In the eight years of Reagan, Elliott Abrams served in the State Department. In the eight years of George W. Bush, he served in the White House. He was a national-security aide, and had a few different titles. Basically, he was “the White House Middle East guy,” as he writes. He dealt with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, in particular. And he has now written a memoir of that experience, Tested by Zion.
Readers of this magazine know Abrams, not only for his public service, but because he has long contributed to these pages, and to our website.
Even as his memoir is appearing, a book about him, or partially about him, is appearing: Little Red: Three Passionate Lives through the Sixties and Beyond, by Dina Hampton. “Little Red” refers to the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, one institution, despite the two-part name. This is a radical school in Manhattan. Hampton is an alumna of the school, and she writes about three other alums, who have lived those “passionate lives”: Angela Davis, the famous Communist; Tom Hurwitz, the less famous New Left figure; and Abrams. Her book reminds me a little of Gang of Five, a 2002 book by Nina J. Easton that chronicled five conservatives, including William Kristol and Grover Norquist.
I will mention some other “Little Redders” of note: Mary Travers, of Peter Paul & Mary; the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atomic spies; and Robert De Niro. Hampton writes that De Niro’s parents “were both well-regarded Greenwich Village artists whose bohemian credentials were equal to those of any of the school’s parents.” Some future conservatives came out of Little Red, in addition to Abrams. These include Abigail Thernstrom and Ronald Radosh. In her Prologue, Hampton refers to Radosh as an “anti-communist ideologue.” I wanted to stop reading right there — because anyone who would describe Radosh as an ideologue is probably not worth the time. In leaving the Left, Radosh left ideology, certainly of a rigid kind. I persevered in the book, however, to find as soon as page 7 that Hampton was at it again: describing Radosh as a “conservative ideologue.” At least she’s committed.
Her sympathies are consistently on the left. Unlike Radosh, Thernstrom, and Abrams, she did not rebel, evidently. She is a true-blue Little Redder. She groups Communists with “progressives.” (Some of us think of them more as “destructives.”) Angela Davis can be expected to wear a white hat, Elliott Abrams a black one. But you can learn interesting things from Hampton, including about Abrams. And she has bursts of fairness — though she always takes care to reestablish her left-wing street cred (or so it seems to me).
Abrams was a dissenter at Little Red, a nonconformist. There used to be a bumper sticker on the left: “Question Authority.” Abrams did. He saw that the library carried such periodicals as I. F. Stone’s Weekly and The Nation. “Why, he asked Isabel Suhl, the sweet-faced librarian, could the school not achieve some balance in the publications it displayed? Why not stock a magazine like The National Review?” (People have been putting a The in front of our name for eons.) Abrams was for diversity before it was cool. And though most of the students “saw Castro as a romantic revolutionary who was bringing economic and social justice to his people,” Abrams “viewed him as just another standard-issue Communist dictator.” That’s our boy: clear-eyed even then.
He was a liberal, not a leftist, and later went to work for two Democratic senators, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Then, like so many others of his mind and temper, he entered the Reagan orbit.
I found that I could usually filter out left-wing bias to learn and profit from Hampton — even enjoy her. But sometimes it was very hard. For instance, she says that Abrams learned from Norman Podhoretz, the conservative intellectual leader, and Abrams’s father-in-law, that “it was not a problem to dissemble, even to lie.” Oddly enough, that is a characteristic of the Left — as many supporters of the Rosenbergs well knew.
There are some touching things in this book. Tom Hurwitz, as a child, had a fondness for Christianity (a fondness that would stick). Early on Sunday mornings, he would watch TV sermons, behind the backs of his irreligious or anti-religious parents. And I was amazed to read something about Angela Davis. It comes from People magazine, but Hampton quotes it: When Davis got married, in her mid-thirties, she walked down the aisle to the march from Wagner’s Lohengrin. That tickles me no end: the great, fist-clenching Communist, clutching a bouquet and marching to Lohengrin.
Now to serious business, Tested by Zion. This is a memoir, yes, but Abrams has also solicited the memories and opinions of other participants in the relevant events. We may call his book a history, as well as a memoir. And it is packed with details. Abrams must have taken copious notes, during those White House years. The book may have too many details for some, but if you want to know about U.S. policy toward the Israelis and the Palestinians from 2001 to 2009, you will. Abrams has laid it out, with great authority.
Contrary to popular belief, the George W. Bush administration cared a lot about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and worked like a dog on it, for the entire eight years — not just in a mad rush at the end (which there was, as in the Clinton administration). When Bush asked Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state in the second term, she actually put a sort of condition on it: The president and his administration had to remain focused on the development of a Palestinian state.
The main characters in this book are two Israelis, prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert; two Palestinians, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas; and two Americans, Bush and Rice (along with the author himself, naturally).
I once heard an Arab journalist say why he liked Bush: “Arafat told him one lie, and he divorced him!” Statesmen had been lied to for years by Arafat, not really caring. Arafat was the most frequent foreign visitor to the White House during the eight years of Clinton. The particular lie that Arafat told Bush was that he had no involvement in the Karine A: the ship loaded with Iranian arms, seized by the Israelis in 2002. Appalled by the lie — the sheer brazenness and absurdity of it — Bush effectively “divorced” Arafat, as the journalist said.
Bush did not want a future Palestinian state to be yet another terror state, an Arafatistan: He wanted it to be decent and worthwhile. He thought that a reduction in terror and the development of civil society ought to precede statehood. As Abrams says, “he ‘tilted’ to Israel but to the Palestinians as well.” I have always chafed at the terms “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian”: Good people want happiness and peace for them both. (Neither the PLO nor Hamas is in the happiness-and-peace business.) Bush wanted a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to be sure. But he was firm on Israel’s right to defend itself. And, as he told the Jordanian king, he was not going to try to force a deal just to get a Nobel Peace Prize.
One learns any number of things from Abrams’s book: For example, Abbas was worried about losing an election to Hamas (rightly so). He asked Israel to forbid voting in Jerusalem, so that he could postpone the election and blame Israel for it. (Israel declined.)
I thought I was pretty well-versed in U.S.-Israeli relations, but apparently not: I was very surprised at the extent to which we call the shots for Israel. The extent to which we impose our will on Israel. At times, the country seems barely sovereign. There was an instance in which Israel definitely went its own way, however. In 2007, Israel discovered that Syria was building a nuclear reactor. Bush wanted to go the diplomatic and international route: the IAEA in Vienna, the Security Council in New York, blah, blah, blah. Olmert said, No, we have to bomb. If you Americans won’t, we will. And they did. Bush was unbothered by this, commenting on Olmert’s “guts.” Similarly, Reagan had been unbothered when Israel took care of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor (1981).
Olmert’s predecessor, Sharon, looms large in the first part of this book, as he loomed large in life. Those who loved him will love him even more; those who hated him may have some second thoughts. Here is a personal tidbit about the man: In Rome, he had a big plate of meats brought out, to be shared by Abrams and him. He quickly tucked into something that looked a lot like ham. Abrams said, “What meat, exactly, is that?” The prime minister answered, “Elliott, sometimes it is better not to ask.”
Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, is a player in the drama, though not as important as the second secretary of state. In brief, Powell thinks and acts like a man who would later endorse Barack Obama, twice (which, of course, he did). About Rice, Abrams has various and fascinating things to say. He was an “enthusiastic member” of her White House team, “dazzled by her efficiency, lightning intelligence, and charm.” He was less enthusiastic about her performance in the State Department, when she pursued a more traditional Foggy Bottom line in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
He writes that the secretary compared the plight of the Palestinians to that of black Americans in the Old South. I thought of Jimmy Carter (a southerner, like Rice). He shared a thought about an intifada — a spree of terror by the Palestinians — with one of his biographers, Douglas Brinkley: “The intifada exposed the injustice Palestinians suffered, just like Bull Connor’s mad dogs in Birmingham.”
The main character in this book — and much the most interesting one — is George W. Bush. He has been out of office for the blink of an eye, historically, but, frankly, I had sort of forgotten about him: how impressive he was. How talented, how smart, how individualistic, how well-informed. (John Negroponte, the veteran diplomat who served as director of national intelligence, once told me, “It was kind of hard to tell Mr. Bush much that he didn’t know.”) Most impressive, I think, was Bush’s moral sense. At any rate, I doubt there has ever been a greater gap between the popular image of a public figure and the reality.
Abrams has a wealth of Bush stories and quotations, and, as with Sharon, I will relate one tidbit: An Israeli explains that his countrymen are nervous about a Palestinian “right of return.” Bush says, “No s**t. ‘Here come three million people.’”
In his book, Abrams is as he is in life: straight, clear, hugely knowledgeable, tremendously sharp. Sympathetic too. He always tries to understand the other guy’s position, and to walk some in his shoes. Seldom are his judgments harsh. His book is sometimes colorful and pointed, but not dishy. He does make a confession, however: “I had been in Washington for 30 years and had never met anyone with a larger ego.” He is speaking of James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president. I wonder whether Abrams has ever met President Obama.
All your life, I bet, you have heard that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is very, very complicated: layer upon layer, shade blending into shade, nuance after nuance. Why, you could spend years in the region, searching for the truth, and still not understand. A Bernard Lewis can barely scratch the surface. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it: I think that, when the smoke clears — probably not the right metaphor for the Middle East — the question is, Will the Arabs coexist with Israel, or will they not? If they will, everything is possible. If not, nothing is. This view is way too “one-sided” for most people, probably including Elliott Abrams. But it is the reality, I believe, and not a few Arabs will acknowledge it, behind closed doors, and in whispers.
Some people have hoped that, as older generations die out, the hatred will too. The problem is, the hatred is inculcated in the cradle. As Olmert said to Rice, in an emotional soliloquy, “How do we solve this [meaning, the conflict at large]? By education. But what are they teaching children about us?” The new president of Egypt, the most important Arab state, gave a speech in 2010: “Dear brothers, we must not forget to nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred toward those Zionists and Jews, and all those who support them. They must be nursed on hatred. The hatred must continue.” That is what the Israelis face. And there is nothing to do but hang on, to survive, until the day comes, if it comes, when the fever breaks.