Sometimes the most revealing administration memoirs are not written by the key principals. Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, merits just seven references in Condoleezza Rice’s memoir, one reference in Bush’s book and none in Vice President Richard Cheney’s account of administration policymaking. Yet Abrams had a front-row seat — and played a critical role — in nearly all eight years of the Bush administration’s efforts to forge peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Less burdened by the need to burnish his image and still seething at what he believes was a misguided lunge at peacemaking glory in the final months of Bush’s presidency, Abrams exposes tensions, mishaps and personality conflicts that had been glossed over in earlier accounts. In particular, he writes of sharp divisions between Rice and Israeli officials that mirror the current conflicts between Israel and the Obama administration.
(Cambridge Univ. Press) - ’Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ by Elliott Abrams
Some of the details — including excerpts from diplomatic texts — may be too much for some readers, but “Tested by Zion” will be catnip for anyone interested in diplomatic history or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abrams’s account of the difficult choices faced by the administration — and the policy decisions it made — will fuel endless debate for generations of students studying international affairs.
Abrams is a controversial figure in Washington. Initially an aide to Democrats such as Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Abrams is one of the original “neoconservatives” who emerged during the Reagan administration. In 1991, as part of the Iran-Contra affair, he pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress. President George H.W. Bush later pardoned him.
For some readers, this background might call into question the accuracy of his memoir. Abrams does not disguise his fiercely pro-Israel perspective, but he carefully documents his account, making clear when he personally witnessed events and when he is relying on secondhand information or making assumptions about a person’s motivations.
He also is open and introspective about administration errors, such as the failure to anticipate the victory of the Hamas militant group in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. That led to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip — which Israel had vacated — and to a split among the Palestinians that hobbles peace efforts to this day.
Though Abrams was part of the National Security Council staff from the start of Bush’s presidency, he did not fully take charge of the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio until after Bush’s seminal June 2002 speech on the conflict. In that speech, the president declared that “a Palestinian state will never be created by terror” but by reform, and he called on Palestinians to reject Yasser Arafat as their leader. Bush’s speech blindsided the State Department and sent shockwaves across Europe and the Middle East, where Arafat was still regarded as a peacemaker despite encouraging the deadly wave of militia attacks known as the Second Intifada.