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Pro-Israel lobby's ire at Obama nominee

The lobby is challenging the Obama administration over its appointment of an Arabist diplomat to a top intelligence job.

NEW YORK // The pro-Israel lobby is flexing its muscles for the first time by challenging the Obama administration over its appointment of an Arabist diplomat to a top intelligence job. Charles "Chas" Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has drawn fire from hawkish Israel supporters after he was appointed chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which prepares the president's daily intelligence briefs. He was appointed to the job last month by Dennis Blair, Barack Obama's director of national intelligence. The position does not need Senate confirmation. Yet commentators and congressmen have called for the appointment's withdrawal. Mr Freeman, who also drew flak from human rights campaigners for his ties to China, recently headed the Middle East Policy Council, a think tank partially funded by Saudi Arabia. A bipartisan group of 10 congressmen sent a letter on Tuesday to the inspector general of the director of national intelligence, calling for an immediate review of financial ties between governments, including that of Saudi Arabia, and Mr Freeman. "Given his close ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we request a comprehensive review of Ambassador Freeman's past and current commercial, financial and contractual ties to the kingdom to ensure no conflict of interest exists in his new position," said the letter from, among others, Mark Kirk, an outspoken Illinois Republican in the House of Representatives. Mr Freeman, who once served as an interpreter to Richard Nixon, the former president, in China, is supported by many "foreign policy realists", some of whom sent a letter to The Wall Street Journal on Thursday after it published a column headlined: "The president picks a China apologist and Israel basher to write his intelligence summaries". "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," said the letter from a group of former ambassadors, including Thomas Pickering and Ronald Neumann. Mr Freeman has criticised the US "war on terror" and Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. In 2007, he denounced US support for "Israel's efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoised Arab populations [and] ? seize ever more Arab land for its colonists". A foreign policy analyst with a US Jewish organisation who wished to remain anonymous said he was opposed to Mr Freeman's appointment more because he had failed to denounce Saudi Arabia's human rights record than because of his criticism of Israel. "In the debate over his appointment, we've seen a very interesting overlap between the liberal intelligentsia and paleo-conservative realists who've bought into the argument that there's an all-powerful Jewish lobby," he said. "If there really was such a lobby that could make America act against its own interests, then it would have been able to stop Freeman's appointment, but it didn't." The administration, however, is unlikely to backtrack. Robert Gibbs, the chief White House spokesman, said on Tuesday he had not read Mr Freeman's alleged anti-Israel comments. "People can be reasonably assured of where the president is on this and how he'll be actively engaged in seeking Middle East peace." Analysts said they would have a clearer idea of how hard the Obama administration might push for Israeli-Palestinian peace after the formation of an Israeli coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, expected in the next few weeks. In the meantime, observers have resorted to something akin to Kremlinology as they seek to decipher the meaning behind such appointments as that of Mr Freeman, George Mitchell as Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross as the state department's point man on Iran, and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. "These appointments are really interesting and it seems the administration is trying to cover all their bases with differing camps in the conflict," said an official with a pro-Israel and pro-peace organisation in Washington. "However, if you look at the overall picture and especially the people they have appointed to senior positions, such as Mitchell, then you can see it is much more balanced than under the Bush administration." He noted approvingly that even Mr Ross, who was accused of siding with Israel in past negotiations, was a contrast to Elliot Abrams, a former Middle East adviser considered particularly hawkish on Israel. sdevi@thenational.ae

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