Itamar Rabinovich has unique credentials for writing about the failed talks Syria and Israel held from 1992 to 1996. He is a leading academic specialist both on Syria and on Arab-Israeli negotiations, and he served during that period as the Israeli ambassador to Washington and as Israel's chief negotiator with Syria.
The result is that his new study, The Brink of Peace, stands as a model of its genre: a book in which in an aware participant provides the inside skinny and the larger story of what he calls "an absorbing saga," neither burdening the reader with unnecessary information nor skimping on important details.
And, as the title implies, Rabinovich also has a thesis to argue: that Hafiz al-Asad, the Syrian president, had in principle accepted peace with Israel and that the two states reached "the brink of peace." The author explains that if Asad had only acted more urgently, the two sides could have reached a deal and their conflict by now would be well on the way to solution.
Unfortunately, Rabinovich goes on, Asad conducted himself "as if time were no constraint." This left the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and the author to go into the May 1996 elections without having secured a deal with Syria, and that was one reason why it lost to Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud.
Rabinovich surmises that, after those elections, "Asad must have realized that he had badly miscalculated" and speculates that "Asad grasped fully" that he had missed a real opportunity to conclude a deal with Israel. With this, Rabinovich offers what might be dubbed the optimistic interpretation of Asad's intentions; the dictator of Damascus truly wished to close down the conflict with Israel but made tactical errors that prevented him from doing so.
There is also another interpretation, the pessimistic one, that holds Asad never sought to end the state of war with Israel but instead entered into negotiations with his old enemy only as a means to an end. In this view, Asad used the talks with Israel as a way of improving relations with the West. He understood that Washington demanded that he adopt a less hostile attitude toward the Jewish state, so he did what he had to do. But he had no intention of ever signing a peace treaty with Israel. Instead, he kept the talks going and going, viewing them as an end in themselves. He wanted not closure but protraction; he wanted not peace but peace process.
To his credit, while partisan to the optimistic view, Rabinovich does not shape his account to buttress his argument. In fact, he provides much evidence to support the pessimistic outlook. For example, he recounts how, on the issue of normalization (that is, what sort of peace the two countries would establish), Asad demanded that this topic only be discussed in the multilateral Arab-Israeli talks that he happened to be boycotting! Nor does Rabinovich sanitize Asad's outlook ("Israel remained a rival, if not an enemy, and the terms of the peace settlement should not serve to enhance its advantage over the Arabs, Syria in particular, but rather to diminish it") or hide his own perplexity at Asad's actions. His text is littered with phrases like "we were deeply puzzled," "It is difficult to understand Asad's conduct," and "Many of Asad's decisions during this period have yet to be fully explained." Rabinovich candidly sums up his own implicit dissatisfaction with the optimistic analysis: "when all is said and done it is difficult to understand why Asad, despite his suspicions, reservations, and inhibitions, failed to take the steps that would have produced an agreement."
The author recounts how this puzzlement led his own prime minister, despite his belief in the possibility of a treaty with Damascus, to adopt the pessimistic view that Asad did not want to deal with Israel. For Rabin, "Asad's negotiating style and the substance of his positions" showed that the Syrian president "was not interested in genuine negotiation but rather in an American mediation or arbitration." Indeed, Rabinovich himself accepts the pessimistic interpretation, concluding that "Asad was more interested in obtaining a clear Israeli commitment to a withdrawal from the Golan than in coming to an agreement." He even refutes his book's optimistic title when he concludes that "at no time" in his four years of negotiating "were Israel and Syria on the verge of a breakthrough."
Rabin and Rabinovich alike find themselves falling back on the pessimistic interpretation because, no matter how positive their outlook, this makes better sense. Assuming Asad had no intention of signing an agreement with Israel sweeps away the puzzlements about his actions and shows how his supposed miscalculations actually were canny decisions.
But however much logic takes him in the direction of pessimism, the author resists it. On what basis? In a key passage, Rabinovich explains how he can persist in his optimism:
I was not perturbed by the fact that . . . Asad was primarily interested in transforming his country's relationship with Washington, and that his acceptance of the notion of peace with Israel was a necessary prelude to that transformation and not the product of a change of heart with regard to us. If a mutually acceptable compromise could be found and an agreement could be made, the change of heart would follow.
In other words, Rabinovich reasoned, Asad's intentions did not matter, for Israel could eventually co-opt the Syrians into a peaceful and civilized relationship. Our author never explains the mechanics of how "the change of heart would follow," and not surprisingly, for it is a hope, not a plan. Rabinovich (and his political superiors) wanted a peace agreement with Damascus so badly, they willingly overlooked the problems staring them in the face in the belief that a "compromise" would eventually fix things for them. They may have looked like hard-nosed planners, but Rabin and his staff were in fact pinning their country's future on a wish and a prayer.
Wishful thinking gave Israel's negotiations with the Syrians (and by extension, the other Arabs, especially the Palestinians), an indulgent quality. Rabinovich's account shows, for instance, that his side omitted any mention of the fact that Israel had won all its wars against Syria, as though to do so would be ill-mannered and tactless-even if it is the inescapable premise of the two states' negotiations. Likewise, that Israel threw in its lot with the United States and Syria with the Soviet Union never seems to arise.
As a result, instead of Damascus petitioning its vanquisher, the talks exude a sense of parity, whereby the Syrians make demands and act as Israel's equal. Israel's leaders presumably let the Syrians get away with this (with American encouragement) in the expectation that on the basis of this make-believe status, "the change of heart would follow."
This same motive probably explains the Labor government's surprising tendency to accept Asad's positions as though he were sincerely pursuing amity rather than tactically finding a p.r. advantage. For example, when Asad suddenly came up with the idea of implementing a Syrian-Israeli agreement not over the many years Rabin had proposed, but in one fell swoop, Rabinovich portrays the proposal as a serious bid for peace ("He was evidently worried by the passage of time") instead of a coy trick to have Israel blamed for turning down a chance for instant peace.
In the same spirit, Rabinovich shows Israeli leaders accepting at face value Asad's fatuous statements about the need to find a peace "with dignity." Rather than present Asad as a crafty thug desperate to hold on to power in the face of murderous domestic opposition, Rabinovich presents Asad's "philosophy" of the negotiations. Finally, a reader who knows nothing about Syrian politics could read clear through Brink of Peace without any clear sense that its totalitarian system differs from Israel's liberal democracy.
Rabinovich is a sophisticated historian and diplomat; the Rabin-Peres governments he worked for had an ambitious vision of conflict resolution. Unfortunately, their efforts were premised on hopes, not plans.