Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams has written a fascinating account of U.S. attempts to solve what was then and now an insolvable conflict between the Jewish State and Palestinians, who again and again prove unwilling to recognize and live side by side with such a state. “Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” is gripping, filled with twists and turns and tragic. A president intuitively and thoroughly dedicated to the survival of Israel, a great general turned prime minister peacemaker (Ariel Sharon) — followed by the earnest but corruption-plagued prime Ehud Olmert — and a post-Yasser Arafat Palestinian Authority failed to end the conflict. The step-by-step telling of the Bush administration’s efforts leave one to conclude that if such a cast of characters could not accomplish the goal of peace then peace is not a realistic goal, at least insofar as a final status agreement in our lifetime is concerned.
Although the events Abrams relates are generally well known, he has written a page-turner filled with intrigue and suspense. We see the evolution of Condoleezza Rice — from national security adviser and close confidante of the president who faithfully carried out his policies and earned the trust of the Israelis to a secretary of state frantic to find an agreement, in bitter conflict with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, reneging on the roadmap sequence (first an end to terror, then final status negotiations) and ultimately drafting behind the backs of Israel and the White House U.N. Security Resolution 1860 exceptionally hostile to Israel (Rice is forced to abstain from a resolution she drafted). The book ends just after a dismaying Oval Office scene in which Bush, Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Olmert are haggling over a resolution no one but Rice wanted.
Was Rice’s transformation another case of pro- Arab State Departmentitis? Was she driven by ego to secure an historic agreement and to burnish her legacy? Maybe both. And the series of events (Hamas’s victory in Palestinian elections and subsequent coup, as well as the Lebanon War and the Gaza-Israeli war) only served to aggravate her relationship with the Israeli government. As Abrams put it, Rice’s meetings with the Palestinian Authority were pleasant and with the Israelis invariably acrimonious.
George W. Bush is a paradoxical figure in Abrams’s account. Contrary to his popular image, he was intensely involved in the Israel-Palestinian conflict (laboring over line-by-line edits of his famous Rosé Garden speech) and repeatedly rising to Israel’s defense, whether in demanding Arafat be sidelined or that Israel be allowed to defend itself. Bush has an uncanny ability to read the parties. He makes daring breaks with past policy — insisting Arafat be marginalized and that the focus be on the content and not merely the borders of the Palestinian state. And yet in the second term he let Rice run amok, even as he was informed she was no longer hewing to administrative policy. Did he try to rein her in behind closed doors or was he incapable of taking on Rice with whom he was personally so close? We don’t entirely know.
There is Hadley, who heroically helped push through the Iraq surge, in the second term unable or unwilling to challenge his former boss Rice. There are the defense department political appointees and Vice President Dick Cheney, all unwavering in their support for Israel. (Cheney is the lone voice in favor of U.S. military action against the Syrian nuclear reactor.) We see the “perfect” decision-making process result in a wrong result in Abrams eyes when Bush decides not to take out the reactor. When Israel takes matters into its own hands Bush (and the Israelis) remain mum, thereby turning a poor decision into a positive outcome. And there is then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni as a tough negotiator ruling out any right of return ( “Zero” she says is the number of Palestinians Israel should take back after a Palestinian state.)
The book has a discrete focus (virtually nothing about the Iraq war, for example) but dives deeply into the subject to which it is devoted. We see the administration through Abrams’s eyes and experiences and his subsequent interviews with the participants, but he readily acknowledges that he was not privy to all the president’s dealings. He is candid about where his memory and others’ diverge.
In watching the twists and turns, the Bush officials’ nuanced understanding of both Israeli politicians and Palestinians and the clever (albeit unsuccessful negotiation) one wonders if the current administration is even aware of the events that preceded it. The answer is evidently not, considering, for example, that the Obama team chose to ignore the meticulously drafted exchange of letters in 2004 (which among other things agreed to rule out the so-called right of return and allow building within existing Jewish communities so long as they did not expand outward) between Bush and Sharon and ratified overwhelmingly by Congress. Instead of taking up the diplomatic scalpel handed to them by the Bush administration, we know the Obama team proceeded to swing its pickax, hobbling relations with both sides. You have the sense that our Middle East policy apparatus went from the New York Yankees to the local T-ball league with the change in administrations.
In his lessons learned chapter and conclusion, Abrams ties the experiences together to provide some overarching guidelines and takeaways: We wrongly put Israel at the center of all events in the Middle East; Israel takes risks when it feels bolstered by the U.S.; diplomacy matters less than the change in events on the ground; and allowing the president to see the full array of options and make key decisions is critical to a successful foreign policy.
At times the skillfulness of U.S. negotiators and courage of Israeli politicians gives one the hope that a deal really was and could be in the offing. And yet you wonder, by virtue of the Palestinians’ dogged inertness and lack of risk taking, whether it is all a mirage, a shadow boxing match in which one side is present in name only. Throughout Mahmoud Abbas is portrayed as a timid man unwilling and unable to make peace. Unfortunately, one suspects there is no one better who could assume power.
The book is not only a fascinating yarn for those of us who report on or follow closely the Middle East but also a tour de force of diplomatic history which captures an era and set of characters like few books have done. One wishes that the other Bush administration players (involved in both foreign and domestic policy) would craft as detailed and candid accounts so that we can see the totality of the Bush presidency in the same vivid detail Abrams provides. Abrams’s book, both accessible and scholarly, will I suspect become required reading for future generations of diplomats and Middle East observers. At least it should be.