New York // An Arabist diplomat who withdrew from his appointment to a top US intelligence post blamed "character assassination" by the pro-Israel lobby following denunciations of his criticism of Israel and his ties to Saudi Arabia and China.
Charles "Chas" Freeman withdrew from consideration as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which prepares the president's daily intelligence briefs, hours after he was defended by Dennis Blair, Barack Obama's director of national intelligence. His withdrawal threw the Obama administration into the heart of a long-running controversy over the alleged supremacy of pro-Israel hawks in determining US foreign policy after having taken a cautious approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so far consistent with previous administrations.
In a statement posted on Tuesday night on the Foreign Policy website, Mr Freeman said: "The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonour and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the wilful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth." Mr Freeman had come under attack by pro-Israel congressmen and commentators for his views on Israel, the war on terror and China since last month when he was appointed to the intelligence job, which does not need Senate confirmation.
Critics and blog writers disseminated quotes by Mr Freeman, including the "brutal oppression of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending" and "American identification with Israel had become total". The White House did not comment yesterday on Mr Freeman's withdrawal, but Mr Blair said he accepted his decision "with great regret". He earlier told the Senate armed forces committee that Mr Freeman's controversial statements had been taken out of context and he would have helped to avoid "precooked" intelligence assessments.
US congressmen had urged an inquiry into Mr Freeman's financial ties with Saudi Arabia after he headed the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington think tank partially funded by the Gulf state. Human rights campaigners were also incensed after he appeared to condone Beijing's 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters and served on the board of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp.
Mr Freeman said in his statement: "The inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel." An analyst with a leading US Jewish organisation rejected Mr Freeman's charge that an "Israel lobby" led by right-wing Israeli parties had hounded him out.
"Chas Freeman has taken the easy way out rather than engage in a healthy and necessary debate about the security of the US," he said. "He chooses to blame the 'Israel lobby', yet he is unable to show cause and effect as none exists." A spokesman said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, known as Aipac, "did not take a position on this matter and didn't lobby the Hill on it".
Leading congressmen, however, did push hard against Mr Freeman. "Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position," said Charles Schumer, the senior Democratic senator for New York. "His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration." Mr Freeman was supported by many foreign policy realists. A group of former ambassadors including Thomas Pickering and Ronald Neumann sent a letter to The Wall Street Journal last week that said: "We categorically reject the implication that the holding of personal opinions with which some disagree should be a reason to deny to the nation the service of this extremely qualified individual."
Commentators speculated about whether Mr Freeman was pushed by the Obama administration to quit. Vetting procedures were also criticised because other candidates for government jobs have become embroiled in controversies such as the failure to pay taxes. "If it turns out the White House pulled the plug on Freeman because of political pressure shame on it. If it turns out Blair didn't have the guts to stick with his guy shame on him," wrote the Nelson Report, a Washington newsletter. "If it turns out Freeman just couldn't stomach any more lies from Capitol Hill and the established media, not to mention the blogs, shame on us all."