God vs. Elliott Abrams

Back in June 2003 Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath came to the White House to meet President Bush for the first time. Shaath relates that Bush told his visitors during their meeting in the Oval Office that God had commanded him to establish a Palestinian state: "God told me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did. And now I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go and get the Palestinians their state’ … and by God I’m going to do it."

Today, almost five years later, the Palestinians are no closer to having a state of their own than when Abbas and Shaath were in Washington. Apparently neither God nor George Bush nor either of his guests reckoned on the power and persistence of longtime Israel advocate Elliott Abrams, who holds the Near East portfolio on the National Security Council. Abrams has a consistent record, both in and out of government, of opposing any meaningful Israeli concessions to the Palestinians that might end Israel’s 40-year occupation of the West Bank and lead to the birth of a viable Palestinian state.

It is really remarkable that Abrams is back in government at all. During the Reagan administration, Abrams lied to Congress about supplying arms to the Contra rebels fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua. About to be charged in 1991 with a felony for deceiving Congress, Abrams pled to the lesser charge of withholding information and so avoided jail time. Minnesota Sen. David Durenberger, a Republican, summed up what many in Washington were thinking about Abrams: "I wouldn’t trust Elliott any further than I could throw Oliver North," which may be why when Condi Rice decided to bring Abrams back into government in 2001 it was to a position on the NSC, for which Senate confirmation is not required.

In the 10 years he was out of government Abrams wrote for several neocon think tanks. In the Project for the New American Century’s policy tome Present Dangers, he asserted, "Strengthening Israel, our major ally in the region, should be the central core of U.S. Middle East policy, and we should not permit the establishment of a Palestinian state that does not explicitly uphold U.S. policy in the region." Abrams was also a signatory, along with John Bolton, Richard Perle, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and James Woolsey, of PNAC’s letter to President Clinton calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq by force if necessary.

Abrams the pundit consistently rejected the Oslo-inspired land-for-peace formula, now called the "road map," as a fair means of settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is worth noting that Bush Senior and Bill Clinton both supported Oslo, and Israeli governments, Labor and Likud, paid at least lip service to the concept of land for peace. Abrams also made clear which side he thought was at fault, saying that "the Palestinian leadership does not want peace with Israel." Abrams took an equally hard line on sharing Jerusalem, stating that the Clinton administration’s refusal "to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem … tantalizes the Palestinians with the prospect of forcing the Jews to abandon Jerusalem,” as if the weak and divided Palestinians were ever in a position to force the Israelis to do anything.

It is a commonplace to suggest that entrusting Abrams with the National Security Council’s Arab Israeli portfolio is absurd. But a more nuanced appraisal of the rationale for his appointment might conclude that the Bush administration had decided that pursuing a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement was not worth the effort. As Martin Indyk, AIPAC veteran and ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, observed, "It does seem that the White House has decided to back off. If the administration were preparing for a new push on the road map, this would be an unusual appointment.”

Given Rice’s inability or unwillingness to demonstrate any meaningful leadership as either national security adviser or secretary of state, recommending Abrams for a seat on the NSC made perfect sense. With Abrams as the administration’s top Middle East adviser, how could AIPAC or the Christian Right complain? Anyone who doubted Abrams’ attachment to the state of Israel could be directed to his oft-quoted remark that Jews "are in a permanent covenant with God and with the land of Israel and its people." As one senior administration official put it, "The genius of Elliott Abrams is that he’s Elliott Abrams. How can he be accused of not being sufficiently supporting Israel?" And if Abrams happened to kill the peace process, so what?

Although Abrams’ tenure at the NSC has seen the American position in the Middle East deteriorate considerably, his efforts to block the road map have been entirely successful. In December 2002 the U.S. voted for the first time ever to block the annual UN General Assembly resolution calling on Israel to repeal the “Jerusalem Law” that declares that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel." Before Abrams’ NSC appointment, Washington had abstained, maintaining that Jerusalem’s status must be determined by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Reflecting Abrams’ opposition to "land for peace," for the last six years the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has been nothing but talk, and precious little of even that. Last May, Abrams rather indiscreetly confirmed to a group of Republicans that the White House was not sincere about resolving the conflict and that Rice’s trips to the Middle East were “just process” designed to convince outsiders that "United States is promoting peace in the Middle East.”

Abrams and the White House agreed not to deal with Arafat because of his terrorist background. Similarly, they were happy to accept the Israeli position that working with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, would be a mistake because he was politically weak. When Abbas sent an emissary, Khalil Shikaki, to see Abrams to detail what steps were needed to strengthen the new Abbas government, Abrams told Shikaki that Bush “could not agree to anything” and would not lean on the Israelis. Abrams apparently made clear to Shikaki that domestic political considerations trumped the peace process. By refusing to remove any of the hundreds of road blocks stifling the Palestinian economy or slow settlement activity on the West Bank or in east Jerusalem, assertions of Abbas’ weakness became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sacrificing the peace process to domestic political expediency was certain to have costs and unintended consequences, which in fact were not long in arriving. Events since the beginning of 2006 have seen American policymakers, led by Elliott Abrams, compound their basic error of sidelining the peace process with a whole new set of disastrous policy decisions.

As neither weapons of mass destruction nor a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda were discovered in Iraq, the Bush administration had to find a new justification for its war. The White House decided to market elections in Iraq as the first wave of a democratic tsunami sure to engulf the entire Levant. In January 2006 a second wave of the electoral tsunami had the unhappy effect of sweeping Hamas, an Islamic party on the State Department’s terrorist list, to power in the Palestinian territories. The election smashed Abbas’ Fatah Party, which had made no progress toward establishing a Palestinian state and failed to ameliorate the everyday hardships of Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.

One of Abrams’ neocon colleagues famously remarked, "What runs through Elliott’s thinking is a deep, almost quasi-religious devotion to democracy. He thinks real democratic change can happen in the Middle East." Nevertheless, as soon as Hamas won a majority on the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abrams sought to reverse the election results by force. He told visiting Palestinian businessmen that he supported a "hard coup" against the Hamas government. Although Abrams’ plans found favor with the neocons still in government, especially those inhabiting the vice president’s office, they were vehemently opposed as totally impractical by the Pentagon, the CIA, U.S. allies in the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia), and even by parts of the Israeli defense establishment.

By June 2007 Abrams had convinced Abbas to attack Hamas in Gaza, a plan so badly concealed that the UN’s envoy in the region, Alvaro de Soto, reported that the U.S. was pushing "for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas." Informed what was afoot, Hamas struck first and Abbas’ forces in Gaza swiftly collapsed.

Since the defeat of Fatah, Gaza has been under an escalating Israeli stranglehold, reducing 1.4 million Palestinians to abject poverty. Despite the humanitarian disaster Israel has created with the apparent agreement of the United States, Hamas’ rule in Gaza has not been significantly shaken. In fact, Abrams’ attempt to remove Hamas has weakened Abbas’ control of the West Bank, where he is increasingly seen as a collaborator whose main support comes from the Palestinians’ primary tormentors, Israel and the U.S. The recent opening of Gaza’s border with Egypt shows that the Arab world is no longer willing to participate in the plan to isolate and overthrow Hamas if it means starving 1.4 million poor people in Gaza.

Abrams’ failures were not limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the summer of 2006 Israel attacked Lebanon after Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Abrams’ primary role in this crisis was to fend off international demands for a cease-fire so that Israel could inflict a major defeat on Hezbollah. Abrams once again badly misjudged the situation, and the extra time obtained on behalf of Israel provided only further proof that 30,000 Israeli soldiers backed by fighter bombers, tanks, and smart bombs could not defeat 1,200 well-trained and disciplined Hezbollah guerrillas. During the war, the Israeli air force destroyed a significant part of Lebanon’s infrastructure, killed over 1,000 civilians, and forced three quarters of a million people from their homes. Nevertheless, in no way did the Israelis inflict a decisive defeat on Hezbollah, which emerged from the war politically stronger and greatly admired across the Middle East. The war’s big losers were Israel and the U.S.

Elliott Abrams may have helped the administration retain the support of AIPAC and the evangelicals and shielded Condi Rice from having to make unpopular decisions, but his effect on America’s reputation and position in the Middle East has been uniformly negative. Abrams stalled the peace process for six years. His miscalculations created two hostile Palestinian entities. The recent Annapolis Conference was emblematic of American peace efforts: all process and no substance. It fooled no one in the region.

Abrams signally failed to understand that Hamas and Hezbollah are grassroots resistance movements that represent the aspirations of millions and are most unlikely to succumb to a coup or external pressure. And with his lack of understanding has come disastrous policy.

Under Abrams’ care U.S. Middle East policy has been willing to abuse 1.4 million desperately poor people in Gaza, trash democracy when elections produce unwanted results, and create 750,000 refugees running for their lives in Lebanon. We all deserve better.

Author: John Taylor

John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.