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Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Hardcover – January 14, 2013
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"Elliott Abrams played a major role in the development of Mid-East policy during the Bush administration. He has written an excellent account that will be an invaluable source for future historians and for all who want to understand one of the most important chapters of that era." - Richard B. Cheney, Former Vice President of the United States
"Elliott Abrams was at the epicenter of President Bush's commitment to forge a sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tested by Zion, Abrams's fascinating new book, takes the reader inside the debates that took place in the Oval Office with the president and his senior advisors on Middle East peace." - Dr. Henry Kissinger, Former United States Secretary of State
"Elliott Abrams has written the definitive insider account of the U.S.-Israeli relationship during the critical years under President George W. Bush. This fascinating, important book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of Israel, the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and the prospects for peace in the Middle East." - Joseph I. Lieberman, United States Senator (Independent-Connecticut)
"Abrams's riveting insider account of the Bush administration's policies and actions with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a must-read. Chock-full of details that are relevant not only to historians but to future policy makers, Tested by Zion is accessible, readable, and brilliantly presented. Although I don't always agree with my former student, Elliott Abrams, I always learn from him and am proud to have been one of his teachers. This book really matters." - Alan M. Dershowitz, Harvard Law School, Author of Trials of Zion (2010)
"Elliott Abrams has written an excellent book on a hitherto neglected aspect of Bush administration foreign policy. Meticulous and yet gripping, Tested by Zion weighs the opportunities for diplomacy against its limitations more convincingly than any other account I've seen of the recent Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Highly recommended." - John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University
"Mr. Abrams's book is the definitive history of the last Republican president's considerable accomplishments in the Levant." -Wall Street Journal
"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." -Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post
"Israelis, Americans, and others who read Tested by Zion will gain important insights not only into the history and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also the inner workings of American foreign policy." - Itamar Rabinovich, Jewish Review of Books
"...[TESTED BY ZION] represents the single most cogent statement of the neoconservative analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict." Michael Doran, The Weekly Standard
"...'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." -Glenn Kessler, Washington Post
"From his experience as a senior adviser on the U.S. National Security Council, Abrams provides an intelligent and astonishingly detailed chronicle of the George W. Bush administration's failed attempts at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." -John Waterbury, Foreign Affairs
"...Abrams' work constitutes a very important addition to the library of books by American officials on Washington's role in Middle East peacemaking." -Oded Eran, The Israel Journal of Foreign Affair
"...many will find Abrams's pointed criticisms and historical descriptions to be a refreshing departure from some of the more political and popular accounts of the peacemaking process, which tend to be more overtly political and pro-Israel." -Christopher J. Dolan, H-Diplo
"....detailed, frank, and perceptive account of the George W. Bush administration's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." -Nathan Thrall, New York Review of Books
"This book is a necessary addition to collections with audiences particularly interested in US foreign policy toward the Middle East and US-Israeli relations." -Sanford R. Silverburg, Catawba College, Salisbury, NC
This book tells the inside story of America's policy toward Israel and the Palestinians during the Bush years. Elliott Abrams was the deputy national security advisor who handled Middle Eastern affairs. From Bush, Cheney, Powell, and Rice to Arafat, Sharon, and the kings and sheiks of the Arab world, Abrams takes you inside the White House to understand how policy was really made. These matters are touched on in Bush's and Rice's memoirs, but are only fully examined and explained here - sometimes with admiration, sometimes with sharp criticism, always with new insights and new stories about what really happened.
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But US-Israeli relations have been bad before; what was new during the Obama administration was that while the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu worsened, a love affair was blooming between Netanyahu and the Republican party. The most notable aspect of Israeli-American relationship in 2015 so far has been John Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu, extended without the President's knowledge, to speak before the Congress against the impending US deal with Iran. The Speaker and the House and the Prime Minister were plotting to embarrass Obama and to enhance Netanyahu's prospects before the Israeli election. The very public split was just the most public, but not the first, time in which the alliance between the Israeli right wing government and the Republicans manifested itself; Among other things, it is fueled by the resources of Jewish American mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is a main backer of both Netanyahu and the Republican Presidential challengers.
How did Israel become a partisan issue in the US? While this development has many causes, including of course the increasing partisanship of American politics in general, the nexus of the change came during the George W. Bush administration. A book by an American insider demonstrates how the changing realities of Israeli-Palestinian relationship broke down the American consensus.
Elliot Abrams, an American career diplomat who has held various roles under Reagan and George H. W. Bush, served under the National Security Adviser in the George W. Bush administration. “Tested By Zion”, his book about the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in the Bush years, offers a cogent, well argued, and appealing apologia for what may be called “The Conservative Republican View of the Peace Process”. Like other books by senior and junior diplomats whom participated in the peace process (Dennis Ross's “The Missing Peace” is the purest specimen of that genre), Abrams's book has its share of amusing anecdotes. My favorite is his account of seeing Ariel Sharon eating what must have been ham. Abrams asked Sharon if he realized what he was eating “Elliot,” Sharon responded “Sometimes it is better not to ask”. But unusually for this genre, the descriptions of meetings and the anecdotes serve to illuminate and elucidate the main themes that Abrams discusses and emphasizes.
Abrams's account is very much slanted towards Israel; two examples will, I hope, suffice. Abrams regularly reports the murder of Israelis in terrorist attacks. A typical line reads “On June 18th, 19 people were killed and 74 injured, many of them students, by the suicide bombing of a bus just outside Jerusalem” (p.41). The killing of Palestinians by the IDF is never mentioned, unless the killing plays an overt role in the political situation, such as the Qana airstrike that killed 28 civilians, during the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006.
The second example is more subtle; one of the main Israeli responses to the Al Aqsa Intifada was the construction of the Israeli West Bank Barrier (“Security Fence” for the Israelis; “Apartheid Wall” for the Palestinians). It is unarguable that the Barrier prevented a lot of terrorist acts; Yet it is also clear that the route of the Barrier was designed in order to include as much West Bank territory and as few Palestinians as possible; Indeed, the Israeli Supreme Court intervened several times regarding the route of the Barrier, undoing some of the worst excesses. Abrams mentions the security concerns, but ignores the use of the Barrier as an instrument of land grabbing. But despite Abrams's biases, he is a formidable advocate for his worldview, a worldview that was adopted – at least initially – by the George W. Bush administration.
The transition between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush saw no great change in American policy towards the region. Bush had been warned about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by his predecessor; As he prepared to take office, Clinton pressed upon him his view that Arafat was dishonest and unreliable. As he swore the oath of office, Israel and the Palestinians were at war; It was already suspected than that Arafat had ordered the Intifada (“Rebellion” or “Uprising”, but Literally “Flooding” in Arabic) against Israel. The White House was inclined to see Arafat as a terrorist; When Arafat was linked to a ship smuggling weapons, including rockets, into Palestine, the view solidified. This was in Early 2002 – a few months after 9/11, during the Global War on Terror. George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wanted to fight terrorists, not to parley with them. Following its failure, Bush had no taste for more Clintonesque “Peace Process”. He supported a Palestinian state, but not negotiations with Palestinian terrorists. His “Roadmap” called Palestinians to reform themselves, to replace their corrupt, terrorist leadership, to democratize their institutions. The reward would be a Palestinian state.
But Arafat had no intentions of being replaced. Under pressure, he appointed Prime Ministers – first Mahmoud Abbas, than Ahmed Qurie – but would grant them no power. Both eventually resigned.
Israel and the US were unwilling to negotiate with Arafat. But Arafat was the Palestinian leader – there were no others. Israelis and Palestinians were deadlocked; There seemed no way out of the impasse.
That is, until Sharon found one. The Disengagement Plan – Israel would evacuate Gaza, including its military bases there and the eight thousand or so Israeli Settlers. More generally, Sharon outlined a new strategy: Unilateralism. Israel alone, not in negotiation with the Arabs, would determine its own borders. (Actually, the policy of Unilateralism was foreshadowed by PM Ehud Barak's evacuation of Southern Lebanon in 2000).
This was a way of squaring the circle; The US wanted a Palestinian state, but it did not want the negotiations with the Palestinian leadership that could, perhaps, lead there. The White House, and Abrams, enthusiastically supported Sharon's plan, giving him all the help they could. Despite much opposition in Israel, the disengagement was moving forward. And then, days after Bush was reelected, Arafat died.
Former Prime Minister Abbas was selected, and later elected, as President in Arafat's stead. Yet the Disengagement plan, which was conceived as a way to go around Arafat, continued to move forward. Abrams reflects, briefly, on why the plan was not reconsidered; At the end, his reflections are unsatisfactory. The only conclusion I get from the account was that it was a case of sunk costs – everyone was too invested in the plan to reevaluate it, or to make sure that Abbas and his fellow Palestinian moderates got the credit for it.
The lack of cooperation and coordination of the Disengagement with the new Palestinian leadership was one of the great mistakes of the Administration's Israeli/Palestinian policy. Another was pressuring Abbas to hold parliamentary elections, and particularly not pressuring him enough to prohibit Hamas from running in the election as long as they were a paramilitary organization with its own firepower. The Israelis were unanimously opposed to Hamas's participation. This was made worse by the lack of planning for the eventuality of a Hamas victory in the election. A Hamas victory seemed impossible – but Hamas did win.
Meanwhile, in Israel, too, there was a change in leadership: 78 years old Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke, and went into a permanent vegetative state from which he would never recover. He was replaced by 60 years old Ehud Olmert, who campaigned and won an election on a program of Israeli Unilateralism – with or without Palestinian acquiescence, Israel would withdraw from about 90% of the West Bank.
2006 was a moment of rare Israeli consensus: Olmert's Kadima, along with the center- left Labour party and the center Gil party won 55 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament. To put it in perspective, in 2013, the more-or-less equivalent parties won just 44 seats; Israel seemed determine to proceed with Unilateralism – with strong support by the United States.
But the era of Unilateralism was to be a short one. After serving as acting Prime Minister from the beginning of 2006, Olmert formed a coalition and became prime minister in his own right on April 14th 2006. Less than three months later, Lebanon's Shiite Militia, Hezbollah, attacked an Israeli patrol, killing three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others. The second Israel-Lebanon War broke out.
When the war started, the US, Israel, and even the Europeans and (privately) Arab leaders were shared a consensus view: Israel must defeat Hezbollah. The war should last long enough to allow Israel to seriously harm Hezbollah, and end with a change in the status quo in favor of Israel, such as the introduction of an International Force to police Southern Lebanon.
But, it turned out, Israel was unable to crush Hezbollah.. As the war dragged on, first the Europeans and at the end even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abandoned the plans of a massive “Game Change”, in favor of the status quo ante bellum; This created huge tensions between the Israelis and the Americans, for the first time since Bush took office. The tensions were unavoidable - “Israel could not win at the UN what it had failed to achieve on the battlefield” (p. 189).
Olmert's popularity, which had sky rocketed briefly as the hostility's outbreak, collapsed and never recovered following the war. He would limp on, a lame duck amidst coalition troubles and corruption charges, until early 2009. Furthermore, in the Israeli collective judgement, Unilateralism was dead. The 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon seemed a disastrous mistake, and events unfolding in Gaza seemed to reinforce that judgment.
The Palestinian split government – with Abbas as its President and Ishmael Haniyeh as the Hamas Prime Minister – was extremely unstable. Armed clashes between Abbas's Fatah and Hamas grew increasingly frequent. Various agreements and truces collapsed repeatedly. The crisis peaked in June 2007, when Hamas drove the Fatah's men out of Gaza. Abbas dismissed the Hamas Prime Minister, and appointed a US educated moderate, Salam Fayyad, in his stead. The Palestinian territories were split between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the West Bank, under Israeli and PA control.
In a sense, the split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority made life simpler for the Americans and the Israelis; Previously, Israelis were unsatisfied with the Palestinian's failure to confront Hamas – but the break ended that. The Americans, previously unable to deal with the Hamas representatives in the Palestinian government, could now work with the Palestinians, and found in Fayyad a strong partner for building Palestinian institutions.
But these changing circumstances signaled the end of the consensus regarding the way forward on Israel/Palestine. With the Lebanon war and the Hamas takeover of Gaza, unilateral Israeli action was no longer a viable political program. And the Palestinian Authority, now led by moderates Abbas and Fayyad rather than by the duplicitous Arafat, started to seem like a plausible partner for Peace negotiations.
Condoleezza Rice became the leader of the faction which called for a return to high-level negotiations, the Clintonesque Peace Process solution. Abrams's account on Rice's motives convincingly combines the personal – the bad blood with the Israelis after the Lebanon war and the desire for a major policy achievement – with the institutional – Foggy Bottom is more attuned to Arab and International voices than the White House. In the same spirit, several years later, Secretary of State Kerry would lead the next major (and also unsuccessful) attempt at high stake, top-down Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Elliot emerged as the opposition, supporting instead a "bottom-up" approach. "Negotiations were all or nothing; in contrast, on the ground, if you did not train 1,000 new policemen, you might hit 750; if you did not remove five checkpoints, you might remove three… my skepticism about [the talks] led me to champion doing more… to strengthen the core of elements of what might someday be the Palestinian state" (p. 259).
"Might someday be"… but would there be? Hard-line critics of the Palestinian Authority's strategy argued that it served as a collaborator of the Israeli occupation. That the good government reforms were constituted ???a meaningnless side show designed to allow Israel to occupy the Palestinian territories at a lower cost. Occasionally, Elliot hints in that direction. "What can we offer [Abbas]?" Elliot quotes an Israeli diplomat, "the most he can get from any Israeli Government is something like 90% of the West Bank, no right of return, and something on Jerusalem – and if he offers that to the Palestinians, he will fail" (p. 213).
Furthermore, Abrams acknowledges that many of the reforms that he had urged – removing check points, improving the economic situation of the Palestinians - happened under Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2009; That did not bring us any closer to a Palestinian state. Under Netanyahu, surely, Israel is only interested in prolonging the occupation at as low a cost to itself as possible. Following Fayyad's departure as Prime Minister, it is not even clear that the reforms he had ushered in would not be rolled back, at least partially.
Ultimately, no deal was reached in the negotiations between the Olmert government and the Palestinian Authority. Olmert's political weakness probably made any such agreement impossible for him to deliver.
With the fall of Arafat and the failure of Israeli Unilateralism, the mainstream US policy has returned to the path of negotiations as the way to a two-state solutions. But Abrams shows that an alternative view also exists. This view puts the blame for the failure of the peace process squarely on the Palestinians' shoulders. In effect, it wipes out the difference between Arafat and the post Arafat Palestinian leadership. In his conclusion, Abrams blames "the PLO's unwillingness or inability after Arafat as well as under Arafat to sign a compromise agreement" (p. 310). If the Palestinians are at fault for the lack of the Palestinian state, there's no need for Israel to make significant concessions.
This view is of course appealing to Netanyahu, whose coalition is fiercely against a Palestinian state. That adoption of Abrams' view by the Republican establishment put it in complete harmony with the Israeli government. But neither the International community nor the Democratic party is likely to adopt this view, and even a Republican administration may find itself hesitant to swallow it hook, line and sinker.
It seems to me that the unilateral solutions of Sharon may be worth another look; 9 years of quiet after the Lebanon war make the war, and the decision to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, seem to be a wiser course than they looked in 2007. The situation in Gaza is more complicated, but a form of modus vivendi, with occasional rounds of warfare, has developed on that front as well. We can expect a unilateral retreat from the West Bank, especially if it is better coordinated with the Palestinians than the 2005 one, to end up better than the Gaza disengagement. It may also inspire the Palestinians and their friends to expedite the State building programs.
Having abandoned the Clintonesque policy of top down negotiations, Bush II found himself returning to it late in his term. Perhaps Israel's policy should also follow this cyclical pattern.
1. The Palestinians have had some really decent offers on the table, and stupidly rejected them.
2. Israels given quite a bit in this process, more than most will knowledge. But they will only go so far.
3. Good lord I miss professionals and adults in charge of these matters.
It's a great view into the Bush years dealings with Israel. Many didn't like the guy, or his staff. But give them props, they understood what was needed, and knew how to negotiate. You may not agree with their viewpoint, but they had a plan and knew what they were doing and knew when to back off. The quotes from the interactions with Sharon and Bush were priceless. Especially Bush's reply when Sharon said we'd never tolerate Mexico lobbing missiles into Texas.
I had to stop reading it in the middle and start reading it piece by piece while I was reading something else too, this is not a book you can sit down to and read start to finish.