|WASHINGTON, June 3 (JTA) — George Tenet broke with protocol and lent the once-vaunted credibility of the CIA to the pursuit of Middle East peace.
But to many in the Jewish community, Tenet’s legacy will be quashing a plan to release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from prison.
When the Clinton administration brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 1998, Tenet, the director of the CIA, emerged as a key conduit, using the agency’s reputation as a stronghold of security knowledge to win cooperation from both parties.
“There was no way I could be credible on issues of security,” said Edward Walker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time. “We needed a guy like George to bring the parties around to the point that they could even talk to each other.”
Tenet, who has served as director of the CIA since 1997, resigned his post Wednesday, citing personal reasons. President Bush made the announcement Thursday, saying he would miss Tenet and praising him for his work.
Tenet and his agency have been under fire in recent months for intelligence used to justify last year’s invasion of Iraq that suggested Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The resignation was bound to be seen as an acknowledgment by the administration that the CIA had peddled wrong information.
Jewish and Israeli officials praised Tenet’s tenure at the CIA and the unprecedented role the agency played in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Tenet oversaw security cooperation during the quiet times, and worked to broker a cease-fire amid violence in 2001.
The “Tenet Plan,” introduced in June 2001, outlined confidence-building measures to bring the sides back to the table.
The plan, and Tenet’s deep involvement at Wye, made plenty of old CIA hands nervous. Spies gathered intelligence and made recommendations, went the conventional wisdom; policy — the high profile it engendered and the resentments it stoked — was best left to politicians.
Others credited Tenet for taking the risks, even though they bore little fruit. Aaron Miller, a former adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs for six U.S. secretaries of state, called Tenet’s involvement bold for a person overseeing a department known for secrecy and clandestine activities.
Tenet was able to gain support not just from Americans and Israelis, Miller said, but from Palestinian leaders who were skeptical of U.S. intentions. Palestinians appreciated the fact that the CIA was on the ground, and had a track record of improving security infrastructures.
“What made George’s role unique was his relationship with the Palestinians,” said Miller, now the president of Seeds of Peace. “He inspired an enormous degree of confidence and what he said carried an enormous amount of weight.”
Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a negotiator at Wye, said Tenet was an effective intermediary there because he had a “flair and a style with personal charm.”
“Security issues were the crux of the matter,” Ayalon told JTA. “So by definition, it was his input that was necessary to improve the security problem and the threat of terror.”
Tenet played little role in the Israeli-Palestinian arena after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, when Tenet’s focus shifted dramatically to fighting terrorism targeting the United States.
A Greek American, Tenet displayed a deep understanding for the plight of minority communities. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Tenet was helpful in 1999, when a Jewish lawyer at the CIA claimed his security clearance was revoked because of his ties to the Jewish community. Tenet provided as much detail about hiring and other procedures as could be declassified.
The incident sparked a friendship between the two, as well as a new program that allowed the ADL to give sensitivity training to CIA employees.
“What he was trying to do was diversify the agency because the world was changing,” Foxman said.
Tenet was also committed to Israeli security, and encouraged better ties between American and Israeli intelligence services.
“We see him as a good and true friend of Israel,” said Ayalon, who hosted Tenet and his wife for Rosh Hashanah dinner last year. “He has always been very understanding and sympathetic to Israel’s security situation and always willing to help Israel bolster its security.”
But Tenet’s role in the Pollard affair was more controversial.
President Clinton had agreed to release Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who spied for Israel, as part of the Wye framework. But Tenet said he would not be able to face the intelligence community if Pollard was freed, and according to some reports, threatened to resign immediately. Clinton then took releasing Pollard off the table.
“We were really shocked at the vehemence he showed at Wye over that issue,” said one former Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Tenet has denied he made that threat, and called Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, practically in tears the day the story broke.
“He truly was very emotional and very upset about it,” Hoenlein said. “He said that was not the way he did things, and from our experience, that was not the way he did things.”
But while the incident frustrated Jewish leaders who had sought Pollard’s freedom, it did not sour their views of Tenet. Many said they understood that Tenet was speaking on behalf of an organization that sees no greater treason than espionage.
“George Tenet had an important role in the community,” Foxman said. “He expressed the reality of what was going on in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”