NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (JTA) — Zalmay Khalilzad is unlikely to equal his predecessor’s vigorous support of Israel, but Jewish leaders quietly welcomed the news that President Bush had chosen the career diplomat as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. On Monday the White House officially nominated Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to replace John Bolton, who resigned his temporary appointment last month after failing to win congressional approval.
Bolton quickly endeared himself to Jewish groups for his outspokenness on Israel and his vocal criticism of the world body. His sometimes abrasive style and willingness to suspend the diplomatic niceties that give U.N. rhetoric its uniquely bland flavor were cheered by many Jewish leaders who saw Bolton as a courageous voice in an organization known for its unrelenting criticism of Israel.
Few expect Khalilzad, if confirmed by the Senate, to be nearly as untamed in his oratory. He is widely viewed as a smooth operator and a skilled diplomat with a particular talent for deal-making.
“He’s a foreign policy professional with a difference, and the difference is he really likes to engage with ideas and different points of view,” said Felice Gaer, an American Jewish Committee official who has interacted with Khalilzad in her capacity as chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “He’s a solution-oriented diplomat.”
Despite more than two decades in the State Department, Khalilzad remains something of an unknown quantity on issues of Jewish concern, particularly Israel.
Whatever optimism was evident in the reaction to his appointment was largely a product of his reputation as a Bush loyalist who will faithfully carry forth the administration’s strong support for Israel and its hard line on Iran.
“He’s somebody who I think has positive attitudes toward Israel,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I think we have every reason to expect that he will maintain the policies that have been in place. I believe that he is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Nicholas Rostow, a former official at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and current vice chancellor for legal affairs at the State University of New York, has known Khalilzad for 20 years and says he is an “outstanding” diplomat.
“I don’t have any reason to believe he would be any less staunch on issues of concern to the Jewish community than John Bolton, John Negroponte or John Danforth,” Rostow said, referring to the last three American U.N. envoys.
Khalilzad has a long history of involvement in conservative politics. He was a major player in formulating former President Reagan’s Afghanistan policy during the Soviet Union’s invasion of that country in the 1980s.
With the end of the Cold War, Khalilzad became a prominent voice calling for greater American assertiveness in world affairs. In 1997 he put his name — alongside fellow Bush allies Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz — to the statement of principles of the newly formed Project for a New American Century, a conservative group that advocated global American leadership, increased defense spending and promotion of American values abroad.
That history, along with the knowledge that America’s U.N. strategy is formulated in Washington and only implemented at the U.N.’s New York headquarters, has left Jewish leaders confident of continued backing for Israel at the United Nations.
While some concern emerged over Khalilzad’s reported willingness to engage Iranian leaders about the situation in Iraq, most observers believe he’ll defend the party line, as dictated by his superiors.
“It’s Condoleezza Rice and Nick Burns that matter for the Iran sanctions effort, not our ambassador at the United Nations,” said Michael Rubin, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, referring to the first- and third-ranking officials in the State Department. “The ambassador plays the part. The people above him write the script.”
A U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month imposed limited sanctions on Iran that most observers consider toothless. The council is scheduled to take up the issue again in February.
Khalilzad’s confirmation may not come fast enough for him to become a factor in those negotiations, but few believe the Iran issue is going away anytime soon.
A native of Afghanistan and a Sunni, Khalilzad is the highest ranking Muslim in the Bush administration. He was educated at the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in political science in 1979. He joined the State Department five years later.
Khalilzad speaks Persian and Arabic, and his understanding of the Middle East has made him indispensable to American foreign policy, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He has served in Afghanistan and, most recently, as ambassador to Iraq, and some view the U.N. job as compensation for his years spent in those tough surroundings.
Some have speculated that Khalilzad’s background may presage greater success at winning over Muslim diplomats at the United Nations, though Rostow cautions against placing too much stock in the ambassador’s heritage.
“One is dealing at the United Nations with first-class diplomats,” Rostow said. “Foreign countries tend to send their best there. Sentimentality only goes so far.”