Barack Obama’s first appointment, that of Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, is quite frankly unsettling and suggests that voters who had hoped for real change in Washington will be disappointed. There should also be some concern on the part of Americans who believe that a close and continuing relationship with a foreign government might disqualify one for high office in the United States.
Emanuel, far from serving as a neutral gateway to the president, has some very strong views on foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East, views that are closer to those of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney than they are to the millions of voters who thought that Obama would put an end to "wars of choice." And Obama appears to share at least some of those views, though he might be driven primarily by unwillingness to antagonize Israel’s numerous cheerleaders in the Democratic Party. During the presidential campaign Obama refused to meet with American Muslims, and on a fact-finding trip to the Middle East last summer he spent several days in Israel but only 45 minutes with Palestinian leaders.
More recently, Obama did not respond to a congratulatory letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only world leader to be snubbed in that fashion. In his first press conference on Nov. 7, Obama, who has promised to do "everything in his power" to denuclearize Iran, reiterated that Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon would be unacceptable, a position adhering closely to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) line. There are also reports that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has already called Vice President-elect Joe Biden to tell him that even talking to Iran would be a sign of weakness, a signal that Israel might be willing to unleash its all-powerful lobby against the Obama administration if it is perceived as going too far.
The extremely partisan and foul-mouthed Emanuel, who has the reputation of a junkyard dog, is a retread from the Clinton White House, where he served in two senior advisory positions after demonstrating his expertise in fundraising during the 1992 presidential campaign. Though born in Chicago, he was an Israeli citizen through his father until he, according to his own account, renounced his dual citizenship when he turned 18. When the United States went to war with Iraq in 1991 the 31-year-old Emanuel rushed off to join the colors, though the colors in this case were the blue and white flag of Israel. He claims that he was a civilian volunteer in the Israeli army who was assigned the task of "rust-proofing brakes" on military vehicles, an assertion that has been questioned because his father’s background suggests that he would likely have been offered something much more important.
Emanuel’s father, an Israeli physician, was a member of the terrorist group Irgun in the 1940s. Irgun was responsible for blowing up the King David Hotel and ethnically cleansing much of Palestine through selective massacres of Arab civilians. In an interview in the Jerusalem Post, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel said he was convinced that his son’s appointment as White House chief of staff would be good for Israel. "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel," he was quoted as saying. "Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House." Commenting on his father’s statement, Rahm Emanuel noted that Obama does not need his influence to “orientate his policy toward Israel.”
Other Israelis and prominent American supporters of Israel also see Emanuel as their man in the White House. The respected Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz hailed his appointment, describing him unambiguously as an Israeli. William Daroff of the United Jewish Communities also praised Emanuel, describing him as "a good friend of Israel, coming from good Irgun stock." Ira Forman, head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, welcomed the appointment, saying, “It’s 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 U.S.-Israel relationship that was never true,” an indication that some will actually expect Emanuel to act on behalf of Israel when the chips are down.
Emanuel left the Clinton administration in 1998 and went to work for Bruce Wasserstein, a major Democratic donor and head of the Chicago investment bank Wasserstein Perella. He made $18 million in a little over two years. He was deliberately placed in a position where he could exploit his White House connections, which he did, to obtain a nest egg to finance his political career. In 2000 he was named by Clinton to the board of Freddie Mac, where he earned an additional $260,000 but was later criticized for not taking his oversight responsibility seriously. In 2002, he was elected to Congress, where he was noted for his ability to attract large political contributions. Emanuel soon moved into a leadership position, eventually becoming chairman of the Democratic Caucus in January 2007, the fourth-ranking Democrat in Congress.
In Congress, Emanuel has been a consistent and vocal pro-Israel hardliner, particularly close to right-wing politicians such as Ariel Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu, sometimes even more so than President Bush. In June 2003 he signed a congressional letter criticizing Bush for being weak in his support of Israel. The letter, signed by 34 Democrats, stated, "We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of Israel for fighting acts of terror." The letter supported Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian political leaders because it "was clearly justified as an application of Israel’s right to self-defense."
Not surprisingly, Emanuel has always been in favor of the Iraq war, and he supports an aggressive policy toward Iran. In his 2006 book with the pretentious title The Plan: Big Ideas for America he advocates increasing the size of the U.S. Army by 100,000 soldiers and creating a domestic spying organization like Britain’s MI5. More recently, he has supported mandatory paramilitary national service for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 25.
Emanuel has always expressed intense hostility toward antiwar Democrats. When, in November 2005, Congressman Jack Murtha made his proposal for withdrawal from Iraq, Emanuel quickly declared that “Jack Murtha went out and spoke for Jack Murtha.” In late 2005 and early 2006, Emanuel played a key role as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in lining up candidates to run against the Republicans for congressional seats in November 2006. Out of 22 candidates vetted and supported financially by Emanuel, 20 were pro-war, despite the fact that the Democratic Party base was not. Antiwar candidates were routinely denied funding and support from his DCCC. Only eight of Emanuel’s candidates won, a percentage considerably lower than the success rate for other Democrats, possibly because voters had a hard time embracing their pro-war positions.
In a June 2006 congressional debate on Iraq policy, Emanuel made his own views clear, declaring, “The debate today is about whether the American people want to stay the course with an administration and a Congress that has walked away from its obligations or pursue a real strategy for success in the war on terror. Democrats are determined to take the fight to the enemy.” In his speech, Emanuel fully embraced the questionable "War on Terror" concept and aligned himself far to the right of the Democratic Party base, which, at the time, was 60 percent in favor of immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
In July 2006, Emanuel was one of several congressmen who called for the cancellation of an impending speech before Congress by visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because Maliki had called Israel’s bombing of Lebanon "aggression." Emanuel was joined by his close friend and DSCC counterpart Sen. Charles Schumer, who asked; “Which side is he on when it comes to the war on terror?” Emanuel described the Lebanese and Palestinian governments as "totalitarian entities with militias and terrorists acting as democracies" in a subsequent speech on July 19 regarding a House resolution supporting Israel’s bombing, which produced thousands of civilian casualties.
On March 12, 2007, the Democratic Party leadership announced that it would separate the issue of Iran from consideration of funding measures for the troop surge in neighboring Iraq. Opponents of a possible military action against Iran had sought specific language in the appropriation that would deny funding for any military operations outside Iraq without prior congressional approval. The proposal had seemed reasonable enough, given the Bush administration’s track record on the use of force, but apparently it was not acceptable to Emanuel. AIPAC mobilized immediately and began an intensive lobbying campaign against the proposal, instructing its supporters to call and write Congress, adding that it is best to telephone just after lunch, when there are more staffers available to answer the phone. Emanuel organized resistance to the measure from inside the House of Representatives and promised AIPAC early in the process that the offensive language would be dropped. The Democratic Party subsequently held a number of closed-door meetings on the issue and decided that the prohibition would not be included in the funding measure because of "possible impact on Israel."
During the summer of 2008, Emanuel was a key player in the marginalization and humiliation of former president Jimmy Carter, whose book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid had outraged Israel’s supporters. Carter was not allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention, an unprecedented snub toward a former president and a further indication, if one was needed, that in American politics it is possible to do or say nearly anything as long as one does not criticize Israel.
And now Emanuel is the president’s chief of staff, one of the most powerful positions in the White House. Perhaps there is a limit to the mischief that he will be able to do; at this point one can only adopt a wait-and-see policy. One thing is certain, however. If the subject is Israel, Emanuel knows very clearly where his loyalty lies.