Shadow Government

Abrams’ new book offers window into Middle East peace process

Elliott Abrams’ new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration’s efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider’s account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the ...

PAUL J.RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J.RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Elliott Abrams’ new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration’s efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider’s account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the well-informed reader, it should do something else — it should explain the "why." The book does this very well because it does not shy away from describing the actors’ motives and actions in terms of their own statements and the commentaries of close observers. If readers want to know why the "peace process" has failed repeatedly, this book goes a long way toward explaining its sad outcome. I will let the book speak for itself, but for my part, it confirms much of what I have seen and experienced over the years: The fault lies largely with the Palestinian Arab leadership and the ill-advised attachment of some in the U.S. State Department to diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake.

Abrams does not portray President George W. Bush as perfect, nor for that matter does he portray himself, Condoleezza Rice, or Steve Hadley as above the human tendency to make mistakes or to misunderstand facts or context. And while he sympathizes with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders, he does not consider them perfect. Their flaws and mistakes are revealed here as well. Neither does he count all Palestinian leaders as hopelessly wicked or weak. In my view, Arafat counts as the former and Mahmoud Abbas as the latter, and Abrams’ work makes it hard to escape these conclusions. Abrams shows that the majority of the blame for failure to get to peace lies squarely on the shoulders of those Arabs who continually fail to show 1) a sufficient combination of humanitarian impulse toward "the other" and 2) courage to risk their own positions and comfort.  Ariel Sharon was willing, but Mahmoud Abbas and those around him were either unwilling or unable to do it and to this day will not or cannot. It doesn’t help that other Arab leaders have refused to do their part. It is revealing and depressing to see leaders given the chance to improve the lives of millions who have lived under oppression and been used as pawns squander that chance because they either hate too much or lack the courage to risk their own well-being. 

Abrams’ treatment of the State Department will cause a lot of bureaucrats and foreign service officers to scowl and complain. He relays in detail the problem the White House faced at the beginning of the Bush administration — and continuing through the Rice years when she moved to State — with an agency that wanted to continue to encourage endless dialog between the parties and various other countries when that had never worked before — unless there were two parties at the negotiating table truly seeking peace. We have as examples only Sadat and Begin regarding Egypt, and Hussein and Rabin regarding Jordan. This endless dialog approach was taken by the Clinton administration with Arafat leading the Palestinian side. It is the most recent failure not because of lack of will on the part of Israel or the United States, but because Arafat had no interest in peace and did nothing to prepare his countrymen for responsible self-government. Just ask President Clinton, or Arafat’s widow. So the burden is on State to explain how their preferred modus operandi of talks for the sake of talks would have made any sense in the Bush administration. Instead, the administration pursued a bold plan when it called for a two state solution founded upon the twin goals of an end to terrorism and the building of democracy. Further into the process, when Sharon tried to restart progress on everyone’s agreed to plan, the road map, these same diplomats and bureaucrats — as well as many Israelis, Arabs and Europeans — decried the "unilateralism" of Israel voluntarily and unilaterally leaving territory in Gaza and the West Bank, territory Sharon understood it could not hold indefinitely as a practical or moral matter. 

What did Sharon want in exchange? Nothing but respect and a reciprocation of good will and support. But rather than praise and support a decision that jump-started the peace process that had hit a roadblock in Arafat, many found it Machiavellian. What a shame that in this bizarre world of the Middle East "peace process" an Israeli general turned politician, who actively seeks to improve the lives of Palestinians, is criticized for doing the very thing that can produce momentum. Certainly the tug of war that seems to always ensue between State and the White House over major foreign policy issues played a role in this dissonance, but it was more than that. It was the perennial refusal of modern diplomats’ to understand that diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake produces little good. Diplomacy is supposed to be the servant of policy goals and requires the good faith efforts of all parties who are earnestly seeking an agreement. Israel has yet to have a willing or able partner in achieving an agreement, and all diplomats would do well to understand that. 

In the end, Bush and Sharon failed to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but not for lack of trying. They failed because Arab leaders failed to "love their children more than they hate [Jews]," to borrow from Golda Meir. That, and much more, comes through in Abrams’ very good recounting. 

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