Latest State Dept. Appointments Welcomed by Pro-israel Community

A series of high-level State Department appointments announced this week have left American Jewish groups feeling reassured that Bill Clinton’s administration will put a high priority on the Middle East peace talks and on maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Among the nominations announced Tuesday were Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, as director of policy planning and Edward Djerejian, who will retain his post as assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs.

Sources said the Clinton team was also close to naming Martin Indyk, head of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to a National Security Council post responsible for at least part of the array of Middle East issues.

That appointment would be welcomed by many Jewish groups, but no official announcement has been made.

In addition, Dennis Ross, who held the policy planning post when James Baker was secretary of state, has been asked to stay on as a special State Department adviser. Ross has played a key role in facilitating the Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Others indications that the new administration will focus quickly on the Middle East were reports this week that Secretary of State-designate Warren Christopher would travel to the Middle East next month and that the new president himself is interested in an early meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Christopher was unanimously confirmed as secretary of state by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. The full Senate was expected to vote on the nomination Wednesday.

‘A CLEARLY OUTSTANDING TEAM’

According to sources in the pro-Israel community, Christopher would like to visit Israel and several Arab countries, possibly including some Persian Gulf states, in February. But there was no official confirmation of such plans from Clinton officials. In Israel, the respected daily newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the new administration is prepared to set an early date for a meeting between Clinton and Rabin, but only if the crisis over Israel’s deportation of over 400 Palestinians to Lebanon is resolved by then.

The Israeli premier has repeatedly signaled that he wants to meet the new president in advance of the major decisions the Israeli government must make if the peace talks with Syria, the Palestinians, Jordan and Lebanon are to make real progress toward agreements.

In the United States, meanwhile, Jewish groups praised the latest additions to the Clinton foreign policy team.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the individuals named Tuesday, together with the projected selection of Indyk, would complement the appointments already announced.

These individuals “are familiar with the region and supportive of the peace process,” he said.

Steven Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, praised the State Department appointments and the recent addition of Nancy Soderberg to the National Security Council staff.

The appointees represent a “clearly outstanding team that understands the Middle East, is committed to the peace process and is committed to the Bill Clinton vision of the peace process, which is to see the U.S. as a catalyst” in the negotiations, he said.

“At critical points in the campaign, Gov. Clinton expressed commitment to a strong U.S. Israel relationship, and to the Middle East peace process,” said Jason Isaacson, director of the office of government and international affairs of the American Jewish Committee. “These appointees are eminently qualified to follow through on those commitments.”

SPECIAL PRAISE FOR LEWIS

Jewish organizational officials were particularly pleased with the appointment of Lewis, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the early 1980s, to the policy planning post.

Lewis is “viewed in a very positive way by the Jewish community,” said Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress, called the appointment a “terrific” one. “He’s a guy well-respected in all quarters,” Pelavin said.

“Sam Lewis is first-rate,” agreed Gail Pressberg, president-designate of Americans for Peace Now.

The policy planning position took on great importance in the Bush administration, with Baker giving Ross major responsibility for coordinating the Middle East peace talks. It is not yet clear how Christopher will divide responsibilities among Lewis, Ross and Djerejian, a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Syria.

Pressberg of Peace Now called Djerejian “a top-notch professional” who would probably keep his experienced team in place.

Pelavin of AJCongress said Djerejian is respected on “all sides.” He added, “Lewis and Djerejian are committed to the peace process, and that’s really important.”

“Both bring a tremendous amount of skill and insight” to the peace process, said Dan Mariaschin, director of international, governmental and Israel affairs for B’nai B’rith International.

Other high-level State Department nominations announced Tuesday include Peter Tarnoff, as undersecretary for political affairs, which is the No. 3 position at State; Lynn Davis, as under-secretary for international security affairs, a position with responsibility for arms sales; and former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), who was named to a new position with eventual responsibility for global issues, including human rights.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem.)

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