If, as she insists, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is determined to make concrete progress toward achieving George W. Bush’s vision of a two-state solution, one in which Israel would be required to make major territorial concessions, it appears that she faces a major foe in the White House.

No, not only Dick Cheney and the surviving members of the neo-conservative clique that surrounded him and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld during Bush’s first term — although the vice president’s office remains a formidable force against any concessions to a Palestinian government of national unity that includes Hamas, despite Saudi Arabia’s role in midwifing its birth at Mecca last week.

Rather, it appears that Rice’s own chief Middle East aide when she served as Bush’s national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, has become the principal foil in frustrating her efforts to resume a peace process. Until her meeting in Jerusalem last weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the process had been frozen since the last days of Bill Clinton’s administration.

Abrams’ personal influence over Bush could not possibly match Rice’s, but his bureaucratic skills and political connections — notably to the so-called “Israel Lobby” of pro-Likud Jewish organisations and the Christian Right — give him considerable clout. According to various sources, Abrams has been working systematically to undermine any prospect for serious negotiations designed to give substance to Rice’s hopes — and increasingly impatient demands by Saudi King Abdullah — of offering the Palestinians a “political horizon” for a final settlement.

“The Bush administration has done nothing to press Israel to deliver on its commitments, beyond Washington’s empty rhetoric about a two-state ‘political horizon’,” Henry Siegman, the long-time director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the influential Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the International Herald Tribune just last week.

“Every time there emerged the slightest hint that the United States may finally engage seriously in a political process, Elliott Abrams would meet secretly with Olmert’s envoys in Europe or elsewhere to reassure them that there exists no such danger,” he complained.


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