Not wasting any time, President-elect Obama made his first staff pick with Illinois congressman and former Clinton (Bill) advisor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel has earned a reputation as a hyper-partisan attack dog, which seems to us appropriate at first glance if Obama is looking for a Democratic Karl Rove.
But other aspects of his political background are giving Muslims pause. Emanuel is the son of Israeli immigrants and served as a citizen volunteer in the Israeli army during the first Gulf War in 1991 (not that Israel was part of that). Although he toes the line on most Democratic policy positions, he is less committed on two items sensitive to Muslims – the Iraq War (he is more hesitant to withdraw) and immigration (cooperating with anti-immigrant congressmen like Republican Tom Tancredo).
So what affect will this have as Obama’s chief of staff? If we want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, Emanuel is well served for the primary responsibilties of his position – managing and protecting Obama’s inner circle with an iron fist. To the extent that he will influence Obama adversely on the Israel/Palestine question, it bears reminding that Obama’s friendship with Palestinian professor Rashid Khalidi came to light when he attended a dinner in Khalidi’s honor – right in the middle of his campaign.
Emanuel’s relationship with Obama is too long lasting (and Emanuel too qualified) to consider his appointment a reaction to the Khalidi story. Nevertheless, Obama has referred to Khalidi as someone who challenges his “own biases.” Will Emanuel reinforce them, or will Obama be strategic enough to find a practical middle ground?
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.