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The Lingering Conflict

In The Lingering Conflict, Itamar Rabinovich, a former chief negotiator for Israel, provides unique and authoritative insight into the prospects for genuine peace in the Middle East. His presentation includes a detailed insider account of the peace processes of 1992–96 and a frank dissection of the more dispiriting record since then.

Rabinovich's firsthand experiences as a negotiator and as Israel's ambassador to the United States provide a valuable perspective from which to view the major players involved. Fresh analysis of ongoing situations in the region and the author's authoritative take on key figures such as Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu shed new light on the long and tumultuous history of Arab-Israeli relations. His book is a shrewd assessment of the past and current state of affairs in the Middle East, as well as a sober look at the prospects for a peaceful future. While Rabinovich explains the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians—a classic dispute between two national movements claiming the same land—The Lingering Conflict also considers the broader political, cultural, and increasingly religious conflict between the Jewish state and Arab nationalism. He approaches the troubled region in an international context, offering provocative analysis of America's evolving role and evaluation of its diplomatic performance. This book builds on the author's previous seminal work on geopolitics in the Middle East, particularly Waging Peace. As Rabinovich brings the Arab-Israeli conflict up to date, he widens the scope of his earlier insights into efforts to achieve normal, peaceful relations. And, of course, he takes full account of recent social and political tumult in the Middle East, discussing the Arab Spring uprisings—and the subsequent retaliation by dictators such as Syria's al-Assad—in the context of Arab-Israeli relations.

Praise for the book:

"Itamar Rabinovich has written an excellent book on the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict. His superb scholarship and penetrating analysis probe all the relevant domestic and international issues. He is particularly enlightening with his balanced account of the reasons for the failure of the 2000 Camp David meetings. Both orthodox and revisionist views are discussed in detail. This is a highly readable book accessible to both lay people and specialists. I recommend it very strongly and with enthusiasm." —Farhad Kazemi, Professor Emeritus of Politics and Middle Eastern Studies, New York University "There is no better guide than Itamar Rabinovich to the story of Israel and the Arabs over the past half-century. His careful chronicle of peacemaking efforts makes depressing reading, as a story of courageous efforts that failed and opportunities that were missed. Rabinovich brings alive the ideas and personalities that marked each of these crossroads. The Lingering Conflict belongs on the bookshelf of any thoughtful person who wants to understand the road the Arabs and Israelis have traveled since 1948."—David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post and author of Bloodmoney "Adding new material to and bringing up-to-date his 2003 history of Israel’s foreign policy relations, Rabinovich’s new book, The Lingering Conflict, reflects the author’s keen strategic insights and the perspective gained as an important participant in key Arab-Israeli negotiations. With its informed analysis of the consequences of the Arab Spring, this book makes a major contribution toward understanding the tangled issues that stand in the way of Middle East peace." —Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State

War and Peace, Israeli Style

(review published in the Jerusalem Post)

08/02/2012 13:54 By Seth J. Frantzman

A welcome account of two decades of Israel’s involvement in negotiations

In the summer of 2011 it seemed that things had reached an impasse. Palestinian-Israeli negotiations seemed totally stalled. At the same time, revolutions were rocking the Arab world.

Suddenly the “Syrian track” of peace negotiations, which had bedeviled Israel’s policy makers since the 1990s, was off the table.

“Israel watched these developments with anxiety. Its immediate concern was the future of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan... Israelis know that peace with democratic countries is more stable than peace with autocratic dictatorial regimes,” writes Itamar Rabinovich in The Lingering Conflict.

Yet the events of the “Arab spring,” which are still unfolding, have proved especially complicated for Israeli foreign policy experts to navigate. While some may prefer democracy, it is not entirely clear the democracies that are arising in the wake of the Arab spring will want to continue the treaties with Israel, or pursue new agreements.

Rabinovich, a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, has written an expert’s account of Israel’s involvement in peace and war since the Oslo Accords. It is not entirely clear why this book is subtitled Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East, 1948–2011, since it begins almost immediately with the Madrid Conference of 1991. The author argues that this “first sustained effort by the international community to resolve the old conflict” came about because the decline of the Soviet Union freed the US to deal more forcefully with the Middle East. In addition, the Intifada was raging and making it clear that Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza was becoming tenuous. This resulted in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.

The author is well placed to write a book on this topic because he was Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1995, and he provides many insights on attempts by Israel to make peace with Damascus.

The book begins during the Oslo years. While the Israeli public generally regarded these accords with optimism, Rabinovich argues this was not the same on the Arab side.

“Euphoria had not been part of the Arab response to the Oslo Accords from the outset, of course, and most of the Arab world wanted simply to get the conflict with Israel over and turn its attention to other issues.”

However, the hope of the early months of the accords was met by “years of stagnation” in which Binyamin Netanyahu, now prime minister in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, sought to slow down the pace at which authority was handed over to the Palestinian Authority. “He refused to meet with Arafat and wanted the latter to settle for meetings with lesser officials.”

The results of all this are well known. Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in 1999 and set himself a rigorous timetable to bring about final-status talks with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Hafez Assad, the father of Syria’s current, embattled president, was then in charge in Damascus. The author views the failure of the peace talks with Syria to be due to Assad’s declining health. “Assad’s outlook changed once he realized his death was imminent... on the eve of a problematic transition [of power], Assad and his loyalist core were defensive. Had Israel succumbed to all his demands and provided him with ‘the peace of the victors’ he might have signed an agreement.”

But this option was not on the table and Barak chose instead to concentrate on his unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

The most interesting part of The Lingering Conflict is the discussion of the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Rabinovich sets out to offer a balanced account based on various “schools of thought.” One school, the “orthodox school,” views the fault as primarily Arafat’s.

Another views the failure as that of Israel. A third, right-wing view believes the Oslo Accords were doomed to fail from the start. The author seems to favor the orthodox view. “As I see it, Ehud Barak presented to the Palestinians a farreaching offer that could serve as the basis for a mutually acceptable final-status agreement.”

The monograph provides a standard description of how the breakdown in talks between Israel and the Palestinians led to an outbreak of violence. Rabinovich provides some nit-picking views of terminology, rejected the term “intifada” and Palestinian “right of return,” but besides this his narrative is clean and informative. A book like this obviously loses some of its value as events unfold. Nevertheless it includes events from the past two decades of Israel’s conflicts and deals with formative events, such as the failure of the Oslo Accords and disengagement. For those who want to understand the issues Prime Minister Netanyahu faces today, this is a welcome, balanced study.

Book review on Itamar Rabinovich’s The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East 1948–2011, by Clive Jones

Published in: Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 48, no. 6 (November 2012), pp. 1013-1015.

This is not a new book. It is not even an original book. But it is an important book which stands out among the plethora of literature dealing with the Arab–Israeli conflict and the Israel–Palestine dispute. This is not to say that the book does not have its faults for objective analysis, not least in the emotive cockpit of the Arab–Israeli conflict, is about as rare a commodity as any tangible moves towards peace amid the acrimony that this book describes so well. But it is an honest book, shorn for the most part of partisan bias, eloquent in both prose and analysis and thankfully free of the theoretical jargon and analysis that so often punctuates (and obfuscates) any clear understanding of why attempts at a resolution to this most intractable of conflicts have failed.

To begin with, readers should note that The Lingering Conflict is not a wholly new project, its subject and themes in essence being a revision of Waging Peace, written by the author at the tail-end of the 1990s and published in 2000 and with a second edition appearing in 2004. Nor is the timeline of the book entirely accurate for, while offering a brief overview of the Arab–Israeli conflict and attempts at its reconciliation, the detail and indeed intellectual weight of the book concerns itself over eight chapters with the scope and direction of the peace process – primarily between Israel and the Palestinians – but also between Israel and Syria. Throughout this narrative, Rabinovich deftly explains the role of the United States, often as facilitator, sometimes as arbitrator, and occasionally as obstacle to a lasting peace, bringing too an expert eye to a cast of characters whose individual traits have, tragically in some cases, been insufficient to rise above the immediate context in which key decisions have had to be made.

Take for example Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister between 1996 and 1999. Having campaigned vigorously against the whole Oslo process, Netanyahu now found himself hamstrung by commitments made by his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, over further withdrawals from the West Bank, most notably Hebron. While paralysed by the febrile nature of Israeli coalition politics, Netanyahu’s hard line towards the Palestinians was, as Rabinovich notes, as much determined by his government’s opposition ‘to Palestinian statehood and committed to a narrow view of Palestinian self-government’ (p.67). Given that Oslo was sold to Palestinians – at least in the occupied territories) as a necessary precursor to eventual statehood, the attitude of the Netanyahu government certainly ran against the word, if not the spirit, of the Oslo accords.

As such, the violence that erupted on 24 September 1996 when the Israeli authorities opened the Hasmonean tunnel in Jerusalem that runs under part of the Temple Mount was almost pre-ordained. Equally, it highlighted themes and issues that have bedevilled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians ever since. For Israelis, it suggested that Arafat and the Palestinian authority could not be trusted as genuine partners and certainly not in ensuring security. For Palestinians, frustrated at Israel’s apparent foot-dragging, unsympathetic to a political system that makes long-term strategic decision making hostage to the lowest common domestic denominator, yet facing their own internal fissures without effective political institutions to mitigate their worst excesses, violence appeared to be an immediate panacea. Indeed, in terms of re-engaging Washington – the Wye Plantation Agreement brokered by the Clinton Administration soon followed – a brief return to the gun appeared to pay dividends for a Palestinian leadership that was corrupt and facing growing support for Hamas on the Palestinian streets.

Rabinovich argues that Palestinian recourse to violence following the collapse of the September 2000 Camp David talks was conditioned, if not planned, by Israel’s reaction to the events in 1996, and indeed, more recently, the decision by Ehud Barak as prime minister to effect a unilateral withdrawal of the IDF from south Lebanon in May 2000. For, as Rabinovich argues, ‘[M]any Palestinians drew the lesson that it was wrong to make concessions to Israel; that Israel, when confronted with durable opposition will blink first (pp.126–7). The subsequent collapse of the peace process and the competing narratives that continue to apportion blame to the characters involved – Barak’s inflated belief in his own diplomatic skills and strategic vision, Arafat’s duplicity and the waning authority of a US president soon to leave the White House – are discussed in some depth. The author argues that Arafat’s malfeasance was largely responsible for the failure of Camp David but equally, is scornful of Israel’s negotiating position, not least in accepting ‘the very term right of return as a legitimate part of the vocabulary used to address the refugee problem’, a term, as Rabinovitch notes, that ‘acquiesces implicitly in the Palestinian and Arab claim of an ‘‘original sin’’’ (p.127).

Amid the detailed analysis of accords, agreements and protocols, debates over the relative merits of negotiating positions to be taken and strategies to be adopted remain to the fore. The virtues of attempting to move towards a final peace agreement as opposed to a more incremental approach designed to facilitate confidence building measures remains a constant theme, supplemented over the last decade with increasingly vociferous debates in Israel over the extent to which an imposed solution – best seen in the establishment of the controversial security or separation barrier and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza – can meet Israel’s often exacerbated quest for total security. Indeed, given the current impasse in any direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, unilateralism, by default, is as likely to define future relations between the parties as any meaningful negotiations. This might not be the conclusion of the author, but it is certainly a logical outcome that the reader can draw from the cumulative evidence that he presents.

Shorn of the symbolic and indeed existential issues that overlay the competing religious and national claims of Israelis and Palestinians, the failure nonetheless of Israel and Syria to conclude a full peace treaty despite the scope and extent of negotiations between the parties is examined with the same meticulous detail. To be sure, the extent to which successive Israeli governments have been willing to engage with Damascus can often be seen as a barometer of progress or otherwise in negotiations with the Palestinians. As former Israeli ambassador to the United States who participated in some of these earlier negotiations, Rabinovich certainly had a ringside view. The closest that the two parties came to an agreement was perhaps in Geneva in March 2000 when the ailing Hafez al-Asad thought he had secured a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, including, symbolically, physical access to Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). That Barak refused to give Asad (via Clinton) this explicit commitment is often cited as the failure to conclude a historic agreement. Barak, claim his detractors, remained far too sensitive to domestic opinion polls to risk his already weakened political authority, although as Rabinovich also notes, the Syrian president’s ‘refusal to invest any effort to win over Israeli public opinion’, what Israelis would call hasbarah, hardly helped matters (p.95).

Given subsequent events in Syria, many observers in Israel might be tempted to conclude that such reticence by the former prime minister was a blessing in disguise. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, Rabinovich himself cautioned the current Israeli premier (and not a man he holds in particularly high esteem) against engaging in bold territorial compromises given the regional turmoil.1 Amid the upheaval in neighbouring Syria, this might be sage advice, but equally, in a region where political ambition, if not survival defines immediate horizons, this volume bears testament to the paucity of statesmanship that could define such events, rather than being controlled by them. Ultimately, Rabinovich gives us a master class in the flailing and the flawed, and a sense that diplomatic hubris aside, the best we can ever hope for under such conditions is a conflict managed rather than a conflict solved.

1. A. Harel, ‘Israel Should Wait with Peace Deal until Mideast Unrest Ends, Former Envoy Says’, Ha’aretz, 22 June 2012.

Book Review on Itamar Rabinovich’s, The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East, 1948–2011 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 340 pages.

By Daniel Kurtzer

Princeton University

Published in: Israel Studies Review, Volume 27, Issue 2 (Winter 2012), pp. 226-228

Authors writing on the Arab-Israeli conflict face any number of problems, ranging from the challenge of penetrating the secrets of less than open societ­ies to establishing ground truth among the avalanche of self-serving mem­oirs or advocacy pieces trying to pass as disinterested analysis. Perhaps the final challenge that authors confront is the title of the volume. So many books have been published that it is hard to find a suitable but unique title that conveys the pessimism and fatigue that attends the peace process these days.

In this respect, Itamar Rabinovich’s latest volume represents something of a breath of fresh air, in that it conveys the idea that peace may not quite be at hand, but it is lurking in the shadows, lingering, waiting for the right combination of circumstances and leaders to appear. Rabinovich has offered not only a sense of possibility but also, as with his earlier volumes, a professional’s take on what went wrong, the lessons that need to be learned, and how and why the peace process can work in the future.

Rabinovich is a premier scholar-diplomat. At Tel Aviv University, he rose to the top of his discipline as an expert on the Arab world. He proved to be a meticulous scholar, delving deeply into the archives while maintain­ing a superb capability of detached and penetrating analysis. It was during these years that diplomats and political leaders, in an effort to understand the complexities of Arab politics, beat a path to his door, and it was dur­ing this period that Rabinovich came to know—and to be highly respected by—Yitzhak Rabin.

In 1993, after his election as prime minister, Rabin turned to Rabinov­ich to take on two of the most challenging diplomatic assignments on the Israeli agenda. Rabinovich was appointed ambassador to the United States, tasked with building on the already strong bilateral relationship with the new and untutored administration of President Bill Clinton. Although this by itself would have been sufficient to occupy the full attention of the new ambassador, Rabin also tasked Rabinovich as chief negotiator with Syria. It was a logical albeit challenging assignment, for Rabinovich was an accom­plished expert on Syria who would bring to the negotiations a keen eye for Syrian attitudes, politics, and personalities.

The timing could not have been more propitious. The 1991 Madrid peace conference had broken a number of taboos in the Middle East, not the least important of which was the initiation of face-to-face Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Even though the formal bilateral talks convened in Washing­ton seemed to be on a road to nowhere when Rabinovich showed up, the potential for success remained high: without its old Soviet ally, Syria was keen to establish a good relationship with the United States and under­stood that an important pathway to achieve that was through Tel Aviv. Also, as difficult as the issues were to be negotiated, they did not appear insurmountable. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was a strong leader, and now Israel had not only a strong leader in Rabin but one who saw peace as a strategic imperative. The table seemed set for progress in the negotia­tions, and the prospects for success seemed favorable.

In The Lingering Peace, as he had done in his earlier volumes, The Road Not Taken (1991) and Waging Peace (1999), Rabinovich takes the reader through the ins and outs and ups and downs of the negotiations that ulti­mately were to fail, and rather spectacularly. This volume, as distinguished from his more detailed analyses elsewhere, adopts the style of sweeping overview, stitching together the disparate strands of the domestic politics and diplomacy in each of the three key countries—Israel, Syria, and the United States. Given the unique dual vantage point from which Rabinov­ich was able to observe these developments, this book is a tour d’horizon of the peace process that should appeal to a broad public audience.

But Rabinovich also challenges the informed community of peace process experts with analysis that sometimes runs against the grain of accepted wisdom. For example, he asserts that Netanyahu’s desire in 2009 to re-evaluate the Annapolis process “suited the president’s [Obama’s] own tendency to distance himself from his predecessor’s legacy and to shift to a different policy.” This may not be accurate. While presidents do like to put their own stamp on policy, in this case Obama may have wanted to continue Annapolis, but found that Netanyahu’s adamant opposition was blocking that path. Instead of picking an early fight on this issue, the president chose to try confidence-building measures, only to find that this approach also would end in a fight with the Israelis.

Rabinovich also seems to gloss over the interpersonal dislike that Netan­yahu and Obama felt for each other during the first three years of the Obama administration. For example, Rabinovich reports the tit-for-tat quality of the diplomatic moves and speeches of Obama and Netanyahu in May 2011, but the narrative in the book is too dry, lacking the raw qual­ity of the titanic struggle taking place between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. Rabinovich also does not highlight that the core of Obama’s May 2011 strategy—starting negotiations over borders and security—was not a new idea: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had foreshadowed this approach in December 2010, and the idea had been discussed for at least the previous 15 months.

Rabinovich told an interviewer that he had written this book as a text­book, rather than as a peace process analysis. Indeed, the book reads that way, providing less detail than the expert reader would want, but a strong overview for the reader who wants to see the big picture. While a thread of pessimism runs through the book about the future of the peace pro­cess, Rabinovich has not given up hope, as the book’s title indicates. In the same interview as noted above, Rabinovich was asked what he would like to see in the next generation of Israeli leaders, to which he replied: “First of all, I’d like to see the next generation of Israeli leaders.” Now that would instill some optimism in the seekers of peace.

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