WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 (JTA) — In 1998, Donald Rumsfeld was one of seven former secretaries of defense to urge President Clinton not to release Jonathan Pollard, a convicted spy for Israel.
Thus he reappears on the national stage as President-elect George W. Bush’s choice for defense secretary in direct opposition to the organized Jewish community on a key issue.
Across the political and religious spectrum, Jewish officials have reiterated their pleas in recent days for Clinton to pardon Pollard, who is serving a life sentence, before the president leaves office.
But despite the gap with Rumsfeld on Pollard, several Jewish analysts welcomed the appointment.
“You have to see the whole picture,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We view it as a positive appointment.”
Rumsfeld served as secretary of defense for less than two years under President Ford, from 1975 to 1977, and served as a special presidential ambassador to the Middle East for seven months under President Reagan.
He also served as White House chief of staff and U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the Nixon administration.
Despite his role as special ambassador to the Middle East, longtime activists and observers have little recollection of his involvement in the region.
“He was not particularly involved in Middle East issues,” said Morris Amitay, an Israeli activist and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
“He’s hard to characterize as one way or another.”
Most Jewish observers are focusing, instead, on Rumsfeld’s role in studying the threat of ballistic missiles to the United States.
Rumsfeld chaired the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threats to the United States, which found that the ballistic missile threat to the United States was greater than previously believed.
It found that rogue nations, including Iran and Iraq, could be developing weapons of mass destruction and that the United States would have little warning of those threats.
The findings were heralded by Jewish officials who have been pushing U.S. policies that keep these nations in check.
“He comes with a background of serious experience,” said Marvin Feuer, director of defense and strategic issues at AIPAC.
“He has a direct understanding of the threats the United States will face in the next century.”
Tom Neumann, Executive Director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said, “When it comes to important national security issues, he’s a top notch choice.”
Rumsfeld, 68, has stayed in the spotlight over the last 20 years, and has been applauded for his work both in the public and private sector.
Rumsfeld is characterized in his Defense Department Web site biography as a “roving ambassador for the Defense Department” during his Pentagon tenure.
The youngest man to lead the department, he apparently focused on mostly managerial tasks.
Feuer said Rumsfeld was a young, able executive brought in during a critical period following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
He credits Rumsfeld with working behind the scenes to organize a strategic dialogue with Israel. And a generation later, Feuer said Rumsfeld carries the prestige of an elder statesman back to the Pentagon.
“He brings a combination of real defense experience and real business experience,” Feuer said, “which is unique among the candidates for this job.”
Bush was said to have been considering former Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.) and former undersecretary of defense in the elder Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz.
Wolfowitz, who is Jewish and current dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was a foreign policy adviser to the president-elect during the campaign.
So far, Bush has named no Jews to his Cabinet.
Rumsfeld has connections to several national security figures well-known to the Jewish community. He worked with Dennis Ross, the departing State Department special Middle East coordinator, in the Pentagon and was joined by Wolfowitz on the ballistic missiles commission.
(JTA Washington correspondent Sharon Samber contributed to this report.)