Washington — Facing a group of 400 rabbis affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice opened a speech last March with her favorite quote from psalms: “Hinei ma’tov uma-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad” (Behold how good and how pleasing if people could sit together in unity).
Rice conceded she needed to improve her Hebrew pronunciation, but the audience was already won over. As she concluded her address, the capacity-filled room of pro-Israel activists burst into singing of “Hinei ma’tov.”
“The reaction of my fellow rabbis was really moving,” recounted Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. “It was moving to hear how her own characterization of her relation to Israel resonated with the rabbis.”
The AIPAC event illustrated the long road that Rice, now the leading candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has travelled in her relations with the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. From initially being an unknown quantity on Middle East issues, she has earned a reputation as a leading defender of Israel in the international body known for its automatic bias against the Jewish state.
“Her beginning had some rough edges and there were some tensions with the Jewish community, but throughout the years the relationships have warmed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman now describes Rice as a “gladiator” fighting to defend Israel in hostile atmosphere of the United Nations.
Rice, despite objections of some Senate Republicans, is considered to be President Obama’s first choice for his next Secretary of State, the cabinet position to which American supporters of Israel pay most attention. Another candidate mentioned for the position is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is also on the short list of possible replacements for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
If she is nominated as Secretary of State, Susan Rice will have to overcome fierce objection from Republican senators, who have vowed to fight her confirmation in the Senate. Leading GOP senators, including John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, have taken issue with Rice’s remarks, in which she attributed the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to spontaneous demonstrations triggered by an American-produced anti-Islamic film.