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10 Nov 2008

Mr Rahmbo In Obama's Office...

Mr Rahmbo In Obama's Office...

...and why the Mid-East is doing a U-turn -- from ecstasy in Barack Obama's election to unease and depression when the President-elect named Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff.

Here's from "The Middle East" Blog.

Barack Obama chose Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff not for his Middle East policy expertise but his Beltway experience and savvy. Nicknamed Rahmbo, Emanuel was Bill Clinton's scrappy White House political director--he taught that president the Hebrew word for balls, baytzim--and has served three terms in congress.

Yet, news of Emanuel's appointment is causing a stir in the Middle East. It's being met with some elation in Israel, a country that has been notably uneasy about an Obama presidency, and some despair in the Arab world, which had largely embraced Obama. An Oxford-educated Arab friend called Thursday night to ask me in a tone of deep disappointment, "Did you notice how in the span of 24 hours Egyptians went from being ecstatic to being depressed about Obama?" The Arab News in Jeddah, whose editorials are a good reflection of the Arab mainstream, did an astounding somersault on Friday. Just the previous day, the paper hailed the "symbol of hope and change" in the U.S., saying Obama's historic election "threatens the cosy Washington consensus. We are, therefore, embarking on exciting times." After hearing of Emanuel's appointment, the paper headlined its next editorial "Don't pin much hope on Obama." Arab expectations, the paper warned, "are likely to be dashed, generating a great deal of pain and resentment...The new team may turn out to be as pro-Israeli as the one it is replacing."

Arab disappointment aside, there's enough in Emanuel's background to raise a fair question of whether the key appointment of such a demonstratively pro-Israel figure is going to help or hurt the prospects for Obama's avowed plans to play an effective role in brokering Middle East peace. Obama promised to be actively engaged as an Israeli-Arab conciliator from Day One, a far cry better than President Bush, who ignored mediation for six years because he believed that Islamic terrorism and lack of Arab democracy were more serious problems to tackle. But many will be looking to see if Obama will avoid the excessive pro-Israel bias and attendant strategic asymmetry that Arab officials--and also some former U.S. diplomats--cite as one of the factors in the tragic, bloody collapse of the peace process during the Clinton administration. It's impossible and unfair to judge Obama's future Middle East policies on the basis of one appointment, especially when the job in question is not directly responsible for the Middle East. Still, for the Arab world, it's a dispiriting start to the Obama era in the region, anything but the hoped-for sign of greater American sensitivity and fairness toward the Arabs.

Emanuel's public views express backing for the peace process coupled with total support for Israel's security and distrust of Palestinians as well as Washington's traditional Arab allies. Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg, who says "I've known Rahm for a long time," reports that "he is deeply and emotionally committed to Israel and its safety. We've talked about the issue a dozen times; it's something he thinks about constantly..." In customary, boilerplate praise in 2006, Emanuel called Israel "a vital ally of the United States since the beginning of its existence, sharing democratic values, friendship, and respect and enjoying a strategic partnership. American and Israel shall remain close friends for years to come." In a rare break with his famous partisanship, Emanuel lauded Bush's State Department for supporting Arab pro-democracy activists, decrying past U.S. policy that allowed "repressive regimes...such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia [to] receive a pass." In 2006, Emanuel was a vocal critic of Bush's decision to allow Dubai Ports World, a Dubai government-owned company, to manage operations at six U.S. ports. Not only would that endanger U.S. "safety and security," Emanuel said, but would enable the United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. ally, to "promote terrorism and violence against Israel" through its support of the Hamas government elected in Palestine at that time. As a condition to doing business with the U.S., Emanuel said, the UAE should be required to renounce its anti-Israel boycott. Intense congressional pressure eventually forced Dubai Ports World to abandon its plans, causing wide bitterness in the Arab world, including among Westernized moderates.

During the Clinton administration, Emanuel helped arrange the historic signing ceremony for the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO at the White House in 1993. He accompanied Clinton to the Middle East for the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement signing and Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. Recently, Emanuel personally escorted Obama last June when the Democratic candidate gave a strongly pro-Israel speech to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby group in Washington and held a private meeting with AIPAC's Executive Board. Emanuel's father Benjamin was quoted in an article about Rahm headlined "Our Man in the White House" in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv last week, saying "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House." Last week, Ha'aretz quoted U.S. Jewish leaders praising Emanuel's selection. William Daroff, director of the United Jewish Communities Washington office, said: "Rep. Emanuel is also a good friend of Israel, coming from good Irgun stock, davening at an Orthodox synagogue, and sending his children to Jewish day schools." But Ha'aretz also quoted an unnamed veteran Israeli diplomat saying Emanuel's association with Israel "doesn't necessarily bring him closer to us. One thing is certain--Israelis will not be able to pull the wool over his eyes."

What has most grabbed attention is Emanuel's various deep personal connections to Israel. His father Benjamin was born in Jerusalem, fought to establish the state and was an Israeli citizen before emigrating to the U.S. where Rahm was born in 1959. As a kid, Rahm went to summer camps in Israel. His father is quoted as saying Rahm continues to spend his summer vacations in Tel Aviv and speaks Hebrew though not fluently. Emanuel abruptly left his post on a Richard Daley mayoral campaign in Chicago and volunteered for service in the Israel Defense Force during the 1991 Gulf War. A 1997 Jerusalem Post story reported that Emanuel did menial work at a supply base in northern Israel. The Post quoted him saying that the experience was not a sacrifice but "something I wanted to do." The article also quoted fellow Daley campaign worker Peter Giangreco saying, "Here's a guy who, during a very, very, very important campaign to him and the city, said there's something bigger here. He takes loyalty and duty, and his beliefs, very seriously." In his presidential memoirs, Bill Clinton twice mentions that his aide had "served in the Israeli army."

Benjamin Emanuel, now an Illinois resident, is reported to have been a member of a Jewish nationalist "terrorist" organization, Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL). According to a 1997 NY Times profile of Rahm and two equally successful brothers, the Emanuel family name was originally Auerbach, but it was changed in a tribute to an uncle Emanuel Auerbach who was killed in a "skirmish with Arabs" in Jerusalem around 1933. The Times article said only that Benjamin "passed secret codes" for the Irgun. Benjamin told Ha'aretz that his son was named after "Rahamim," who the paper identified as a slain combatant belonging to Lohamei Herut Israel (LHI). Also known as the Stern Gang, LHI was an Irgun splinter group that carried out political assassinations in the name of Jewish nationalism, including those of the Swedish U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte and British diplomat Lord Moyne.

For Palestinians and Arabs generally, the Irgun and Stern Gang are bitterly etched into their historical narrative as murderous terrorist organizations, not unlike the way that Israeli governments, most Israelis and much of the world have viewed the PLO and Hamas. Led by the future hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the group fought for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine during the 1930s and 1940s. It's extreme views and tactics led it into regular conflict with Haganah, the mainstream Jewish paramilitary group that formed the basis for the future IDF. The Irgun's symbol was a hand grasping a gun over its map of Israel--the territory encompassing today's Israel, the West Bank and Kingdom of Jordan. The Haganah initially formed to defend Jews from attacks by Arabs, who were in violent revolt against British Mandate and Zionist movement actions to establish a Jewish homeland. Believing the British were in fact betraying Jews, militants who differed with the Haganah's policy of restraint broke away, formed the Irgun and launched spectacular terrorist attacks such as the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then the British military HQ, which killed 92 people, as well as the kidnapping and murder of British soldiers. The group also played a violent role in terrorizing Arabs into fleeing cities and towns that the Zionist movement sought to include in a future Jewish state. The Irgun's actions included placing bombs in crowded Arab markets, indiscriminately bombarding civilians in Jaffa, the major Arab town adjoining the Jewish city of Tel Aviv, and the notorious Deir Yassin massacre.

Although accounts of what happened at Deir Yassin differ, there is general agreement that the Arab killings there in April 1948 significantly fueled the panic in which hundreds of thousands of Arabs left their homes and villages--whose "right of return" remains one of the bitterest points of dispute in more than 15 years of on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. In his landmark work on the Palestinian refugee problem, Israeli historian Benny Morris described Deir Yassin this way: "After a prolonged firefight, in which Arab family after family were slaughtered, the dissidents rounded up many of the remaining villagers, who included militiamen and unarmed civilians of both sexes, and children, and murdered dozens of them. Altogether some 250 Arabs, mostly non-combatants, were murdered; there were also cases of mutilation and rape. The surviving inhabitants were expelled to Arab-held East Jerusalem. The weight of the evidence suggests that the dissident group did not go in with the intention of committing a massacre but lost their heads during the battle, which they had found unexpectedly tough-going. It is probable, however, the the IZL and LHI commanders from the first had intended to expel the village's inhabitants."

--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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