“I couldn’t manage peace in the Middle East, but the fact that I can do this is pretty darn close.” These were former President Bill Clinton’s words when Huma Abedin, a Muslim-American deputy chief of staff to his wife Hillary Clinton, offered him the job of officiating her wedding in 2010 with her Jewish fiance, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Eleven years later, there seems to be a new dawn of peace in the Middle East, with the signing of the Abraham Accords and normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries, while Abedin’s life and marriage with Weiner has been shattered and wrecked by multiple sexting scandals.
“I did and always will feel an affinity, an alliance with my Palestinian brothers and sisters,” Abedin, who grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, writes in her forthcoming memoir, titled “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” set to be released on Tuesday. Despite that, her father, Syed Zainul Abedin, “never allowed those emotions to translate into antipathy for the people of Israel.”
The following are some key excerpts from the book, obtained and reviewed by the Forward, in which Abedin details her longtime work with the Clintons, from the time she started interning at the White House in 1996, and her complicated marriage to Weiner.
First-hand experience with the conflict
Abedin’s first visit to Israel was with the White House advance team in December of 1998 to prepare for President Clinton’s trip to the region, which included an historic visit to Gaza City.
“When we met with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, on our side of the negotiating table the place cards reflected the names of many of my Jewish colleagues: Engelberg, Steinberg, Rosenthal, Shamir, Meyer, Stein — and Abedin. As a Muslim and as an American, even here in the Middle East, my home turf, I remained in a minority,” she writes.
That advance trip was the first time Abedin witnessed the disparities in the quality of life between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza territories. Touring the Al Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Sea coastline, she noticed “a patch of vibrant green” off in the distance. It was the view of an Israeli settlement nearby.
“There it was, a better, easier life, staring right at them,” Abedin writes. “It was our job to be diplomatic, but I was fighting to maintain a neutral expression in front of our hosts; in my chest, a flash of outrage.”
High hopes about peace
Clinton’s visit to Gaza, a first for an American president, brought her some hope about the beginning of renewed peace in the Middle East, Abedin writes. “Most people we saw in Gaza on that trip talked so confidently about the future that it was hard not to get swept up in their enthusiasm.”
A year and a half later, Abedin was tasked to assist the Israeli and Palestinian delegations to Camp David. She recalls a conversation she had with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who “seemed interested that someone like me worked in the White House.”
During one of the days of talks, Abedin escorted the delegations to a designated smoking section after dinner. “In the midst of small talk, I commented about the possibility of success in the coming week and what it would mean for the Arab world,” she writes. “Deep in my bones I held tight to what my parents had taught me – that peaceful coexistence was critical, that the alternative was a shared doom.”
“Some delegation members nodded politely when I spoke,” she adds. “One of the younger Palestinian members looked directly at me, eyes dark and tense, and said, ‘You think we are making peace here?’ He shook his head and exhaled an ever so slight grunt as he put his cigarette to his lips.”
The failure of the summit was “crushing,” she writes.
Arguments over Israel on the first date
Abedin recalls her first date with Weiner following an email he sent her, offering to share with her a brief exchange he overheard between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois who went on to challenge her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, before they sat down near each other at the State of the Union address in 2007.
It was close to seven years after she had refused to go out for a drink while bumping into each other at Martha’s Vineyard during a Democratic National Committee dinner in August 2001. But Abedin was curious, so she took up his offer to join her for drinks at a nearby bar. He then took her out for dinner and the conversation turned into a heated debate about policy, she writes.
“Sometimes I just rolled my eyes at his shtick,” she writes about the passion and charisma of Weiner she witnessed while she had accompanied Clinton on her duties as senator at events in New York.
Over a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of Coke, Weiner explained his opposition to U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia. “When he pressed that all Saudi school textbooks taught Muslim children to hate Jews and Christians, I retorted that I had studied no such thing, ever,” she writes. “He was an unabashed defender of Israel’s right to exist as a democracy, and I shot back that it couldn’t be at the expense of the Palestinian people’s right to basic humanity.”
Weiner proposed to Abedin in 2009 and she writes that while she was cautious about marrying out of her faith, Weiner assured her it wasn’t an issue for him and that he would stop eating pork or drinking alcohol out of respect to Islam. “He had even started fasting with me from time to time during Ramadan.”
The couple had a private Islamic ceremony in the United Kingdom, which she describes as being very similar to a chupah in the Jewish tradition, before their official wedding at Oheka Castle in Huntington, Long Island.
An exception in Borough Park
Abedin writes how her Muslim identity had “never adversely impacted” the ability to do her job. For the most part, mentioning her role at Camp David, it had “always, always been a plus.”
“The one exception,” she writes, “was during Hillary Clinton’s first campaign for the Senate in 2000, when she was visiting a community of Hasidic Jews in New York and a campaign advisor politely suggested that perhaps it would be best for me to wait in the car.”
Hillary vs. Bernie, who cared more about Palestinians?
In the book, Abedin recounts how she challenged Muslim American supporters of Bernie Sanders over his Middle East policy positions during the heated 2016 presidential primary.
During a campaign event with a group of young Muslim Americans in Michigan, Abedin writes, one young woman remarked that while she really wanted to be excited about Clinton being elected as the first female president, she was supporting Sanders because she believed he would be more effective at brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Everyone around her nodded,” she writes. “I asked the group why they doubted Hillary Clinton’s ability to do the same. ‘Well, she has done nothing to help the Palestinians.’ Taking a deep breath, I asked them if they knew that she was the first U.S. official to ever call the territories ‘Palestine’ in the nineties, that she advocated for Palestinian sovereignty back when no other official would. They did not. I then asked them if they were aware that she brought together the last round of direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians? That she personally negotiated a cease-fire to stop the latest war in Gaza when she was secretary of state? They shook their heads.”
“Had they known that she announced $600 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority and $300 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza in her first year at State? They began to steal glances at one another. Did they know that she pushed Israel to invest in the West Bank and announced an education program to make college more affordable for Palestinian students? More head shaking. They simply had no idea. ‘So,’ I continued, ‘respectfully, what is it about Senator Sanders’s twenty-year record in Congress that suggests to you that the Middle East is a priority for him?’”
“The young woman’s response encapsulated some of what we were up against,” she adds. “‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘I just feel it.’”