The world of politics is divided between insiders and outsiders – those who know and those who don’t, those who make policy and those who react to it, those who observe directly and those who peer from beyond a curtain.
From December 2002 to January 2009, Elliott Abrams was an insider. As deputy assistant to the president and later deputy national security adviser – with the Middle East as his focus – Abrams interacted daily with such figures as President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
In his new book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Cambridge University Press), Abrams shares his insider vantage point. Educated at Harvard University and the London School of Economics, Abrams also served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and today is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Jewish Press: You begin Tested by Zion with Bill Clinton warning Bush about Yasir Arafat. Can you elaborate?
Abrams: Every new presidential administration starts off with the old president and new president meeting in the Oval Office for a kind of handshake before everybody goes up to Capitol Hill for the inauguration. It’s just a formality. But on January 20, 2001, when Clinton handed over to Bush, it was not a formality. Clinton had a message he wanted to deliver, which was basically, “Don’t trust Arafat” – and he said it repeatedly. “He lied to me, he’ll lie to you. Don’t trust him.”
The Bush administration, as you write, eventually adopted this position, but then decided to invest its efforts in Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) – a man who spent 40 years in Arafat’s PLO and argued in his Ph.D. thesis that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was inflated by Zionists for their own ends. Why would the Bush administration trust someone like him?
In June 2003, Abbas did exactly what we hoped he would do. He met with Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan and said the armed intifada is over. He said there’s no justification for using violence against Israelis anywhere. That made a big impression on Bush. We saw no evidence – ever – in eight years that Abbas was involved in terrorism.
But even today you read occasional media reports of Abbas attending ceremonies at which Palestinian schools or streets are named after notorious terrorists.
This is a terrible problem. There is a culture of violence there, and one of Abbas’s weaknesses is that he’s not a violent person. He’s never held a gun, and he’s never been to an Israeli prison. The guys who are viewed as heroes by the Palestinians are people who have committed acts of violence.
Now, what do you do about that? What you ought to do is try to change the culture. Instead, what Fatah and Abbas have done is feed it – by glorifying the mothers of terrorists, glorifying terrorists themselves, and naming schools, streets, or squares after them.
We in the U.S. have never taken this seriously enough, and frankly, neither have the Israelis. We all say, “Oh, you should stop doing this,” but we never insist on it. No one has ever said, for example, “U.S. support for the PA is going to stop on the first of the month unless that kind of stuff is eliminated.”
And yet, the Bush administration – particularly Condoleezza Rice, as your book makes clear – pushed Israel to sign some sort of peace deal with Abbas. Why?
Condi thought a comprehensive peace agreement was possible. She, and Olmert, thought that if offered a sufficiently generous package by Israel, Abbas would sign.
I thought it was impossible – first, because the problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians are very deep – just think of Jerusalem, for example – and second, because I never thought Abbas had the courage to sign an agreement since he would be immediately accused of treason [by many of his own people].
Did Condoleezza Rice and President Bush know your views on the matter?
They both knew. In fact, whenever I would go to Israel – which was very frequently – I would come back and the president would say, “What’s up? Olmert is very optimistic,” and I would say to the president, “Well, I know Olmert tells you he’s optimistic, but I’m telling you there’s never going to be a deal here.”
So the president knew, and he would say to people, “Condi’s optimistic, Olmert’s optimistic, but Elliott’s not optimistic.”
How often would you speak with the president about the Middle East?
If we were both in Washington, probably on average twice a week.
Were these five-minute conversations? Half-hour conversations?
It would vary. I mean sometimes it was because a foreign leader was visiting the president, so if you count the time I spent briefing the president, the actual meeting, and then the discussion afterwards – that would be a couple of hours.
Sometimes it would be for a phone call. Let’s say he was calling Sharon or Mubarak. So that would be more like 45 minutes. And sometimes it would just be a question. That would be 15 minutes.
Why would you be present during a phone call between Bush and a foreign leader?
The way business was done was… let’s say we scheduled a call at 7:00 in the morning with the president of Egypt. I would go in about 10 minutes before and we would talk about why we were doing the call. I would also tell the president anything new that had happened in the last, let’s say, 12 hours that might be important for the call.
For instance, if it was Mubarak’s birthday, I would say, “You should wish him a happy birthday.” It was a kind of an update briefing. Then we would do the call – I would be in the room listening – and then at the end of the call we would chat about it and discuss the follow-up. [The president might say something like], “That was interesting, but I need to talk to the Saudis now” or “I need to talk to Sharon now.”
Many of Bush’s critics portray him as something of a bumbling Texas idiot. You make it clear in the book that you disagree.
He was very smart. I mean, all you had to do was be in a meeting with him to see how smart he was – both about the issues and about the people.
He paid very close attention to his personal relations with foreign leaders. In this he was very much like Clinton, and not at all like Obama who seems to dislike spending time with foreign leaders. Bush liked it and thought it was important. He thought that if a relationship of confidence was established you could get more from these guys.
You write that Bush’s Texas English threw foreign leaders off sometimes.
Bush talked in one way to everybody – to his wife, to you and me, to the American people, and to foreign leaders. He had one way of speaking, which I would call “Texan.” And it was funny because very often there were foreigners who didn’t really follow completely. Ariel Sharon was one of them. Sometimes he would get lost in a meeting, and he would turn to his chief of staff, Dubi Weissglass, and say, “Mah?”
The president would use lots of colloquial expressions. For example, if he was asking someone whether he was going to join the United States in some action, he might say, “You know, the question is whether you’re going to saddle up with us.” Now, if you haven’t watched a lot of Westerns and you’re not an American, you don’t know what that means.
Talking about Sharon, you quote Condoleezza Rice as saying: “[H]e’s one of the very few people I know who spoke English better than he understood it.”
She was right. Sharon seemed to have better English than he did because on most subjects you might want to talk to him about – Egypt, Syria, settlements, the IDF, Iran – he kind of had talking points in his head. He had the words ready. He used them a thousand times. But that didn’t mean his comprehension was great. So often he would lose track of what was being said to him.
Of all the major figures in the White House during your tenure, who would you say was the most sympathetic to Israel?
I would say the president, first of all, and Cheney. They had a really deep appreciation for Israel, which I think was a great surprise for a lot of Israelis, particularly about Cheney because he had worked in the Arab world for so long. I would say Rumsfeld was also a very strong supporter of Israel. Bob Gates, his successor, was not.
I think Condi was very sympathetic in the first term. After the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, though, she was less sympathetic. I think she felt the Israelis had lost their way – that they had made a mistake in that war and had prosecuted it poorly – and that she was now going to have to take a much stronger hand in pushing them into an agreement with the Palestinians. She lost faith in Olmert, but also in the IDF.
How about Powell?
I think Powell was not sympathetic right from the start. Powell adopted, what I would call, the State Department view of Israel, which is basically that Israel is making trouble for us in the Middle East with our Arab friends and that it ought to be pressured harder. This is the traditional State Department view, and I think Powell had that view right from the beginning.
In the book you refer to “the apparent American obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Why is the U.S. government generally so obsessed? Why doesn’t it take a more hands-off policy (as it arguably is doing now)?
I think it’s partly because there is a mistaken view – and this has been held at the State Department for a very long time – that the central issue in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if you were able to solve that conflict, all of our other problems would go away or be much easier to resolve. If you believe that, you’re going to spend a lot of time on this issue.
I think it’s ridiculous, though. Do you think that if you resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran would stop trying to get a nuclear weapon? Do you think the Syrians would stop killing each other? Do you think Egypt or Libya would become stable all of a sudden?
Did you ever get a sense while working in the White House that you were suspected as taking a more pro-Israel stance because you’re a Jew?
Not from the president or the vice president or anybody else in the administration. Not from most of the Arabs either. I would say the exception was the Saudis, where I did have the feeling that they believed I was a kind of Israeli agent – that I was not working for the interests of the United States but for the interests of Israel.