February 4, 2013 | The Wall Street Journal

Unlikely Peacemakers

Sharon disengaged from Gaza because he wanted to disentangle the people he had spent a lifetime protecting from their nemesis.
February 4, 2013 | The Wall Street Journal

Unlikely Peacemakers

Sharon disengaged from Gaza because he wanted to disentangle the people he had spent a lifetime protecting from their nemesis.

Conventional political wisdom has long held that the Palestinian issue is the key to the Middle East. Yet as Elliott Abrams points out in “Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” “Arab political life does not revolve around Palestine.” Rather, Palestine 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.” So why does Washington devote so much effort to it?

Mr. Abrams's book is the definitive history of the last Republican president's considerable accomplishments in the Levant. This detailed record of meetings, documents and agreements demonstrates that the Palestinian question is of interest primarily because of its emotional resonance, for Americans as well as for Israelis and Arabs. It is more than just another issue; it is a broad and epic story featuring the full range of human passions and emotions. In Mr. Abrams's telling, it 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?

The protagonists of this narrative are President George W. Bush and his Israeli counterpart, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, both of them unlikely peacemakers. Mr. Abrams joined the U.S. National Security Council staff in June 2001, first as a deputy assistant to the president and later as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. Until 2005 his boss was Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's closest confidante and the book's most fascinating figure. Mr. Abrams clearly respects and admires her but—as the narrative unwinds and Ms. Rice veers from the policies of the president she is supposed to serve—he also unflinchingly recounts her stubbornness, pride and ultimate ineffectiveness. As Mr. Abrams makes clear, the Annapolis conference—the 2007 peace talks convened at the insistence of Ms. Rice, by then the secretary of state, and modeled after many similar and unsuccessful U.S. diplomatic efforts—was the unhappy denouement of a period that began optimistically, paradoxically enough, in the shadow of 9/11.

The Bush presidency marked a momentous time in Israeli-Palestinian affairs—a fact that seems to have escaped many, including Mr. Bush's successor. President Barack Obama told a group of Jewish leaders in July 2009 that there had been no progress on the Palestinian question during Mr. Bush's tenure because there had been no”daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. The reality is that, under Mr. Bush, American engagement with the Jewish state and the Palestinians was more fruitful than ever before—or since. Among other successes, there was Mr. Sharon's disengagement from Gaza and Mr. Bush's call for a Palestinian state.

To win those achievements, the key wasn't to keep hammering away at negotiations, as American and Israeli policy makers had done for decades, most recently with the Oslo process, but to see the same problems from a fresh perspective. Instead of waiting for a Palestinian partner, Mr. Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza. Rather than invest American time, money and prestige in a terrorist, Mr. Bush turned his back on Yasser Arafat and demanded an end to Palestinian terror. These were bold actions. And, in keeping faith with the post-9/11 freedom agenda, Mr. Bush called for fundamental political reforms and became the first American president to embrace the creation of a Palestinian state. All that happened because the president understood, as Mr. Abrams writes, “that his goal of 'no daylight' between the United States and Israel would maximize his leverage.”

In retrospect, it is easy to see that Bush administration diplomacy had at least two things going for it. First, it was conducted before Israel faced war on two borders from which it had withdrawn, southern Lebanon and Gaza, after which Israelis became rightly wary of exchanging more land for peace. Second, there was Mr. Sharon, a larger than life figure from Israel's generation of founding patriarchs who wanted out of Gaza not because he liked or trusted the Palestinian Authority but because he wanted to disentangle the people he had spent a lifetime protecting from their nemesis, the Palestinians.

The author admires Mr. Sharon; the two men lunched on several occasions at Mr. Sharon's ranch in the Negev Desert. Having disengaged from Gaza and eyeing the abandonment of settlements on the West Bank, Mr. Sharon became a man of peace, just as Mr. Bush had described him. “He sees a window of three more years,” one of the prime minister's top aides told Mr. Abrams at the end of 2005, “to bring about a more stable situation.” But within a month, Mr. Sharon suffered a stroke that left him in a permanent coma. Washington's Arab-Israeli policy foundered.

To be sure, the White House made mistakes even with Mr. Sharon in office. The Bush administration didn't anticipate that Hamas would market the Gaza withdrawal as a triumph of armed resistance. But it wasn't until Israel's 2006 war with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah that Mr. Sharon's absence proved decisive. Unlike Mr. Sharon, who, as Mr. Abrams explains, had masterfully cajoled Ms. Rice, the inexperienced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was incapable of managing her. As secretary of state, Ms. Rice was so determined to leave her mark as peacemaker that she seems to have viewed Israel's second Lebanon war as a personal affront. She unconscionably adopted Hezbollah talking points, like demanding that Israel return the Shebaa Farms, a small plot of land in the Golan Heights, to Lebanon, a move that implicitly justified Hezbollah terrorism against the Jewish state. This was one of a number of self-inflicted wounds that issued from Ms. Rice's newfound distrust of Israeli leaders.

Perhaps, the author says, Ms. Rice, who had once so ably served the president's policy, had simply adopted the State Department's Arabist perspective toward the end of her tenure. Policy, after all, is made by people whose talents and flaws are tied inextricably to how they understand the world and try to shape it—or pull it apart. As Mr. Abrams shows throughout this insightful book, institutions and bureaucracies are only part of the human equation.

Mr. Smith is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior editor of the Weekly Standard.

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