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WASHINGTON, Aug 13 2009 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Irish President Mary Robinson Wednesday, despite a vigorous campaign from hardline supporters of Israel urging him to rescind the award.
Critics in Congress and the media claimed that Robinson’s stint as U.N. high commissioner on human rights – during which she oversaw the controversial 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa – marked her as an incontrovertible enemy of Israel.
The campaign against Robinson was the latest in a series of largely symbolic battles pitting hardliners within the so-called “Israel lobby” against the Obama Administration.
In particular, many observers saw similarities to the campaign against retired Ambassador Charles Freeman, who resigned his appointment to a top intelligence post in March after his public criticisms of Israel prompted a vitriolic media and congressional campaign against him.
But unlike the Freeman affair, the anti-Robinson campaign marked a defeat for pro-Israel hardliners.
“It failed because it was so far from the pro-Israel lobby’s legitimate area of interest,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum. “They have as much standing to protest a White House award to an Irish President as they have to protest a Heisman Trophy for best college [football] quarterback.”
Obama awarded Robinson one of sixteen Presidential Medals of Freedom in a White House ceremony, praising her as “a trail-blazing crusader for women’s rights in Ireland, and a forceful advocate for equality and human rights around the world.”
Also honoured Wednesday was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning anti-apartheid crusader who has similarly been attacked for his criticisms of Israel.
The main charge that critics levelled against Robinson was her role in presiding over the 2001 Durban Conference.
The U.S. and Israel pulled out of the conference after draft text linked Zionism to racism, charging that the conference had focused disproportionately on Israel rather than on racism in general.
However, Robinson’s defenders argued that she had fought back against the widespread criticism of Israel at the conference – working to remove anti- Israel language from the final text.
In February, the U.S. pulled out of the sequel to the Durban conference held in Geneva, informally known as “Durban II,” due to concerns that it would similarly become a forum for Israel-bashing.
Robinson’s critics also highlighted other statements she had made criticising Israeli policies as evidence of a deep-seated anti-Israel bias.
The anti-Robinson campaign was in many ways similar to the campaign against Freeman – originating on right-wing blogs before spreading to mainstream media outlets, pro-Israel organisations, and ultimately Congress.
It began on Jul. 30, soon after the announcement of Robinson’s award, with a blog post by Jennifer Rubin on the website of neo-conservative Commentary magazine arguing that “[t]here are no words to describe how atrocious a selection this is.” Commentary’s blog would serve as one of the loci of the anti-Robinson campaign over the next two weeks.
Other neo-conservative-aligned blogs soon joined in the attacks on Robinson.
The controversy intensified when prominent pro-Israel organisations entered the fray. On Aug. 3, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called the Robinson award “ill-advised.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful and hawkish lobbying group, weighed in Aug. 4 with a statement saying that it was “deeply disappointed” by the Robinson pick.
“AIPAC respectfully calls on the administration to firmly, fully and publicly repudiate her views on Israel and her long public record of hostility and one- sided bias against the Jewish state,” the statement said.
The AIPAC statement was notable in that the group generally refrains from publicly criticising U.S. administrations, particularly on matters that are tangential to core policy-making issues.
During the Freeman affair, for instance, AIPAC did not take a public position on the controversy, although it quietly furnished anti-Freeman information to journalists.
More liberal U.S. Jewish organisations, such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, declined to get involved in the Robinson controversy.
However, Israeli human rights organisations did rally to Robinson’s defence. On Aug. 10, the leaders of seven such groups issued a statement saying that “Mrs. Robinson deserves this honour for a lifetime of unflagging support to the cause of human rights in its many dimensions.”
The Israeli rights groups added that they were “greatly saddened by the media furore that has been generated by statements from AIPAC and the ADL… [which] contain factual errors and are misleading, particularly with regard to the Durban anti-racism conference.”
Other prominent figures, including American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messenger and former World Bank head James Wolfensohn, also issued statements defending Robinson.
Robinson herself denounced the attacks on her record as “totally without foundation.”
“There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community”, Robinson said. “They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Still, the media campaign against Robinson only intensified in the final days leading up to the awards ceremony. The attacks spread beyond the confines of right-wing blogs, as anti-Robinson opinion pieces appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic, among other places.
The campaign also acquired some momentum in Congress. Two Democratic representatives, Eliot Engel of New York and Shelley Berkley of Nevada, issued statements condemning the pick.
On Tuesday, 45 Republicans in the House of Representatives called on Obama to reconsider the award.
But whereas the campaign against Freeman won the support of several key figures in the congressional Democratic leadership, such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the campaign against Robinson was unable to attract significant bipartisan support.
Aside from Berkley and Engel – both of whom are considered relative outliers in their hardline support for Israel – no other congressional Democrats publicly denounced the award.
The anti-Robinson forces similarly failed to attract much bipartisan media support. Whereas some prominent liberal pundits participated in the anti- Freeman campaign, criticism of Robinson remained largely confined to neo- conservative commentators.
Perhaps surprisingly, Robinson’s critics refrained from attacking her fellow medal recipient Tutu, who has previously been denounced by pro-Israel hawks for levelling many of the same criticisms of Israeli policies as Robinson.
While the Robinson affair ended in defeat for her critics, few are inclined to read too much significance into the controversy.
The Obama Administration has larger problems to worry about, as it clashes with Israel over West Bank settlements and how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme. By all indications, the administration viewed the entire spat as an unexpected and unwelcome distraction, and many observers expressed surprise that the award attracted as much attention as it did.
Nevertheless, the Robinson controversy is yet another reminder that Israel’s hardline supporters in the U.S. retain the ability to create headaches for the president. It is unlikely to be the last reminder.
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