Sometimes the Washington press corps reports a story, but entirely misses its significance. This was the case with last week’s naming of Elliott Abrams to the position of senior director for Near East and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff at the White House. The job makes Abrams a major player in setting policy on Israel and the Palestinians. And Abrams’s view of the right policy is quite different–more pro-Israel, less solicitous of Palestinians–from that of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the permanent cast of characters at the State Department.
As early as this week, Abrams will be knee-deep in Middle East affairs. What must be worked out is the so-called road map for pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Abrams’s job is to make certain that the conditions and guidelines laid down by President Bush in his speech last June 24 are not watered down or ignored by the Powell forces. This is easier said than done, particularly since Bush’s attention has turned to the war on terror and regime change in Iraq.
The appointment of Abrams, 54, is an important statement by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice–and by Bush–that the White House will not cede control of Middle East policy to Powell. In the past, a foreign service bureaucrat has held the NSC post and more often than not echoed State’s view. Until late 2001, a holdover from the Clinton White House, Bruce Reidel, had the post. Over the past year, a fight was waged over who would replace Reidel. One potential appointee after another was blocked. Rice was urged to name someone from inside the system, either from State or the CIA. But she insisted on Abrams, who comes from outside the system and whose pro-democracy, pro-Israel, and anti-peace process views on the Middle East are anathema to the State/CIA establishment.
Abrams’s background is in Latin American affairs and human rights. But he expressed his opinions on the Middle East in his essay in a book, “Present Dangers,” published in 2000. Most striking was the absence of enthusiasm for resuming the “peace process.” He wrote: American interests “do not lie in strengthening Palestinians at the expense of Israelis, abandoning our overall policy of supporting the expansion of democracy and human rights, or subordinating all other political and security goals to the ‘success’ of the Arab-Israel ‘peace process.'”
Such a view pits him against Powell’s State Department. There, the key to all good things in the Middle East is thought to be a quick return to the peace process with full-blown negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Abrams’s view–and Rice’s and Bush’s–is that since September 11, 2001, the war on terror is a higher priority. But September 11 has also reinforced Bush’s view of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat not as a leader seeking independence for his people, but as someone more like the terrorists who attacked the United States.
At the moment, the White House plans to implement the Bush guidelines from his speech last June. Among these are the easing aside of Arafat, the end of Palestinian terrorism against Israel, and reform of the Palestinian Authority. The Bush speech indicated these steps must be taken first, before moving on to concessions the Israelis might make and, finally, to high-level negotiations. However, State’s position is that the Palestinians don’t have to complete their required steps, only begin them. Under State’s plan, Arafat would merely have to start leaving office, not actually be gone, and reforms would only need to have begun, not be fully implemented. A final administration policy must be reached by December 20. That’s when representatives of the “Quartet”–United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations–meet to discuss the Middle East.
It is Abrams’s strong public views on the Middle East that make his appointment surprising. No doubt it has caused heartburn at State and among Palestinians and their sympathizers. In Israel, the choice of Abrams was seen favorably as further evidence of Bush’s commitment to support both Israel and democracy in the Middle East.
Abrams joined the NSC staff in June 2001 as senior director for democracy, human rights, and international operations. After the Reagan administration, he worked with Latin American interests and then became head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. But while out of government, he kept in touch with Dick Cheney, now Bush’s vice president. He barely knew Rice at all when he was hired. But he had other contacts, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Rice’s deputy Steve Hadley. Wolfowitz is said to have been instrumental in getting Abrams his initial job at NSC, where he helped draft a tough new policy toward Cuba.
Press stories about Abrams’s elevation to the new job stressed a single point: Iran-contra. In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, for which he was pardoned by the first President Bush in December 1992. The Washington Post headlined a wire story on the Abrams appointment, “Iran-Contra Figure Named To Senior Post In White House.” The lede of the story in Newsday said, “Iran-contra figure Elliott Abrams, who received a pardon from the first President Bush for his role in the scandal… has been promoted to a key post among the current President Bush’s national security aides.” Neither newspaper mentioned the policy significance of Abrams’s appointment.
They missed the real story.
This piece ran in the Weekly Standard in Washington, DC on 12th December, 2002, Volume 008, Issue 14