Bush’s Mideast Team Talk of D.C.

By Ori Nir

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Israeli diplomats and Jewish groups are closely following the ongoing reshuffling of the second Bush administration’s foreign policy team.

In the coming weeks, President Bush’s choice for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is expected to pick a deputy. Her replacement as national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, is expected to do the same, and both agencies’ point-men on the Middle East are expected to move on. Other senior members of the Bush administration’s foreign policy team, with strong influence on Middle East policy, might also be replaced, generating much anticipation among Washington’s pro-Israel community.

Most closely watched is the future of Elliott Abrams, who two years ago was appointed senior director for Near East and North African affairs at the National Security Council. Abrams is widely rumored to be a candidate to replace Daniel Kurtzer as the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Last week, Kurtzer denied that any such decision had been made.

Jewish activists with close ties to Abrams said that both he and they would rather have him stay in a high-profile policy position in Washington. During his current White House stint, Abrams has been very friendly to Israel and very accessible to Jewish activists. “Elliot is an asset,” a pro-Israel lobbyist said. The lobbyist also said that the neoconservative Abrams has served as a valuable door for Jewish activists — conservative and liberal — to the tight-lipped, highly secretive Bush administration.

Abrams is known to have a close relationship with Rice, who reportedly wants him to join her at the State Department. Rumors abound in Washington that Rice is considering tapping Abrams to be her deputy.

Nomination for any position that requires confirmation hearings in the Senate will put Abrams — and the White House — in an uncomfortable position, as Democrats are likely to bring up his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Abrams pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress.

Conventional wisdom in Washington is that the administration would want to avoid the embarrassment of having Abrams questioned in a Senate hearing. But several Washington insiders said, in the end Abrams would probably secure Senate approval for a senior post.

Rice is expected to replace the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, who has told associates that he would like to leave his job to become America’s next ambassador to Russia. One name being mentioned as a possible successor to Burns is Danielle Pletka, a hawkish Middle East analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Pletka, who, like Abrams, is Jewish, is known as a strong supporter of Israel.

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