Perhaps no foreign diplomat was on friendlier terms with Yasser Arafat than Edward G. Abington. A mild-mannered Texan who served as the top U.S. envoy to Jerusalem from 1993 to 1997, Abington was in constant touch with the temperamental Palestinian leader, joining him for long lunches at Arafat's seaside headquarters in Gaza and fielding his phone calls any time, day or night.
When a Jewish extremist gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, it was Abington who delivered the news to Arafat.
Now their relationship has taken a new twist.
Since leaving the State Department last month after almost 30 years, Abington, 55, has worked for Arafat's Palestinian Authority as its first-ever Washington lobbyist. One of his first assignments has been preparing the ground for Arafat's scheduled meeting here today with President Clinton, who is trying to push Israel and the Palestinians toward a "framework" peace accord by mid-February.
Abington's new employer--the D.C. lobby shop of Bannerman & Associates--is being paid $2.25 million over three years for its work for the Palestinians, a reward that has not gone unnoticed by critics of the former diplomat's career shift.
"It gives the appearance at least of inviting corruption of the diplomatic service if those posted to . . . countries can then turn around and become lobbyists for them," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But an official at another major American Jewish group saw no cause for alarm. As consul general in Jerusalem, Abington played "a constructive role in the peace process by educating Arafat about what would be required if he wanted to have a constructive relationship with President Clinton," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If he can continue that type of influence, then that would be positive."
Abington notes that he is hardly the first ex-diplomat to trade on his former contacts. He also says he has not worked on the Palestinian account since leaving the region more than two years ago--his last job at the department was deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and research--and, in any event, government ethics rules bar him from lobbying the administration for one year.
"I know what I'm doing is controversial," he says. But with Arafat having made the transition from guerrilla chieftain to peace partner and regular guest at the White House, Abington suggests, the Palestinians are entitled to a little professional advice.
"My conception of what we're doing is to try to help the Palestinians understand what's happening in Washington, but also to help people here understand what the Palestinians are concerned about," he said.
Abington's close ties to Arafat are in some respects a function of the unique role of the Jerusalem consulate, which reports directly to Washington rather than through the embassy in Tel Aviv. As a result, the consulate traditionally has served as the main U.S. liaison to the Palestinians.
Abington worked hard at strengthening the partnership. He cultivated ties to Arafat and his senior lieutenants. He paid a sympathy call to the family of a Palestinian youngster killed in a clash with Israeli settlers. He was a fixture in Gaza and the West Bank, sometimes turning up at confrontations between Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinian youths.
"They knew I was conveying their concerns back to Washington, but I also was carrying pretty tough messages" to them, Abington said. "They always understood that the objective was representing American interests and trying to push the peace process."
Abington's outspoken style--he was a favorite of foreign journalists in Jerusalem--did not always endear him to his superiors in Washington. In May 1997, for example, Abington told the New York Times that Israeli settlement-building under then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was "ideologically driven," a comment that earned him a reprimand from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
But Abington says he did not mince words with the Palestinians, either. When a Palestinian bus bombing jolted him awake early one morning, he hurried to the scene--spotting a severed hand along the way--and called Arafat from his mobile phone to insist that he crack down on terrorism.
The Palestinians have been trying for several years to hire a lobbyist in Washington; according to Abington, none of the big firms was willing. But Abington expressed confidence that helping the Palestinians navigate the shoals of Washington policymaking can only serve the larger interests of Middle East peace.
"I wouldn't do it otherwise," he says.
Edward Gordon Abington
Title: Principal associate, Bannerman & Associates.
Previous job: Deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State Department.
Education: Bachelor's degree, master's in international relations, University of Florida.
Hobbies: Hiking, bicycling, cooking.
CAPTION: Edward G. Abington, former American counsel general in Jerusalem and now the Palestinian Authority's first lobbyist here, says, "I know what I'm doing is controversial."