Samantha Power, Israel’s unlikely line of defense

Though opposed by the far right, Obama’s choice for UN ambassador crafted the president’s defense of controversial Israeli policies.

 

Last Thursday, 24 hours after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would appoint Samantha Power ambassador to the United Nations, the White House awaited the reactions from Jerusalem with interest. Leading Obama administration officials figured Israel would not publicly criticize the appointment, but they believed a worried phone call from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was likely to arrive.

The American fear was not groundless. Who knows as well as the White House that in the past five years, Netanyahu and his staff had no hesitations about voicing their objections to the Obama administration’s policy or the president’s appointments? For the most part, the messages were transmitted through diplomatic channels, but quite a few came via leaks to the media.

The White House wanted to avoid a scenario like the one prior to the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. American Jewish organizations and Republican politicians claimed at the time that Hagel was anti-Israeli. Israel was mentioned 136 times at Hagel’s Senate hearing, as opposed to only 27 mentions of Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Americans are fighting. This embarrassed Hagel, but it also caused damage to Israel when it unwillingly became the subject of debate between the two political camps in the United States.

Some of those in the United States who had attacked Hagel for his views on Israel did so after Power’s appointment as well. The background was her 2002 statement that the United States must impose peace in the Middle East by force. “Ms. Power’s record clearly shows that she is viscerally hostile to Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which is identified with the far right.

Oren’s surprise

But the worried phone call from Netanyahu’s office never came. Not after 24 hours, not after 48 hours, and not after a week. No indirect messages were relayed to the administration via the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and Jewish leaders were not dispatched to the White House. The Israeli government did not express even the slightest reservation about Samantha Power.

Even more surprising to Obama’s advisers was that when the phone calls from Jerusalem did arrive, they contained a diametrically opposed message. Netanyahu’s advisers and other leading Israeli officials made sure to explain to the Americans that they have no problem with Power. On the contrary, they’re actually pleased with her.

The person who chose to express Israel’s satisfaction publicly was Michael Oren, the ambassador to Washington. In an unusual move, Oren contacted New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler on his own initiative, and asked to be interviewed on the subject. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, told Haaretz that Oren did not inform the White House of the interview in advance and that Obama, his advisers and Power herself first read his words in a report published on The New York Times website.

Normally, Oren said, an Israeli government official would not comment on a presidential nomination that required Senate confirmation. He said he decided to make an exception in her case to dispel an impression that the Israeli government had qualms about her.

Oren said that Israel “will welcome whomever the president nominates and the Senate confirms as ambassador to the United Nations.” But he added: “Samantha Power and I have worked closely over the last four years on issues vital to Israel’s security. She thoroughly understands those issues and cares deeply about them.”

Obama’s UN strategy

Power, 42, a former journalist and human rights activist, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” about the world’s response to genocide. Shortly before the 2008 presidential election she married Cass Sunstein, an American Jewish law professor. When Obama entered the White House in 2009, Power was appointed special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council. Several months later she gave birth to her first son, Declan Power-Sunstein.

Not many people know what lies behind the long and complicated description of Power’s White House position. But senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry knew that along with U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Power was their address when Israel needed help in the United Nations. During the past four years the need for such assistance was at its height. While Rice was at the diplomatic and media forefront in New York, Power worked mainly behind the scenes in Washington and was the architect of Obama’s UN policy.

“Sam had been the point person at the White House on all issues related to Israel at the UN,” said Rhodes, who is considered one of Obama’s most senior advisers. “Her efforts on issues like the Goldstone Report, the Gaza flotilla and the Palestinian UN bid were well known to Michael [Oren] and to others in Israel. It reflects that she is well known and respected in Israel for the work she has done.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who worked with Power in the White House, agreed with Rhodes. “She has been an outstanding partner in working to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. When I was responsible for the bilateral relationship, not a week went by without Samantha and me coordinating on an initiative to defend Israel from being singled out for unfair criticism at the UN or to protect against unilateral moves.”

Oren, attorney Yitzhak Molho, the prime minister’s envoy, and Eviatar Manor, former head of international organizations in the Foreign Ministry (currently Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva), frequently visited Power’s office in the White House.

“Samantha has always made herself available and accessible to many Israeli officials visiting Washington for coordination on our efforts at the United Nations,” said Shapiro. “And that has produced strong relationships, an ease of communication, and a lot of mutual trust that will continue when she is UN ambassador.”

Goldstone, Palestinian UN bid

When Power assumed her position she, along with Rice, urged the United States to join the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Israel was worried, and believed that if the United States joined, that would provide legitimacy for the anti-Israeli organization. A senior U.S. official said that Power claimed − both in discussions in the White House and in conversations with leading Israelis − that joining the Human Rights Council would give the United States better tools to protect Israel from discrimination.

“It was manifestly true,” said the U.S. official. “We were able to rally Europeans to stand with us against anti-Israel resolutions that they previously split on, creating what the prime minister called a moral majority. We ensured the council focused appropriately on the true human rights abusers, including Iran and Syria. It hasn’t solved the problem there, but most Israelis acknowledge to us that it was the right call.”

During the course of 2009, shortly after joining the White House staff, Power played a central role in the coordination between Israel and the United States on the Goldstone Report, which determined that Israel had committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, the war against Gaza in December 2008. She is responsible for a large part of the strategy with which the United States helped Israel to deal with the report and to minimize its damage.

“Samantha has been the White House official in contact with our team in the Human Rights Council,” said Rhodes. “She was helping set the policy but was also the person to sign off on the language of the statements the administration and our mission in Geneva issued.”

Rhodes said that Power was also a key player in the U.S. decision to boycott the Durban 2 conference in 2009; in dealing with the Mavi Marmara flotilla crisis in May 2010, which immediately found its way to the UN institutions; and in stopping the unilateral Palestinian initiative in the United Nations.

Power’s views on the Palestinian question are identical to those of Obama. She is strongly opposed to construction in the settlements and believes that Israel must end the occupation and help to establish an independent Palestinian state. Despite that, during internal discussions at the White House she supported a veto against the condemnation of construction in the settlements in the UN Security Council in February 2011.

“Samantha didn’t think that the UN Security Council is the right venue for this,” said Rhodes. “She is somebody who cares deeply about the UN and she wants it to work better than it does. The focus on Israel in the UN system is part of the organization’s problems. She thinks that the singling out of Israel is harming the UN and preventing it from working on the real issues.”

Power last visited Israeli in 2005, when she participated in the dedication ceremony of the new Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad said that when he first met her, he disagreed with many of her views, but he emerged from the meeting charmed by her personality. As in the case of Obama, a visit by Power to Israel after she assumes the position at the United Nations will only improve her image and help her to deal with four tough years in New York.

Power, who is considered very close to Obama, will also be a member of his cabinet, in the context of her UN position. If U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is unable to achieve a breakthrough in the moribund peace process, the UN will once again become more relevant than ever for Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. administration. The Palestinian Authority has already announced that it will attempt to join about 60 UN agencies and international conventions. If that happens, the connection between Power and the government in Jerusalem will once again be put to the test.