Jewish, pro-Israel groups lament Boltons resignation

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washington | The bluntness and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that cost John Bolton his job as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is what endeared him to pro-Israel groups.

Bolton resigned from the post Monday, Dec. 4, heading off what was certain to be a failed attempt to finally win confirmation from the U.S. Senate this month.

“I’m not happy about it — I think he deserved to be confirmed,” President Bush said at a ceremony accepting Bolton’s resignation. He told Bolton, “You’ve been a stalwart defender of freedom and peace.”

With another lightning rod, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on his way out, the White House is eager to get Rumsfeld’s replacement nominee, Robert Gates, confirmed, said Steve Clemons, an analyst with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. Fighting for Bolton might have hindered what is expected to be a fast track for Gates.

“It’s an implicit quid pro quo,” Clemons said. “Going after Bolton this week,” the beginning of the final lame-duck session of the 109th Congress, “could have thrown Gates off track. It’s a tactical decision.”

Bolton’s 18-month term has been stalked by his reputation for tough talk. He once said the United Nations could function as well if the top 10 stories of its towering East River headquarters in New York City were sliced off.

His contentious relationship with colleagues at the U.S. State Department — one staffer told the Senate that as undersecretary for arms control, Bolton “kissed up and kicked down” — blocked his initial nomination in early 2005.

Bush made Bolton an interim appointment, constitutionally set to expire Dec. 31. Seeking to keep Bolton through his own term, the president renominated him this summer.

Bolton’s chances at first seemed good. Top Jewish Democrats, including Senate Caucus Chairman Charles Schumer of New York, said Bolton’s staunch friendship of Israel was helping to change their minds.

Bolton helped shape U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Israel-Hezbollah war on terms Israel could accept, including a robust U.N. force that would keep Hezbollah out of the south.

More significantly, he proved an effective diplomat, nudging China and Russia toward acceptance of sanctions against Iran unless it suspends its uranium enrichment.

Bolton persistently cited the Iranian president’s Holocaust denial as a central factor in determining that country’s threat.

Jewish groups broke with a tradition of keeping out of confirmation battles. Bolton earned endorsements from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee.

“John Bolton has done an extraordinary job of advancing America’s interests at a time of critical importance,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said.

But Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), the staunchest Republican Iraq war opponent and a tough critic of Israel’s settlement policy, threw a monkey wrench into the works.

In a Sept. 7 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chafee said he would use his prerogative as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block Bolton’s nomination unless Rice was more forthright in her criticism of Israel’s plans for settlement expansion.

Democrats were not about to save Bolton now that a Republican had signed on for his professional demise. The writing for Bolton was on the wall.

Clemons said Bush’s abandonment of Bolton did not necessarily signal a change in the policies that won the ambassador the admiration of some pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

“It doesn’t mean Bush is any less set in his ways,” he said.

Dan Mariaschin, executive vice-president of B’nai B’rith International, agreed — but said Bolton’s straightforward way of making the American case at the United Nations would be missed.

“It was the clarity of his thinking on existential issues,” such as Iran’s potential for becoming a nuclear threat to Israel, that made Bolton an asset, Mariaschin said. “It will be hard to find someone as open in his thinking as Bolton.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.