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Flap over Arab American appointee reignites debate over Jews at State

WASHINGTON, April 27 (JTA) — Controversy swirling around the views of an Arab American aide at the U.S. State Department has reignited debate about the large number of Jews handling Middle East affairs for the Clinton administration. The flap stems from a campaign by the Zionist Organization of America to oust Joseph Zogby, who wrote at least two articles critical of Israel before he was hired by Martin Indyk, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Indyk, one of at least five Jews working in senior Clinton administration positions that deal with Arab-Israeli relations, has been attacked in the Arab world since 1997, when he became the first Jew to be in charge of U.S. Middle East policy. Zogby is the first Arab American to work for the Near East bureau in decades, according to Arab American activists. As news of Zogby’s views spread, the ensuing controversy opened some old wounds in the Jewish American and Arab American communities. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, accused Indyk of hiring Zogby in an attempt to silence criticism that too many Jews control U.S. Middle East policy. At the same time, Zogby’s father, James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, said that because of the “disproportionate number of Jews,” the State Department should hire more Arab Americans. Somewhere in this debate rests the fate of a 29-year-old lawyer who was appointed for a one-year term to serve as an aide to Indyk, writing speeches and memos. Indyk, who did not respond directly to Foxman’s charges, said Zogby is not working on issues that affect Israel. “There are very few Arab Americans working in the State Department in any area,” Indyk told the Associated Press. “The Clinton administration is committed to a diverse workplace, and in that context we do feel it is important to have Arab Americans in the State Department.” After initially telling Jewish officials that Zogby was planning to leave the State Department when his term was up in August, Indyk now says he is up for a promotion. Contrary to what ZOA has reported, Zogby “has not been fired or ousted nor will he be,” Indyk said in response to a question at the ADL’s annual Washington leadership conference on Monday. Although Indyk expressed support for Zogby, he criticized his aide’s views on Israel to the ADL gathering as “distasteful and disturbing” and said that “the views he expressed then are not acceptable to me or to this administration.” In two published letters written in 1998 from Israel and the West Bank, Zogby criticized the Oslo peace accords for producing “swiss-cheese cantons and de jure discrimination.” It is “undeniably accurate” that the Palestinians live in an “apartheid state,” he wrote. He also criticized the United States for “willful ineffectuality” and for not acting to “level the power imbalance between the two parties, allowing Israel to unilaterally impose its interpretations of the Oslo accords.” Zogby also accused Israel of abusing human rights and acting like a colonizer, similar to the “genocidal treatment of the Native Americans and enslavement of African-Americans.”’ Zogby grew up in the United States but spent two years in Israel and the West Bank. He founded the Palestine Peace Project, which brings American lawyers and law students to land under the Palestinian Authority’s control to volunteer with local legal and human rights organizations. While critical of Zogby’s views, Indyk defended him for writing “in anguish, not in anger.” “He was not then and is not now an Israel-hater,” said Indyk, who having anticipated questions on the subject at his ADL appearance, read from a lengthy prepared statement. Indyk’s response prompted Foxman to declare the issue “closed,” but he expressed hope that Zogby would leave the State Department when his term was over. Morton Klein, the ZOA president who lobbied against Indyk’s nomination when he was up for his post in 1997, attacked the assistant secretary of state last week at a meeting convened by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Klein accused Zogby of holding “extremist, anti-Israel views” and said that those views “should disqualify him” from being involved with U.S. policy in the Middle East. Klein vowed to “do all we can” to ensure Zogby’s ouster if he decides to stay at the State Department. Joseph Zogby declined to comment on the situation. But Zogby’s father, James, a prominent Arab American activist, attacked Klein for quoting his son’s writings out of context and for leading a campaign “worse than McCarthyism.” The elder Zogby also lambasted the Jewish community for not standing up to Klein. “Why is it that everyone in the Jewish community rolls their eyes at him but two days later they’re all reading off the same page?” Zogby asked. Klein is well-known in the Jewish world for having launched campaigns — some successful and some not — against nominees for a variety of posts because of their views on Israel, including John Roth, a candidate to run a department of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Roth eventually resigned from his post at the Holocaust museum before he took office. While some Jewish leaders privately criticized Klein’s tactics, they defended their views that Zogby should not be at the State Department. Meanwhile, some Jewish officials softened their rhetoric against Zogby. “I’m troubled by what he wrote,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. At the same time, “it’s gotten blown out of proportion,” Hoenlein said after the New York Post wrote in an editorial last week that Zogby “shouldn’t be working as a dogcatcher.” Many activists expressed hope that the passions over the controversy would eventually give way to substantive debate over who should be setting Middle East policy. James Zogby expressed concern that the State Department is viewing the Middle East only through a Jewish lens. “You would not want people there who do not understand the Holocaust, the history of persecution of Jews, anti-Semitism,” he said. At the same time, “we need somebody who understands not just the Palestinians but other countries as well.”