including Iran — also has a background in the Senate, working as a staffer for then Delaware Sen. Joe Biden on the Foreign Relations Committee. Talwar has a reputation for keeping AIPAC happy even as he tweaked the tough language it favored in ways that would not hamstring U.S. Middle East policy. His ability to “nuance,” to use an overused Washington term, could stem from earlier stints at the State Department and at one of the U.N. agencies monitoring Israeli-Arab peace.

* George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator from Maine and a former majority leader, has been mentioned in the both The New York Times and the Washington Post as a likely envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Insiders have said that such an envoy will report to Clinton, leapfrogging Ross, but it won’t be a “peace processer” — one of the many casualties, like Ross, of failed past attempts to broker a permanent peace.

One would think that would count out Mitchell; his commission’s recommendations in April 2001, on the way out of the second intifada, fell on deaf ears and the violence continued unabated for at least another year. The commission urged tougher Palestinian anti-terrorism measures, agreeing with Israel that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts were inadequate;. He also urged a settlement freeze. Mitchell, of Irish and Lebanese descent, was more successful in helping to broker the Northern Ireland accords. He also led investigations into steroid abuse in baseball.

* Eric Lynn, like Shapiro, was a senior Jewish outreach official for Obama during the campaign; he is said to be headed for a White House Middle East policy job. Lynn started his policy life as an AIPAC intern in 1998. He subsequently worked for U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) until Deutsch, one of the most committed pro-Israel figures in Congress, retired in 2004 after an unsuccessful Senate bid. Lynn spent a year studying in Israel and speaks Hebrew.

* James Steinberg and Jack Lew have been named as Clinton’s deputies at State. Steinberg, as a national security council staffer under President Clinton, had a strong relationship with the pro-Israel community. In 2002, as a senior Brookings Institution scholar, he told CNN that the onus was on then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to end violence and on Arab nations to nudge him back toward peace talks — key talking points for the pro-Israel community. Lew, an Office of Management and Budget director under President Clinton, will direct economic stimulus overseas. He is a Sabbath observer.

* Samantha Power, a genocide scholar, quit the Obama campaign in March after calling Clinton, then his rival, a “monster.” Pro-Israel activists had been agitating for her removal in any case; in 2002, she had rushed to accuse Israel of war crimes during its Jenin operation and recommended an international force to police the region. In recent weeks, Power has made reappearances as a member of Clinton’s transition team — reportedly after an abject apology — and then among 50 or so Obama acolytes appearing in a New York Times Magazine photographic portfolio. Before her departure last March, Obama aides insisted that Power’s advice was limited to genocide prevention — an area that had earned her deep Jewish friendships before her 2002 outbursts. She is married to Cass Sunstein, Obama’ s top rule keeper as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein is Jewish.

* Rand Beers, a counterterrorism official from Presidents Reagan through George W. Bush, quit in 2003 just before the Iraq invasion, saying Bush’s counterterrorism strategy was misdirected. He became the lead national security adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during Kerry’s presidential run in 2004, and built close relations with the pro-Israel community. Beers also advised Obama on counterterrorism, and will serve as a counselor to Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary designee. Beers is likely to be a linchpin as Israel and the United States forge a closer alliance in the area; Israel after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has trained U.S. security and first-responder officials, and the countries are sharing technology.

* Lee Feinstein and Mara Rudman are Jewish veterans of the Clinton administration — Feinstein as a senior planning official at the State Department, Rudman as a National Security Council staffer involved in the Oslo process. Feinstein, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, was a lead adviser to Hillary Clinton during her presidential bid and accompanied Clinton to her Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month. Rudman became a private consultant and helped broker the Holocaust insurance compensation deal under the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims. With the Center for American Progress, she also established Middle East Progress, an e-mail bulletin that compiles an array think pieces on the area and aims to balance the conservative slant of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Daily Alert. Rudman appeared on stage with Obama just before the election as one of his senior foreign policy advisers.

Even as pro-Israel organizations and activists attempt to make sense of the rumors regarding the midlevel picks, they have a high level of familiarity with the people at the top:

* Gen. James Jones, the former NATO commander who is Obama’s pick for national security adviser, is the “it makes sense” guy. When he commanded NATO, it made sense to intensify the regional relationship with Israel, and the Israelis loved it. More recently, when he oversaw compliance with Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements, it made sense to train Palestinian security forces and it didn’t make sense for the Israelis to get in the way — making him rather less enamored by the Israelis.

* Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state designate, has been one of Israel’s fastest friends in her eight years in the Senate, taking the lead in bringing to light anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and threatened to obliterate Iran if it launched a nuclear weapon at Israel. As first lady, she was a stalking horse for Palestinian statehood, angering some in the pro-Israel establishment at the time. Since then, however, it’s become a non-issue, as virtually everyone is for a Palestinian state.

* Vice President Joe Biden, expected to take a leading foreign policy role, has a history of arguing with Israel and its U.S. friends — of course, he has a history of arguing with everyone, including himself. When it comes to bottom-line support, pro-Israel insiders say he is solid, with a deep understanding of the issue.

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a carry-over from the Bush administration. Gates is the “realist” brought in to correct the sharp ideological tilt warfare had taken under his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. Gates’ refusal to count out engagement with Iran — if only as a practical matter, in terms of allowing Iraq’s neighbors a stake in how it fits into the region — dovetails with Obama’s own pledge to reach out more to the Islamic Republic.

* Susan Rice, U.N. ambassador-designee, at the Cabinet level. Rice signed onto a Washington Institute for Near East Policy paper last summer calling for greater Israel-U.S. coordination on Iran policy. More recently, in Senate testimony, she accused the world body of singling out Israel for blame.