Denis McDonough, Choice for Chief of Staff, Raised Hackles on Israel

Where Does the Foreign Policy Advisor Stand on Israel?

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By Nathan Guttman

Published January 25, 2013.
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With Jack Lew’s departing the White House in favor of the top cabinet post of Treasury Secretary, President Obama announced Friday that Denis McDonough will fill in his position as White House chief of staff.

McDonough will be Obama’s fourth chief of staff. Two of his predecessors were Jewish: Rahm Emanuel, who is now mayor of Chicago, and Jack Lew. In between, the post was held by William Daley.

McDonough currently serves as deputy national security adviser and has been a foreign policy adviser to Obama since he was first elected to the Senate in 2004. This role has put McDonough in close contact with Israeli officials and with members of the Jewish community who sought to discuss issues relating to Israel with the White House.

The National Jewish Democratic Council welcomed the appointment of McDonough to serve as Obama’s closest adviser. “In selecting McDonough, the President has selected someone who is intimately familiar with strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and with the Obama Administration’s unprecedented efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,” the group’s president and CEO David Harris said in a statement.

For some Jewish leaders, however, meeting with McDonough at the White House was a contentions event. During a May 21 meeting of members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations with several Obama administration officials, a tense debate erupted between the group’s executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein and McDonough. Hoenlein tried to ask about differences between a policy of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons, as opposed to stopping it from getting “nuclear capabilities.” McDonough, according to participants, replied angrily, calling the issue a “made up controversy” and a “red herring.”

Speaking several weeks earlier at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank known for its pro-Israel stance, McDonough tried to dispel claims of strained relations between the Obama administration and Israel and argued that differences between the two countries’ approach to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat are minimal.

“We believe the policy we are pursuing is working and will give us the best opportunity to address the challenge once and for all,” he said, stressing that if diplomacy does not work, “all options are on the table.”


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