Christopher Affirms His Commitment to a Strong U.s.-israeli Relationship

Secretary of State-designate Warren Christopher this week affirmed the incoming Clinton administration’s support for America’s “special relationship” with Israel and expressed its desire to maintain momentum in the Middle East peace talks.

In an opening statement during confirmation hearings Wednesday, Christopher said the Clinton administration would be “committed to maintaining a strong and vibrant strategic relationship” with Israel.

“Our democracy-centered policy underscores our special relationship with Israel, the region’s only democracy,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He added: “We also believe that America’s unswerving commitment to Israel and Israel’s right to exist behind secure borders is essential to a just and lasting peace.”

The firmly pro-Israel remarks may have been designed to assuage the fears of some in the organized Jewish community who had expressed concern over the past few months about Christopher’s commitment to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.

A New York Times article last week reported that the Jewish community was dissatisfied with President-elect Bill Clinton’s selection of Carter administration veterans, including Christopher, for his foreign policy team.

The Carter administration has been perceived by some in the Jewish community as having been tough on Israel, despite the fact that it helped bring about the Jewish state’s first peace treaty with an Arab country, Egypt.

The Times article caused consternation in the Clinton transition team and controversy in the organized Jewish community, with many Jewish organizational leaders saying they did not subscribe to the views espoused in the article.

In an attempt to clear the air, Christopher met last week with a small group of Jewish leaders. Afterward, they expressed satisfaction with the secretary-designate’s willingness to hear their concerns, as well as his affirmation of pro-Israel views.

The National Jewish Democratic Council was quick to issue a statement Wednesday praising Christopher’s remarks on Israel.

The secretary-designate’s remarks “underscore the strong commitment which he has to the State of Israel, which we have never doubted,” said the statement, which was issued by the council’s executive director, Steve Gutow.

The testimony is “another sign that Bill Clinton’s powerful pro-Israel campaign positions will be translated into foreign policy once he takes office,” the group said.

ATTACKS ‘SAVAGE’ SERBIAN POLICY

In his testimony before the Senate committee Wednesday, Christopher praised the outgoing Bush administration for “bringing the Arabs and the Israelis to the bargaining table,” and said, “We must maintain the momentum behind the current negotiations over peace and regional issues.”

“We will continue our efforts with both Israel and our Arab friends to address the full range” of issues in the Middle East, he said.

Questioning in the opening hours of the confirmation hearings did not focus on Arab-Israeli relations. Instead, the senators raised questions about such issues as Christopher’s role in the Iran hostage crisis, the conflict with Iraq, the current U.S. military operation in Somalia and the ethnic conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Christopher told the committee the Clinton administration would work with its allies to try to halt the “savage” Serbian policy of “murder, rape and ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia.

The ongoing human tragedy in Bosnia has aroused the concern of American Jewish groups, some of which have drawn parallels between the Nazi Holocaust and the “ethnic cleansing” practiced by the Serbs against Bosnian Moslems.

The Middle East did come up later Wednesday, when Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) asked Christopher about the administration’s commitment to ending the Arab boycott against Israel.

The secretary-designate said he would “do my best” to carry out Clinton’s campaign promise of working to end the boycott. He said the “main means for doing that will have to be diplomatic contacts with our Arab friends, and I expect that I will be meeting with them in the very near future.”

Treasury Secretary-designate Lloyd Bentsen also pledged to fight the Arab boycott during his confirmation hearings Tuesday.

In response to a question from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Bentsen called the boycott “an anachronistic policy” that does not serve Arab interests. He said he would work with other industrialized nations to “see if we can’t bring that boycott to an end.”

Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation last week that would deny most-favored-nation trade status to “countries that participate in or cooperate with the economic boycott of Israel.”

Such legislation has been introduced unsuccessfully in the past, but proponents expect it to fare better in the 103rd Congress.

Christopher was introduced at the start of his confirmation hearings by the two new women senators from his home state of California: Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of whom are Jewish.

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