The author of a new book that examines former President George W. Bush’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Middle East policy in general believes the Bush administration made several policy departures that were more effective than what the United States had done historically, yet Bush officials get very little credit for those changes.
In his book “Tested by Zion,” Elliot Abrams, who was the deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, as well as deputy national security advisor, said Bush made critical decisions, such as removing former Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat from peace negotiations, a decision that helped transform the peace process.
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“In the Clinton years, the foreigner who had been invited to the White House most often was not (former British Prime Minister) Tony Blair, but Yasser Arafat. What President Bush decided by 2002 — and Sept. 11th had an impact on this — was that there was no way forward (in peace talks) with a terrorist, a thief and a guy who stood for corruption and violence leading the Palestinians,” Abrams said. “In 2002, (Bush) said I want a Palestinian state someday, but Arafat has to go. They need a decent democratic government if we’re going to move forward.”
Abrams said Bush rejected many current views to arrive at his Israel policy.
“After the attack, the president began to think through why (Sept. 11th) happened. A lot of people told him it was because of our support for Israel and they tried to get him to pull down the support. He completely rejected that view and, in fact, became more supportive of Israel in his battle with terrorism,” Abrams said.
Specifically, Abrams said Bush became more vocal about Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks, including the targeted killing of terrorists, which the United States had previously rejected.
“President Bush started saying Israel has a right to defend itself, including targeted killings, which we had been quite critical of and then we started doing that in Afghanistan. We began looking for al-Qaida leaders and trying to take them out. So obviously 9/11 led him to be more supportive of Israel,” Abrams said.
Abrams said Bush also embraced a more active peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, in part because of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While Abrams is personally very fond of former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, he also says her suborn and prideful nature made her “ineffective.” Abrams believes the biggest mistake Rice made was to push for a comprehensive Middle East settlement, rather than a gradual process.
“She made in a sense the same mistake that Bill Clinton made, which was to go for the big comprehensive settlement, with the huge international conference and the handshake on the White house lawn,” Abrams said. “The way forward is slowly, step-by-step, painstakingly and carefully trying to build toward a Palestinian state over time. It’s fair to say there are criticisms of the way she conducted the policy.”
President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy has emphasized working with Palestinian and Islamist leaders throughout the region to set a friendlier tone for talks, yet there has been little progress over the past four years. Abrams believes this lack of progress stems from the fact that President Obama pushes the Israelis, which makes them retreat from talks.
“He made that early trip to Cairo in 2009 and never made a trip to Israel. Israelis, and to some extent Palestinians, have come to the conclusion he doesn’t understand their situation. Now he’s going to Israel in March and will probably try to convey he really does understand them. For some Israelis, that will work. And for a lot of Israelis, it won’t work,” Abrams said.
Abrams believes President Obama should begin working carefully on a pragmatic way forward, rather than a fast, grand bargain. He also said President Obama has been “obsessed” with the issue of West Bank settlements, which is one of the prime reasons there have been no peace talks for four years.
Abrams also believes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has shown he’s unwilling to compromise by turning down previous Israeli offers made in 2008 and 2009. He attributes that in large part to the influence of Hamas. He believes Hamas leaders are harming not only the peace process but are a key impediment to better lives for Palestinians in general.
“Abbas didn’t sign last time and isn’t going to sign any big deal this time either. So we’ve been trying to get small, incremental progress and haven’t had much in the last four years. Progress has been made because (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu has actually improved life for the Palestinians and improved the economy on the West Bank,” Abrams said. “I would say Hamas, and to a certain extent even the Hamas leadership are the key people. I don’t think they’re ready to make any big steps forward.”
Speaking on the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, Abrams believes Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is justified in demanding more information from Hagel and the White House about Benghazi and other issues.
“Putting off the vote by a week or two to get information, or even three or four weeks, is reasonable. It’s the standard (that) Democrats applied. Some of these same senators applied this standard to Republican nominees, such as John Bolton, so why is it not fair to apply the same standard to an Obama nominee?”
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