U.S. Gives Sharon Tacit Endorsement
With elections only days away, the Bush administration is officially neutral on the choice facing frustrated Israeli voters. Unofficially, it's a different story. Officials here have already made their preference known -- a tacit endorsement that is having an impact on the Israeli campaign, although it is unlikely to be the decisive factor.
In a dramatic break with the pro-Labor efforts of its predecessors, the Bush administration has quietly signaled its support for the reelection of Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Pro-Israel activists said there are a number of reasons for the administration's preference, including a genuine affinity between Bush administration hard-liners and Sharon. But one reason stands out: Iraq.
"This administration has an order of priorities," said Stephen P. Cohen, a leading peace process activist and consultant for the Israel Policy Forum. "The first priority is Iraq. The administration has worked out how to deal with Iraq with Sharon already and doesn't want to change that factor in midstream."
Washington wants extensive Israeli cooperation, including at least a willingness to consider forgoing retaliation if Saddam Hussein repeats his 1991 behavior and attacks Israel, plus intelligence sharing. It believes it is getting that cooperation from Sharon. It also wants no new surprises on the Israeli-Palestinian front as it walks an international tightrope on Iraq.
"All the administration wants from Israel at the current time is quiet," said Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer and one of the architects of the first Oslo agreement. "Sharon has managed to detect this wish, and is providing exactly what the administration wants."
Former Secretary of State James Baker complained that each time he had visited the region, Sharon -- then housing minister and chief promoter of the settlers movement -- announced new settlements. This time around, Sharon has positioned himself as the one man who can keep the far right-wingers under control.
"Sharon has learned his lesson admirably," Singer said. "He is doing his part; that is why you have this mutual admiration club."
The nod from Washington has not been lost on Israeli voters.
"One of Sharon's strongest points in the campaign is that he has successfully cultivated and managed the relationship with the United States and particularly with President Bush," said Marshall Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, who has just returned from a three-month teaching stint in Israel. "And that feeds into the view that he is the best man to protect Israel's security and to get things from Washington and to ward off U.S. pressure."
Breger said the administration has confirmed its preference by refusing to arrange high-level Washington meetings for Amram Mitzna, the Labor candidate whose campaign has sputtered from the start.
"An omission can be as significant as a commission," he said. "The U.S. failure to engage with Mitzna also sends a major signal."
But the cozy Bush-Sharon relationship will face new challenges once the Iraq situation is resolved.
"Eventually, the focus will shift back to the Israeli-Palestinian situation," Singer said. "Then it will be a new ballgame. The production of quiet will not be the primary goal. There are plans that are now on the back burner that will be pushed up."
Last weekend, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, speaking to the Washington Post, said that on the "day after" the impending war, the Bush administration will turn its attention to its delayed push for a Palestinian state and to controversial issues, such as settlements. -- James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent
Choice of Libyan for Post Sends Shock
It was a shock even for pro-Israel activists who have long been skeptical about the seriousness of the United Nations role as peacemaker and human rights advocate.
Despite strong U.S. pressure, the U.N. Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) elected Libyan U.N. Ambassador Najat Al-Hajjaji as its new leader.
Only three countries voted against Libya in the secret ballot, with 17 states abstaining. Washington sources said "no" votes were cast by the United States, Canada and Guatemala.
In recent weeks, several Jewish groups urged the administration to take a tough line on Libya's candidacy for the yearlong leadership post.
"The initial U.S. position on this was very tough," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, one of those groups. "This vote is an insult to all people who care about decency and human rights."
The ADL praised the administration for forcing a vote -- putting the Libya question in the international spotlight -- although the commission kept the balloting secret.
"We took the steps necessary to ensure that there would be a vote on this matter, so that we could leave no doubt about our objection to Libya," said Ambassador Kevin E. Moley, the permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations in Geneva. "Calling for a vote was an unprecedented and historic action, breaking a half-century tradition of election by acclamation."
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Libya's election could be just the first step in its rise up the U.N. leadership ranks.
"The vote just compounds the problem created by Syria sitting on the Security Council," he said. The Syrians are halfway into a two-year rotation on the key U.N. body. "Libya could replace Syria; their election to the UNHRC chair paves the way for that."
Hoenlein expressed frustration that nothing can be done to undo the vote, saying, "There doesn't seem to be much that can be done in this rotational system [for the UNHRC post]. "It underscores the skepticism and concern so many have about the U.N. and the Human Rights Commission, where they spend 40 hours criticizing Israel, 40 minutes discussing China, Iran, Iraq and the rest of the world."
Hoenlein said Jewish groups will intensify their work with human rights organizations to "encourage them to recognize the absurdity of this."
Most groups don't need much convincing. Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Libya has "seriously deteriorated" since the late 1980s.
Human Rights WatchÂ called Libya's human rights record "appalling" and cited "the abduction, forced disappearance or assassination of political opponents; torture and mistreatment of detainees, and long-term detention without charge or trial or after grossly unfair trials."
Libya, now the U.N.'s chief human rights watchdog, has " been a closed country for United Nations and nongovernmental human rights investigators."
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House Majority Leader, promised "even closer scrutiny of the U.N. within Congress" and said that Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's "legion of Libyan victims could teach the commission many things about the depths of human cruelty, but the immoral elevation of his dictatorship to its chairmanship is utter hypocrisy."
DeLay also called the UNHRC a "protection racket for serial human rights-abusing regimes." -- J.B.
Affirmative Action Stirs No Heat
Last week the Bush administration weighed in against a controversial University of Michigan affirmative action that will be reviewed by the Supreme Court in April.
A handful of Jewish groups are submitting briefs, pro and con, but there's no heat to the debate within the Jewish community. Affirmative action, once a passionate issue for Jewish groups on both sides of the debate, is now pretty much a yawn.
Opposition to affirmative action has become mainstream, said Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress, which is staying out of the Michigan case. "So there isn't the impetus for Jewish involvement that there once was," he said.
Jewish groups are not as central to the civil rights movement as they once were. Some Jewish leaders who dislike affirmative action also worry that the proposed alternatives -- laws requiring state schools to accept top high school students, regardless of race -- could work against many Jewish students, because they tend to be concentrated in a relatively small number of school districts.
April Fools Day is the scheduled date for oral arguments on two cases involving the Michigan program that favors minority applicants in undergraduate and law school admissions.
Bush has ordered the Justice Department to file briefs arguing that such programs are unconstitutional and that alternative programs that do not center on race -- such as the performance-based system Bush instituted in Texas -- are available.
That prompted dissension within the administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that he supports the school's race-based policies, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that while supporting the administration action, she still believes race is an appropriate issue for college admissions officers to consider.
Last week was the filing deadline for briefs opposing the University of Michigan plan. Briefs supporting the program are due in a month.
The Anti-Defamation League has already filed in opposition to the Michigan plan. In a statement, the group affirmed its belief in the "fundamental value of diversity in higher education" but said that the Michigan program involves an unconstitutional use of race in determining admissions.
The American Jewish Committee (AJCcommittee) is getting ready to file on the other side. The Michigan program is "an appropriate response to the need to maintain diversity," said Richard Foltin, AJCcommittee legislative director.
"This is quite clearly not a quota; we are opposed to quotas," Foltin said. "But we stand by the argument that schools can take race into account as a plus factor, among many other factors, in admissions."
Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group, expressed support for the president's actions based on the group's opposition to "any imposition of quotas, goals and timetables" that discriminate "on the basis of race, sex, creed or national origin," according to David Zwiebel, the group's executive vice president for government and public affairs. -- J.B.