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Bush’s Choice for Israel Posting Known As Direct, Affable Family Man

July 27, 2005
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Richard Jones, President Bush’s nominee as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, is a career Middle East hand well-known among his colleagues as a straight-shooting purveyor of U.S. foreign policy, with a disarmingly goofy sense of humor. Israelis will be pleased to know that one of Jones’ few brushes with controversy came in 1997 when, as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, he incurred Hezbollah’s wrath for grieving 73 Israeli troops who died in a helicopter accident en route to the front.

In his most recent capacity as a senior adviser on Iraq, Jones’ willingness to stump for a troubled occupation that many of his colleagues would rather avoid has won him the affection of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Since March 1, Jones, 54, has served as Rice’s senior adviser on Iraq policy, entering her inner circle of advisers.

That qualification makes Jones a good choice, said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who noted that Jones otherwise is an unknown quantity in the Jewish community.

“The key part is his relationship to the secretary of state and his experience in the Middle East,” Foxman said. “The secretary of state is building her team. This is a very good indication of how seriously she’s looking at it.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Jones — an Arabic speaker who has held several Middle East posts — will succeed Daniel Kurtzer, the first observant Jew to serve as ambassador to Israel. Kurtzer is currently completing a four-year term.

One immediate advantage for Jones is that he is not burdened by Kurtzer’s Jewishness, Foxman said.

“Kurtzer ended up being analyzed and subanalyzed” by Jews in Israel and the United States, Foxman said, “which was not appropriate. He was a representative of the U.S. government, period.”

Jones has been best known in recent years for his unstinting optimism about Iraq. In May 2004, he told a conference in Kuwait, where he was serving as ambassador, that “despite the steady drumbeat of negative news that we all receive every day about the situation in Iraq, I am absolutely optimistic about the country’s long-term prospects.”

That preceded a deepening of the Iraqi resistance that has proven increasingly bloody.

David Mack, a former assistant deputy secretary of state, attended the Kuwait colloquium and said at the time that the outlook Jones put forward was naive.

In an interview this week, Mack — the vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington — stressed that he had not meant to criticize Jones directly. Jones was acting as a consummate professional, Mack said, advocating U.S. policy to the best of his abilities.

“He has come across with the highest praise, from host governments and U.S. governments,” Mack told JTA. “He’s a damn good choice.”

Bart Marcois, a former Foreign Service officer who was close to Jones in Kuwait, agreed.

“He was always keenly interested in carrying out the exact instructions of the White House and the Department of State,” he told JTA.

Journalists appreciate Jones for his straight-up answers; in one instance, that got him into trouble when a reporter in Beirut asked him to comment on the 1997 helicopter accident on Israel’s border with Lebanon.

The accident “makes you feel sorrow for the individuals involved and for their families,” he replied. “I think that anytime you see the loss of life on that scale, no matter what side of the conflict you’re on, you should not rejoice.”

That was too much for Hezbollah, which issued calls for his ouster. The terrorist group had called the crash of Israeli helicopters headed for a mission inside Lebanon “divine justice.”

Jones would not back down, but issued a statement saying that his “humanitarian” comments had been misconstrued.

Colleagues went out of their way to praise Jones, saying he was a good manager and extremely affable.

Friends who would drop by Jones’ home in Beirut when he was serving as ambassador there recalled finding the tall, good-looking Nebraskan poolside atop his unicycle, wearing bike shorts and juggling. He is a devoted father to his four children, friends said.

A photo on a Pentagon Web site shows Jones getting up close and personal with a couple of mine-detecting dolphins during his stint in Kuwait.

Jones has a business doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is something of a math geek, having patented a math game. His directness and affability could serve him well in Israel.

“He’s professional, detached, extremely personable, capable of analysis,” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. “He’s direct and honest, and Israelis are direct and can be blunt.”

That directness will serve him well in coming months, Miller said, as the United States seeks to nudge Israel and the Palestinians back to substantive peace talks once Israel withdraws next month from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

“Israel’s a close friend, and at times friends have to talk with great candor and honesty with friends,” said Miller, who now heads Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit dialogue group for teenagers from regions of conflict. “Dick is capable of that.”

Career diplomats rarely face problems getting confirmed by the Senate, but one incident involving contractors in Iraq may shadow Jones.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Reform, discovered last November that in December 2003 Jones intervened as the ambassador to Kuwait in pressuring Halliburton — the major contractor in the Iraq war — to retain a Kuwaiti subcontractor.

Waxman uncovered an e-mail from Jones urging Halliburton officials to “get off their butts and conclude deals with Kuwait NOW!”

Altanmia, a subcontractor to Halliburton favored by the Kuwaiti government, at the time was the sole company providing gasoline to Iraq. Jones said he wanted “a deal done with Altanmia within 24 hours and don’t take any excuses.”

Military personnel objected, saying the directive ignored guidelines that encouraged competitive subcontracting. A Pentagon audit later said Altanmia might have overcharged the U.S. government by as much as $61 million.

A State Department spokesman said at the time that Jones was simply trying to get gasoline into Iraq as quickly as possible, but his intervention might have violated U.S. government guidelines that restrict contract negotiations only to career government-contracting officers.

Waxman went out of his way at the time to single Jones out for criticism, a factor that might influence Senate Democrats during confirmation hearings.

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