Middle East

Bush's trusty new Mideast point man
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - This month's surprise - some in the State Department might say shocking - appointment of Iran-contra veteran Elliott Abrams as the top White House Mideast adviser has bolstered the notion that President George W Bush sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very differently from his father.

The appointment, announced by Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, two weeks ago, places a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative, whose views on the region have long been close to those of the Israel's Likud Party, in one of the most sensitive and powerful posts in the foreign policy apparatus. Although he has never been known as an Arab-Israeli specialist, what he has written on the subject is consistent with the positions of a number of prominent neo-cons such as Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle.

Abrams, 54, who first came to national prominence as a controversial political appointee in the Ronald Reagan administration and who later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress regarding his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, has been a staunch critic of the Oslo peace process, and he has even opposed the "Land for Peace" formula that has guided US policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1967 war.

"Yet another Likudnik is moving to a position where they control Washington's agenda on the Mideast," said Rashid Khalidi, a Mideast historian at the University of Chicago. "This is a tragedy for the Israeli and American people."

Supporters of Likud were naturally more enthusiastic. "I believe Abrams understands that this is a not a war over borders, but over Israel's existence, something that almost no one in the State Department acknowledges," Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told the Jewish weekly Forward last week.
Abrams has also been hawkish on Iraq, for which he will also have responsibility as senior director for Near East and North African affairs on the National Security Council (NSC) staff. Not only has he consistently backed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (who helped him get his first Bush job as senior staff director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations), but he also led an NSC task force on Iraq that calls for Washington to take direct control of Iraq's oil fields after an invasion.

"This is a very major move, both for Iraq and the Mideast peace process," according to Joseph Wilson, a retired US diplomat who served as charge d'affaires in Baghdad during the Gulf War. "Abrams serves his constituency's interest," he added, referring to the pro-Likud neo-conservatives such as Perle, Wolfowitz and the Pentagon's Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith.

Abrams replaces Zalmay Khalilzad who has been consumed since shortly after his appointment in early 2002 with sorting out his native Afghanistan, to which he serves as Bush's special envoy. Khalilzad, a prominent national security strategist with greater experience in South Asia and the Gulf than in the Mideast, has now added the new post of "ambassador-at-large for Free Iraqis" to his portfolio. He spent the last few days in London herding the fractious Iraqi opposition toward some semblance of unity. Khalilzad's predecessor in the Mideast post, Bruce Reidel, was a Clinton holdover. As a result, Abram's appointment marks the first time that a person with a keen interest - albeit little expertise - in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been assigned the White House post, and the neo-cons are jubilant.

Abrams' influence on policy is already clear, particularly vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ten days ago, Washington voted for the first time ever against a UN General Assembly resolution that called on Israel to repeal the "Jerusalem Law" that declares that "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel". In the past, Washington has abstained on the issue, consistent with its long-held stand that Jerusalem's status must be determined by negotiations between the parties. Abrams has in the past publicly assailed that position, arguing that Washington's refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital "tantalizes the Palestinians with the prospect of forcing the Jews to abandon Jerusalem".

More important, efforts by "the Quartet" - the European Union, the UN, Russia and the United States - to produce a "road map" leading to the creation of a viable and independent Palestinian state in 2005 have come to a screeching halt since Abrams' appointment. Over the strenuous objections of the State Department, as well as other Quartet members, the White House has decreed that work on the roadmap will remain frozen until at least after the elections in Israel January 28. The decision represents a total caving in to demands by Sharon, who stands to profit tremendously by the fact that international pressure on him to move toward renewed peace talks or accept a peace plan will now be nil, at least until the elections are finished.

"This represents a signal victory for those who have argued that the road to peace in the Middle East runs through Baghdad, rather than Jerusalem," said one State Department official who warned that the absence of pressure on Israel at a time when Washington is preparing for war with Iraq will exacerbate resentment against the US in Arab public opinion.

Along with William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, founder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), and son of Irving Kristol, godfather of the neo-conservatives, Abrams has been a leading light of the fifty-something crowd in the neo-conservative movement, although the Iran-contra affair forced him into a less public role in the 1990s.

Abrams has been close to virtually all of the key neo-conservative officials inside the administration, as well as those on the outside in PNAC, the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and the American Enterprise Institute, the long-time roost of Perle and other neo-con hawks, most notably former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former CIA officer Marc Reuel Gerecht, and terrorism expert Michael Ledeen.

A Harvard student in the 1960s when he, like many other neo-conservatives, were associated with the Socialist Party USA, Abrams got his first job out of law school in the offices of the staunchly pro-Israel Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington state. It was there that he met Perle, Feith and Frank Gaffney. Gaffney, who himself worked for Perle in the Reagan administration, went on to found and direct CSP, on whose advisory board Perle, Abrams and Feith have all served.

Abrams first gained national prominence, however, when he was appointed in 1991 by Reagan to serve as assistant secretary of state for international organizations, a spot requested on his behalf by Jean Kirkpatrick, Reagan's first UN ambassador. After Reagan failed to get Ernest Lefever confirmed as assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs, however, Abrams was put in that considerably more prominent and politically sensitive post. His tenure there was marked by frequent and angry clashes with mainstream church groups, particularly those with a large missionary presence in Central America, and prominent human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which accused him of covering up horrendous abuses committed by US-backed governments, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, and rebel forces, such as the Nicaraguan Contras and Angola's Unita movement, while, at the same time, exaggerating abuses by US foes.

Such conflicts only became more intense after he was appointed as assistant secretary for inter-American affairs in 1985, the year in which Congress fatefully cut off aid to the Contras, thus setting the stage for what would become the Iran-Contra Affair, which, at its core, was an effort to raise money and arms for the Contras by whatever means necessary. In his new job, Abrams not only became acquainted with the machinations of Oliver North and his fellow conspirators in the White House, he was also tasked to raise money himself, leading to his secret trip disguised as "Mr Kenilworth" to the palaces of the Sultan of Brunei. In one of the more comic episodes of the whole affair, the two men reached agreement on a $10 million contribution to the Contras, but Abrams gave the Sultan the wrong number of the Swiss bank account into which the funds were to have been deposited, and the money was never used.

Abrams was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for giving false testimony about his trip, but he pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses of withholding information to Congress in order to avoid a trial and a possible jail term. He was pardoned by president George H W Bush along with a number of other Iran-Contra defendants in 1992. Nonetheless, his reputation for truth-telling was severely damaged - so much so that, for some time after the Iran-Contra affair broke, he was required to take an oath before testifying on any matter in Congress. Most analysts believe that he was given an NSC post by the Bush administration because it is one of the few high-level foreign policy posts which do not require Senate confirmation.

After Reagan left office in 1989, Abrams, like a number of other prominent neo-conservatives, was not invited to serve in the far more centrist-minded administration of Bush Senior. Instead, he worked for a number of think tanks and eventually became head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank founded by Lafever, where he wrote and lectured on foreign policy issues, including the Middle East and China. He also remained an integral part of the tight-knit, neo-con foreign policy community in Washington that revolved around Perle, Wolfowitz, Kirkpatrick, Podhoretz, Kristol and other luminaries.

Then-House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich furthered Abrams' public rehabilitation in 1999 by appointing him to the new US Commission on International Religious Freedom, for which he then served as chairman in 2000. Muslim groups that came before the commission during his tenure complained on a number of occasions that Abrams refused to criticize as violations of religious freedom various controversial Israeli practices in the occupied territories and Jerusalem, such as sealing off Muslim holy sites.

At the same time, Abrams' service on the commission endeared him even more to the Christian Right, which had sought strong condemnations of religious persecution of Christians in China, Vietnam, Egypt, Pakistan and Sudan, among other countries.

Abrams is not known as a Mideast specialist, but has long favored Likud positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and even assailed former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for caving into US pressure to respect the Oslo peace process. Within just a few weeks of the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada at the end of September 2000, he sharply criticized mainstream Jewish groups for calling for a resumption of peace talks between Arafat's Palestine Authority and Israel, as well as a halt to the violence.

"After a decade of self-delusion, American Jews must face up to reality," he wrote at the time. "The Palestinian leadership does not want peace with Israel, and there will be no peace ... Let's stop this flight from reality before it does even more harm to Israel. Let's stop pushing for more talks and offer instead something simpler and more valuable: solidarity and support."

In an article published just before his first appointment to the NSC, Abrams cited Sharon's hawkish stance as the best policy, calling it "firmness and resistance to violence or the threat of violence". The same article compared Sharon to French president Charles de Gaulle. In his position as NSC Democracy chief, Abrams reportedly played an important role in moving Rice into the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp in the June decision to demand Arafat's ouster and an overhaul of the Palestinian Authority as a condition for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The decision, which echoed Sharon's demands, infuriated Secretary of State Colin Powell and caused widespread dismay among Bush Sr's advisers, notably his former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

Over the years, Abrams has largely opposed any US pressure on Israel. As a member, along with Feith, Perle and Gaffney, of the Committee on US Interests in the Middle East, a short-lived group of former Reagan administration officials formed in late 1991, Abrams opposes Bush Sr's Mideast policies, and particularly his pressure on then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to take part in the Madrid peace conference that followed the Gulf War against Iraq and to make territorial concessions once a peace process got underway.

"We advocate support for a US policy toward Israel that would - in contrast to current American policy - reflect the traditional, strong American support for the legitimacy, security and general well-being of the Jewish state: a proven, valuable democratic friend and ally of the United States," declared an ad placed by the group in the New York Times in early 1992. The group was particularly outraged by secretary of state James Baker's threat to withhold US$10 billion in housing guarantees unless Shamir stopped the construction of new settlements in the occupied territories.

With Abrams overseeing the flow of paper onto to the president's desk, other foreign policy players - especially the State Department, Washington's European allies and even the old guard around Bush Sr - will find it much more difficult to get a hearing at the White House. Abrams is not only zealous in pursuit of his views; by all accounts, he is also a very canny political operator with his own network of support both inside and outside the administration. He also enjoys the strong support not only from the neo-con network in which he was nurtured, but also among more mainstream figures, notably his former boss at the State Department, George Shultz. "He is a formidable player," said one retired diplomat.

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Dec 19, 2002

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