GOP Jabs at State Department on Israel

Diplomats Push Back Against Claim of Tilt to Arabs

Stating Her Case: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the role of women in Israel. Republicans pounced, claiming her frank talk reflected an anti-Israel bias at the State Department.
State Department
Stating Her Case: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the role of women in Israel. Republicans pounced, claiming her frank talk reflected an anti-Israel bias at the State Department.

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 12, 2011, issue of December 23, 2011.
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Former Republican president George W. Bush promised to move the embassy, only to sign the waiver shortly after taking office. According to Gingrich, it was the “State Department culture” that eroded President Bush’s ability to make the move.

The State Department issued a cautious response to the Republican allegations, making sure it was not seen as taking sides in the political debate. “The department does not engage in the U.S. domestic political landscape,” a State Department official told the Forward, “The department implements the foreign policy of the president.”

Retired diplomats, meanwhile, including some who have dedicated their careers to dealing with the Israeli–Arab conflict, expressed their anger at the criticism being leveled by Republican candidates.

“It is a manifestation of self-hating Americans,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and a senior official in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “To say such things about an entire part of our national security apparatus is an expression of hate.”

Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle East policy studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, added that such criticism undercuts U.S. diplomats working to represent the nation. “This is dangerous stuff,” he said.

The roots of the notion that the State Department shows more sympathy to the Arab world than to Israel date back to the late 1940s, when then-secretary of state George Marshall argued against American recognition of the Jewish state, which was founded in 1948. Scholars have since identified a group of career diplomats specializing in the Middle East as “Arabists,” defined as a small group of foreign service officers, most coming from similar backgrounds, who spoke Arabic, served in Arab nations, and for the most part, took a pro-Arab approach to Middle East diplomacy.

“The idea that the State Department is run by ‘Arabists’ is a relic from the 1950s,” said Philip Wilcox, who formerly headed the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem. Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, added that while in the past Middle East policy in the State Department was controlled by diplomats with a similar worldview, the human landscape within the foreign service has changed dramatically since. “The age of ‘Arabists’ is over,” he said.

In later years, the State Department’s professional staff was often viewed by Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists as willing to mount pressure on Israel, especially on the issue of settlements, in order to promote the peace process, which they had seen as their top priority. The White House was perceived as being more in attuned to Israel’s political perspectives.

But the former diplomats dispute this portrayal. “The State Department always leaned forward in trying to make peace,” said Wilcox, “but it always works for the president and always reflects the president’s views.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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