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.
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.
Indeed, Abrams casts Rice’s decision to put him charge of Middle East policy after Bush’s speech as a signal that “Rice was staking out a position: closer to Cheney and Bush and farther from [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell and State,” which had preferred to keep dealing with Arafat. Abrams believed that progress was made not by demanding concessions from Israel but by hugging the Jewish state as closely as possible — and that every day that Arafat remained in power was a defeat for the president’s policy. He tasked himself to remain true to the vision of Bush’s speech.
Abrams’s book is a reminder of how dysfunctional the policymaking process was during the Bush administration, when disputes were never resolved but simply deferred for another battle. In 2004, when the administration was considering whether to back Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to exit Gaza, Abrams writes of the “nonsense” repeatedly spouted by the State Department spokesman on the administration’s position. He then approvingly quotes from a Washington Post article I wrote on the administration’s policy. That article, based on NSC and Israeli briefings that I had requested, contained on-the-record statements from a White House official. The day it appeared, a senior State Department official called me to say that top officials there were “freaking out” over it. In other words, rather than hold an interagency meeting to settle policy, senior officials communicated with each other through the newspaper.
Abrams’s most complex relationship is with Rice. On the one hand, he admired her work ethic, describing himself as “dazzled by her efficiency, lightning intelligence, and charm.” But the book really comes alive when he finds himself increasingly disillusioned by her approach to the conflict after she became an extraordinarily powerful secretary of state.
Abrams chose to remain at the White House in Bush’s second term, mistakenly believing that the power would reside there, as it had in the first four years. He had not counted on Bush’s willingness to give Rice free rein — or on what he describes as a sharp break between Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Relations became so tense between Olmert and Rice that, according to Abrams, when Olmert told Bush he admired her efforts to convene a peace conference in Annapolis in 2007, Bush replied, “No, you don’t, she pisses you off.” As Abrams put it, “Jaws seemed to hang open” among the Israeli and U.S. officials.
Abrams remained deeply skeptical of Rice’s efforts to forge a peace deal, believing it marked a return to the failed policies of the Clinton administration: “The peace process was like Tinkerbelle, in that if we all just believed in it firmly enough it really would survive.” He wrote memo after memo for national security adviser Stephen Hadley, decrying her approach, but Hadley repeatedly deferred to Rice. One suspects that, after a while, Abrams wrote his memos more for future diplomatic historians to peruse when they are declassified than to influence policy.
Rice’s efforts came to naught, as Abrams predicted. The process has become even more stagnant under the Obama administration, after an early effort to pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion backfired spectacularly. Abrams has been a sharp critic of Obama’s policies, but ironically one of his key recommendations is that the president “should organize the White House staff to keep the key decisions in his own hands.”
By all accounts, Obama is the most controlling foreign policy president in recent history, keeping the State Department under his thumb in ways that Abrams could only have dreamed of.
TESTED BY ZION
The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
By Elliott Abrams
Cambridge Univ. 339 pp. $30