WASHINGTON — As Israel debated in recent weeks whether to endorse the American-led “road map” peace initiative, Jerusalem and its allies in the United States received a surprising push — from Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs.
Before joining the security council six months ago, Abrams, a prominent neoconservative, was an outspoken critic of the Oslo peace process. But in recent weeks, sources say, he has been urging Israel to accept the road map, despite his own reservations about the plan.
Abrams, who received a presidential pardon for withholding information from Congress about the Iran-Contra affair as a Reagan administration official, has been warning Jewish activists that a failure by Jerusalem to act on the road map would spark a major crisis in American-Israel relations.
“Elliott is of the view that the road map isn’t the best vehicle but it is the vehicle that is out there,” said one of Abrams’s many friends among Washington’s pro-Israel activists. “And that’s the message he has delivered to the Israelis.”
The activist added: Abrams “represents the administration and is loyal to it. Besides, as a realist and a pragmatist, he knows the road map is the only tool available for the administration to get traction on the peace process, and can generate progress with some tweaking.”
Coming from Abrams, such arguments appear to reflect a sincere desire on the part of the administration to kick-start the peace process. As a result of this newfound effort to advance negotiations, American Jewish activists say they will be working to ensure that the Bush administration follows through on promises made to Israel regarding implementation of the road map.
In an effort to secure a formal Israeli endorsement of the plan, which envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, the White House said that a set of 14 Israeli concerns about the plan would be addressed “fully and seriously” throughout the implementation process.
The Israeli concerns, some of which appear to be at odds with the text and the spirit of the road map, focus mostly on the issue of Palestinian compliance with security requirements.
“We will certainly monitor it, and insist on the implementation [of the road map] in accordance with the concerns that Israel raised,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein emphasized that the organized Jewish community will take its cues on this issue from the Israeli government. “These things are really done on a state-to-state level,” said Hoenlein, who returned Tuesday from a short visit to Israel.
Despite his recent attempts to nail down Israeli support for the road map, Abrams is still likely to serve as a sympathetic contact for Jewish groups concerned about implementation of the road map. According to one source, Abrams has told several pro-Israel lobbyists that the road map should not be “viewed as a bible” and that its text is not “carved in stone.”
While establishing himself as the White House’s chief authority on Middle East policy, Abrams appointed an ideological diverse professional staff to work with him. Robert Danin, who Abrams appointed as his deputy, is a State Department veteran with moderate views.
Many Washington insiders who know Abrams say that he brought to the job a wealth of organizational and networking skills, as well as a strong analytical ability. This package, observers say, helps his boss, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, generate a White House-driven Middle East peace policy, with a degree of independence from the State Department and the Pentagon.
“Such an ability is very valuable for a president who is becoming personally committed to driving an Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” said a former administration official who has known Abrams for years.
Abrams also received a ringing endorsement from Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s director of governmental affairs.
“I hear the critics,” Isaacson said. “But if you ask me, he is exactly the person you’d want advising the president in a situation that’s as fluid and combustible as the one in the Middle East.”