Nomination of State Dept. Deputy Gets Lukewarm Response from Jews

The nomination of Strobe Talbott as deputy secretary of state is being met with equanimity in the Jewish community, with one Jewish official calling the choice “neither a positive nor negative development.”

Some are praising Talbott’s expertise on the republics of the former Soviet Union as a boon for those concerned with the fate of Jews living there. Others have expressed reservations about Talbott’s limited diplomatic experience and lack of a record with respect to Israel.

But few expect his appointment to alter the Clinton administration’s Middle East policy, which is generally seen as highly supportive of Israel.

They note that the State Department’s No. 2 official is rarely involved directly in policy on areas as high-profile as the Middle East — a role Secretary of State Warren Christopher is likely to retain for himself.

“We don’t expect any change in policy by Clinton as a result of this appointment,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“To the extent that Clinton’s policy remains the same, this is a good” nomination, he said.

But some expressed concern that as the Clinton administration reshapes its foreign policy team, it is bringing in people who have little background on Israel and other Jewish concerns.

Both Talbott and Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who was nominated in mid-December as defense secretary to replace the pro-Israel Les Aspin, are seen as “outsiders” who may not understand the Jewish community’s sensitivities.

Publicly, though, Jewish groups have praised Talbott, a longtime journalist at Time magazine who presently serves as ambassador at large to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

“We had a very positive relationship with him,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

‘THE BEST PERSON FOR THE JOB’

“He is accessible and knowledgeable,” Levin said. “We look forward to dealing with him in his new position.”

Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called Talbott “exceedingly competent” with an “in-depth knowledge of foreign policy.”

But Wenick, himself a former State Department expert on Russia, agreed that Talbott’s appointment is likely to have no significant impact on Israel.

Talbott’s nomination follows a tough year for the Clinton administration’s foreign policy team, which endured harsh criticism for its actions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti and Somalia despite its relative success in the Middle East.

At the announcement of Talbott’s nomination Tuesday in Los Angeles, Christopher called the former ambassador “the best person for the job.”

“I recommend him to the president because I have got great confidence in his ability, his knowledge of foreign affairs, his integrity and his character,” the secretary said.

Talbott is expected to rely heavily on his knowledge of the former Soviet Union, although his new position is certain to involve him in a broader range of issues.

According to Richard Haass, senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Talbott is well-positioned to deal with the question of Jewish emigration from the newly independent states if the situation there worsens.

He also could raise the profile of the human rights concerns of Jews and other minorities in the former Soviet republics, he said.

“Talbott is concerned about seeing strides made in all areas of Soviet Jewry,” said Levin of the National Conference, “including protection of the rights of Jewish citizens from new laws” being considered there.

But Haass, who was the senior Middle East expert on the Bush administration’s National Security Council, does not expect Talbott to become heavily involved in the Middle East peace process because Christopher has devoted himself to that issue.

The selection of Talbott comes amid other staffing changes at the State Department.

Edward Djerejian, the new ambassador to Israel, is due to arrive there in mid-January, according to a State Department source.

His departure leaves vacant the position of assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. There is no timetable for the position to be filled, according to a State Department source.

Also leaving is Samuel Lewis, director of the policy planning staff, who is retiring as of Jan. 22, in a move that reportedly is the result of a “mutual agreement.” Lewis, a former ambassador to Israel, was seen as a staunch friend of the Jewish state but was believed to be “out of the loop” when it comes to Middle East policy.

Dennis Ross, the State Department’s special Middle East coordinator, will remain for now. A holdover from the Bush administration, Ross was originally to have concluded his assignment by the close of 1993.

The State Department on Wednesday had no information on how long Ross would stay, or whether he will keep his position throughout Clinton’s term.

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