Authors: Elliott Abrams
This book tells the full inside story of the George W. Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Written by a top National Security Council officer who worked at the White House with Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice and attended dozens of meetings with figures like Ariel Sharon, Hosni Mubarak, the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and Palestinian leaders, it brings the reader inside the White House and the palaces of Middle Eastern officials. How did 9/11 change American policy toward Yasser Arafat and Sharon's tough efforts against the Second Intifada? What influence did the Saudis have on President Bush? Did the American approach change when Arafat died? How did Sharon decide to get out of Gaza, and why did the peace negotiations fail? In the first book by an administration official to focus on Bush and the Middle East, Elliott Abrams brings the story of Bush, the Israelis, and the Palestinians to life.
Elliott Abrams was educated at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the London School of Economics. After working on the staffs of the late Senators Henry M. Jackson and Daniel P. Moynihan, he served all eight years of the Reagan administration as an assistant secretary of state and received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award from Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Abrams is former president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He was a member and later chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001, and he was reappointed to membership in 2012. He is currently a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which directs the activities of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Abrams is the author or editor of six books. He served at the White House as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East. Abrams is now a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and teaches about U.S. policy in the Middle East at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
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“If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression, equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government.”
George W. Bush, Speech in the Rose Garden, the White House, June 24, 2002
“Israel's population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you.”
George W. Bush, Speech to the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 15, 2008
For Rachel, of course
Many people helped me bring this book to publication. I should start with President George W. Bush and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who hired me in 2001 for the White House staff, and with Steve Hadley, the national security advisor in the president's second term. The many officials and former officials – mostly Americans, but also Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians – who agreed to be interviewed helped me immeasurably to reconstruct the relevant events of the Bush administration. Many of them are mentioned in the text, but doing my work in the White House also required the assistance of a number of people whose names do not appear here. These are the young officers, mostly from the State Department and CIA, who worked for me at the National Security Council (NSC) in the Bush years. Their dedication to advancing American interests in the Middle East and their ability to make their boss look good were enormous, as is my gratitude to them all.
Since leaving the government I have been a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, probably the best place on the planet for writing a book. I thank CFR’s president Richard N. Haass and its director of studies James M. Lindsay for their steadfast support and good advice during this entire project. While I was drafting the manuscript, reviewing written materials, and conducting interviews, Edward Stein was my research associate at CFR, and he deserves my thanks for his help and unfailing good cheer. Rachel Steyer, his successor, worked diligently on the final preparations of the manuscript. Rebecca Nagel of the Wylie Agency then took the manuscript and arranged for it to be published, and I greatly appreciate her unflagging support. Of course, none of this would be possible without the donors to my program – and especially without Roger Hertog, Paul Singer, James Tisch, Mortimer Zuckerman, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation – as well as those who support Middle East studies at CFR more broadly. Although I do not list all the donors here, I hope they all know how grateful I am for their generosity.
And as always, the person who gave me the best advice and most important support was my wife Rachel. No words can ever express my gratitude to her.
For all its eight years, the administration of George W. Bush struggled to end violence between Israelis and Palestinians and lead them forward toward a peace agreement. The effort to help Israel end the intifada and then stop terrorism against Israeli citizens largely succeeded, and to this day the number of violent incidents remains low. Yet the effort to get a final status agreement that would bring a permanent peace failed, despite the immense amount of time and energy spent on it.
Many readers will wonder about or simply disagree with these statements, but the narrative that follows will, I hope, persuade some. The usual complaint about Bush policy – that the president and his staff paid little or no attention to the Middle East (or, in another version, paid no attention until the last years in office when it was simply too late to achieve much) – is nonsense, and this account will show, trip by trip and meeting by meeting, what we were up to and how much energy we devoted to this region.
At least it will show what happened from one vantage point. A memoir of years spent in the government is always the tale of what the author saw, and the full picture will be available only to historians, writing decades later when all the memoirs have been published, the memos declassified, and the emails opened to public review. As a deputy national security advisor and the NSC staff member at the White House who handled Israeli-Palestinian affairs day in and day out, my vantage point was pretty good. I do not doubt that I missed some events, but I doubt I missed much that was very consequential when it came to the Israelis and Palestinians. The account here is as complete as I can make it, thanks to dozens of former colleagues here and in the Middle East who helped me reconstruct events. Some of the telephone calls and meetings recounted here are painful to recollect even at the distance of 5 or 10 years; others are a source of lasting pride.
But this book is not a defense of all we did in those eight years. President Bush's key insights were keen and abandoned previous policy in critical ways. He believed that separation of Israelis and Palestinians into two states would
benefit both – but only if the Palestinian state was peaceful and democratic. He therefore treated Yasser Arafat not as an honored guest at the White House but as a terrorist and failed leader who had to be removed from power. He believed that Israeli security was essential to any hope for peace in the region and strongly backed Israel's right to defend itself even when international criticism was deafening. He understood – and understood the need to say aloud – that in any peace agreement, Israel would keep the major settlement blocks and that Palestinian refugees would have to settle in Palestine rather than “return” to Israel.
Yet too often, diplomacy became the goal rather than the means, and building the institutions of a future democratic, peaceful, prosperous Palestine was subordinated to illusory efforts at the negotiating table. There was remarkable progress in the West Bank, where competent governance and decent security forces appeared for the first time and gave hope of what a Palestinian state might someday look like. Yet far more could have been accomplished had progress on the ground, in the actually existing Palestine between the Green Line and the Jordan River, been our central target. It seemed to me that too often we forgot that reality on the ground will shape an agreement, not vice versa.
In the Middle East and in Europe, the usual criticism of Bush's policy (after saying that we did nothing for eight years) was that we tilted to Israel. I am inclined to plead guilty, but it depends of course on what is meant by “tilt.” President Bush was dedicated to helping the Palestinians escape the despotic, corrupt Arafat rule and create a fully democratic state that would be a model for the entire region. In his view, “supporters” of the Palestinians who were indifferent to the nature of the Palestinian state and focused only on its borders were doing the Palestinians no favors. He was well aware that, despite their endless speeches about Palestinian rights, most Arab leaders treated resident Palestinian populations badly and placed their own interests far above those of the “Palestine” they claimed to protect. Nor did he believe that staunch solidarity with Israel when its security was at risk meant he was favoring Israelis over the Palestinians. He knew that only a secure Israel would ever take the risk of withdrawing from the West Bank, so Israeli security was an essential step toward Palestinian self-government. He did not believe that endless pressure on Israel for concessions would yield as much as a partnership with its leaders, so he built one. He “tilted” to Israel but to the Palestinians as well, confident that he could do both and help both sides move toward peace and security in the process.
I believed in this policy – and fought for it even when at one moment of crisis or another the administration and its representatives seemed to me to sway from these principles. President Bush inherited a collapsed peace process and an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that during the intifada was killing hundreds on each side. He left behind a far deeper American relationship with Israel and the beginnings of state-building in Palestine. These pages follow the course of those events: how policy developed after 9/11, the struggle against Arafat, the
partnership with Sharon, the Hamas electoral victory and takeover of Gaza, Israel's wars in Lebanon and Gaza, the reform of the Palestinian Authority, and the repeated but unsuccessful efforts to negotiate peace. In this book I also trace the struggles, sometimes emotional and tough, within the administration over Middle East policy.
Whenever I speak about my experiences in the White House and in Jerusalem and Ramallah, I am asked whether there is really any chance for peace. I often respond by telling this story. Visitors to Israel know that every Israeli now appears to have a Blackberry and an iPad, and hard data show there actually are more than one cell phone per person. But not long ago Israel had a telephone system that was best described as Balkan or Levantine. A central bureaucracy in the Ministry of Communications controlled everything and worked with all the inefficiency one would expect. The phones were clunky and black, lines were too few, repairs were always late, and getting a new line was a major challenge.
An American of my acquaintance made
to Israel and set up there as a translator. When business became good enough he moved out of the place he had been sharing, rented an apartment, and went to the Ministry office to fill out the forms to get a phone. He lined up at the window and pushed his forms under the glass to the clerk, who briefly perused them and dropped them in a box. Before the clerk could say “Next,” the American said, “Please wait. I’m new. I just made
. I’m not sure I filled the forms out right, and I don't want to delay getting a phone because of some error I made. Please take another look.” The clerk frowned, but did so and told him the forms were fine. “Great,” said the American. “So when can I get a phone? I mean, I know you don't give appointments, but roughly when?” “I don't know,” the clerk replied, “but roughly it should just be four months.”
“Four months! Four months!” the American called out. “That's impossible. People have to call me to translate things. If they can't call, I’ll starve. And my mother – my mother is sick. I call her every day and she has to be able to call me at any time. Four months! It's not possible. Isn't there any hope it can be less than four months?”
The clerk smiled through the glass and replied slowly, “Sure. Sure. Sure there's hope. There's no chance – but there's hope.”
That seems to me the best summary today of the Middle East peace process: There is hope, but no chance. At least there is no chance for a magic formula conjured up in a diplomatic salon that will end decades of conflict. A peaceful, democratic Palestinian state will be built in the West Bank slowly, step by step, or it will not be built at all. How the Bush administration set about to help Israelis end the violence and help Palestinians build that state is the center of this story.