Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs: Who is Jeffrey Feltman?
Sunday, June 14, 2009

In taking over the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman is no stranger to the issues and key players of the region, having spent much of his Foreign Service career in diplomatic posts in Israel and Lebanon. Feltman is also a polarizing figure, as far as Syria and Hezbollah are concerned, after having dealt with him as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon during the second half of the Bush administration.

Born in Greenville, Ohio, Feltman, 50, attended college at Ball State University in Indiana, where he received his undergraduate degree in history and fine arts in 1981. He attended graduate school at Tufts University and earned his master’s degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law in 1983.
He joined the Foreign Service in 1986, serving his first tour as consular officer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In 1998, he shifted regions and moved to the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, where he worked as an economic officer until1991. The move represented the beginning of a diplomatic career that would focus on Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
From 1991 to 1993, Feltman served as a special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, concentrating on the coordination of U.S. assistance to Eastern and Central Europe. The following year he studied Arabic at the University of Jordan in Amman, adding to his French and Hungarian language skills.
In 1995, Feltman began a three-year tour at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, covering economic issues in the Gaza Strip. He became well known locally for personally testing “the freedom of movement of goods through army checkpoints in and out of Gaza by physically standing at one and counting the number of trucks that passed through on a given day,” according to the Jerusalem Post, “and for having gotten the inside track on the fishing situation off the Gaza coast by striking up a relationship with the local known as the “King of Fish” at Gaza’s market.
From 1998-2000, Feltman served as chief of the political and economic section at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. Then it was back to Embassy Tel Aviv where he was Ambassador Martin Indyk’s special assistant on peace process issues (2000-2001). In August 2001, he moved to the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, where he served first as deputy and then as acting principal officer until December 2003.
Feltman volunteered to serve at the Coalition Provisional Authority office in Irbil, Iraq, from January to April 2004. The move endeared him to the Bush administration, and earned him his first ambassadorship—to Lebanon. He was sworn in on July 22, 2004, as the United States’ top diplomat in Beirut, and stayed until January 2008.

Feltman became a controversial figure in Lebanese politics during his tenure as ambassador. In fact, he was accused of committing “flagrant interference” in Lebanon’s politics by pro-Syrian groups before Feltman had even submitted his credentials to the Beirut government. His ambassadorship covered a period of considerable turmoil in the country as a result of power plays within Lebanon’s government between pro-Syrian elements and those seeking closer ties to the West. In 2005 Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated, setting off a series of large protests against Syria, which was accused of being behind the plot. Then in the summer of 2006, Israel launched an invasion into Lebanon in a failed effort to cripple Hezbollah.
Opponents of Hariri’s successor, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, came to refer to the Beirut government as “Feltman’s government,” because of the United States’ influence on Lebanese affairs. Before vacating his post as US ambassador, Feltman gave a speech that some American critics labeled as being too partisan, with respect to Lebanon’s political situation, and filled with “artless zeal.” He was on his way out when a diplomatic convoy carrying him was hit by a car bomb on January 15, 2008. Several people were killed, although Feltman escaped unscathed. U.S. officials privately suspected Syria of being behind the attack.
Upon arriving back in the United States, Feltman was bumped up to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Office of Near Eastern Affairs during George W. Bush’s last year in office.
With the election of President Barack Obama, Feltman was made Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Bureau in December, before he was nominated to permanently take over the position. His first big assignment was to visit Damascus and end the diplomatic embargo imposed by the Bush administration following the Hariri assassination in 2005.
-Noel Brinkerhoff