By E.J. Kessler

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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Disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have played a key role in setting up a 2002 meeting between President Bush and an Asian leader known for his anti-Jewish speeches, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times reported last week that the Malaysian government paid Abramoff $1.2 million for work in 2001 and 2002, leading up to the Bush meeting. The report quotes an unnamed source as saying that he observed Abramoff, who since has pleaded guilty to several crimes and has agreed to cooperate in a federal corruption probe, receiving a phone call that concerned setting up the meeting with the White House.

Whether or not Abramoff engineered the conclave — according to the Times, the Bush administration insists it came about through normal channels — the meeting was the first White House parley in eight years for Mahathir Mohamad. The Malaysian leader, who stepped down in 2003, had been blackballed by the Clinton administration for his jailing of a political opponent, former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, and for his 1997 fulminations against “the Jews,” whom he accused of driving down his country’s currency.

Bush greeted Mahathir warmly at the May 2002 meeting.

“Mr. Prime Minister, welcome to the Oval Office, it’s great to see you. I’ve been looking forward to this visit to publicly thank the Prime Minister for his strong support in the war against terror,” Bush said, according to a White House transcript. He added, “I want to thank you for your friendship and thank you for your leadership, and I want to welcome you.”

Bush drew criticism the next year over his failure to condemn Mahathir publicly or promptly after he gave a speech to Muslim leaders in which he declared that “the Jews rule this world by proxy” and “get others to fight and die for them.” By then, the Malaysian leader reportedly had cut his ties to Abramoff.

Some Jewish communal officials question whether Abramoff’s lobbying made much of a difference in influencing a White House that, after the September 11, 2001, attacks, was bent on enlisting Muslim countries in the war on terrorism. “There were a lot of people like that brought to the White House at that point,” recalled Yehudit Barsky, a terrorism expert at the American Jewish Committee. “After 9/11, the White House wanted to put out fires in the Muslim world.”

In 2000, Abramoff, who at the time was working at the lobbying firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, made a pitch to the Malaysian government in which he proposed waging an “education campaign” to inform the White House, Congress and the American public about Malaysia’s economic success and to stop the anti-Mahathir agitation of Anwar’s supporters. Abramoff took the client with him when he moved to another firm, Greenberg Traurig. The proposal, which was published recently on The New Republic’s Web site, describes Mahathir as “the champion of religious liberty for Christians in Malaysia” and argues that “the powerful American conservative movement should leap to his defense.”

Abramoff, former chairman of the national College Republicans, was close to top conservative activists Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. He is also an Orthodox Jew and asupporter of Israeli rightists. News of Abramoff’s pitch to Malaysia’s government drew criticism from Jewish communal officials when such reports surfaced last year.

Both the Times and National Journal, a magazine covering government, have reported that Malaysia’s payments to Abramoff were channeled through the American International Center, a pass-through nonprofit that an Abramoff associate set up at a Delaware beach house, in order to disguise their provenance and so that Abramoff could avoid having to register as a foreign agent.

Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in January, acknowleged that in a number of instances he used nonprofit organizations to evade taxes or hide lobbying fees. The ongoing investigation into Abramoff’s lobbying, which is probing whether he may have bribed several lawmakers — especially in connection to his work representing Indian gaming interests — is reverberating widely in Washington. Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with authorities.

Some reporters are seeing similarities between Abramoff’s tactics in his lobbying efforts on behalf of Malaysia and Native American tribes. In one instance, Reed, Abramoff’s friend and fellow GOP powerbroker, worked to close a tribal casino; then Abramoff turned around and offered his services to the tribe to get the casino reopened. The Standard, a Hong Kong business newspaper, suggested that Abramoff may have been playing a similar game as far as Malaysia was concerned.

“Intriguingly, a firm set up by close Abramoff ally Grover Norquist was retained to lobby on behalf of Anwar, the then-imprisoned former Mahathir aide whose cause célèbre was cited in Abramoff’s 2000 memo as a key justification for the government to commence its Washington drive,” the newspaper wrote.

According to National Journal, the Malaysian government was not terribly happy with Abramoff’s work, ending its $100,000-a-month contract right after Mahathir’s Bush meeting in 2002. “The Malaysians were very frustrated with Jack’s work,” the journal quoted a source as saying. “They wanted more delegations to visit Malaysia.”

An Abramoff spokeswoman confirmed that Abramoff’s lobbying for Malaysia ended in 2002 but declined further comment.

Abramoff’s efforts on Mahathir’s behalf did not moderate his anti-Jewish rhetoric. On October 16, 2003, before a summit of Muslim leaders, Mahathir said: “We are actually very strong; 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”

Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and several other world leaders denounced the speech immediately, but Bush remained silent for four days while pressure built in Congress for a resolution condemning the remarks. Then, according to the White House, Bush took Mahathir aside privately to denounce the remarks as “wrong and divisive.” Mahathir denied that the conversation took place.

Since leaving office, Mahathir has had harsh words for Bush. The former Malaysian leader endorsed Democrat John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. And earlier this month, in a February 15 television interview Mahathir said: “How about giving a little bit of Texas to make the State of Israel?” He described Bush as “a very aggressive person” who “should never lead a powerful nation.”

However, Abramoff apparently had no qualms about representing a country led by the likes of Mahathir, Asked once whether he he felt comfortable with such a client, Abramoff reportedly responded: “They pay their bills on time.”

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