Despite his winning confirmation by the Senate on Tuesday, Jewish groups opposed to the nomination of Strobe Talbott to be deputy secretary of state took pride in bringing his controversial record on Israel to the national agenda.
Talbott had been expected to be confirmed to the key No. 2 post, and he was, by a 66-31 heavily partisan vote Tuesday evening. The opposing votes came from Republicans.
The vote came after several weeks of controversy over Talbott’s attitude towards Israel, a debate that sharply split the Jewish community.
Groups opposing the nomination, including the Zionist Organization of America and the National Jewish Coalition, charged that Talbott was anti-Israel.
They based their charges on Talbott’s writings in the 1980s and early 1990s while he was a Time magazine correspondent, writing which the two Jewish groups complied and actively circulated on Capital Hill.
These opponents expressed pleasure Tuesday night that they had brought Talbott’s writing to the attention of the Senate.
There was “a much greater number of senator voting against Strobe Talbott than anyone over expected,” said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA.
Klein said his group was “proud” that the Senate “took our concerns” about Talbott “very seriously.”
Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, also said his group was “quite happy with the result.”
He added, though. That he was “disappointed” that more Democrats had not opposed Talbott.
Other Jewish groups, however, maintain that Talbott does understand the close relationship between the United States and Israel, and that he would not work to undermine it.
The National Jewish Democratic Council and Americans for Peace Now have voiced support for Talbott, as has Steve Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Some of these supporters admitted to having had concerns about some of Talbott’s writing, but said they decided he would still do a good job as deputy secretary.
Monte Friedkin, chair of the Jewish Democratic group, said through a spokesperson Tuesday night that he believed “people have an opportunity to learn from their mistake,” and that he thought Talbott would do an “excellent job.”
Gail Pressberg of American for Peace New said after the vote that she felt the opposition to Talbott in the Senate had more to do with his position on issues relating to the former Soviet Union than to the Middle East.
The votes against Talbott send “a message to the administration on its former Soviet Union policy,” Pressberg said.
Talbott has been criticized for being too close with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and out of touch with the mood in the rest of the country.
The battle took on greater importance because of the sense here that Talbott, a close friend of the president, could be in line to be secretary of state if President Clinton grows dissatisfied with the performance of Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
But Jewish groups opposing Talbott said Tuesday night that their actions in circulating his writing on the Hill would make it harder for Talbott to be confirmed to the top job one day.
Senators debate Talbott’s nomination for much of the Tuesday. The debate touched upon Talbott’s views of Israel and Russia, among other subjects.
At his confirmation hearing Feb. 8, Talbott said he had changed his views since he wrote one particular 1981 Time article widely viewed as critical of Israel.
The article in question said that American Jews “wield influence” beyond their numbers. It also argued that “if Israel continues to take international law into its own hands as violently – and as embarrassingly to the U.S. – as it did in Baghdad and Beirut, then the next display to U.S. displeasure” might “include selective cutbacks in American military aid.”
The piece appeared in Time shortly after Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Talbott received support at his confirmation hearings from Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who introduced him before the committee.
He also has the backing of Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, who said recently, “if there are people who are criticizing this nomination, they are not speaking on behalf of my government.”
In addition, Talbott has garnered praise from some Jewish officials who have worked with him in his current capacity as the State Department’s ambassador- at-large with special responsibilities for the former Soviet Union.
On the other side, groups that have expressed opposition to Talbott include the Jewish War Veterans of America and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-2 on Feb. 9 to approve Talbott’s nomination. Among the senators opposing Talbott’s nomination on the Senate floor Tuesday was Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who criticized Talbott for his writing on Israel among other issues.