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Elliott Abrams: Tested by Zion, then and now

Elliott Abrams is the Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His CFR blog is Pressure Points. He served, most recently, on the staff of the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration commencing in June 2001, first as a deputy assistant to the president and later as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy.

He is also the author of Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a definitive insider’s account of the subject. “In Mr. Abrams’s telling,” Lee Smith writes in his excellent Wall Street Journal review, the book is “also a story about character. Do the actors tell beautiful lies about peace for their own self-glorification, or do they tell the truth—about Israel, about the Palestinians and about themselves?”

We invited Mr. Abrams to write something touching on the book that would let us bring it to the attention of our readers. He has graciously responded with this timely column:

One day in January 2006, I was on a visit to Jerusalem as the National Security Council official handling the Middle East for President Bush. It had been a long day, starting early, full of difficult meetings and a trip to Ramallah, and culminating in another meeting at the Consul General’s house.

When that meeting ended I told the Consul General that I was dead tired and needed a nap before the dinner that was next on the schedule and would keep us going to midnight. Hold on, he said; stick around; this new senator from Illinois is coming to see me in 15 minutes; why don’t you join the meeting? Naaah, I said, yawning; who, this guy Obama? Not much interested. I’ll skip it.

Thus did I miss my chance to meet the young senator and find out, face to face, what he was thinking back then about his visit to Jerusalem. So, he is not a character in my new book, Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinan Conflict. The account has to make do with dramatis personae who include Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, Colin Powell, and the kings of Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

Now five years later, Obama is traveling to Jerusalem again—only this time we know a bit more about what he thinks. Judging by the last four years, he buys into the following views, all of which are just plain wrong:

–Jewish history starts in around 1933, and Zionism is the product of the Holocaust.
–The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central issue in the Middle East.
–Israeli settlements are the central problem to overcome in resolving the conflict.
–Prime Minister Netanyahu is a bad guy and largely responsible for the lack of progress toward peace.
–The best way to make progress is to forget pragmatic, incremental steps and try for a comprehensive final status agreement.
–To get Israel to take difficult steps, the United States should criticize it publicly, create distance between our two countries, and make Israelis feel less and less secure.

But he’s a good politician, and he must have realized by now that something has gone wrong. His four years as president have been the first in decades when there were no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at all, and he has managed to lose credibility in Jerusalem and in Ramallah simultaneously. That would be hard to achieve if it were the actual goal, but turns out to be easy if your policy simply bears little relationship to reality.

The reality is this: Israelis want peace but do not believe the current Palestinian leadership is capable of delivering it. Gaza has seared into their minds the dangers of trading “land for peace” and getting instead more terrorism. They read nice speeches by the PLO leadership about peace and compromise, and then see the same leaders embracing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and negotiating with Hamas for a “government of national unity.” They also know that peace will require compromises that create risks for Israeli security, so they look around. How safe and stable is Egypt, or Jordan, Syria or Lebanon? How firmly can they rely on the United States and its president? How certain can they be that President Obama means it when he says “I am not bluffing” and “my policy is prevention” of an Iranian bomb?

Among the lessons Bush learned, as Clinton had learned before him, is that a secure Israel will take risks that an insecure, worried Israel wll not. I tell the story of the Bush-Sharon relationship in Tested By Zion, and it’s clear that Sharon felt we really had his back—not because the president told Jewish audiences “I have their back” but because we backed him, in crisis after crisis. When he killed a terrorist we said “Israel has the right to defend itself.” When an anti-Israel resolution was brought to the UN we quickly vetoed it—and avoided many others by letting it be known right at the start of negotiations that we were happily waiting for the opportunity to cast another veto. Netanyahu, and Israel in the Obama years, have clearly never felt this level of American support.

Now the president is returning to Jerusalem, approximately four years too late to do very much good. Still, he has a chance to say some useful things. The new list would be a bit different from the one above:

–He understands the ancient tie of the Jewish people to Israel as the Jewish homeland, and the pain caused by the very idea of giving up any piece of it.
–Seeing the “Arab Spring,” he understands that Israeli-Palestinian issues are peripheral to the main developments in the Arab world.
–Palestinians should come to the negotiating table now, without any preconditions—including Israeli settlement activity and construction in Jerusalem.
–Israel and the United States are close allies and always will be, and visible distance between us damages the interests of both countries.
–He looks forward to working closely with Israel’s new government and hopes that practical steps can be taken that advance toward what some day may be a comprehensive settlement.

It’s hard to believe he will persuade very many Israelis, because opinions have hardened in the past four years, but they will appreciate the effort. I was with President Bush when he spoke to the Knesset in 2008. Obama and his speechwriters should read that speech, and see if they can understand why Israelis thought it a historic contribution to our bilateral relations and indeed to the history of Zionism. Here is some of what Bush said:

Sixty years ago in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, founded on the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate.” What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham, Moses, and David – a homeland for the chosen people in Eretz Yisrael. Eleven minutes later, on the orders of President Harry Truman, the United States was proud to be the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence. And on this landmark anniversary, America is proud to be Israel’s closest ally and best friend in the world.

The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul.

Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of our enemies, and America rejects it utterly. 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.

I have been fortunate to see the character of Israel up close. I have touched the Western Wall, seen the sun reflected in the Sea of Galilee, and prayed at Yad Vashem. Earlier today, I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: “Masada shall never fall again.” Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will always stand with you.

Sixty years ago, on the eve of Israel’s independence, the last British soldiers departing Jerusalem stopped at a building in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. An officer knocked on the door and met a senior rabbi. The officer presented him with a short iron bar – the key to Zion Gate – and said it was the first time in 18 centuries that a key to the gates of Jerusalem had belonged to a Jew. His hands trembling, the rabbi offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God, “Who had granted us life and permitted us to reach this day.” Then he turned to the officer, and uttered the words Jews had awaited for so long: “I accept this key in the name of my people.”

Over the past six decades, the Jewish people have established a state that would make that humble rabbi proud. You have raised a modern society in the Promised Land, a light unto the nations that preserves the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And you have built a mighty democracy that will endure forever and can always count on America to stand at its side. May God bless Israel.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS adds: I got the date of Obama’s initial visit to Jerusalem wrong in the initial draft of this column. The text above has been corrected to reflect the correct date.

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