Supporters of Israel are split on the choice of retired Marine Cmdr. Anthony Zinni as the State Department’s senior adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A former commander in chief of the United States Central Command, Zinni is being recruited to jump-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He is expected to mediate discussions on security cooperation and is slated to visit the region later this week to work with committees from the two sides toward a cease fire.
Announcing the appointment during a Mideast policy speech Monday at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Secretary of State Colin Powell described Zinni as “a distinguished soldier, Marine, with long experience in the Middle East, particularly on security issues. He will be an invaluable addition to our team.”
As the head of Central Command from 1997 until his retirement last year, Zinni was the senior American officer dealing with a host of Middle Eastern countries, but not Israel.
Israel issues are handled by the U.S. military’s European Command, in part to separate the two sides of the Arab- Israeli conflict and shield the Command from potential Arab accusations of bias toward Israel.
Some pro-Israel activists therefore believe that Zinni will take a pro-Arab bias.
“He’s the wrong man for the job,” one leading Middle East analyst said. “He will bury himself in the details of finding an accord, when the issue is achieving Arab acceptance of Israel.”
Added a defense analyst for one Jewish organization: “His background is self-evident. He needs to demonstrate his ability to be even-handed, at best, if he is going to take this on.”
In an 1998 interview with the Middle East Quarterly, Zinni acknowledged that the Central Command essentially works on behalf of Arab states in the region, and that the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would harm the command’s mission.
“The topic is always being rammed down our throats,” Zinni said of the peace process. “It is the most important political factor in the region and affects every single person there. If the peace process continues to go south, we have big problems.”
Several observers said they believed Zinni would focus too closely on details, rather than look at the biggerd had developed a certain working relationship with both sides,” the analyst said. “We need to reserve our judgement picture.
“Zinni was the kind of general who always felt compromises were the way to go,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Neumann also said Zinni made harsh statements against Israel during his tenure at Central Command.
“He’s a political general in the mold of Colin Powell who doesn’t want to use force, is afraid of war, and who has made a specialty of humanitarian assistance,” the Middle East analyst said.
Yet others said the State Department was right to choose an envoy who will demand compromises from both sides.
“If you are going there to make peace, you need to bury yourself in details,” said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If they are prepared to sit and talk, both sides need to make concessions.”
Kipper described Zinni as “straight-forward.”
“He’s the right man because he knows the region and can pay attention to details which are key to success,” she said.
Zinni is expected to take over the role previously played by CIA Director George Tenet, who has been forced to abandon the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio to focus on the recent terror threat to the United States and the war in Afghanistan.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Zinni would be the next best thing to Tenet.
“If a military man with a close relationship to Powell can do it, I think it is positive and constructive,” Foxman said.
Yet the Middle East defense analyst counseled caution.
“Tenet was a known quantity and had developed a certain working relationship with both sides,” the analyst said. “We need to reserve our judgement on Zinni, but observe his actions with great deal of caution.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.