The Power to change hearts and minds


We’ve written in the past about Samantha Power, the respected expert on genocide who has joined President Barack Obama’s national security council, in charge of multilateral organizations and shaping policy on how to deal with Darfur.

Power outraged Jewish groups in 2002 when she bought into unfounded reporting that Israel had committed war crimes in Jenin and called for U.S. assistance to Israel to be diverted to Palestinians, and for an international interventionary force. Kind of made Israel sound like Republika Srpska.

It was a painful moment for a Jewish community that had cultivated close ties with Power because of her toughminded writing on the Allies’ failure to act during the Holocaust. There was grumbling in the community last spring when the Obama campaign dumped her not for those views – but for calling Hillary Clinton, then a rival to Obama, a "monster."

When it became clear recently thats she was headed for a senior NSC role, concerns once again cropped up, and the administration tried to assuage these by saying

  • she had retracted her earlier remarks (that helps);
  • that she would not deal with Israel policy (as the White House’s top U.N. designee? C’mon);
  • and that she was married to Cass Sunstein, an Obama administration adviser who is Jewish (and that’s relevant because…?)

Power led the conference call informing Jewish leaders last week of the Obama administration’s decision to abandon participation in the Durban II anti-racism conference, having concluded that getting the organizers to retreat from vicious anti-Israel rhetoric is a lost cause. (And she wasn’t going to deal with Israel issues, huh?)

The pleasant surprise: She was great, participants said. She understood the issues, she was nuanced and friendly.

William Daroff, the Washington director of the United Jewish Communities, put it to me this way:

She was warm and engaged and business like. She was positive, she knew who she was talking to and was in our tent. At first, I thought it was interesting (here Daroff ever so slightly emphasizes ‘interesting’) that she was the person who did the briefing. This was the first time we had interaction with her. It was very positive. She did not say anything that would have presented a red flag in and of itself. She was not apologetic, not defensive. It was the sort of briefing we would have gotten two weeks before from Dan Shapiro (the NSC official who led Jewish outreach during the campaign and who organized the first call, explaining why the Obama administration was putting out exploratory feelers to Durban II.) It was the beginning of a very constructive relationship with her.

Over at the ZOA, where he has led campaigning against Power, Mort Klein – who acknowledges he was not on the call – told me he remains less than impressed:

To have someone who falsely condemned Israel’s Jenin operation as a war crime and someone who called for U.S. troops to come to the Middle East to protect Palestinians is to have someone who will have minimal credibility when she is trying to explain the administration’s position on Durban. It was both a mistake and an insult to have her chair that conference call, based on her hostility and using falsehoods to condemn Israel.

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