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Jewish Inaction in Bolton Fight Highlights Groups’ Policy Dilemmas

June 17, 2005
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The White House is pressing American Jewish organizations to speak out in favor of John Bolton, President Bush’s choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as Republicans push for votes to approve him. While Bolton has been criticized by Democrats, he has been well received in the Jewish community, predominantly because he was the architect of the 1991 repeal of an infamous 1975 United Nations resolution denigrating Zionism as racism.

But Jewish groups have not expended much energy on Bolton’s behalf. That has angered Bush administration officials who say that Bolton’s philosophy on U.N. reform is in line with Jewish community views, and that the community should be backing a nominee who can help Israel in the international body.

The administration also hopes Jewish community support will counterbalance lingering questions about Bolton’s past statements and work style, and help him win the necessary votes for Senate confirmation. No date has been set for a vote.

“We are surprised at the half-hearted efforts by Jewish organizations who know that John Bolton is exactly the right guy to bring reform to the United Nations, which is an institution desperately in need of reform,” a White House official said.

The lack of effort on Bolton’s behalf highlights the dilemmas Jewish groups face in taking policy positions.

While Bolton may appeal to some groups, speaking out for him would pit some Jewish groups against liberal colleagues who are concerned about some of Bolton’s actions, and even against some of their own members, who have been reluctant to support a White House appointee because of Bush’s stances on domestic policy issues.

When asked about efforts for Bolton, several Jewish groups said they don’t take positions on nominations, viewing them essentially as partisan battles.

Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said his organization finds nomination battles “personal and political” and said they don’t necessarily advance the AJCommittee’s agenda.

“But we’re certainly on record in the past as having been grateful to John Bolton on positions he has taken on ‘Zionism equals racism’ and highlighting non-proliferation,” Isaacson said.

Republicans have been unable to garner the Senate votes needed to move the nomination forward amid allegations that Bolton tried to exaggerate U.S. intelligence about Syria and Cuba and that he bullied subordinates at the State Department.

A new cloture vote — a procedural move to end debate that requires 60 supporters — is expected within the next week.

Democrats have been seeking additional information about Bolton’s knowledge of several countries’ weapons programs, but also have suggested that his criticism of the United Nations might make him an inappropriate choice as U.S. envoy.

They have tired to block his nomination by voting against cloture — in effect, filibustering. Republicans need five Democrats to back cloture in order to shut off debate, but they lost a May 26 vote by a count of 56-42.

The White House has been watching Jewish groups’ engagement on the issue for several months, since Bolton’s nomination became controversial. But they have become more proactive in recent weeks, calling Jewish organizational officials to ask what they’re doing to back Bolton.

The White House wants Jewish figures to reach out to senators, especially Democrats, extolling Bolton’s pro-Israel record. But that has not happened.

Many Jewish organizational leaders said their support of Bolton is known; indeed, some issued press releases praising his nomination when it was announced in March.

“They know we are supportive of Bolton,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The conference met Thursday with congressional leaders of both parties, but Bolton was barely discussed.

One Senate Democratic staffer said prominent Jewish donors have praised Bolton’s support for Israel, but that Jewish organizations have done no lobbying for him.

Some Jewish officials in Washington suggested the issue was not a priority, while others hinted they didn’t want to get involved in such a divisive issue.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which brought 5,000 delegates to Capitol Hill last month, didn’t push Bolton’s nomination in the group’s action agenda, even after former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer backed him in a speech at AIPAC’s policy conference.

The White House wants AIPAC to make the nomination a priority, and to count the cloture vote for Bolton as part of the group’s assessment of senators’ records on Israel.

Jeffrey Berkowitz, White House liaison to the Jewish community, sent an e-mail Wednesday to Jewish leaders highlighting Bolton’s support for Israel, his work on non-proliferation issues and his commitment to U.N. reform. A similar e-mail was sent Thursday by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

White House officials say backing Bolton aggressively is in keeping with the Jewish community’s emphasis on U.N. reform. Indeed, Jewish groups have been actively watching the U.N. Reform Bill of 2005, which was being debated Thursday on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The bill would press the United Nations to make Israel a full member of the Western European and Others Group, where it is now a temporary member, and would withhold some U.S. contributions to the United Nations until that happens.

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs has been actively backing Bolton. The organization, which has stronger ties to foreign policy conservatives than most other Jewish groups, has been reaching out to senators and issuing statements backing Bolton.

“I think he deserves all the support he can get from the Jewish community,” said Tom Neumann, JINSA’s executive director.

Neumann said Jews have almost an obligation to back Bolton, suggesting he would be in the same mold as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan — strong supporters of Israel — as U.N. ambassador.

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