Did 'Israel lobby' block Obama's pick for intelligence czar?

Charles Freeman, nominee for chair of the National Intelligence Council, blames pro-Israeli lobbyists for scuttling his nomination.

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A row broke out after President Obama's pick to chair the National Intelligence Council withdrew his nomination Tuesday in the face of fierce opposition from pro-Israel lobbyists.

Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has blamed the "Israel lobby" for blocking his nomination. Somepoliticians have also questioned his position on China. In an e-mail published by a Foreign Policy magazineblog, Mr. Freeman said his accusers sought to stifle debate in the US and skewer its policy options in the Middle East.

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I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel.
It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.

The NIC is charged with synthesizing the findings of various US intelligence agencies and presenting nonpartisan analysis to the president. In recent weeks, critics of Freeman have argued that his views on Israel, in particular, made him an ill-advised candidate for the job.

The New York Times reports that these critics included some prominent lawmakers who took their cue from a blog posting last month by Steven Rosen, a former pro-Israel lobbyist. Mr. Rosen described Freeman's views as comparable to those of the Saudi Foreign Ministry. Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer said Freeman showed an "irrational hatred of Israel."

Freeman is the former head of the Middle East Policy Council. In that role, he said Israel's occupation of disputed lands was "self-defeating" for any peace process. In a 2007 speech, Freeman said "Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians, it strives instead to pacify them," The Wall Street Journal reports.

Bloomberg reports that 10 House lawmakers had asked Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, to look into Freeman's financial ties to Saudi Arabia, which funds the Middle East Policy Council. Freeman denied receiving payments from any foreign governments.

His views on China also came under scrutiny, says FOX News. He was on the board of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which has reportedly agreed to develop a gas field in Iran. Lawmakers challenged this link and some of Freeman's past comments on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China.

[Intelligence Director Admiral Dennis] Blair argued that Freeman's rich background would make him an asset to the intelligence community and other foreign policy analysts had dismissed the criticism of him as a smear campaign.
Freeman has a formidable resume of foreign policy positions that include U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under George H.W. Bush and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs – a position that earned him public service awards for his role in creating a NATO-centered post-Cold War European security system. Freeman also served as Richard Nixon's chief translator in China in 1972.

On the Nieman Watchdog blog, Dan Froomkin argues that Freeman is an iconoclast who raises awkward questions, while also being an expert in the foreign-policy field. That combination should make him a good option for steering intelligence committees that have proven susceptible in the past to "groupthink."

The Washington Post reports that pro-Israeli bloggers and lobby groups worked behind the scenes with media and lawmakers to undermine Freeman's candidacy, though only a few organizations made public statements. The success of the campaign has highlighted the Obama administration's sensitivity to accusations of not being sufficiently pro-Israel.

For example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), often described as the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, "took no position on this matter and did not lobby the Hill on it," spokesman Josh Block said.
But Block responded to reporters' questions and provided critical material about Freeman, albeit always on background, meaning his comments could not be attributed to him, according to three journalists who spoke to him.

A columnist for Gulf News, an English-language newspaper based in Dubai, says some in the region are already starting to write off the Obama administration as a rerun of its predecessors when it comes to the Middle East. By blocking this appointment, "right wing Israelis" are limiting Washington's strategic options and "wrecking any hope of wider influence in the Arab and Muslim world."

Writing on the Agence Global website, Nadia Hijab argues that Freeman's withdrawal, while a concession to the Israeli lobby, doesn't mean that the Obama administration will always side with Israel. Other recent appointments suggest a degree of critical thinking on Israel and the Middle East that is slowly being reflected in the mainstream media.

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