Washington Watch

U.S. Gives Sharon TacitEndorsement

With elections only days away, the Bush administration isofficially neutral on the choice facing frustrated Israeli voters.Unofficially, it’s a different story. Officials here have already made theirpreference known — a tacit endorsement that is having an impact on the Israelicampaign, although it is unlikely to be the decisive factor.

In a dramatic break with the pro-Labor efforts of itspredecessors, the Bush administration has quietly signaled its support for the reelectionof Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Pro-Israel activists said there are a number of reasons forthe administration’s preference, including a genuine affinity between Bushadministration hard-liners and Sharon. But one reason stands out: Iraq.

“This administration has an order of priorities,” saidStephen P. Cohen, a leading peace process activist and consultant for theIsrael Policy Forum. “The first priority is Iraq. The administration has workedout how to deal with Iraq with Sharon already and doesn’t want to change thatfactor in midstream.”

Washington wants extensive Israeli cooperation, including atleast a willingness to consider forgoing retaliation if Saddam Hussein repeatshis 1991 behavior and attacks Israel, plus intelligence sharing. It believes itis getting that cooperation from Sharon. It also wants no new surprises on theIsraeli-Palestinian front as it walks an international tightrope on Iraq.

“All the administration wants from Israel at the currenttime is quiet,” said Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer and one of the architectsof the first Oslo agreement. “Sharon has managed to detect this wish, and isproviding exactly what the administration wants.”

Former Secretary of State James Baker complained that eachtime he had visited the region, Sharon — then housing minister and chiefpromoter of the settlers movement — announced new settlements. This timearound, Sharon has positioned himself as the one man who can keep the farright-wingers under control.

“Sharon has learned his lesson admirably,” Singer said. “Heis 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 hehas successfully cultivated and managed the relationship with the United Statesand particularly with President Bush,” said Marshall Breger, a law professor atthe Catholic University of America, who has just returned from a three-monthteaching stint in Israel. “And that feeds into the view that he is the best manto protect Israel’s security and to get things from Washington and to ward off U.S.pressure.”

Breger said the administration has confirmed its preferenceby refusing to arrange high-level Washington meetings for Amram Mitzna, theLabor candidate whose campaign has sputtered from the start.

“An omission can be as significant as a commission,” hesaid. “The U.S. failure to engage with Mitzna also sends a major signal.”

But the cozy Bush-Sharon relationship will face newchallenges once the Iraq situation is resolved.

“Eventually, the focus will shift back to theIsraeli-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 arenow 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 impendingwar, the Bush administration will turn its attention to its delayed push for aPalestinian state and to controversial issues, such as settlements. — James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent


Choice of Libyan for Post SendsShock

It was a shock even for pro-Israel activists who have longbeen skeptical about the seriousness of the United Nations role as peacemakerand human rights advocate.

Despite strong U.S. pressure, the U.N. Human RightsCommission (UNHRC) elected Libyan U.N. Ambassador Najat Al-Hajjaji as its newleader.

Only three countries voted against Libya in the secretballot, with 17 states abstaining. Washington sources said “no” votes were castby the United States, Canada and Guatemala.

In recent weeks, several Jewish groups urged theadministration to take a tough line on Libya’s candidacy for the yearlongleadership post.

“The initial U.S. position on this was very tough,” saidAbraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, one of thosegroups. “This vote is an insult to all people who care about decency and humanrights.”

The ADL praised the administration for forcing a vote –putting the Libya question in the international spotlight — although thecommission kept the balloting secret.

“We took the steps necessary to ensure that there would be avote 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 UnitedNations in Geneva. “Calling for a vote was an unprecedented and historicaction, breaking a half-century tradition of election by acclamation.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conferenceof Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Libya’s electioncould be just the first step in its rise up the U.N. leadership ranks.

“The vote just compounds the problem created by Syriasitting on the Security Council,” he said. The Syrians are halfway into atwo-year rotation on the key U.N. body. “Libya could replace Syria; theirelection to the UNHRC chair paves the way for that.”

Hoenlein expressed frustration that nothing can be done toundo the vote, saying, “There doesn’t seem to be much that can be done in thisrotational system [for the UNHRC post]. “It underscores the skepticism andconcern so many have about the U.N. and the Human Rights Commission, where theyspend 40 hours criticizing Israel, 40 minutes discussing China, Iran, Iraq andthe rest of the world.”

Hoenlein said Jewish groups will intensify their work withhuman rights organizations to “encourage them to recognize the absurdity ofthis.”

Most groups don’t need much convincing. AmnestyInternational said the human rights situation in Libya has “seriouslydeteriorated” since the late 1980s.

Human Rights Watch  called Libya’s human rights record”appalling” and cited “the abduction, forced disappearance or assassination ofpolitical opponents; torture and mistreatment of detainees, and long-termdetention 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 rightsinvestigators.”

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House Majority Leader,promised “even closer scrutiny of the U.N. within Congress” and said thatLibyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s “legion of Libyan victims could teach thecommission many things about the depths of human cruelty, but the immoralelevation of his dictatorship to its chairmanship is utter hypocrisy.”

DeLay also called the UNHRC a “protection racket for serialhuman rights-abusing regimes.” — J.B.


Affirmative Action Stirs NoHeat

Last week the Bush administration weighed in against acontroversial University of Michigan affirmative action that will be reviewedby the Supreme Court in April.

A handful of Jewish groups are submitting briefs, pro andcon, but there’s no heat to the debate within the Jewish community. Affirmativeaction, 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, saidMarc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress, which is stayingout of the Michigan case. “So there isn’t the impetus for Jewish involvementthat there once was,” he said.

Jewish groups are not as central to the civil rightsmovement as they once were. Some Jewish leaders who dislike affirmative actionalso worry that the proposed alternatives — laws requiring state schools toaccept top high school students, regardless of race — could work against manyJewish students, because they tend to be concentrated in a relatively smallnumber of school districts.

April Fools Day is the scheduled date for oral arguments ontwo cases involving the Michigan program that favors minority applicants inundergraduate and law school admissions.

Bush has ordered the Justice Department to file briefsarguing that such programs are unconstitutional and that alternative programsthat do not center on race — such as the performance-based system Bushinstituted in Texas — are available.

That prompted dissension within the administration.Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that he supports the school’srace-based policies, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said thatwhile supporting the administration action, she still believes race is anappropriate issue for college admissions officers to consider.

Last week was the filing deadline for briefs opposing theUniversity of Michigan plan. Briefs supporting the program are due in a month.

The Anti-Defamation League has already filed in oppositionto the Michigan plan. In a statement, the group affirmed its belief in the”fundamental value of diversity in higher education” but said that the Michiganprogram involves an unconstitutional use of race in determining admissions.

The American Jewish Committee (AJCcommittee) is gettingready to file on the other side. The Michigan program is “an appropriateresponse to the need to maintain diversity,” said Richard Foltin, AJCcommitteelegislative director.

“This is quite clearly not a quota; we are opposed toquotas,” Foltin said. “But we stand by the argument that schools can take raceinto account as a plus factor, among many other factors, in admissions.”

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group, expressedsupport for the president’s actions based on the group’s opposition to “anyimposition of quotas, goals and timetables” that discriminate “on the basis ofrace, sex, creed or national origin,” according to David Zwiebel, the group’sexecutive vice president for government and public affairs. — J.B.