Staunch Israel Supporter Elliott Abrams Leading Nominee for U.S Deputy Secretary of State

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Elliott Abrams (L) visits Jerusalem in 2005.
Elliott Abrams (L) visits Jerusalem in 2005.Credit: REUTERS

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to nominate Elliott Abrams, a former Bush Administration official, to the second highest position within the U.S. State Department, according to a number of recent press reports. 

Abrams was also reportedly supposed to meet Trump on Tuesday, although the meeting did not appear in the president's daily schedule as of Tuesday morning. Trump was, however, set to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at 3:00 P.M. local time on Tuesday.

Abrams, who is Jewish, has emerged as the leading nominee to be deputy secretary of state, a position that always comes with great responsibility, but could be even more meaningful in the current administration, in which both the president and the secretary of state come from the business world and have no foreign policy or governing experience. 

In the past, Abrams served as a senior adviser to President George W. Bush and was a senior member of his National Security Council. Abrams' work focused on the administration's goal of "spreading democracy" and he also played an important role in policy regarding Israel, including the Gaza disengagement in 2005 and the peace talks of 2007-2008. 

In the 1980's, Abrams served in the State Department under the Reagan administration, where he was assistant secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs from 1981 to 1985, and then assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs from 1985 to 1989. During that period, as part of his responsibility regarding Latin America, Abrams was involved in the Iran-Contra affair, and eventually signed a plea agreement, pleading guilty to withholding information from Congress regarding the administration's attempts to support the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Abrams was sentenced to two years probation and was pardoned by Bush senior, former President George H.W. Bush, in 1992, after Bush lost the election of that year to Bill Clinton. 

Abrams began his political career in the 1970's as a staffer for Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a hawkish Democratic Senator. In the late 1970's he worked in the office of then-Senator Daniel Moynihan, also a Democrat, but supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections and eventually became a leading figure within the Republican Party's foreign policy circles. 

In 2003, during his service in the Bush National Security Council, Abrams was the first American official to learn about Israel's intent to evacuate its settlements in Gaza, during a meeting he held with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Rome. Abrams played an important role in moving the Bush administration from a suspicious response to Sharon's unilateral plan, which all but ignored the Palestinian Authority, to a more welcoming reaction.

Together with Sharon's then-chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, he also worked to advance the April 2004 "Bush-Sharon" letter, which stated: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion."

This passage later became the topic of a disagreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, who didn't agree on its interpretation. Netanyahu claimed the letter means Israel should be able to build in settlements that are concentrated in the "settlement blocs" close to the 1967 borders, while the Obama Administration insisted there was no such commitment. 

While two former senior Bush administration officials – former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadely – rejected Netanyahu's interpretation of the letter (Hadley said it should be viewed within the context of the disengagement plan,) Abrams came out publicly in support of Netanyahu's position. In June 2009, he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal explaining why the Obama Administration's approach on settlements, which included a demand for a full building freeze, went against the 2004 letter.

Throughout the confrontations of the previous eight years between Netanyahu and Obama, Abrams continuously supported Netanyahu, both on the Palestinian issue and on Iran. At the same time, Abrams for years voiced support for the two-state solution and claimed that the failure to reach such a solution rested mostly with the Palestinian leadership. In April 2015, he published an article in Foreign Affairs warning that building in the settlements outside of the "blocs" could make it "exceedingly difficult and costly" to advance the two-state solution. Last June, however, when the two-state solution was dropped from the Republican Party platform, Abrams wrote an article in support of the move, explaining that it didn't mean the party was opposed to that solution, only that it didn't necessarily see it as the only possible policy for the next four years. 

Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official who is now the director of Middle East Security at the Washington-based Center for New American Security, told Haaretz: "I believe Abrams still supports the two-state solution, though he has been more skeptical in recent statements. He has been a proponent of trying to negotiate with the Israelis to allow them to build in certain settlements in exchange for restraint in others, and is likely to push that view when back in government."

Goldenberg noted, however, that Abrams seems to be at odds with both Netanyahu and Trump when it comes to policy toward Egypt. In May 2012, Abrams published an article praising the Muslim Brotherhood's leader, Mohammad Morsi, for his victory in Egypt's first-ever fully democratic elections. The article's headline was "Two Cheers for Morsi," but Netanyahu and Trump have been much more cheerful about Egypt's current president, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who took over the country in June 2013 and has thrown Morsi into jail. "Abrams remains deeply committed to the Democratization agenda and has been quite skeptical of al-Sissi, which may put him in a different place than both Trump and Netanyahu," Goldenberg said. 

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, who worked with Abrams at the National Security Council under Bush, told Haaretz that "Elliott is perfect as the deputy secretary of state. He has nearly forty years experience in foreign policy. Having worked in important positions on the Hill, in the Department of State, and in the White House, he knows every aspect of the policy making process.  He also knows the world. He speaks at least three languages fluently – English, Spanish, and French. When Reagan first appointed Elliott assistant secretary of state, he was, at age 33, the youngest person ever to have held that position." Doran added that "at the Bush NSC, it was not unusual to work for 12 or 14 hours a day. By Friday night I was so tired I couldn't think, but Elliott would still be going strong."

A lot of the criticism directed at Abrams ever since his name first came up as a nominee to a senior position in the State Department, has focused on the Iraq War. Doran said that "news reports that call Elliott "an architect of the Iraq war" are nonsense. Try to find him in one of Bob Woodward's books. Elliott was responsible for the Middle East for part of the George W. Bush administration, but in that National Security Council, responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan fell to a completely different office."   

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY,) a member of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, published an op-ed in the Libertarian website Rare on Tuesday, explaining why he will oppose Abrams if he is indeed nominated to a senior State Department position: "Abrams would be a terrible appointment for countless reasons. He doesn’t agree with the president in so many areas of foreign policy and he has said so repeatedly; he is a loud voice for nation building and when asked about the president’s opposition to nation building, Abrams said that Trump was absolutely wrong; and during the election he was unequivocal in his opposition to Donald Trump, going so far as to say, 'the chair in which Washington and Lincoln sat, he is not fit to sit.'"

Abrams has indeed been more than skeptical about Trump during the last election. In February 2016, during an appearance before the Jewish People's Policy Institution in Jerusalem, he said he might not vote at all in the U.S. election if the two nominees would be Trump and Hillary Clinton. He expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with Politico a month later. However, Abrams made sure not to become part of the "Never Trump" group of conservative figures, and didn't sign any pledges not to serve under a Trump Administration. 

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