Colin Powell didn’t see eye-to-eye with many people in the Bush administration on a host of international issues, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often seemed to top the list. In an administration that generally has won positive reviews from the Jewish community for its pro-Israel sentiments, Powell, who announced his resignation as secretary of state Monday, has at times been the asterisk. His department has taken a more internationalist approach to the conflict and has been among the first to speak out against Israeli military actions that some considered provocative.
But many believe that by the end of his tenure Powell had been relegated to a more minor role, presenting a more appealing face to the Arabs and Europeans while the White House and Pentagon orchestrated a Middle East policy that often angered those same circles.
“I think, at a certain point, he gave up,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I tend to think that if he wasn’t content, he was resigned to the idea that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was going to be driven by the White House.”
When Powell joined the Bush administration, Jewish activists were hopeful. He didn’t have a track record on Middle Eastern issues, but he also didn’t have any negative connotations for Jewish officials at a time when many feared Bush would follow his father’s example of confrontation with the Jewish state.
As head of the State Department, however, Powell favored reliance on Foreign Service officers and other career officials who traditionally have been more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
Powell was seen as forwarding that view, pushing for greater even-handedness between Israelis and Palestinians — at a time when Jewish officials were urging the administration to distinguish between victims and aggressors — and for more international involvement to resolve the region’s problems.
“Powell represented an establishment that often was at odds with the views of the White House,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
For example, Powell was an advocate of the “Quartet,” a diplomatic grouping of the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union that devised the “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
He also advocated more international efforts in Middle East peacemaking, and his department often voiced concerns about Israel’s anti-terrorist measures, such as the assassination of Palestinian terrorist leaders, strikes that sometimes led to civilian deaths as well.
“We were disappointed with Powell for consistently criticizing Israel for ‘overreacting’ militarily to terror attacks, and for not making an issue out of the Palestinian media and educational systems, educating hatred and murder and not for peace,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
The views of Powell and his department often isolated him from other foreign policy analysts in the administration, especially in the Pentagon and National Security Council. Most famously, Powell was more hesitant about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but ultimately made a case for it before the United Nations General Assembly.
“It was clear he came from an internationalist school of diplomacy,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “He saw the value of working in international law to try and solve problems multilaterally.”
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Powell was somewhat marginalized when Elliott Abrams joined the National Security Council in 2002. Abrams began traveling extensively through the region and became one of the key architects of recent Bush administration policy in the Middle East, including the announcement supporting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Through it all, however, Powell remained highly popular in the U.S. Jewish community. He was a well-respected leader from his stints in previous administrations, including his service as chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He was known to mix in a few words of Yiddish — learned when he worked for a Bronx shop owner while in high school — when addressing Jewish audiences.
Powell won further support from the Jewish community for skipping the U.N.’s World Conference Against Racism in 2001 when it became clear the forum would become an avenue for anti-Zionist sentiment. He later ordered the U.S. delegation to walk out of the conference when the proceedings turned harshly against Israel.
“It wasn’t a popular thing to do” internationally, said Stacey Burdett, assistant director of government and national affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “That act was taking a stand against racism and hatred.”
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said that on several occasions he and Powell discussed the Jewish community’s views of him and his role in the Bush administration. Foxman said he thought Powell was serving as a good soldier in the Cabinet.
“I think throughout the four years, the one thing that came out was that Colin Powell was a team player,” Foxman said.
Even when he announced his resignation, Powell stressed to reporters that he would continue working on international issues until his replacement is confirmed by the Senate, and was expected to meet with the new Palestinian leadership next week when he travels to the Middle East. He met Monday in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Several names have surfaced as possible replacements for Powell. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, is considered the front-runner, though she has expressed more of an interest in the Defense Department portfolio.
Other names mentioned are John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former Republican senator, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. Wolfowitz, seen as a key architect of the Iraq war, might have trouble winning Senate approval, analysts said.
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.