U.S. Mideast policy during the second Bush administration will be even more focused on the White House, with a new secretary of state who will be more directly involved in implementing the president's policies.
That was one message Condoleezza Rice, the president's choice to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state, offered to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the opening round of her confirmation hearings on Tuesday.
She was expected to win confirmation and be sworn in by the end of the week.
Rice, the current national security adviser, defended the administration's decision to go to war in Iraq and promised a "conversation, not a monologue" with allies angered over U.S. unilateralism.
Rice said she would be "personally" involved in Mideast peace efforts, and that the administration is not opposed "in principle" to the appointment of a special Mideast peace envoy, but said timing was a concern.
"It is a question over whether that is appropriate at this time," she said.
Pressure has been mounting from Mideast peace groups for a special envoy; last week, a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders called for a "special presidential envoy with a full-time commitment to the Mideast."
Rice also chided Arab states, saying they cannot "incite violence against Israel on the one hand and call for peace and the two-state solution on the other."
She promised to continue President Bush's push for democracy around the region and alluded to Knesset member Natan Sharansky, whose book arguing that peace with dictatorial states is all but impossible has become required reading at the Bush White House.
"In the Middle East, President Bush has broken with six decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the hope of purchasing stability at the price of liberty," she said in her opening statement. "As long as the broader Middle East remains a region of tyranny and despair and anger, it will produce extremists and movements that threaten the safety of Americans and our friends."
She expressed guarded optimism about prospects for progress on the Mideast peace front.
"We have reached a moment of opportunity and we must seize it," she said. "I look forward to personally working with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, and bringing American diplomacy to bear on this difficult but crucial issue."
Edward Walker, a former state department official and ambassador to Israel who now heads the Middle East Institute, said he takes Rice's promise of personal involvement seriously.
"I think she does intend to spend more time on tie issue and that she will do more traveling in the region than Powell," he said. "She expects to be a more hands-on secretary of state, and she's building the staff she needs to help her do that."
But Rice, known for her close relationship with the president, is a loyalist, he said: "While the State Department will be stronger under her leadership, we will all be making a big mistake if we don't believe it's George W. Bush's policy that will prevail."
The Inauguration: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Jewish Republicans made the exodus to Washington this week for the second inauguration of the man who seems to be leading the GOP to the promised land of electoral dominance: President George W. Bush.
There were few events on the schedule specifically targeting Jewish celebrants, although the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), basking in the glow of the GOP victory on Nov. 2, was planning a cocktail reception for top leaders.
"Second inaugurals are always a little lower key," said an ebullient Matthew Brooks, the longtime RJC director.
One Jewish leader was scheduled to play a high-profile role in the festivities: Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington director for American Friends of Lubavitch, was scheduled to give the invocation at one of three "candlelight dinners" attended by President Bush and his family.
Amid the inaugural hoopla, Jewish Democrats are laying low or trying to change the subject. And on the streets of the capital, protestors will be expressing their views on the war in Iraq, the administration's budget and spending polices -- and, in some cases, Israel.
Once again, International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (A.N.S.W.E.R.) -- a group often described as the neo-Stalinist offshoot of the Workers World Party -- will be front and center in the protests, thanks to advance planning that landed the group key permits more than a year in advance of the inauguration.
A.N.S.W.E.R.'s pre-inaugural advertising invites protestors to come to Washington to call for an end to "colonial domination in Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, Afghanistan and everywhere."
Although International A.N.S.W.E.R. is just one of dozens of groups protesting the inauguration, the group is the only one to have its own bleachers for watching the inaugural parade.
"They are still the most virulent anti-Israel group on the left, as well as anti-American, and most of the people I've met in the peace movement detest them and want to have nothing to do with them," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine and a strong critic of U.S. and Israeli policy himself.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said A.N.S.W.E.R. is "struggling to be noticed. And you do that by trying to be as outrageous as you can, in as important a place as possible. They're bring the Israel and Palestinian issue together with the inauguration to get attention."
But he said that the A.N.S.W.E.R. message will likely get lost amid the inauguration hoopla and the plethora of protests -- and that the media has gotten wise to the group's extremist connections.
NCJW Spearheads Pro-Roe Drive
This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and a coalition of Jewish groups is using the occasion to add a new dimension to the emotional debate: abortion rights, they say, are a key component of religious freedom in this country.
But while many continue to support Roe, some Jewish groups seem to be hesitant about active involvement on the issue. And an increasingly active Orthodox community, while not always in synch with the anti-abortion movement, is offering an alternative view of the debate.
"Part of our battle is to convince Congress to support abortion rights, but part of it is also to convince other Jewish groups to be more active on the issue," said Marsha Atkind, president of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which spearheaded this week's pro-abortion rights activities. "With Congress, it's the substance of the issue; with other Jewish groups, it's a question over whether this is a battle they want to be actively involved in at this time."
This week, NCJW coordinated a joint letter to the Senate from 150 rabbis and the leaders of Jewish organizations. Among the signers: communal and rabbinic leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements.
The focus, Atkind said, is "the very important idea that America can't have religious freedom without reproductive freedom."
If a Supreme Court with new, anti-abortion nominees overturns Roe, she said, it will mean the imposition of one group's religious beliefs on the rest of the nation.
"We are appealing to President Bush, as a man of faith, to recognize this as a critical freedom," she said.
The campaign is intended to change the common perception that "people of faith are anti-choice," she said. "The religious right has been very successful in making people think this way."
She conceded that the major Orthodox groups take a different stance on abortion, but said "the vast majority of Jews are for abortion rights. In Jewish religious tradition, there is a greater value placed on existing life than on potential life."
But a top Jewish political scientist said the effort faces tough going in a political environment dominated by major economic concerns..
"There isn't a lot of energy on the issue right now," said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. "The most salient issues in the Jewish community ought to be Social Security reform, Medicare and tax cuts."
Abortion continues to be a critical issue to many Jews, he said, but most major organizations are likely to put more emphasis on the economic issues that are moving to center stage in Washington and on Israel-related matters.
But Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, said, "I see no diminution in support for Roe v. Wade. It's still the defining issue of our era on social policy."
And the threat of a radical shift in the federal judiciary, he said, makes the matter all the more urgent.
New Israel Aid Request in the Works?
The Bush administration is getting set to go to Capitol Hill with another supplementary appropriation request to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this time to the tune of $80 billion to $100 billion.
That measure could also become the vehicle for new U.S. aid to help Israel pay the costs of its proposed withdrawal from Gaza and to built sophisticated new checkpoints along its new security fence.
That latter proposal has generated opposition from Americans for Peace Now (APN). This week, the group wrote to President Bush saying that "although APN supports an Israeli security barrier built along the Green Line, it believes that American aid to construct crossing points for the fence inside the West Bank would violate U.S. policy that opposes spending U.S. tax dollars in support of Israeli settlement activity and the perpetuation of Israel's occupation of the West Bank," the group wrote in a letter to the president.
There have been reports that Israel could seek as much as $180 million to help build high-tech terminals in the fence that could speed up the inspection of people and cargo.
But Israeli officials say enhancing the checkpoints is intended to ease the movement of Palestinians and boost the sagging Palestinian economy.
"It's a concept we have been developing for a long time about ways to help the Palestinians develop economically," said one Israeli official this week. "The free movement of people and goods is important. Since we need to set up a security fence, we are thinking of ways to expedite movement."
And this official stressed that no formal request for such aid -- or for aid to help Israel relocate military facilities from Gaza -- has been made, although both issues have been discussed with administration and congressional officials.
Attempts to use the Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental as a vehicle for other programs could face stiff resistance in a Congress that has vowed to make deficit reduction and new tax cuts a top priority.
But pro-Israel forces point out that any new Israeli aid request is likely to be dwarfed by the overall heft of the big spending bill, and that the Gaza pullout plan has become an integral part of the administration's plans for the region.