April/May 1994, Page 64
Jews and Israel
By Sheldon Richman
Talbott: For and Against
Jewish American organizations lined up on both sides of the fight over Strobe Talbott's nomination as deputy secretary of state. In the end, President Clinton's nominee was confirmed, but not before Talbott was accused of being anti-Israel and groups opposing him were charged with sabotaging confirmation efforts.
Leading the pro-Talbott forces among Jewish organizations was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which recently got a new executive director, Neal Sher. AIPAC's president is Steven Grossman, a former Democratic state chairman in Massachusetts. Also supporting the nomination were Americans for Peace Now and the National Jewish Democratic Council, both Clinton allies.
On the anti-Talbott side were the Zionist Organization of America, newly led by the hawkish Morton Klein, National Jewish Coalition (a Republican-related organization), Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and Jewish War Veterans. That coalition was credited with mobilizing what Senate opposition there was. Leading the opposition in the Senate were Sens. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY), Connie Mack (RFL), and Jesse Helms (R-NC). The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations neither endorsed nor opposed the nomination after meeting with Talbott, who is an old friend of the president's from their days at Oxford University.
Klein became especially critical of AIPAC for its alleged disingenuousness regarding Talbott's apparent change of views about Israel. The anti-Talbott forces, using the former Time magazine staffer's Middle East writings, argued that the nominee was hostile to the Jewish state. At his hearing, he recanted and endorsed the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship." AIPAC and the Clinton administration explained that Talbott's change of heart occurred as a result of a visit to Israel in January 1991. The trip was sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Likudite think tank formerly headed by Martin Indyk, who is now the Mideast specialist on Clinton's National Security Council. (Indyk is also a former AIPAC official.) On that trip, according to AIPAC and the administration, Talbott realized his earlier attitude toward Israel was wrong. The weekly Forward quoted a source knowledgeable about Talbott's views as saying that "the trip helped him see a three-dimensional Middle East, and his friends helped him see positive things in Israel."
For Klein, however, this was merely a confirmation conversion. He pointed out that Talbott was still criticizing Israel in Time for months after his visit. "He offered no explanation as to how or why his anti-Israel views had changed after 10 years of articles attacking Israel," Klein told Forward. "I don't understand why AIPAC, whose officials are well aware of his 10 years of anti-Israel writings, did not take a stand. " According to Forward, AIPAC has defended its position by pointing out that the State Department team Talbott will be part of holds views it generally supports. Grossman said he had "every confidence that Ambassador Talbott will be fully supportive of the policies of the Clinton administration."
Klein united with congressional Republicans and Center for Security Policy director Frank Gaffney to oppose Talbott, futilely calling on Clinton to withdraw the nomination. The Republicans had misgivings about Talbott's support for aid to Russia. In calling for the withdrawal of Talbott's name, Klein issued a statement saying that the former journalist's writings indicate that "he has, over many years, demonstrated a lack of understanding for the threats that Israel faces, and tends to view Israel as the prime source of most problems in the Middle East." The statement went on to say that Talbott "fails to understand the value of a strong U.S. Israel relationship based on shared strategic interests and a mutual respect for democratic values. Talbott regards Israel as a liability, rather than an asset, to American interests-a perspective at odds with the traditional U.S. position."
At a press conference, Matthew Brooks, director of the National Jewish Coalition, said that the "writings and views of Talbott should be of great concern to the Jewish community. These views, coupled with his performance as ambassador-at-large, raise questions about his ability to serve effectively as the number two person at the State Department."
Forward reported that shortly before his trip to Israel, Talbott wrote an article in Time headlined "How Israel is Like Iraq. " In that article, Talbott said that "Yitzhak Shamir's talk of 'greater Israel' is as ominous for the prospect of there ever being real and lasting peace in the region as Saddam's militant nostalgia for Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian empire. " Forward said he also compared the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories to Saddam Hussain's conquest of Kuwait. In earlier writings, he called Israel's siege of Beirut and the bombing of Iraq's Osiraq nuclear-weapons facility embarrassments to the United States and suggested that American aid be cut back if such conduct continued.
A source in touch with the Clinton administration told Forward that Talbott will not be the president's Middle East point man. "That's something run by Indyk and [Dennis] Ross, and it's one thing [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher wants to own."
Jewish Historian Sees the "End of Zionism"
Norman F. Cantor, author of a forthcoming history of the Jews, wrote recently that the Israeli-Palestinian agreement "represents the end of Zionism."
Pointing out that political Zionism has been more important for Jewish self-identity than religion for the past 45 years, Cantor wrote in the Commonweal that the agreement will cause a shift "to exploring a reinvigorated religious identity. " He added that "this will mean gains for various shades of Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, but more important it will refocus the search for a liberal, reform, reconstructed Judaism of dynamic quality and broad appeal that was pursued in the first 40 years of this century but which, I would argue, largely lapsed because of the shift of attention to political Zionism in the 1940s and 1950s. "
He predicted a "Jewish religious renaissance in the Diaspora."
Cantor went on to write that the change will offer American Jews opportunities for new cooperation with Christians. He said earlier cooperation was harmed "by the unwise decision of the American Jewish Congress and other communal leadership organizations to insist on absolute separation of church and state, which contributed not only to expunging prayer and Bible reading from public schools but to the spurning of public aid for parochial education, with highly negative consequences for financing Jewish childhood education."
He foresaw a day 20 or 30 years hence when American Jews would be more involved with Catholics and Protestants than with an "Arabized" Israel, which will have become "culturally alienated in large part from English-speaking Jewry." His book, The Sacred Chain, is due to be published by HarperCollins this year.
Sheldon Richman is a Washington, DC-based contributor to the Washington Report.