Obama picks pro-Israel hardliner for top post

5 November 2008

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Senator Barack Obama greets Representative Rahm Emanuel at the Illinois Delegation party at a restaurant in Boston on the eve of the Democratic National Convention 2004. (Tom Williams)


During the United States election campaign, racists and pro-Israel hardliners tried to make an issue out of President-elect Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein. Such people might take comfort in another middle name, that of Obama’s pick for White House Chief of Staff: Rahm Israel Emanuel.

Emanuel is Obama’s first high-level appointment and it’s one likely to disappoint those who hoped the president-elect would break with the George W. Bush Administration’s pro-Israel policies. White House Chief of Staff is often considered the most powerful office in the executive branch, next to the president. Obama has offered Emanuel the position according to Democratic party sources cited by media including Reuters and The New York Times. While Emanuel is expected to accept the post, that had not been confirmed by Wednesday evening the day after the election.

Rahm Emanuel was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1959, the son of Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician who helped smuggle weapons to the Irgun, the Zionist militia of former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, in the 1940s. The Irgun carried out numerous terrorist attacks on Palestinian civilians including the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946.

Emanuel continued his father’s tradition of active support for Israel; during the 1991 Gulf War he volunteered to help maintain Israeli army vehicles near the Lebanon border when southern Lebanon was still occupied by Israeli forces.

As White House political director in the first Clinton administration, Emanuel orchestrated the famous 1993 signing ceremony of the “Declaration of Principles” between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Emanuel was elected to Congress representing a north Chicago district in 2002 and he is credited with a key role in delivering a Democratic majority in the 2006 mid-term elections. He has been a prominent supporter of neoliberal economic policies on free trade and welfare reform.

One of the most influential politicians and fundraisers in his party, Emanuel accompanied Obama to a meeting of AIPAC’s executive board just after the Illinois senator had addressed the pro-Israel lobby’s conference last June.

In Congress, Emanuel has been a consistent and vocal pro-Israel hardliner, sometimes more so than President Bush. In June 2003, for example, he signed a letter criticizing Bush for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. “We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of Israel for fighting acts of terror,” Emanuel, along with 33 other Democrats wrote to Bush. The letter said that Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian political leaders “was clearly justified as an application of Israel’s right to self-defense” (“Pelosi supports Israel’s attacks on Hamas group,” San Francisco Chronicle, 14 June 2003).

In July 2006, Emanuel was one of several members who called for the cancellation of a speech to Congress by visiting Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki because al-Maliki had criticized Israel’s bombing of Lebanon. Emanuel called the Lebanese and Palestinian governments “totalitarian entities with militias and terrorists acting as democracies” in a 19 July 2006 speech supporting a House resolution backing Israel’s bombing of both countries that caused thousands of civilian victims.

Emanuel has sometimes posed as a defender of Palestinian lives, though never from the constant Israeli violence that is responsible for the vast majority of deaths and injuries. On 14 June 2007 he wrote to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “on behalf of students in the Gaza Strip whose future is threatened by the ongoing fighting there” which he blamed on “the violence and militancy of their elders.” In fact, the fighting between members of Hamas and Fatah, which claimed dozens of lives, was the result of a failed scheme by US-backed militias to violently overthrow the elected Hamas-led national unity government. Emanuel’s letter urged Rice “to work with allies in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, to either find a secure location in Gaza for these students, or to transport them to a neighboring country where they can study and take their exams in peace.” Palestinians often view such proposals as a pretext to permanently “transfer” them from their country, as many Israeli leaders have threatened. Emanuel has never said anything in support of millions of Palestinian children whose education has been disrupted by Israeli occupation, closures and blockades.

Emanuel has also used his position to explicitly push Israel’s interests in normalizing relations with Arab states and isolating Hamas. In 2006 he initiated a letter to President Bush opposing United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Dubai Ports World’s attempt to buy the management business of six US seaports. The letter, signed by dozens of other lawmakers, stated that “The UAE has pledged to provide financial support to the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority and openly participates in the Arab League boycott against Israel.” It argued that allowing the deal to go through “not only could place the safety and security of US ports at risk, but enhance the ability of the UAE to bolster the Hamas regime and its efforts to promote terrorism and violence against Israel” (“Dems Tie Israel, Ports,” Forward, 10 March 2006).

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told Fox News that picking Emanuel is “just another indication that despite the attempts to imply that Obama would somehow appoint the wrong person or listen to the wrong people when it comes to the US-Israel relationship … that was never true.”

Over the course of the campaign, Obama publicly distanced himself from friends and advisers suspected or accused of having “pro-Palestinian” sympathies. There are no early indications of a more balanced course.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli- Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).