Jury still out: Robert Gates pro-Israel or not?
Israeli news archives rife with headlines warning against incoming US defense secretary, but top Israeli, American officials present a much more complex picture; ‘I found in him a fair friend, aware and sensitive to our security issues; if I had to say, he was a critical friend, but a friend,’ former Ambassador to US Moshe Arad says. ‘I didn't get the impression that he was anti-Israel,’ adds Zalman Shoval, another former ambassador to Washington
WASHINGTON - It has been said that he is against us, that a secretary of defense is entering the Pentagon and he is not our friend. Robert Gates, the man who President George Bush chose to replace Donald Rumsfeld, is starting to register in our collective consciousness as a man who will make problems for Israel in the next two years. Just like James Baker before him, he is already seen as an Israel-hater, and go try and prove that he isn't.
Israeli news archives are rife with headlines warning against Robert Gates. Everything is classified in black and white; there are no intermediate tones.
A Ynet poll that included conversations with Americans and Israelis shows that the picture is much more complicated.
Robert Gates, 63, is the only man in the history of the CIA who climbed the ranks all the way from an entry-level analyst to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. On his way to the top, he had a working relationship with a few Israeli who know him up close, including David Arbel, who served in senior positions in the Mossad.
Gates entrance into the arena was surprising and dramatic. Two days after the blow suffered by the Republican Party in Congress, Bush revealed what he himself admits was planned before the elections. Gates was presented to the masses and was sworn in.
Gates was invited to the elite club of the Oval Office on the background of growing public pressure to withdraw American forces from Iraq and the anticipated recommendations of the Baker and Hamilton commission, the Iraq Study Group. If you wish, he was brought in order to get Bush and the soldiers out of the fire.
For us and against us
When Gates was deputy director of central intelligence, Arbel was the Mossad's senior representative to North America. In a special interview with Ynet, Arbel revealed that Gates "is a superb professional, which is shown in the contacts we had with him. When the American interest coincided with the Israeli interest, it was good. When it didn't, he stuck with his country and his organization. He is a comfortable person to deal with and to the point."
For two years Arbel had professional contacts with senior intelligence officers from various countries. He classifies Gates as a "man on a very high level."
In response to recent statements against Gates, Arbel responded: "It was leaked that the Baker commission supports attempts to talk with Iran and Syria and dealing a heavy hand to us on the issue of the Palestinians. This is where statements that Gates is anti-Israel grew from. I wouldn't say that this is because he is anti-Israel. If he estimates that this is good for the United States, he will do it.
"This is how an American clerk behaves. He is for us and against us because he assesses at that particular point in time what serves American interests. I think that is what he is like," explained Arbel.
David Arbel recommends not cataloging Robert Gates as anti-Israel. One of the events attributed to him is the attempt to drop the Iran-Contra affair on Israel. To this Arbel responds: "This isn't true, as far as I know."
From the realist school of thought
Moshe Arad served as Israel's ambassador to the United States between the years 1987-1990. Robert Gates during that time was deputy assistant to the president on national security affairs under Reagan, and later Bush the father.
"I worked with him for about two years and I found in him a fair friend, aware and sensitive to our security issues. If I had to say, he was a critical friend, but a friend. He lent his hear to the problems that bothered us at the time," said Arad.
Arad served in Washington when President Reagan and his Secretary of State George Schultz decided to open negotiations with the PLO and during the first year of the Bush administration when work procedures with Israel were established.
In this context, former Ambassador Arad said, "We didn't always agree on everything. When we needed to bring issues up for presidential decision, he was always ready to help. We knew we could turn to him, and we knew we could expect a positive and listening partner. I am hesitant about classifying him as someone who isn't sensitive to Israel's security problems. He was attentive, sensitive, and a friend."
As Robert Gates takes his place in the Pentagon, Arad wanted to remind everyone that "the policy is set by the president. Gates is from the international, conservative realist school and doesn't belong to the school of thought that sees democratization of Middle Eastern regimes as an inclusive vision.
"The man is much more pragmatic and realistic about the American capability to change things unilaterally. On this matter the secretary of state will find him to be an ally in attempts to reach a dialogue with the Europeans on the issue of the Middle East and Iran," said Arad.
Zalman Shoval, the ambassador who arrived in Washington after Arad, thinks Robert Gates wasn't problematic like others in Bush the father's administration.
"In his role as deputy assistant to the president on national security, I didn't have any confrontations with him like I had with others during that time period. My contacts were mainly with Baker and others, but from the contacts I had with Gates, I didn't get the impression that he was anti-Israel," said Shoval to Ynet.
'Very steady, very practical'
Dov Zakheim, who served as undersecretary of defense and comptroller from 2001 to 2004 under Rumsfeld, became acquainted with Gates while serving in various Department of Defense posts during the Reagan administration.
In an interview with Ynet Zakheim said, “Too many people are focusing on the fact that he was with the first President Bush and therefore somehow he might be against Israel. We have to remember that he spent eight years in senior positions under President Reagan, who was considered a very good friend of Israel.
“This is a man who is not ideological in one way or another; I don’t think it’s safe to say that he’s against Israel,” Zakheim added. “People shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
During the 2000 U.S. Presidential election campaign, Zakheim served as a foreign policy advisor to Bush as part of a group led by Condoleezza Rice that called itself The Vulcans.
“Gates is very steady, very practical,” Zakheim said. “His background as an intelligence person means that he’s not going to make all kinds of spark fly, and right now in the Middle East you don’t want sparks to fly.”
Gates is reportedly responsible for the crisis that broke out between Israel and the US surrounding the selling of Patriot missile technology to China; however, it should also be noted that tensions between the two countries also flared during Rumsfeld’s term, this time as a result of Israel’s independent sale of drones to China.