Olmert’s boast of “shaming” Rice provokes diplomatic furor
The Jewish Daily Forward
January 15, 2009
Washington — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn’t do anything wrong — but he should have kept his mouth shut. That was the reaction of several Jewish leaders to Olmert’s public boast January 11.
He said he left Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “shamed” by getting President Bush to block her at the last moment from voting for a Gaza cease-fire resolution that she herself had hammered out over several days with Arab and European diplomats at the United Nations.
Olmert bragged of having pulled Bush off a stage during a speech when he called on the phone and demanded the president’s intervention. Administration officials, however, have sharply challenged Olmert’s account.
“I have no problem with what Olmert did,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I think the mistake was to talk about it in public.”
“This is what friendships are about. He was not interfering in political issues. You have a relationship, and if you don’t like what is being done, then you go to the boss and tell him.”
Douglas Bloomfield, a former chief lobbyist for the Washington-based pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, dismissed the episode as “a spitting match between two lame ducks.”
“This reinforces the perception that the Israeli prime minister and Israeli leaders have easy access to the leaders of the U.S.,” Bloomfield said. “It is a fact that the Israeli prime minister can get the president on the phone. Not every prime minister in the world can do that. It is no secret that Israel tried to influence the U.S. regarding U.N. votes. It reinforces what the rivals of Israel say about the enormous clout Israel has in Washington, and I see nothing wrong with that.”
But Bloomfield added, “It is a mistake to talk about it.”
Rice, according to press reports, worked hard with Arab and European diplomats to come up with a Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza that all could support. She finally gave her approval to a draft calling for an “immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.”
But the January 8 vote was delayed just before it was to take place, as Rice was called away to the phone. When she returned, she abstained on behalf of the United States — contrary, other diplomats said, to her earlier commitment. The measure, Resolution 1860, was adopted 14-0, with only America in abstention.
In public remarks afterward, Rice stressed that her government nevertheless strongly supported the resolution.
“We decided that this resolution, the text of which we support, the goals of which we support and the objectives that we fully support, should indeed be allowed to go forward. I believe in doing so, the council has provided a roadmap for a sustainable, durable peace in Gaza,” Rice said after the January 8 vote, explaining America’s decision to abstain.
Olmert’s call to Bush aside, there were hints of internal wrangling within America’s administration over the resolution. In a January 11 CNN interview, Vice President Dick Cheney voiced disbelief in the U.N.’s ability to end the fighting in Gaza. “I think we’ve learned, from watching over the years, that there’s a big difference between what happens at the United Nations in their debates and the facts on the ground in major crises around the world,” Cheney said.
Israel and Jewish groups, including Aipac, the ADL and the American Jewish Committee, opposed the draft’s language, which they saw as one-sided. They also felt that the draft stood in contrast to Israel’s demand not to give it equal standing with Hamas in the resolution.
During a January 5 conference call with Jewish activists, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, gave special priority to blocking the international body from taking a stand on the Gaza issue. “We need to work hard to ensure the Security Council doesn’t pass a resolution,” Hoenlein said.
It was in Ashkelon, in southern Israel, that Olmert gave a speech in which he said that on hearing of the draft that Rice had developed with her U.N. colleagues, he immediately called Bush, just minutes before the U.N. vote. He was told that Bush was giving a speech in Philadelphia and could not talk.
“I said, I don’t care; I have to talk to him,” Olmert told the crowd, which included reporters and TV cameras.
Bush, according to Olmert, was called off the podium and immediately agreed to look into the issue. “He gave an order to the secretary of state, and she did not vote in favor of it — a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organized and maneuvered for. She was left pretty shamed, and abstained on a resolution she arranged,” Olmert told the crowd.
A furious White House and State Department condemned Olmert’s account as inaccurate and the State Department called it “totally, completely untrue.” Rice termed it “a fiction.”
In a January 13 press briefing, spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice had decided a day before the vote that she would not veto the resolution. McCormack also stated that Rice made the choice to abstain after she consulted with National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and with Bush.
The decision by Rice not to outright veto the January 8 Security Council resolution, as the United States has the power to do under Security Council rules, triggered angry and unusual criticism from Jewish groups that have praised Bush during most of his eight-year White House tenure.
Aipac issued a statement January 6 condemning the U.N. resolution and criticizing the Bush administration for not using its veto power and instead “succumbing to pressure exerted by Arab states.”
The ADL expressed disappointment with the administration in a written statement: “We expected the Administration to abide by its longstanding commitment to fighting global terrorism and the scourge of anti-Semitism, and Israel’s role on the front lines of that fight.”
The tough words from Israel and Jewish groups toward the outgoing administration will make little difference for Bush and Rice, who leave office January 20. But they will serve as a message to the incoming administration led by President-elect Barack Obama and his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“This is a battle that needed to be taken,” Foxman said. “We don’t win all our battles, but we can’t simply accept that the Security Council is what the Security Council is.”
The above article can be found at:
Also, see this Jan. 13 article from IPS:
Olmert’s Claims Revive Spectre of “Israel Lobby”
Inter Press Service (IPS)
January 13, 2009
WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department fiercely denied claims made by Ehud Olmert about his influence over President George W. Bush, in an incident that has stirred up old debates about the role of the Israeli government and the so-called “Israel lobby” in formulating Middle East policy in Washington.
On Monday, Olmert claimed that he demanded and received an immediate conversation with President Bush, during which he convinced the president to overrule the wishes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and abstain from a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
In response, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday called Olmert’s claims “wholly inaccurate as to describing the situation, just 100-percent, totally, completely not true”. The State Department did not respond to an IPS request for further elaboration.
Olmert’s comments were made in Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city that has been the target of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
According to Olmert, he called the White House upon hearing of the upcoming U.N. Security Council resolution. “I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone’. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn’t care: ‘I need to talk to him now’. He got off the podium and spoke to me,” Olmert said, according to multiple media reports.
As a result of his conversation with President Bush, Olmert claimed, the president called Rice and forced her to abstain from voting on the measure, which she herself had helped author.
“He gave an order to the secretary of state and she did not vote in favour of it — a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organised and maneuvered for. She was left pretty shamed and abstained on a resolution she arranged,” Olmert said.
The Security Council resolution passed by a vote of 14 to 0, with the U.S. the only abstention.
The U.S. government was quick to counter Olmert’s remarks. In addition to the State Department’s rebuttal, a White House spokesman also denounced “inaccuracies” in the story.
Regardless of the truth of Olmert’s claims, the story comes as an embarrassment to the Bush administration, which has faced criticism for its alleged unquestioning support for Israeli positions.
While most U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere have called for an immediate ceasefire since the Israeli bombardment of Gaza began on Dec. 27, the Bush administration has been unwavering in its refusal to condemn the campaign or suggest a timeline for its conclusion.
The U.S Congress has also expressed its strong support for Israel’s actions in Gaza. Last week, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed nonbinding resolutions in support of the military campaign.
But polls indicate that both members of Congress and the public at large may be more skeptical of the Israeli offensive than the official positions of the U.S. government would indicate.
An anonymous poll of 68 congressmen conducted by National Journal found that 39 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans felt that Israel had used “too much” force in Gaza. Nevertheless, over 90 percent of representatives voted in favour of the House resolution, which placed all blame for civilian casualties in Gaza upon Hamas.
And in late December, a Rasmussen poll found that the U.S. populace as a whole supported the Israeli offensive by a narrow 44 to 41 percent margin. Among Democrats, 55 percent felt that Israel should have tried to find a diplomatic solution first.
The diplomatic spat over Olmert’s comments, along with this alleged disparity between U.S. public opinion and policies on Israel-Palestine, have given new intensity to an old set of debates.
Charges of pro-Israel bias have not been unique to the Bush administration. Critics also accused the Bill Clinton administration, and particularly its top negotiator Dennis Ross, of giving priority to Israeli concerns during the peace negotiations of the late 1990s.
Ross, who is rumoured to be in line to become President-Elect Barack Obama’s top Middle East envoy, was accused by U.S. and Arab negotiators of not being “an honest broker” in the peace process, according to a book by Ross’s former colleague Dan Kurtzer.
And in 2005, former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller complained that “many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations”.
On the U.S. domestic scene, Congress’s overwhelming backing of the Gaza offensive despite apparently lukewarm public support has been taken as further evidence for the existence of an “Israel lobby” skewing policy in a hawkish direction.
This claim was put forth by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in a 2006 article in the London Review of Books entitled “The Israel Lobby”, later turned into a 2007 book. They alleged that hawkish pro-Israel lobbying groups — most notably the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — have for decades skewed foreign policy in a direction detrimental to U.S. interests.
The Mearsheimer/Walt thesis has been extremely controversial since its publication. To critics, the thesis was simply the latest manifestation of a long line of conspiracy theories alleging covert Jewish domination of politics.
Defenders countered that the idea of an Israel lobby was not meant to stand in for Jews as a whole — both because the policies of groups like AIPAC were unrepresentative of the more dovish views of most U.S. Jews, and because the lobby was also made up of large numbers of evangelical Christians.
Regardless, the years since the publication of Mearsheimer and Walt’s article have seen more open debate about the way that Israel policy is formulated in Washington. Relatively centrist commentators such as Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and Joe Klein of TIME, while taking pains to distinguish their views from those of Mearsheimer and Walt, have suggested that hawkish Jewish groups in the U.S. political establishment are skewing Israel policy in an unhealthy direction.
As world debate over the Gaza war remains fierce, it seems unlikely that these controversies will die down in the near future.
Walt, for one, has taken recent developments as a further vindication of his views.
“[A]lthough most Americans support Israel’s existence and have more sympathy for them than they have for the Palestinians,” he wrote Jan. 5 in response to the Rasmussen poll, “they are not demanding that U.S. leaders back Israel no matter what it does. But that’s what American politicians reflexively do.”
The above article can be found at:
In Washington, Israel calls shots on Gaza, pt. II