Despite near-universal skepticism about the prospects for launching a serious, new Middle East peace process at this week’s Israeli-Palestinian summit in Annapolis, a familiar clutch of neoconservative hawks close to the Likud Party leader, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, isn’t taking any chances.
Hardliners associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Freedom’s Watch, a bountifully funded campaign led by prominent backers of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), among other like-minded groups, have mounted a concerted attack against this week’s meeting, which they fear could result in pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions.
The attack, which comes amid steadily growing neoconservative fears that the administration of President George W. Bush is becoming increasingly "realist" in its last year in office, has been directed primarily against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rather than the president himself.
Rice, who has devoted an unprecedented amount of time and travel in the past several months to nudging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas toward agreement on a framework that will deliver a two-state solution, said she hoped to achieve that goal by the time Bush leaves office in January 2009.
"The parties have said they are going to make efforts to conclude [a final peace accord] in this president’s term, and it’s no secret that means about a year," she told reporters last week, noting that the Annapolis meeting is designed to launch an intensive negotiating effort over the coming months. "That’s what we’ll try and do. Nobody can guarantee that—all you can do is make your best effort."
But such an effort is anathema to hardline neoconservatives whose presence in the Bush administration has dwindled steadily over the past two years, but who retain influence primarily through Vice President Dick Cheney and key members of the White House national security staff, notably Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams.
Indeed, among the most prominent hawks who have attacked the Annapolis meeting, to which senior officials and diplomats from 46 nations and multilateral groups have been invited, has been David Wurmser. Until August, Wurmser served as Cheney’s main Middle East adviser. His opposition to the aborted Oslo peace process dates back to its beginnings in the early 1990s.
In a press luncheon sponsored by the hardline Israel Project last week, Wurmser, a former director of AEI’s Middle East program, argued that the current moment was the worst time for the administration to initiate a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process, particularly given the importance and more urgent threats to U.S. interests posed by North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Venezuela.
"It simply sends the wrong signal," he said, stressing that, contrary to Rice’s arguments and those of other foreign policy realists, any pressure on Israel to make concessions at the moment would only embolden Iran and weaken Washington’s Sunni-led regional allies, which the administration hopes to forge into an Arab-Israeli coalition against Tehran.
While Wurmser is perhaps the most recent administration alumnus to speak out against Annapolis, other hardline neoconservatives close to Netanyahu are also rallying against any serious peace effort.
Danielle Pletka, AEI’s vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, published a column in the New York Times last week that accused the administration of aping the policies of former President Bill Clinton, particularly on North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian process.
Pletka, a protégée of neoconservative impresario Richard Perle, was particularly scornful of Abbas, whom she described as "powerless" and a "pretender," and of Rice, who, she complained has "recently sought advice from not just Bill Clinton but, of all people, Jimmy Carter"—the former president who is excoriated by neoconservatives for his 1977 endorsement of a "Palestinian homeland," as well as his recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal‘s "Global View" columnist, Bret Stephens, also linked Rice’s peace efforts to Carter, but omitted the fact that it was Carter who forged the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.
Noting the political weakness of both Abbas and Olmert, as well as the widespread skepticism that the parties are prepared to make the necessary compromises, Stephens, a former editor of the right-wing Jerusalem Post, expressed wonderment "why this administration has gotten itself caught in the Venus flytrap of the Arab-Israeli conflict, after vowing not to do so, and why it has done so with a degree of ineptitude that recalls the dimmer moments of the Carter administration."
Meanwhile, the ultra-hawkish president of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), Frank Gaffney, also took out after Rice in a Washington Times column last week that derided the Annapolis meeting as "Condi’s Folly," called Rice herself a "zealot who has lost any sense of reality," and labeled Abbas’ Fatah party a "terrorist organization" along with other "Islamofascist" groups, including "Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps."
Gaffney, another Perle protégé, argued that the "only Palestinian state that can possibly come from … Rice’s zealotry will be a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel and a new safe-haven for terror aimed at the United States and other Western nations."
The column’s title, "Staticidal Zealotry," partially echoed recent public complaints by two Freedom’s Watch founders, Sheldon Adelson and Gary Erlbaum, regarding the American Israel Public Affairs Committee‘s (AIPAC) endorsement of a letter signed by some 130 lawmakers in support of the Annapolis initiative and increased U.S. assistance for Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA).
AIPAC, which is widely considered the heart of the so-called "Israel Lobby" in Washington, has itself been pressed hard by both the administration and the Olmert government to support the Annapolis meeting.
Adelson, a casino magnate with an estimated net worth of more than $26 billion who is also a strong backer of Netanyahu, argued that Olmert’s engagement with the Annapolis process posed a mortal danger to Israel.
"I don’t continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they say they want to jump," he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in what was taken as a threat to reduce his substantial financial backing if AIPAC did not heed his Likudist agenda.
Both Adelson and Erlbaum, who is a Philadelphia property developer, are major donors to Freedom’s Watch, a group formed in August 2007 to defend the Bush administration’s "surge" strategy in Iraq against legislative efforts to mandate a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
The group, more than half of whose leaders are drawn from the RJC board and staff, intends to raise at least $200 million for advertising and other public relations activities to support its hardline positions on the Middle East, according to a recent New York Times profile.
In recent weeks, the group has employed a high-priced public relations firm to test-market a campaign apparently designed to rally public support for an attack on Iran, according to a recent article by investigative reporter Laura Rozen published in Mother Jones magazine. Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s chief spokesman during his presidential campaign and in the White House until 2003, is one of a number of former administration officials active in Freedom’s Watch.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IRC’s Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).