Rice Faces Formidable White House Foe

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 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 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 longtime 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 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 UN Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick, 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.S. Central America policy.

"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 neocons, 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 – epitomized by Kristol’s Project for the New American Century (PNAC) of which he was a charter member – of mainly Jewish neoconservatives, the Christian and Catholic Right, and aggressive nationalists that would seize control of U.S. policy after 9/11.

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 neoconservatives organized 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 peace process.

The same channel was used to line up Bush’s support for Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, a scheme designed in part to preempt 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 UN, 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 neoconservatives, including Perle, who had long been among Abrams’ closest associates. But Abrams himself, apparently persuaded by Weisglass’ argument that such a preemptive 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 move.

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 favored 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.

Abrams’ advice echoed similar appeals by neoconservatives, 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 neoconservative 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 neoconservatives, 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 sensitized 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 Initiative.

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 recognize Israel, renounce violence, and pledge to abide by existing agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (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 Center 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 neoconservatives.

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 UN Amb. John Bolton.

"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.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.