During a White House meeting with Israeli officials in 2009, Samantha Power, like any other proud mother, pulled out a photo of her infant son. In speaking to the admiring crowd, she added a surprising detail: Her son, she said, is a descendant, from his father’s side, of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, the 18th-century Jewish sage who is considered the greatest talmudic scholar of his time.
This impressive lineage — a product of Power’s marriage to prominent law professor Cass Sunstein — offers some insight into Power’s personal sense of connection to Jews. But it is not the key to understanding her strong backing within the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, despite past statements that have been seen as critical of Israel and of the American lobby that backs it.
Power, who was recently chosen by President Obama to serve as the next ambassador to the United Nations, has made inroads to the community, thanks to her hands-on work in support of Israel at the United Nations and at other international forums.
“Her starting point has always been, ‘How do we work together to overcome obstacles and to ensure that both the United States and Israel get out of these U.N. situations with the least damage?” said Dan Arbel, who served as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Arbel described his work experience with Power as “very collegial, friendly and frank.”
It is a practical approach that has blunted much of the ideological debate over Power’s views and thoughts on Israel, and on Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. Thanks to Power’s concrete track record, her confirmation hearing in the Senate is unlikely to involve confrontations over Israel of the sort that recently flared during the hearings to confirm Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, former Senator Chuck Hagel, who also had a record of statements critical of Israel.
Israeli counterparts have found in Power a close ally, though they note that her efforts on Israel’s behalf do not necessarily signal blind support for its policies, especially as they relate to the issue of exclusive Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Middle East wasn’t Power’s area of expertise before she joined the administration. A renowned writer and activist on genocide prevention, Power, 42, began to focus on the region only in 2009, after assuming the position of senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council, a role that complements that of the U.N. ambassador and offers the perspective of the White House on issues relating to international bodies.
But many in the pro-Israel community encountered Power’s thinking about the region when they came across an earlier, now-famous interview she gave in 2002, before coming to government, to Harry Kreisler, executive director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In it, Power was asked a hypothetical question about the possibility of a genocidal situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and replied that in that case, the United States should consider putting “a meaningful military presence” on the ground in the West Bank.
“Putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import,” she added, in apparent reference to the pro-Israel lobby. “It may more crucially mean (investing) billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.”
Less hypothetically, Power also assessed Ariel Sharon, who at that time was prime minister of Israel, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, as leaders ”who are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people…. I do think in that sense, both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible.”
The interview has since been raised time and again, mainly by critics of the administration, as evidence of Power’s extreme views on Israel. This suspicion intensified when Power joined the administration.
“She seemed to have a keen awareness that there had been some unease in the community she needed to address,” a Jewish communal official said, referring to Power’s initial position at Obama’s White House.
Power not only addressed the controversy, but also delved into the nitty-gritty details of Israel’s battles in the U.N., the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council. “She was involved in any brush fire at the United Nations,” said an administration official who worked closely with Power. “After [U.N. Ambassador] Susan Rice, she was the most influential person on U.N. issues.”
Israeli officials noted Power’s leadership role in getting the administration to pull out of the 2009 Durban II anti-racism conference because of its anti-Israel bias. They also applauded her work in defeating the P.A.’s 2011 drive to achieve recognition for Palestine as an independent state through the United Nations Security Council. Power’s strong profile on these two issues, said Jarrod Bernstein, who served until recently as liaison to the Jewish community at the White House, shows “two instances in which she distinguished herself as being on the right side of the community.”
Power also participated in discussions that sought to dissipate the difficulties that Israel faced as a result of the 2009 Goldstone Report, which alleged that Israel had committed war crimes during its military campaign in Gaza the previous year.
Power was instrumental, too, in protecting Israel following the widespread condemnation it faced in 2010 for its attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that sought to deliver a shipment of humanitarian goods to Gaza in violation of the blockade that Israel had imposed on the territory. Before leaving her NSC post, Power, according to an official involved in those talks, worked on strategies for preventing Israel’s adversaries in this episode from pursuing their case at the International Criminal Court in Hague.
Power’s own positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never colored her work on issues relating to Israel and were hardly discussed, an Israeli official said. Power did mention, in passing conversations with Israelis, that more could be done to advance the peace process, noting that it could “make our work easier” at the U.N., but even that, the official said, was “voiced in a gentle manner.”
“We don’t agree on everything, but I believe that what is important is one’s character,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a Republican who supports Jewish settlements in the West Bank but has been a vocal backer of Power. “I think it is safe to assume that she represents Obama’s views, and that means she’s against settlements,” he added.
For some on the hawkish end of the Jewish and pro-Israel community, Power’s strong positions on the need for American intervention to prevent genocide have struck a chord. “The genocide issue touches on the core of the Jewish community,” one of her supporters said. But it goes beyond issues relating directly to Israel. Power is considered to be among those who persuaded Obama to intervene militarily in Libya. And as U.N. ambassador she could be in a position to tilt the administration toward a similar move to stop the Syrian civil war. Power has not spoken out publicly about Syria, but she will likely be asked about her views on the issue during the Senate confirmation hearing of her nomination.
In 2011, Power gave an interview to Boteach in which she explained her previous comments on Israel. Several weeks later she agreed to meet with a group of Jewish leaders in New York. At the meeting, according to two participants, she became emotional when asked whether she was unsympathetic to Israel. She called the accusation “painful.”
But not all in the Jewish community have been satisfied with Power’s reassurances. Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America called for voting against Power’s nomination. “Ms. Power’s record clearly shows that she is viscerally hostile to Israel, regards it as a major human rights abuser, even committing war crimes, and would like to see the weight of American military and financial power go to supporting the Palestinian Authority, not Israel,” Klein said in a statement.
Power has forged close ties with many in the community, including Alan Dershowitz, a former law professor of hers at Harvard who has frequently criticized Obama’s policy on Israel; with leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization focused on fighting anti-Semitism and racism; and with leaders of most major Jewish groups.
An administration insider recalled that whenever there was a need to convey a message to the Jewish community, the White House would divide the job of speaking to Jewish leaders among a select group of high-ranking officials.
Thanks to her good working ties with the community, Power was frequently on the list “There’s a tremendous connection on the substance level,” Bernstein said.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman