NEW YORK (Nov. 17)
Jewish leaders reacted with caution after President-elect George Bush announced the selection of John Sununu, outgoing governor of New Hampshire, to be his White House chief of staff.
Of chief concern has been Sununu’s refusal to repudiate the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, in response to a 1986 campaign by the World Zionist Organization-American Section asking governors to condemn the declaration.
Sununu was the only governor to refuse, excusing himself by saying he believed it was inappropriate for a governor to get involved in foreign matters. He repeated that statement in July at the National Press Club.
He has, however, issued other proclamations of solidarity with other nations during his tenure as New Hampshire governor.
Sununu, the 49-year-old son of a Lebanese father and El Salvadoran mother, is the highest-ranking U.S. office-holder to be a member of the National Association of Arab Americans.
In that position, he has shared the podium at an organization forum with a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Sununu has also traveled throughout the country to represent Arab Americans before Republican conclaves.
Hyman Bookbinder, former special Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee and a campaign adviser to Gov. Michael Dukakis, said Wednesday that Bush’s choice for the White House position “raises some concerns,” which are not made easier “because it’s not a post that has to be confirmed by the Senate.”
Bookbinder said, however, that Sununu could allay any fears “by making it absolutely clear that he is in favor of the president-elect’s stated policies on the Middle East, which include a request for the United Nations to renounce that resolution.”
Others asked about Sununu were even more prudent in their responses.
Thomas Dine, director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that Sununu “will come to the White House without a direct record on U.S.-Israel relations.”
Speaking before the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, Dine commented positively on Sununu’s performance on the Republican Party platform that strongly supported Israel.
“I watched him personally take command of the Bush platform” prior to and during the Republican National Convention in August, Dine said. He pointed out that the platform was strongly supportive of Israel.
However, one Capitol source said Sununu does not reflect Bush’s feelings on Middle East issues.
The speaker, who did not wish to be identified, said that although Sununu was one of the chairs of the Republican platform committee, Bush placated Jewish concerns by keeping Sununu away from Middle East deliberations.
At B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington, Warren Eisenberg, director of the group’s international council, also reacted circumspectly. “Although there is a certain level of concern, it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion,” he said.
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, noted that “Gov. Sununu also reportedly issued a proclamation in June 1988 referring to Israel’s mistaken 1967 attack on the U.S.S. Liberty as ‘vicious and unprovoked.’ “
The New Hampshire state house confirmed that Sununu signed a proclamation on the Liberty at that time.
It referred to the attack by Israeli fighter jets on an American intelligence-gathering ship off the coast of the Sinai peninsula, in which 34 Americans were killed.
Israel, explaining the attack as one of mistaken identity, apologized profusely for the episode and paid reparations to the families of the victims.
Foxman balanced his skeptical remarks, however, by noting Sununu’s proclamations commemorating Israel’s 40th anniversary and the efforts of the Jewish Federation of Manchester on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement that Bush “has unequivocally rejected the idea of a Palestinian state. And he can be trusted to keep his word.
“Furthermore, it is the president who sets policy, not his staff people.”
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said in a statement, “It would be helpful if Governor Sununu clarified his position on this issue so that it would be consonant with that of the administration he may be asked to serve.”
Seymour Reich, international president of B’nai B’rith, was more blunt. “Why did he hesitate to take part in the struggle against this infamous U.N. resolution? His refusal to associate his name with other governors on this matter puts his judgment in doubt.”
(JTA editor Mark Joffe in New Orleans contributed to this report.)