During the administration of George W. Bush, Elliott Abrams served as deputy national security advisor and as the National Security Council (NSC) staff member handling Israeli-Palestinian issues daily. These positions provided him with an authoritative and knowledgeable vantage point for analyzing the Bush administration's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and for evaluating the efficacy of the processes through which U.S. policies toward that conflict were formulated.
At the very outset of Tested by Zion, Abrams dismisses as "nonsense" the charge that President Bush and his staff had paid little attention to the Middle East in general, and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. In response to critics, he notes that "hardly a day went by when Israeli and Palestinian issues were not discussed with the president." From Abrams's detailed account of policy debates, meetings in Washington and abroad, and trips to and from the region, there emerges a portrait of an administration deeply engaged in a constant quest for an end to violence between Israelis and Palestinians and seeking a peace agreement between them.
Yet while Bush is described by Abrams as being "extremely decisive" and as one who "enjoyed making decisions and did not delay facing them," he inexplicably tolerated a modus operandi whereby alternative policies were initially discussed only by subordinates in the Committee of Principals (consisting of the secretaries of state and defense, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and director of central intelligence) who reached a consensus recommendation that was then forwarded to the president for his approval. Abrams notes that only three Principals meetings on the Middle East were held during Bush's entire second term, and that not a single National Security Council meeting dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attended by the president was convened during that period. This faulty decision-making process, compounded by the reluctance of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to challenge the views of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, deprived Bush of alternative options for his consideration and decision.
According to Abrams, major policy disagreements emerged between Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell from the very outset of the administration and they continued throughout the first term. Bush treated Yasser Arafat as an incorrigible terrorist, supported the eventual incorporation by Israel of Jewish West Bank settlement blocks, rejected the demand for absorption of Palestinian refugees by Israel, eschewed intense personal diplomacy in the Clinton mode, and was convinced that demanding costly concessions from Israel would not produce fruitful results. Powell, on the other hand, favored a more activist approach by the secretary of state, sought to engage with Arafat, supported proposals that attempted to extract substantial Israeli concessions without concurrent compromises from the Palestinians, and insisted that Israel stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and end the occupation quickly.
Time and again, Powell came out the loser in his battles with the White House. For example, immediately after 9/11, Powell urged Bush to formulate a new Middle East peace initiative. That approach was rejected by the president, who made it clear in a speech to the UN General Assembly on October 28, 2001, that he endorsed the eventual emergence of a Palestinian state only after total cessation of Palestinian terrorism and without specifying any concessions from Israel. Likewise, in April 2002, when Bush publicly praised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" following the pullout of Israeli forces from their largest operation in the West Bank since the 1967 war, Powell was convinced that the president had committed a huge blunder that severely damaged America's standing in the Arab world. When Bush announced in a major speech on June 24, 2002, that the United States would support a Palestinian state only after the Palestinians stopped terrorism, got rid of Arafat, elected a new leadership and built democratic institutions, Powell was miffed by Bush's failure to mention any inducements for the Palestinians on issues pertaining to boundaries, Jerusalem, refugees and water sharing.
Beginning in early 2002, National Security Adviser Condi Rice began to control the handling of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rice initiated a channel with Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon that provided a direct and secure means for exchanging confidential information between Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. By May 2003, it was National Security Adviser Rice rather than Powell who was acting for the president as formulator and articulator of U.S. Middle East policy.
As secretary of state during Bush's second term, Rice managed to maintain a much more cordial relationship with Sharon than had her predecessor. However, her relationship with Ehud Olmert, who took over for Sharon after his incapacitating stroke in early 2006, began to sour during Israel's war against Hezbollah in August 2006.
After the war, which ended in a stalemate, Rice began to change American policy single handedly, articulating a policy course that, according to Abrams, was not subjected to debate and scrutiny within the National Security Council. Rice's approach favored supporting negotiations on final-status issues without first requiring the Palestinians to cease terrorism and undertake democratic reforms within the Palestinian Authority (PA). Bush supported this change for two reasons: He did not wish to undercut Rice, and he did not believe that her approach would compromise Israeli security — the implementation of any solutions for the final-status issues would be delayed until the Palestinians ended terror and made progress toward democracy. Olmert's cabinet, however, rejected Rice's preferred policy, claiming that it ignored prior American assurances to Israel, altered the sequence outlined in the 2003 Roadmap, and required Israel to make all significant concessions without demanding the Palestinians to do anything.
Tensions between Jerusalem and Washington increased in early 2007 because Rice kept pushing for the start of final-status negotiations even after PA President Mahmoud Abbas entered into a national-unity agreement with Hamas in February. On July 16, 2007, Bush delivered a speech that endorsed Rice's proposal for a Middle East peace conference, to be chaired by her and to be attended by Israel, the PA and leaders of Arab states in the region supporting the two-state solution. To increase the likelihood of a successful conference, Rice urged the Israelis to make several concessions: release 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, impose a temporary freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, modify the route of the security fence, and return the bodies of Palestinians who had been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. These pleas were rejected by Israel, deepening the chill between Rice and Olmert.
The Annapolis conference was convened in late November 2007 and was attended by some 40 countries. Reflecting Rice's hopes, both Israelis and Palestinians agreed to conclude a final-status agreement by the end of 2008. As it turned out, the bilateral talks ended in utter failure for several reasons. First, by mid-2008, Olmert was facing charges of corruption and announced his forthcoming resignation, prompting Abbas to reject any offers from a lame-duck premier and to wait for more generous proposals from Olmert's successor. Second, both sides advanced solutions that were unacceptable to their interlocutors. Third, Olmert's September 13, 2008, offer to Abbas regarding Israel's willingness to withdraw from all but approximately 6.5 percent of the West Bank, in return for an equivalent swap of Israeli territory, was vague; it failed to identify the areas inside Israel that were to be traded and did not specify the security conditions that Israel was expected to impose on the PA. Lastly, Abbas was deterred from entering into an agreement for fear of being accused of treason by his opponents.
On the basis of his role as key adviser to the president, Abrams draws various lessons regarding both the decision-making process and the substance of American policy in the Middle East. With regard to process, the president is urged to organize the White House staff so as to ensure that the most important foreign-policy decisions remain in his own hands instead of merely reflecting consensus reached by subordinates. In addition, presidents ought to demand that national-security agencies, namely state, defense and the NSC, be staffed with political appointees who are familiar with and articulate the president's views instead of their own.
The lessons concerning the substance of U.S. Middle East policies include the following:
• There is a need to avoid subordinating all regional issues — such as the rise of Iran and the emergence of the Arab Spring — to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
• Israel is more likely to be flexible when it is certain of American backing for its security than when such assurance is in doubt.
• It is important for the president to cultivate amiable personal rapport with Israeli prime ministers in order to gain and maintain Israelis' trust in them.
• It is a serious error to focus on negotiations instead of actual events and developments on the ground. Throughout 2008, American energies were concentrated on the Annapolis negotiations, paying little heed to PA Premier Salam Fayyad's pleas for additional aid in building democratic institutions in the West Bank, and ignoring Israeli warnings of impending war with Hamas.
• The United States should avoid excessive intrusion and encourage bilateral diplomatic negotiations between the protagonists.
• The United States should not insist on a total freeze of Jewish settlement projects in the West Bank. No Israeli government would agree to such a demand. Instead, we should support construction that can occur only inside existing Israeli settlements.
• Because the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very complex, it is erroneous to assume that quick progress can be achieved by merely getting the parties to the negotiating table.
Abrams concludes that the Bush administration's policy was partially successful. He argues, "(T)he effort to help Israel end the intifada and then stop terrorism against Israeli citizens largely succeeded," but "the effort to get a final status agreement that would bring a permanent peace failed." His attribution of partial success is problematic for several reasons. First, Abrams tends to ignore other factors besides American policies that may have reduced Palestinian terrorism, including the construction of the security fence by Israel. Second, the author fails to explain which specific Bush policies contributed to the end of the Intifada and the decline of terror.
Third, and relatedly, at no point does Abrams define what he means by terrorism, nor does he explain how he arrives at the conclusion that acts of terror declined during the Bush years. While Palestinian terrorism originating in the West Bank did indeed decrease significantly in recent years, it increased significantly along the border with Gaza, especially during the last three years of the Bush administration. Last but not least, Abrams fails to consider the likelihood that Bush's decidedly pro-Israeli policies, particularly evident during his first term, helped to perpetuate the conflict by angering the Palestinians and depriving the United States of the opportunity to play the critical role of honest broker.