December 21, 2000
In accepting the nomination as President-elect George W. Bush's secretary of state over the weekend, Gen. Colin Powell set out the foundation of the administration's strategy in the Middle East.
"America will remain very much engaged in the Middle East" under a Bush administration, he said. Saying he expected the issue to be "a major priority" for him and the State Department, he also hinted at the role the new administration plans to take as it balances often competing interests in the region. The policy "will be based on the principle that we must always ensure that Israel lives in freedom and in security and peace," Powell said.
"But at the same time, we have to do everything we can to deal with the aspirations of the Palestinians and other nations in the regions who have an interest in this."
Powell's words are being watched closely by Jewish observers concerned about the future of the peace process, the role of the United States in the Middle East and the world, and the relationship between a new administration and the Jewish community.
There is little known of Powell's current views on Israel.
He spoke a bit of Yiddish in addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 1991, a throwback to his high school days as a clerk for a South Bronx shop owner. And he emphasized a commitment to Israel as the lone democracy of the Middle East.
But there is concern that his words may not match his actions.
While most Jewish officials and analysts are optimistic about his role in the peace process and as a friend of Israel, some note his hesitancy to fight against Iraq -- and in the process support Israel -- as a sign of future reluctance to use American strength to thwart international conflict.
"I think the fact that he occasionally uses a word of Yiddish is less important than how he uses the region geopolitically," said Morris Amitay, an Israeli activist and former executive director of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.
Amitay said that during the Gulf War, Powell viewed Israel more as a hindrance than an ally. Wary of allowing Israel to fight back against Iraqi attacks, the United States urged Israel to allow the United States to fight its battle for it.
While some see Powell's skepticism during the Gulf War as a window into a semi-isolationist viewpoint, others see it as a necessary cautious tone.
"You'll see a calm, mature system of foreign policy," said Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives who served as a Republican House leader during the Gulf War.
"He's very cautious, and he's determined to win. Our opponents should remember that."
Jewish officials hope he will bring that same attitude to the current situation in the Middle East.
"He will be more focused on the peace," said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.