Secretary of State Rice Faces Formidable White House Foe in Eliott Abrams

Article excerpt

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 neoconservative 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 in February.

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 Feb. 19 meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (see p. 12), 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 connection-notably to the so-called "Israel Lobby" of pro-Likud Jewish organizations 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 in February.

"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 neoconservative, particularly regarding Middle East policy, which he oversees as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy.

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. Ambassador 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 neoconservative 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 neocons, Abrams has never trusted "peace processes," and not just between Israel and its Arab neighbors. 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. …