If, as she insists, Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice is determined to make concrete progress toward achieving
George W. Bush's vision of a two-state solution, one in which Israel would
be required to make major territorial concessions, it appears that she
faces a major foe in the White House.
No, not only Dick Cheney and the surviving members of the neo-conservative
clique that surrounded him and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld
during Bush's first term -- although the vice president's office remains a
formidable force against any concessions to a Palestinian government of
national unity that includes Hamas, despite Saudi Arabia's role in
midwifing its birth at Mecca last week.
Rather, it appears that Rice's own chief Middle East aide when she served
as Bush's national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, has become the
principal foil in frustrating her efforts to resume a peace process. Until
her meeting in Jerusalem last weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the process had been
frozen since the last days of Bill Clinton's administration.
Abrams' personal influence over Bush could not possibly match Rice's, but
his bureaucratic skills and political connections -- notably to the
so-called "Israel Lobby" of pro-Likud Jewish organisations and the
Christian Right -- give him considerable clout. According to various
sources, Abrams has been working systematically to undermine any prospect
for serious negotiations designed to give substance to Rice's hopes -- and
increasingly impatient demands by Saudi King Abdullah -- of offering the
Palestinians a "political horizon" for a final settlement.
"The Bush administration has done nothing to press Israel to deliver on
its commitments, beyond Washington's empty rhetoric about a two-state
'political horizon'," Henry Siegman, the long-time director of the
U.S./Middle East Project at the influential Council on Foreign Relations,
wrote in the International Herald Tribune just last week.
"Every time there emerged the slightest hint that the United States may
finally engage seriously in a political process, Elliott Abrams would meet
secretly with Olmert's envoys in Europe or elsewhere to reassure them that
there exists no such danger," he complained.
After the resignation of Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby,
and the departure from the Pentagon nearly two years ago of Paul Wolfowitz
and Douglas Feith, Abrams became the administration's most influential
neo-conservative, particularly regarding Middle East policy which he
oversees as Deputy National Security Adviser for Global Democracy
Abrams was an early protégé of Richard Perle, whom he first met, along
with other prominent pro-Likud hard-liners, such as Feith, former U.N.
Amb. Jeane Kirpatrick, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, while
working in the offices of Washington State Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson.
Abrams rose swiftly through the neo-conservative ranks, even becoming a
member of one of its most influential families as the son-in-law of the
legendary editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, and his activist wife,
Midge Decter, who herself published a hagiography of Rumsfeld just after
the Iraq invasion.
Like his fellow-neo-cons, Abrams has never trusted "peace processes", and
not just between Israel and its Arab neighbours. During the mid-1980s,
when he served as the top Latin America policy-maker in Ronald Reagan's
State Department, he worked doggedly to scuttle all regional diplomatic
efforts to stop not only Washington's "contra war" against Nicaragua's
Sandinista government (which, among other things, he charged with
anti-Semitism) and the civil war in El Salvador, but even in southern
Africa, where Cuban troops helped defend Angola against attacks by South
Africa and its proxies.
"He opposed regional peace talks, he opposed bilateral talks between the
United States and Nicaragua, and he opposed talks with Cuba," according to
William LeoGrande, dean of American University's School of Public Affairs
and author of "In Our Backyard", a magisterial work on U.S. Central
"He wouldn't negotiate with adversaries, even when negotiations promised
to safeguard U.S. interests," LeoGrande told IPS, citing the eventual deal
that resulted in Cuba's withdrawal from Africa in exchange for Namibian
independence. "He insisted on total victory, as if foreign policy were a
moral crusade in which compromise was anathema."
Badly damaged by his felony conviction for lying to Congress about his
role in the Iran-Contra affair, Abrams, like many neo-cons, left
government service under the decidedly "realist" administration of
President George H.W. Bush and spent the 1990s at various think tanks.
There, he helped forge the coalition -- epitomised by Kristol's Project
for the New American Century (PNAC) of which he was a charter member -- of
mainly Jewish neo-conservatives, the Christian and Catholic Right, and
aggressive nationalists that would seize control of U.S. policy after
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abrams has long been identified with
his hard-line patrons, such as Perle and Podhoretz, who have strongly
opposed the "land-for-peace" formula that, until the younger Bush, had
been official U.S. policy since 1967.
When the elder Bush pressed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to
participate in the Madrid peace conference after the first Gulf War,
Abrams and dozens of other neo-conservatives organised the Committee on
U.S. Interests in the Middle East to lobby against such an effort.
Throughout the 1990s, Abrams denounced the Oslo peace process in the
strongest terms -- a Likud government was engaged in it. When Palestinians
launched the second intifada in September 2000, he lambasted mainstream
U.S. Jewish groups for their continued support for peace talks between
Israel and the PA as "self-delusion". "The Palestinian leadership," he
wrote, "does not want peace with Israel, and there will be no peace..."
Politically unable, due to his Iran-Contra conviction, to gain Senate
confirmation to a State Department or Pentagon post, Abrams entered the
younger Bush administration as a National Security Council (NSC) staffer
under Rice in 2001 with responsibility for democracy promotion. But in a
major coup that set off celebrations in Rumsfeld's and Cheney's offices,
he was given the Middle East portfolio in December 2002.
In that capacity, he forged close ties to Dov Weisglass and Shalom
Turgeman, two of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top aides. Together, the
three men established a direct channel between Sharon's office and Rice's
NSC that effectively excluded Secretary of State Colin Powell, the
administration's strongest advocate for resuming an Israeli-Palestinian
The same channel was used to line up Bush's support for Sharon's
unilateral disengagement from Gaza, a scheme designed in part to pre-empt
growing pressure from Washington's European and Arab allies to get a
credible peace process underway -- this time in the form of the
long-delayed "Road Map" sponsored by the Quartet (the U.S., the European
Union, the U.N., and Russia) -- as Washington's position in Iraq
deteriorated in 2004 and 2005.
Sharon's disengagement plan, as well as his departure from Likud to form
the more centrist Kadima Party, was opposed by U.S. Christian Right
leaders and most hard-line neo-conservatives, including Perle, who had
long been among Abrams' closest associates. But Abrams himself, apparently
persuaded by Weisglass' argument that such a pre-emptive move would gain
Israel time to consolidate its position on the West Bank and create a
precedent for imposing a final border unilaterally, strongly defended the
Rice thought so highly of Abrams' effectiveness that she considered
appointing him deputy secretary of state when she moved over to the State
Department in early 2005. But Bush's political advisers said his
appointment would set off a major and costly confirmation battle and
instead suggested that he be promoted to deputy national security adviser.
Signs of a serious breach between the two, however, surfaced during the
first days of last summer's Israel-Hezbollah conflict.
Rice reportedly favoured a request by Olmert for Washington to discreetly
contact Syrian President Bashar Assad about securing the release of two
Israeli soldiers captured by the Lebanese group. Abrams not only strongly
opposed such a move, but in a meeting with a "very senior Israeli
official" in Jerusalem within 48 hours of the outbreak of hostilities,
also suggested that Washington would have no objection if Israel extended
its military offensive from Lebanon to Syria, a well-informed source who
received an account of the meeting from one of its participants told IPS.
Abram's advice echoed similar appeals by neo-conservatives, including
Kristol, Perle and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute
(AEI), such as David Frum, Newt Gingrich, and Danielle Pletka, who
repeatedly attacked Olmert for timidity in the conduct of the war and
urged the administration to reject growing pressure from Washington's
European and Arab allies to bring the war to an end. Rice herself became a
target of neo-conservative attacks as it became clear that she was
relaying that pressure to Bush directly.
According to the New York Times, Abrams, who accompanied Rice on all of
her trips to the region throughout the crisis, "...kept in direct contact
with Mr. Cheney's office", the last stronghold of neo-conservatives,
notably the vice president's national security adviser, John Hannah and
his Middle East adviser, David Wurmser.
That breach has, by most accounts, only become wider since the war's end,
as Rice has become increasingly sensitised to the depth of anger in the
Arab world directed against both the U.S. and Israel. She is acutely aware
of the impatience of Washington's Quartet partners to leapfrog the Road
Map and move toward "final status" negotiations, as well as the difficulty
in rallying the pro-U.S. Arab states against Iran in the absence of a
credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It is in that context that Rice has been pushing for resuming a peace
process that could, at the very least, offer the Palestinians a "political
horizon" for a final settlement involving large territorial concessions by
Israel. She has reportedly even reviewed the hypothetical peace settlement
negotiated informally in 2003 by Israeli and Palestinian politicians and
retired military and intelligence officials, known as the Geneva
She has reportedly been encouraged by some in the Israeli government,
notably Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, perhaps Olmert's most serious
political rival within the Kadima party.
But, as in the Israel-Hezbollah war, Rice is up against a formidable
adversary in Abrams and his confederates in the vice president's office
who appear once again to have established their own direct line to Olmert,
this time through Turgeman and another top adviser, Yoram Turbowicz.
It was that channel that was in play last Friday, on the eve of the
Jerusalem talks, when Olmert held a personal telephone conversation with
Bush and emerged claiming that the U.S. president had promised to boycott
any new Palestinian government of national unity that includes Hamas so
long as the Islamist party does not explicitly recognise Israel, renounce
violence, and pledge to abide by existing agreements between the Palestine
Liberation Organisation (PLO).
"The American and Israeli positions are totally identical," Olmert
declared, essentially rejecting what had been worked out in Mecca just a
few days before and dooming whatever hopes Rice had for a productive
summit Sunday that could provide the effort with some positive momentum
that she could report to the Quartet meeting in Berlin Wednesday.
"For the first time in six years, the secretary of state seems to be
committed to moving this process forward," said Martin Indyk, director of
the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy and a
former top policymaker under Clinton, last week before the meetings. "But
there are others in the administration who want to 'Powellize' her," he
added in a thinly veiled reference to Abrams and his allies.
Indeed, Abrams and his friends in recent days have appeared to be
broadening their attack on Rice. In an email he fired off to his East Asia
colleagues and that was subsequently leaked to the Washington Post, he
complained about last week's agreement with North Korea in the "Six-Party
Talks" in Beijing, a complaint that has been quickly picked up by other
Abrams had been "frustrated because so many key decisions had been made at
the highest levels without much vetting by officials scattered across the
government," according to the Post's sources -- a charge echoed with some
vehemence by other allies, including Frum and former U.N. Amb. John
"The deal reveals a breakdown of the administration's decision-making
process," Frum wrote this week, citing a Times report that Rice had
"bypassed layers of government policy review that had derailed past
efforts to negotiate an agreement."
The complaint was a particularly ironic one in light of Abrams' role with
the Iran-Contra scandal, his own use of back channels, and his efforts,
along with Cheney's and Rumsfeld's offices, to exclude the State
Department and Central Intelligence Agency, during Bush's first term.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service