WASHINGTON — Last week the Bush administration’s point man on the peace process, Elliott Abrams, came to Jerusalem to demand a halt to Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements.
The directive reflected three decades of American opposition to settlement expansion, but marked a radical transformation on Abrams’s part. Just four years ago, as an out-of-government conservative pundit, Abrams would only refer to the peace process in quotation marks and was urging American Jews to “stop pushing for more [Israeli-Palestinian] talks.”
“The years of U.S. pressure on Israel… must end,” he insisted back then. Now it’s his job to apply American pressure when the White House deems it necessary.
“I don’t think anybody would have predicted that this is where [Abrams] would end up being on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But look — it’s not only that he has changed; the circumstances changed.”
Abrams’s transformation may be less radical than the evolution of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, the father of Israel’s settlement enterprise, who is now pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Still, many of Abrams’s acquaintances, particularly in the Jewish community, are astonished by the shift.
After being appointed Near Eastern and North African affairs director at the National Security Council in December 2002, Abrams “came in as an ideologist, a hawk, almost doctrinaire, but he has become more open, more pragmatic,” said a Jewish communal leader who, like many others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Abrams was recently promoted to deputy national security adviser, but maintains responsibility for the Middle East at the NSC. In his new position, Abrams is also the White House point man on efforts to democratize the Arab world.
On both the democracy and Israeli-Palestinian fronts, sources close to the White House said, Abrams’s influence is second only to that of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his former boss at the NSC.
Abrams is not only influential. Seldom has an administration official in such an influential position been as accessible to Jewish organizations. Many Jewish communal leaders call him by his first name, and many call him regularly. “I am probably not the only one who has Elliott on my speed dial,” one prominent Washington Jewish activist said.
Many speculate that Abrams’s close ties to the Jewish community were an important reason for the White House tapping him to serve as the Bush administration’s main interlocutor with Sharon’s government. “If the president was seeking someone with whom Sharon would feel comfortable and who could put the Jewish community at ease, Elliott was a perfect choice,” a Jewish Washington insider said.
Most of the critical negotiations over the so-called “road map” peace plan and the Gaza disengagement plan were held between Rice and Sharon’s adviser, Dov Weisglass. But Abrams was deeply involved in The American-Israeli talks. He was also instrumental in securing the support of influential Jewish organizations for the administration’s Middle East policy. He used “back channels, as well as conventional diplomacy to advance both initiatives,” a prominent Jewish communal leader said. “And he has done that with professionalism and tact,” that communal leader added.
Abrams’s acquaintances offer three explanations for his apparent change of heart on the peace process.
First, they said, he is a loyal civil servant, dedicated to carrying out the policies of his boss — in this case, the president.
Second, some observers say, Abrams’s views evolved after being thoroughly exposed to the situation on the ground and determining that America has a deep interest in securing Israeli-Palestinian peace for the sake of regional stability.
The final factor is the political metamorphosis of Sharon, a leader whom Abrams is quick to tell interlocutors he greatly admires. He once likened Sharon to Winston Churchill. He tells his acquaintances that he views Sharon as a bold leader who effectively asserts his strength to transform history.
Notably, Abrams isn’t only drawing praise from pro-Israel activists and Israeli diplomats in Washington. Conversations with several Arab diplomats and other foreign envoys — as well as Washington Mideast experts — produced similar compliments.
Such positive views were hard to find when Abrams was appointed to the NSC a little more than two years ago. The appointment upset many American diplomats, Arab diplomats, Middle East experts and left-wing Jewish activists.
For starters, many still remembered his role in the Iran/contra scandal. In 1991, Abrams was indicted by a special prosecutor for falsely testifying in 1987 before Congress about his involvement in illegally raising money for the Nicaraguan Contras. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors of withholding information from Congress during his stint in the Reagan State Department, and thus avoided a trial and a possible jail term. In December 1992, on Christmas Eve, President George H.W. Bush pardoned him, along with five others who were either convicted or indicted in relation to the arms-for-hostages scandal. Following his pardon, during much of the 1990s, Abrams turned his attention to internal Jewish communal issues, arguing for a harsh stand against interfaith marriages and promoting conservative social positions.
Despite the pardon, the conviction remains a hump on Abrams’s back. He hardly ever speaks in public. When he does — such as in a recent address to the Council on Foreign Relations — he speaks off the record. And he’s being shielded from any exposure to Congress. Recently, according to several people who know him, he told his superiors that he would be interested in becoming America’s next ambassador to Israel. His wife, Rachel, whose sister lives in Israel, was particularly interested. But ambassadors have to be confirmed by the Senate, and Abrams reportedly understood that the White House would rather avoid the potential embarrassment of having lawmakers ask if he still holds Congress in contempt.
The White House refused to make Abrams available to the Forward for this story, despite repeated requests for an interview over the past several weeks.
In addition to lingering anger over Iran/contra and over his support for anti-communist forces with troubling human-rights records, Abrams was criticized for having little experience on Middle East issues other than publishing occasional opinion essays as a concerned American Jew and private citizen. And the opinions he expressed as a pundit, they said, were anathema to the spirit of years of careful American efforts to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Prior to his current government stint, Abrams, a neoconservative to the core (he served in the mid-1970s as an aide to the hawkish Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Washington Democrat), advocated a doctrine of “peace through strength.” American and Israeli strength, that is.
In October 2000, following the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada, he wrote: “After a decade of self-delusion, American Jews must face up to reality. The Palestinian leadership does not want peace with Israel and there will be no peace.”
After joining the administration, however, Abrams ended up cajoling Sharon into accepting the road map. Abrams spoke often in support of a deep Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank in order to facilitate the emergence of a Palestinian state.
Forging American-Israeli understandings on a final plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace probably will be one of Abrams’s chief tasks during the next four years. In coming weeks, as Sharon attempts to clarify America’s position on the future of the West Bank settlement blocs, Abrams will surely play a key role in drafting the contours of a West Bank border that America may endorse.
People who often speak to Abrams say that he has fully accepted Sharon’s strategy: Cutting the losses that an internationally imposed Palestinian state would entail by securing an American approval of Israel’s maintaining broad strips of West Bank land heavily populated by Jews — so-called “settlement blocs” — along the Green Line. One Jewish activist who knows him well said: “Elliott strongly believes that Israel and America ought to jointly reinforce the contours of a final-status border.”