Israel´s Man at the Helm
The following article is excerpted from the Jerusalem Post´s Internet edition of 15th February 1998:
Man at the helm
By HILLEL KUTLER
(February 15) - In the early 1980s William Cohen cast the deciding vote in the Senate on behalf of the Reagan administration's plans to sell AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia.
It was not a popular decision, but Cohen did not shirk from it, not when Senate majority leader Howard Baker offered to let him skip the vote, nor when it came to defending himself to constituents back home in Maine.
Cohen told members of Portland's Jewish community that he was concerned about a potential antisemitic backlash in the US if the AWACS sale was blocked and an oil embargo resulted.
Last week, Cohen briefly found himself in hot water again when, as secretary of defense, he told a television interviewer he would urge Israel not to respond if attacked by Iraq.
The statement was at odds with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's assertions that Israel had the "absolute right" to defend itself. By the time Cohen met on Sunday with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai in Germany, he had changed his tune and was in sync with Albright, almost word-for-word.
Cohen's original statement and subsequent backtracking were odd. Throughout a quarter-century in Congress he earned a reputation as an intellectual heavyweight, someone who examined an issue thoroughly and once he made a decision stuck with it. This was true even back when Cohen was a freshman congressman - a Republican - and supported the articles of impeachment against his party's president, Richard Nixon.
As a longtime member of the Senate armed services and intelligence committees, Cohen became one of Congress's foremost defense experts and established a strong pro-Israel record. As chairman of the seapower subcommittee, he pushed for the US Navy to purchase the Israeli-made Barak system for defending against low-flying anti-ship cruise missiles, and also favored joint military exercises and strategic cooperation with Israel on the Arrow missile and Drone surveillance programs. He supported funding for expanding Haifa's port to serve as a home base for the Sixth Fleet.
In addition, Cohen was one of the first senators to support the 1991 Kasten-Inouye amendment providing $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel.
One of Cohen's first acts upon taking over at the Pentagon was to issue a directive ordering that foreign companies be sought out for cooperative armaments ventures.
Marvin Klemow, Israel Aircraft Industries' representative in Washington, said the order stands to benefit IAI, among others, because it "sets the tone from the top to encourage people to look for international agreements, not to reinvent the wheel if the technology already exists."
Although Cohen mastered the issues on Capitol Hill and ascended to the Pentagon's top spot, he did not always aspire to a national security-oriented career. According to Cohen's former chief of staff Thomas Daffron, it was only following a trip to China as a freshman senator that Cohen focused his attention on military and foreign affairs.
He could afford to. The largest private employer in his state is the Bath Iron Works (which relies on military contracts) and there are numerous Air Force bases and Navy yards throughout Maine.
Cohen also developed into one of Congress's
top experts on arms control. For many years he led the Senate's
delegation to the annual midwinter meeting of NATO defense ministers
in Munich. But he typically defied partisan orthodoxy.
"He has a depth and breadth of understanding of US foreign policy, intelligence and defense objectives," said former AIPAC lobbyist Dan Cohen.
William Cohen is 57 years old and the most powerful civilian in the Pentagon, but to folks in Bangor, Maine, he's still their "Billy."
The basics are oft-told: Billy Cohen, the son of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother; the Hebrew-school student for whom the Orthodox rabbi refused a bar mitzva for not being halachically Jewish; the humiliated adolescent who wrenched the mezuza off his neck and flung it into the Penobscott River.
Yet William Cohen the man, who identifies himself as a Unitarian, is comfortable with his Jewish background. When he first hosted Yitzhak Mordechai in the Pentagon last year, he opened the breakfast discussion with the hamotzi blessing over bread, delivered in flawless Hebrew. The meeting occurred around Purim, and Cohen played on his guest's family name in discussing the holiday's hero.
At a dinner here for Mordechai in November, Cohen again recited hamotzi and wished the newlywed defense minister well with the siman tov umazal tov blessing .
"He's had no trouble acknowledging his Jewish origins," said Sumner Bernstein of Portland, who has known Cohen for 25 years. "I don't think the trauma of his bar-mitzva experience made him deny his Jewish background or disassociate himself from anything Jewish."
Cohen deeply admired his parents. On visits
home to see Reuben and Clara, Cohen continued to make the rounds with
his father delivering the bread "Ruby" had baked at his Bangor Rye
Bread Company. When Ruby died at his shop in 1995 at age 86, the
funeral was held at the family's Beth Israel Synagogue
(Conservative). William delivered a eulogy.
When an AIPAC group met with Cohen in Washington many years ago, someone asked whether he had an identity problem. According to his longtime friend Joel Abromson, Cohen responded: "When I was in Hebrew school, they'd say, 'Get the goy out of school.'
When I was playing basketball, they'd say, 'Get the Jew off the court.'"
"I gather there was a kernel of truth in it," Abromson said.
Added friend Billy Miller: "If Billy Cohen
were to give a speech tonight, he'd say, 'My father was Jewish and my
mother is Irish.' So he considers himself an Irish Jew."
Joel Abromson recalled a 1979 trip to Israel sponsored by the Portland Jewish Federation. He was standing in line in front of the reception counter at a Tiberias hotel when, just ahead of him, he saw Cohen signing the register with his Hebrew name, Ze'ev Cohen. Before returning home, the group bought him a ring saying Ze'ev, and Cohen wore it for many years after.
That trip to Israel, Cohen's first, rekindled the Jewish side he had long buried. It profoundly stirred him and helped him reconnect with his spiritual being, one participant said.
Abromson recalled how Cohen would head to the back of the bus between sightseeing stops and write, alone. His thoughts were crafted into a poem for the group's tour guide. He called it, "For Zvika - The Virgil of Israel." In the poem, Cohen described how, during the eight days of the trip the delegation felt "the soft / shuffle of our fathers' feet / in the pale dust / of the Promised Land." Cohen referred to the history of Caesarea, the lush valleys, the dreaminess of Haifa - juxtaposed against the Jews' fight for survival:
Talk is again of peace,
even as the air rings
with the hammer striking steel.
The cry is for the Jews
to be just, once more,
and shrink back to borders
that invited war.
For what purpose
does the hammer ring?
Is it a time to mourn
or a time to sing?
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