WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (JTA) – In accepting the nomination as President-elect George W. Bush’s secretary of state over the weekend, Gen. Colin Powell set out the foundation of the administration’s strategy in the Middle East.
“America will remain very much engaged in the Middle East” under a Bush administration, he said.
Saying he expected the issue to be “a major priority” for him and the State Department, he also hinted at the role the new administration plans to take as it balances often competing interests in the region.
The policy “will be based on the principle that we must always ensure that Israel lives in freedom and in security and peace,” Powell said.
“But at the same time, we have to do everything we can to deal with the aspirations of the Palestinians and other nations in the regions who have an interest in this.”
This balancing act – one the Clinton administration, too, has had to navigate – comes as a new administration prepares to inherit a region where promise of peace has elapsed into violence and political turmoil.
Whatever the outcome of the latest push to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Bush and Powell will take center stage Jan. 20, just as Israel is about to culminate a heated election for prime minister.
Powell’s words are being watched closely by Jewish observers concerned about the future of the peace process, the role of the United States in the Middle East and the world, and the relationship between a new administration and the Jewish community.
Powell’s name is familiar to the Jewish community, first for his role as national security adviser in the Reagan administration and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
But it has been 10 years since his pivotal role during the U.S.-led conflict with Iraq, which saw weeks of SCUD missiles raining down on major Israeli population centers.
Despite his initial hesitation to commit American troops to the Middle East, Powell emerged from the Persian Gulf conflict as a modern-day war hero able to match military strategy with public relations skills.
He has retained much of that luster from a decade ago. He has been heralded by both Democrats and Republicans and urged to join their ranks and seek political office.
But since the Gulf War, Powell has faded from the foreign policy spotlight, choosing instead to speak out on education and volunteerism instead of missile defense systems.
There is little known of Powell’s current views on Israel.
His autobiography hardly broached the subject and many of his past speeches and notes from meetings with Jewish organizations are still hidden away in the storage areas of the organizations’ headquarters and their leaders’ minds.
What is remembered is that Powell impressed many.
He spoke a bit of Yiddish in addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 1991, a throwback to his high school days as a clerk for a South Bronx shop owner.
He spoke of a recent visit to Israel, where he met with his counterparts and was able to speak “in short-hand, the kind that develops among close and dear friends.”
And he emphasized a commitment to Israel as the lone democracy of the Middle East.
“We have stood with Israel throughout its history,” Powell said, speaking a month after the end of the Gulf War.
“We have demonstrated again and again that our roots are intertwined, as they are with all nations who share our beliefs in openness and democracy.
“So let there never be any question about our commitment to Israel,” he said. “And let there be no question that America will stand by Israel in whatever the future holds.
“Peace in the Middle East, as peace we all yearn for, can only be secured if the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains strong and vibrant.”
But there is concern that his words may not match his actions.
While most Jewish officials and analysts are optimistic about his role in the peace process and as a friend of Israel, some note his hesitancy to fight against Iraq – and in the process support Israel – as a sign of future reluctance to use American strength to thwart international conflict.
“I think the fact that he occasionally uses a word of Yiddish is less important than how he uses the region geo-politically,” said Morris Amitay, an Israeli activist and former executive director of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.
Amitay said that during the Gulf War, Powell viewed Israel more as a hindrance than an ally. Wary of allowing Israel to fight back against Iraqi attacks, the United States urged Israel to allow the United States to fight its battle for it.
And while Powell would later applaud Israel’s “heroic restraint” during the war, Amitay said he got the impression that Powell’s regional priorities lay with protecting the oil supply and maintaining the coalition of Arab states waging war against Iraq.
In his 1991 speech to AIPAC, he said the Gulf War dispelled the myth that “the United States must choose between Israel and the Arabs.”
The Middle East has changed dramatically since that time.
The Gulf War was credited with creating the conditions that led to Israeli-Arab peace negotiations. But the Arab alliance that fought Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait has broken down, and several countries in the region are flaunting the U.N.-imposed sanctions against Iraq.
While some see Powell’s skepticism during the Gulf War as a window into a semi-isolationist viewpoint, others see it as a necessary cautious tone.
“You’ll see a calm, mature system of foreign policy,” said Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives who served as a Republican House leader during the Gulf War.
“He’s very cautious and he’s determined to win. Our opponents should remember that.”
Jewish officials hope he will bring that same attitude to the current situation in the Middle East.
“He will be more focused on the peace,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Powell “understands the strategic importance of the State of Israel,” Neumann added. “That is an important component of our negotiations.”
In his speech accepting the nomination on Saturday, Powell reiterated Bush’s mantra that the parties in the Middle East must handle their conflict on their timetable, not on the United States’.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be the parties in the region who will have to find the solution and come into agreement,” he said. “They are going to have to live with each other.”
Some see that approach as a refreshing departure from the Clinton administration, which took a pro-active role in helping Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement.
“The peace process is not something that should be going along with a ticking clock,” Neumann said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that no matter who was elected president last month, the activity level of the president in the Middle East peace process was destined to decline after Clinton.
And because Bush and Powell may take a hands-off approach, Hoenlein said, it is key to watch the rest of the foreign policy team as it is assembled in the coming weeks.
Already, the Jewish community has had a strong working relationship with Condoleezza Rice, named Sunday as Bush’s national security adviser.
Rice, who served as a Russia specialist in the National Security Council during the elder Bush administration, has little experience in the Middle East, but has won praise for her intelligence and attitude related to Soviet Jewry issues.
There is a bit of concern that if the upper levels of the State Department focus on other matters, the influence the Jewish community has enjoyed in the past will dwindle.
But Hoenlein said previous Republican administrations have embraced the Jewish lobby, and he expects Powell’s staff to do the same.
And Jewish leaders were encouraged by the comments of the top man at Saturday’s news conference, the president-elect.
Israel was the only country Bush mentioned by name, and in parsing his comments, some Jewish officials see a renewed commitment for the Jewish state.
“We will defend America’s interest in the Persian Gulf and advance peace in the Middle East,” Bush said. “Based, as any lasting peace must be, on a secure Israel.”