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.
The attack was, intelligence operatives now believe, actually carried out by a terror group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda. Some Republicans suspect that Rice had purposely ignored this fact in order to help President Obama’s re-election campaign. Rice and Obama have since said that the ambassador’s remarks were based on the best information she had at the time. A November 27 effort by Rice to convince Republican lawmakers that her statements were based on the best intelligence she had at the time, failed to resolve the political dispute.
A foreign policy scholar who specialized in international peacekeeping and genocide prevention, Rice served as Obama’s foreign policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign. She was appointed ambassador to the United Nations, a cabinet-level post, following his election.
Rice, 48, was initially met with concern among supporters of Israel who feared that the new United Nations envoy would favor international involvement in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
But as America’s top representative to the body that came to symbolize the anti-Israel sentiment of the international community, Rice had plenty of opportunities to prove her support to Israel by working to defeat resolutions and measures aimed at censuring and denouncing Israel, or as she herself put it, battling “the anti-Israel crap.”
Rice used her first veto to block a Security Council resolution criticizing Israel’s settlement policy. She fought against resolutions based on the Goldstone Report, which criticized Israel’s actions during the Gaza conflict, and she spurred the U.S. to withdraw from the Durban review conference in 2009.
The 2011 attempt by the Palestinian Authority to win United Nations recognition as an independent state, galvanized Rice’s relations with pro-Israel activists and transformed her into one of the Obama administration’s most effective communicators to the Jewish community. Rice, who kept in close contact with the Israeli delegation to the United Nations and with Jewish organizations that were deeply concerned over the Palestinian move, worked with European allies to block the Palestinian attempt. The coalition she assembled eventually succeeded in turning back the bid.
“She is a new personality when it comes to the Middle East and she holds a position that has traditionally been considered problematic for Israel, and still she remarkably managed to turn the liabilities around,” said an administration official on Rice’s work relating to Israel.
With liabilities turned around, Rice enjoyed a warm embrace from the Jewish community. She received the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations National Service Award, met with leaders of the [American Jewish Committee](http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/182371.htm and even travelled to Florida to speak at a Boca Raton synagogue.
“She has been willing to take difficult positions on Israel time and again and when Jewish leaders see that it builds a relationship of trust,” Schonfeld said.
Not all in the community, however, were convinced. Rice’s strong words against Israel’s settlement activity, in which she made clear that the United States “rejects in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity” and views them as threatening the prospects for peace in the region, were seen by critics as unnecessarily harsh. Administration officials noted, in response, that Rice’s language reflected the policies of the Obama administration and of previous presidents as well.
Rice also came under fire for leading America’s rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Commission, a body boycotted by the Bush administration in part due to its strong anti-Israel spirit. Rice, backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama, expressed her wish to reform the council and to refocus its work on human rights abuses around the world. Supporters point to the commission’s resolutions regarding the civil war in Syria as a sign of positive change. But critics state that much of the commission’s work is still focused on bashing Israel.
“This is a point of disagreement. I believe she is still wrong,” said Foxman, while adding that Rice’s motivation for joining the Commission was not to criticize Israel but rather to defend it from within.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Haaretz 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.