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.”