Although it has been sixty-five years since the establishment of the state of Israel and twenty years since the Oslo peace process, the question of Israel’s isolation within versus its centrality to the region still remains a core issue.

U.S. support for a Palestinian state—despite the Palestinians’ support for terrorism—has placed American policy regarding the Palestinians in an inconsistent position with regard to its fundamental policy toward terror regimes and organizations. Consequently, the most fundamental contribution the United States can make to stabilizing the situation with the Palestinian Authority is to link its Palestinian policy and its policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict with wider U.S. policy goals.

To actually be productive, Washington should inform the Palestinian Authority that it cannot expect to receive aid and maintain diplomatic ties as long as it harbors terrorists associated with any of the recognized terror groups, including those affiliated with Fatah.

Likewise, the United States must stop falsely proclaiming the moderation and antiterror credentials of senior Fatah officials. These send a counterproductive message that there is such a thing as “good terrorism,” which contrasts with “bad terrorism.” Moreover, such American support of terrorsupporting leaders actually destabilizes the region, enabling terror groups to arm themselves, recruit members, carry out attacks against Israel, and terrorize Palestinian civilians under the protection of the U.S. government.

Enter Elliott Abrams, author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Drawing on his experience as deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush, Abrams provides a detailed chronicle of the failed attempts at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abrams correctly observes that “Arab political life does not revolve around Palestine. It is one issue among many and never the determining factor in any Arab nation’s actions and even in its relations with the United States. The best example: the United States under Clinton and Bush had far closer relations with Israel than the Obama administration maintained, yet simultaneously had closer relations with Saudi Arabia as well” (p. 307).

However, it is the ongoing attempts to boil the region down to just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that contribute to its centrality in both the State Department and the public discourse. Certainly, it is this emphasis that makes it clear to most Americans that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued because many Palestinians reject peace. The Palestinians continue to favor terrorism over compromise, which is abundantly visible in their media, teachings, mosque sermons, and unremitting acts of violence, ranging from suicide bombings to rocket attacks.

The historical period in play in Abrams’s account is that of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, a larger-than-life individual deeply admired by the author. Following the disengagement from Gaza and foreseeing the abandonment of the settlements he helped build, Sharon transformed into a man of peace. This metamorphosis was especially telling, given that Sharon was a dying breed representing the last of the old guard of Israeli leadership, and it gained him support in the public arena as, Abrams describes, “the ‘balance of sympathy’ that had tilted toward Israel while Arafat ruled was further tilted toward the Palestinians by the great reduction in terrorist attacks. The vicious bus bombings and other suicide attacks had elicited sympathy everywhere for Israel and for the steps it took to defend itself. Even those who criticized specific Israeli responses admitted that any government would act to save its citizens from such relentless assaults. But after Arafat’s passing (and presumably not coincidentally) and given Sharon’s great success in crushing the intifada, the toll was far lower.”

Unfortunately, Sharon’s stroke put him in a coma in which he remains to this very day and left the Bush administration with Ehud Olmert, whose inexperience complicated relations with the White House and, specifically, with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Unlike Sharon, who, the author describes, was able to win Rice over, Olmert had no such success. Moreover, Olmert’s behavior led to mistrust between Rice and the new Israeli administration, especially in conjunction with Rice’s desire to leave office as a peacemaker. A series of mistakes during the 2006 Second Lebanon War led Rice to adopt Hezbollah’s talking points, for example, and demand that Israel return the Shebaa Farms.

All and all, Tested by Zion is a frank record in addition to a careful history. It includes passages from interviews with the key American, European, and Middle Eastern players who participated in these events. These testimonials alone make this a vital source for anyone interested in understanding the advancement of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Since Barack Obama succeeded Bush in the White House, the approach to the Middle East accepted by much of the international community has been motivated by two false assumptions. The first is the “linkage theory,” which holds that the key to solving the problems of the Middle East is a resolution of the Palestinian problem. The second is the contention that the Palestinian problem is primarily the West Bank settlements and the status of Jerusalem. Consequently, Abrams’s chronicle is even more useful in dispelling those myths and advancing the understanding, as the author states, that a two-state solution can only be achieved slowly and deliberately and that peace “will not be the product of fanfare and speeches; it will be won through tough decisions and tougher actions.” It is clear that twenty years post-Oslo, we are further away from moving a viable peace process along to a conclusion. Abrams’s account offers many lessons to which all parties should pay heed as we move forward.


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