War and peace, Israeli style

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

'The Lingering Conflict' by Itamar Rabinovich 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'The Lingering Conflict' by Itamar Rabinovich 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.