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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February/March 1996, Pages 48-50

People Watch

Leah Rabin's Frankness Gets Mixed Media Reviews

By Richard H. Curtiss

Leah Rabin's readiness at her late husband Yitzhak Rabin's funeral to show her true feelings about his former political associates and rivals by accepting a kiss of sympathy from his long-time rival within the Labor Party Shimon Peres but turning away from Likud Party leaderBinyamin Netanyahu set off a spate of Leah-watching articles in both the U.S. and Israel. TheNew Yorker reported in its Nov. 27 "Talk of the Town" section that one of her friends said, "Leah is a real Tel Avivi. She's one of the generation that grew up with ideology but then became snobs and took on riches, and became sort of a social elite." The New Yorker article added that Mrs. Rabin phones Jordan's American-born Queen Noor just to chat, and also has become a personal friend of Suha Arafat. The Washington Post reported that on his condolence call to the Rabin apartment in Tel Aviv Yasser Arafat kissed the Rabin grandchildren and said, "You are my family now." The Post report said that when Israeli writer Amos Oz called to discuss Mrs. Rabin's prior appearance on Ted Koppel's Nov. 14 "Town Meeting" edition of "Nightline" (see full report on pages 45-46 in the WRMEA, December 1995 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,), a reporter heard Mrs. Rabin say: "What a horror show. For Ted Koppel to come to our country and completely identify with one side of the politics. I didn't know Koppel was so right- wing. And he's a Jew!" The Hebrew-language Panim Hadashot of Tel Aviv added that Mrs. Rabin said, "I would prefer that my children be Arabs rather than Orthodox Jews."

Summarizing all this, associate editor Jonathan Mark of the Jewish News of Queens, NY, who often writes movingly of New York's many and varied Orthodox Jewish communities, observed, "According to a flood of recent profiles, Leah Rabin is more Cruella DeVille than Eleanor Roosevelt."

Marks also quoted strongly contrasting views from Jewish-edited American publications on Mrs. Rabin's outspokenness. In the Nov. 20 Weekly Standard, conservative writer Ruth Wisse of Harvard University opined, "It is the sheerest cant for members of the Labor government and the bereaved Mrs. Rabin to cast the blame for a rhetoric of violence on the Likud opposition alone..." On the other hand, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier wrote in the magazine's Nov. 27 edition, "The ugly truth in this instance is that there is a community of Jews, in Israel and in America, who are beyond the reach of decency. I do not want to come together with this community. I want to curse it, to fight it."

Roughly the same sentiments were expressed (roughly) by trash-talking radio host Howard Stern, who said of confessed Rabin assassin Yigal Amir, "Just kill him. The Israelis won't go for any nonsense, with the psychologists and unhappy childhoods." Stern added: "I love all the brave Jews who live over here and are big shots about not making peace with the Arabs. Theylive over here and called Rabin a traitor."

Contrasting attitudes also were apparent in tributes to Yitzhak Rabin by Israeli Consul General in New York Colette Avital and Holocaust writer (some might say proprietor) Elie Wiesel at a December Israel Bonds dinner in New York. "We must end the madness before the next madman pulls the trigger, before the next rabbi gives orders to our soldiers not to obey their officers," Avital said. Speaking later, Wiesel cautioned, "Of course there are Jewish fanatics, but the Jewish religion is not fanatic. The best weapon we have to fight fanaticism is education."

While Israeli police who had withdrawn Dec. 21 from Bethlehem turned back 1,000 Israeli protesters at the city limits, Palestinian Christians and Christian pilgrims from abroad observed the first Christmas coordinated by the Palestinian National Authority in Bethlehem. In a Christmas Eve mass, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said that "the beginning of Palestinian freedom is the beginning of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians," and called upon Palestinian Christians and Muslims "to be brothers in the Holy Land." PNA President Arafat, a Muslim, and his Christian-born wife, Suha, were guests of honor at this and other Christmas events in the liberated city, which was festooned with Palestinian flags and pictures of the PNA president along with Christmas decorations.

In an interview with the MetroWest Jewish News of New Jersey, Christian Coalition directorRalph Reed sought to blunt some of the criticism voiced by leaders of organized Jewry of himself, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, and their movement by emphasizing areas where they agree with Jewish leaders. "We, for example, are not opposed to foreign aid to Israel," Reed said. "We have taken the position in favor of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem." Reed added that he "was disappointed that [presidential candidate] Pat Buchanan did not go to" a November meeting with Jewish Republicans and added: "With regard to his relationship with American Jews—there is no question that there is concern and that there is tension based on past columns he has written, past statements he has made, probably the most disturbing of which was the [Israel's amen corner] statement about the pro-Israel lobby."

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 87-year-old physicist Joseph Rothblat, who was born in Poland and now lives in the U.K., called upon the nuclear powers to "abandon the out-of-date thinking of the Cold War" and work to "abolish war altogether." He declared that "if scientists heeded this call there would be no new nuclear warheads, no French scientists at Mururoa, no new chemical and biological poisons." His acceptance speech was interrupted with applause when he cited the example of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli atomic technician who has served 9 years in solitary confinement of an 18-year prison sentence for revealing details of Israel's nuclear weapons program to a British newspaper.

Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, an adjunct professor of Middle East studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has become head of Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, replacing Fathi Shikaki, who was assassinated in Malta where he had stopped en route from Libya to Syria. The October assassination, believed to have been carried out by agents of Israel's Mossad and presumably approved by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was depicted in the international press as a threat to the peace process, but soon was overshadowed by the assassination of Rabin himself. Shallah was teaching classes at USF as the result of its affiliation with a group for which he was administrative director, World Islamic Studies and Enterprise (WISE), a think tank of the Islamic Committee for Palestine. After Sallah's appointment to Islamic Jihad, the U.S. government froze WISE's assets and federal officials also raided the home of WISE director Sami al-Arian, seizing papers, computer files and audio- and videotapes. Al Arian said he had done nothing "to endanger the life or rights of any [American] citizens...The only thing I've done is speak my mind." WISE released a statement denying any connection with Islamic Jihad or terrorism.

Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told Iran's parliament Nov. 5 that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was "divine revenge" for the killing of Fathi Shikaki. "Whoever unsheathes the sword of tyranny will be killed by the same sword," Rafsanjani said. "The assassination of the Israeli premier is, in fact, God's warning to all humanity."

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic presented Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati with the Dragon of Bosnia decoration during a December visit to Sarajevo by the Iranian official. The Bosnian award was in recognition of Iran's efforts to strengthen Bosnian government forces during their war with Serbian forces. While Muslims from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Islamic countries arrived as individual volunteers to join Bosnian government military forces, Iranians arrived as military units sent at the direction of the Iranian government.

Among issues that have arisen on the fringes of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations is a request by Nadia Cohn, widow of Israeli super-spy Elie Cohn, for the return of her husband's body from Damascus, where he was hanged in 1965. Cohn, a Jewish native speaker of Arabic, posed as an Arab businessman to penetrate top levels of the Syrian government. Israelis credit the information he regularly radioed back to Israel about Syrian military dispositions in the Golan Heights in part for the ease with which Israeli forces conquered the area during the June 1967 war two years after Cohn's death.

Richard Perle was a legislative assistant to the late Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-WA), whose office became a center of pro-Israel activity on Capitol Hill in the 1970s. In the 1980s Perle served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and brought into the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary in charge of military technology transfersStephen Bryen, a former executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, who had been forced to leave a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff job while he was under investigation by the FBI on suspicion of passing classified military information to the Embassy of Israel and an Israeli Defense Ministry official. Perle's career has demonstrated that where friends of Israel are concerned, political party affiliations make little difference, a fact that has not escaped the attention of foreign governments needing clout to solve problems with Congress or the executive branch. When Perle joined a Washington, DC law, lobbying and consulting firm, the government of Turkey, the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, hired Perle to help.

This connection apparently led naturally to vigorous advocacy by Perle, now an American Enterprise Institute fellow, in newspaper opinion pieces and testimony to Congress on behalf of lifting the United Nations arms embargo that prevented the Bosnian government from obtaining arms to defend itself, and in favor of using American air power to halt Serb aggression in Bosnia. Then, last fall, Perle turned up as an adviser to the Bosnian government delegation at the peace talks at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH.

Perle, known to his critics in the Reagan era as "the Prince of Darkness," arrived at the behest of U.S. peace negotiator Richard Holbrooke, known to his critics these days as "raging bull."Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs speculated in a Nov. 11 article that Perle's two-fold mission was to provide the Bosnians with some much-needed military expertise, and at the same time gather material to help Holbrook win congressional support for the agreement that finally was signed.

On the other side, serving as the only non-Serb member of the 10-person Serbian delegation, was former Democratic minority leader in the New Hampshire state legislature Chris Spirou. Spirou has been active in the Greek-American lobby, which shares honors with the Armenian-American lobby as first-runners-up to the Israel lobby in foreign policy influence. Spirou was born in Greece and shares an Eastern Orthodox religious tie with the Serbs. He told journalists he had "worked closely" with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whose dream of "greater Serbia" is blamed by many Balkan experts for starting the whole imbroglio that has led to more than a quarter-million deaths in former Yugoslavia since 1991. "Our joint commitment is to bring peace to the Balkans," Spirou maintained.

British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith completed his one-year term as commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in December and will take command of British army operations in Northern Ireland. Soft-spoken Smith was a total contrast to his predecessor, British Lt. Gen.Michael Rose,a dashing special forces type once known as "the Queen's favorite general," who arrived vowing to end the siege of Sarajevo and almost did, but then ended his one-year tour as a pathetic apologist for the besieging Serbs. By contrast, Smith was an advocate of forceful military response and finally got his way when the inexplicably pro-Serb Japanese U.N. civilian commander, Yashushi Akashi,had been taken out of the command loop and the explicably pro-Serb French military commander of all U.N. forces in former Yugoslavia, Gen. Bernard Janvier, was out of the country attending his son's wedding in France. With the U S. finally ready to assume a leadership role, Smith called for the continuous NATO airstrikes against Serb military targets in response to bloody Serb provocations last August that helped bring the Serbs to the peace table a month later.

Former U.S. President George Bush, in a PBS interview aired Jan. 16, expressed no regret over his decision to end the 100-hour ground war against Iraqi forces on Feb. 28, 1991, but said he underestimated Iraqi President Saddam Hussain's staying power. "I miscalculated, I thought he'd be gone," Bush said. He said he now considers that agreement by the Coalition at the March 3 armistice meeting at Safwan, Iraq, to an Iraqi request to fly armed helicopters anywhere in Iraq except near Coalition forces was a mistake. It helped Saddam to put down rebellions by the Iraqi Shi'i in the south and Iraqi Kurds in the north. Bush said, however, that if the U.S. had insisted upon Saddam surrendering to Coalition forces personally, it might have backfired. U.S. troops might have had to go to Baghdad "searching for this brutal dictator" and become "involved in an urban guerrilla war," said Bush. "That is not a formula that I wanted to contemplate, and I think history will say we did the right thing."

The career of Judge Abraham Sofaer, who might be called the Indiana Jones of U.S.-Israeli relations, has taken another improbable twist. Sofaer, born in India into an Iraqi Jewish merchant family, was the U.S. federal judge in New York who presided over a libel suit brought by former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon against Time magazine, which had labeled Sharon responsible for inciting the 1982 massacre of between 800 and 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children residents of the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps. The massacre, carried out by Lebanese Maronite militiamen, began on the day Sharon's Israeli forces occupied West Beirut, where the camps were located, and continued for three days while Israeli soldiers surrounding the camp prevented the Palestinians from fleeing and international journalists from entering the camps. The slaughter, which involved the use of bulldozers under Israeli supervision to bury the victims in mass graves even as the killing continued, ended only after Israeli media witnesses, ignored when they complained to Sharon, then tipped off the U.S. diplomats who had guaranteed the safety of the Palestinian civilians as a condition of PLO withdrawal from the city.

When it became clear that Sharon (whom even an Israeli government commission labeled "indirectly responsible" for the massacre) was going to lose his case, Sofaer broke the charges into three parts and directed the jury to bring in three separate verdicts on separate days. This provided two days of press coverage indicating that Sharon was winning the suit. Only on the third day did the jury bring in a verdict on the key charge that, in effect, exonerated Time.

Sofaer next turned up as State Department counselor during the Reagan administration, often taking a personal role in matters involving Israel. He personally conducted the negotiations with Israel for return of the roomful of secret documents stolen by Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard. Sofaer declared victory and came home when the Israelis returned photocopies of only a very few of the documents.

Sofaer also personally conducted negotiations with the Israeli government for the return to Egypt of the Taba resort area of the Sinai peninsula as previously agreed at Camp David. (The Israelis had moved the border markers, claiming that their resurvey of the area had shown that the pre-1967 international boundaries were erroneously drawn, and Taba should not have been part of Sinai.) Israel eventually carried out its agreement to cede Taba to Egypt. However, in a subsequent action the Israeli government said was unrelated to the unfavorable negotiation results, it charged that Sofaer had misused his diplomatic immunity to smuggle antiquities out of Israel.

Sofaer, who left the State Department in 1990 to return to private law practice, eventually was cleared of the Israeli charges.

In November, however, the District of Columbia's board on professional responsibility brought disciplinary charges against Sofaer growing out of the retention of his law firm, Hughes Hubbard and Reed, in January 1993 for a retainer of $3 million from the government of Libya to be disbursed at the rate of $250,000 per month over three years to deal with claims resulting from the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Sofaer's job, he explained, was to seek "consensual resolutions" for compensation of "the victims and families" and to work out a process "acceptable to the United States and to Libya" for extradition of two Libyan suspects in the bombing. After families of Flight 103 victims announced plans to picket the law firm's Washington office, Sofaer ended his involvement in the case.

The current charge, upon which no decision has yet been reached, is that Sofaer violated rule 1.11 of the "Rules of Professional Conduct" by representing Libya after working closely on Libya-related matters for the U.S. government. According to a petition filed by DC bar counselLeonard Becker, Sofaer received classified briefings on the bombing, was involved in the U.S. government decision to bomb selected targets in Tripoli, Libya, and also had consulted the Department of Justice regarding a subpoena filed by Pan Am against the U.S. government. In response Sofaer said he "does not recall" receiving any information in government briefings about the bombing which had not become public knowledge by the time he began representing Libya. Becker said Sofaer is the first person accused of violating the rule, which is punishable by formal reprimand or censure. "The rule is particularly important in this district where so many members of the bar have prior government experience," Becker said.

Richard H. Curtiss, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, is the executive editor of theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs.