Pugmacious Israeli-centric American Jew Now Heads National Security Council Middle East Affairs
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
[New York Times - December 7, 2002]:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 - Elliott Abrams, a pugnacious
conservative and passionate advocate of Israel, is no
stranger to Washington's policy wars.
But Mr. Abrams's selection this week as President Bush's
director of Middle Eastern affairs at the White House
plunged him into one of the sharpest disputes in the
nation's capital - the one in the administration over how
to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Abrams's appointment thrilled those who had criticized
the administration for being too tough on Israel and too
deferential to the Palestinians. But it dismayed those,
especially at the State Department, who want Israel to ease
its crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza.
An administration official said Mr. Abrams's ascension had
created "serious consternation" at the State Department. It
was seen there, he said, as likely to impede the efforts of
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to work with European
nations to press Israel and the Palestinians to adopt a
staged timetable leading to creation of a Palestinian state
in three years.
The timetable, known as a "road map," has been criticized
by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, though he endorsed it in
principle this week. Supporters of Israel in Congress, who
had also criticized the road map approach, welcomed the
appointment of Mr. Abrams.
"There are two foreign policy teams in this administration
on a lot of issues," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New
York, who went to Harvard with Mr. Abrams in the 1960's.
"Clearly Elliott is coming out of the hard-line team. But
that is where Bush's heart is."
Mr. Abrams comes to his new job trailed by a cloud of
controversy, most of it having to do with his pleading
guilty in 1987 to the charge that he withheld information
from Congress on the Reagan administration's efforts to
assist antigovernment guerrillas in Nicaragua.
He was pardoned by the first President Bush in December
1992. At the time, plenty of people around Washington said
Mr. Abrams would never be back as a policy maker.
Now, not only is Mr. Abrams back - though not in a position
that would require confirmation by the Senate - but a raft
of figures involved in the battles over the Nicaragua
guerrillas, known as the contras, are back, as well. John
M. Poindexter, a national security adviser to President
Reagan who was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts (the
convictions were later overturned), is directing a Pentagon
project that would assemble information on suspected
John D. Negroponte, who was ambassador to Honduras during
the time that the contras were being given aid through that
country in defiance of a law barring such aid, is
ambassador to the United Nations.
And Otto J. Reich, who was charged with running a covert
domestic propaganda campaign against the Nicaragua
government, is a special envoy for western hemisphere
affairs at the State Department.
Administration officials say Mr. Abrams was picked for the
Middle East and North Africa portfolio under Condoleezza
Rice, the national security adviser, because a strong
manager was needed and the previous director, Zalmay
Khalilzad, had been preoccupied with the reconstruction of
"Everybody has enormous confidence in him," a senior
administration official said. "He is not just a good
manager. He is an intellectual force in many policy areas.
Whatever controversy there was in the past is in the past."
Many of those critical of Mr. Abrams speak with admiration
for his intellect and management skills, which will be
tested not only in the Israel-Palestinian conflict but also
if there is a war with Iraq, followed by a long occupation
But others say he has rankled some colleagues in the
administration already. For instance, during Secretary
Powell's efforts to negotiate a resolution on Iraq at the
United Nations, Mr. Abrams spent some weeks at the United
Nations headquarters in New York.
Two officials critical of Mr. Abrams said his role was to
make sure that Secretary Powell did not make too many
concessions to the Europeans on the resolution's wording,
pressing a hard-line view that was shared by Vice President
Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and
Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff.
One of these officials said Mr. Negroponte was upset by Mr.
Abrams's interventions. But a spokesman for Mr. Negroponte,
Rick Grenell, said that this was not true and that the
ambassador "values Elliott's input." Another official said
cooperation between the State Department and the White
House was "as good as we've had in quite a while."
For associates and acquaintances, Mr. Abrams's new
responsibilities reflect the intensity of his ambitions and
political passions. Like many so-called neoconservatives,
he began life as a liberal Democrat on many issues but
became disenchanted with the left, and especially in his
case by student protests at Harvard.
On Capitol Hill, he worked for two of the most prominent
Democrats with strong anti-Communist views, Senator Henry
Jackson of Washington and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New
York, before becoming a Republican and supporting Mr.
Reagan for president in 1980. Mr. Reagan appointed him to
various positions in the State Department in the 1980's.
Of his admission that he misled Congress on aiding the
contras, Mr. Abrams has defended himself by saying he was
following administration policy at the time. He has also
said he was a victim of abuses by a special prosecutor, in
a way that Democrats later came to understand during
President Clinton's impeachment.
Mr. Abrams also has family ties to the neoconservative
movement. His wife's mother is Midge Decter, and her
stepfather is Norman Podhoretz. Both are leading members of
the neoconservative pantheon and stern critics of liberal
Five years ago, Mr. Abrams wrote a book, "Faith or Fear:
How Jews Can Survive in Christian America," which argues
against the loss of religious faith among Jews and
criticizes intermarriage as a danger to their survival in
America. He also urged Jews to make greater common cause
with evangelical Christians in rallying support for Israel.
He was a fierce opponent of the Oslo peace negotiations
between Israel and Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader,
even while they seemed to bear fruit. He wrote in the
1990's that it was a mistake for Mr. Clinton to trust Mr.
Arafat. He advocated that position from the start of this
Bush administration, until it became Mr. Bush's position
With the Middle East consumed by the spiral of suicide
bombings and Israeli retaliations, Mr. Abrams is certain to
be among those advocating that Israel be given wide
latitude to battle terrorism.
Associates say he is also considered likely to side with
pro-Israel Americans who say that the road map pressed by
Secretary Powell does not make it sufficiently clear that
Mr. Arafat must be removed, and that terrorism must cease
entirely, before Israel makes any irretrievable concessions
on withdrawal from Palestinian territories.
Israel is also critical of the role being played in the
drafting of the road map by Europe, Russia and the United
Nations, as well as by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Critics say that these nations and groups are unlikely to
support removal of Mr. Arafat as a precondition of peace,
as Mr. Bush does.
Longtime advocates of an aggressive American effort to
support Middle East peace negotiations say the
administration appears to have pulled back from pressing
the road map, out of sensitivity to Mr. Sharon's objections
- but not to have abandoned it entirely, out of sensitivity
to the Europeans and Arabs.
"It does seem that the White House has decided to back
off," said Martin Indyk, a former adviser to Mr. Clinton.
"If the administration were preparing for a new push on the
road map, this would be an unusual appointment," he said,
referring to Mr. Abrams.