Mideast Publications Question Obama Over Top Intelligence Pick's Withdrawal

Charles Freeman Jr. has been a frequent critic of Israel's policies.
Charles Freeman Jr. has been a frequent critic of Israel's policies. (Jonathan Ernst)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Middle East press has questioned President Obama's authority over Arab-Israeli issues since Charles W. Freeman Jr.'s withdrawal from his appointment to a senior intelligence position.

A commentary in Abu Dhabi's the National, a newspaper owned by an investment fund controlled by the government, said Freeman's decision Tuesday to withdraw as chairman of the National Intelligence Council "threw the Obama administration into the heart of a long-running controversy over the alleged supremacy of pro-Israel hawks in determining U.S. foreign policy after having taken a cautious approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so far consistent with previous administrations."

The Daily Star in Beirut went further, saying Freeman's action "is likely to be viewed as a significant victory for hardliners within the so-called 'Israeli lobby,' who led the movement to scuttle his appointment, and a blow to hopes for a new approach to Israel-Palestine issues under the Obama administration."

An analyst in the National pointed out that the Israel lobby may have had a Pyrrhic victory. Noting that vocal Freeman opponent Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had publicly said, "I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing," the analyst wrote, "A lobby that has thrived through its covert operations can claim another victory in reversing Freeman's appointment, but this time its workings may have been too transparent for its own good."

Other Arab publications echoed that analysis, while at least one Israeli commentator questioned the views of Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, who made the appointment and supported it after questions were raised about Freeman's previous critical statements about Israel.

Meanwhile, Obama has not discussed the matter, and press secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly dodged questions about it. On Friday, when asked about Obama's "standing mute" before Freeman's withdrawal, Gibbs said: "He's somebody who served the country greatly but asked that his nomination not proceed, and the Director of National Intelligence accepted that."

A statement by Freeman accusing the Israel lobby of being behind his withdrawal became big news in the United States and the Middle East.

Asked Friday whether the Israel lobby had influenced the White House, Gibbs responded as he had a week earlier, saying: "I've watched with great interest how people perceive different things about our policy and during the campaign, about whether we were too close to one group or too close to the other. So I don't give a lot of thought to those." When a reporter asked "for straight answers," Gibbs said, "I gave you as straight of one as I can get."

The Jeddah Arab News online (in English) ran a commentary saying that observers in Saudi Arabia called the former ambassador's announcement utterly disappointing. An editorial described his withdrawal as "a great victory for Washington 's powerful Israel lobby and a grave defeat for US foreign policy."

But it also carried this statement by senior political analyst Khaled Batarfi: "President Barack Obama . . . would have faced similar problems if his choice of Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell had gone through U.S. Congress."

A Syrian paper, al-Thawrah, said Freeman pulled out when he realized "no one is safe from the evils" of the Israel lobby.

Caroline Glick, a columnist in the Jerusalem Post specializing in national security issues, had a different take. She described what she called "disturbing things about the climate in Washington these days." The foremost was that Blair's choice of Freeman, despite what she said were the latter's known "extreme views on Israel and American Jews," may indicate something about the DNI. She said Blair's testimony last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Iran's nuclear program showed that "America's top intelligence officer is willing to take Iran's word on everything," and, "On the other hand, he isn't willing to take Israel's word on anything."


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