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Book Review Essays on the Middle East Peace Process

 

Gerald M. Steinberg

 

 

1)     “Probing the Secrets of Oslo”

2)     “On the Brink of Peace? More Israeli Memoirs

 

 

 

 

“PROBING THE SECRETS OF OSLO”

                                   

Published in Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. 14 1997/1998, Oxford University Press.
1) David Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO: The Rabin Government’s Road to the Oslo Accord, Boulder, Co.: Westview Press and The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1996, viii + 239 pp.
2) Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Through Secret Channels, Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 1995.  252 pp
3) Yosi Beilin, L’agaat BaShalom (Touching Peace), Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronot Books, 1997 (Hebrew), 318 pp
4) Ziva Flamhaft, Israel on the Road to Peace, Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1996.  xviii + 252 pp.

        The 1993 Declaration of Principles (known as the Oslo agreement) and the accompanying exchange of letters of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO marked a fundamental and dramatic change in the Middle East. The announced aim of the process was to end generations of conflict in a few short years, but the outcome is still far from clear.  Future analysts may conclude that these agreements in fact contributed to peace and stability, or they may find that the process raised expectations unrealistically, and was ultimately counterproductive.
        In the short period that has elapsed, it is difficult place the events in perspective. The research has only begun, and these four books are the first preliminary sources.  Two were written by actors who were centrally involved in the process, another by one of Israel’s most accomplished and insightful journalists (Makovsky), and the fourth by an academic (Flamhaft) familiar with complexities of the Middle East.  All begin with an historical overview, with Beilin and Abbas adding detailed personal and family histories as prologues to the events prior to and during the Oslo talks.  Abbas, Makovsky and Flamhaft include extensive appendices and documents, (over half of the Abbas volume consists of his summaries of the sessions leading to the DOP and of related meetings.)  However, the absence of an index in the Makovsky volumes limits its utility for researchers.)
        All four books reflect and suffer from a framework which is limited to the Middle East, and in most cases, to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.   The authors see the efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as sui generis, without reference to the broader history of international conflict and experience in negotiations.  Beilin and Flamhaft, in particular, begin with the assumption that there was “a solution”, and the challenge for decision makers was to identify its elements and then gain enough political support to implement it.  They do not consider the broader questions related to the connection between the sources and resolution of this conflict, the conditions in which protracted ethno-national conflicts can be resolved, or whether the Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally different than the other such conflicts.
        Had these authors considered these broader issues, they might have thought in terms of game theory and prisoners’ dilemma, or used the three-level framework developed by Kenneth Waltz.  The three levels -- international, domestic, and personal -- are all important in understanding the events, but the authors of these books focus on one, or at the most, two of them.
        The volumes written by Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) represent preemptive strikes by two of the principle participants in the attempt to mold the judgments of their contemporaries and of historians. (Abbas originally published in Arabic and Beilin’s book is in Hebrew).  Both were supporting actors who were instrumental in getting their respective leaders to begin and continue in this process, and before the 1996 Israeli elections, they also attempted to reach a framework agreement on final status. 
        As can be expected, Beilin and Abbas highlight their own roles, and understate the centrality of Rabin and Peres, on the Israeli side, and of Arafat for the PLO.  Abu Mazen provides a Palestinian version of events in each round of the negotiations and Beilin focuses on the internal discussions between Peres and Rabin between rounds.  There is considerable consistency in the accounts, but in some respects, it seems that they are writing about entirely different events.  The effort to identify and analyze systematic differences in the negotiation process will occupy graduate students for many years.
        In their analyses of the factors that led to the agreements, both emphasize the second of Walt’z levels -- domestic political factors -- with a lesser impact attributed to the individuals and the relationship between them), or systemic (regional or international) variables.  Both books emphasize the changes in Israeli politics that took place in the late 1980s, and, in particular, prior to the 1992 elections that brought the Labor Party and Rabin back into power. 
        For Beilin, this is not surprising, as his own involvement is closely linked to the changes in the fortunes of Peres and the Labor Party.  However, Abu Mazen’s emphasis on changes in Israeli politics is problematic, in large part because the reader is left with little information on the perspectives and the factors that influenced decision making within the PLO during this critical period.  None of the other authors in this group are in a position to shed much light on changes within the Palestinian power structure or society, and here, the Palestinian who is often viewed as Arafat’s most likely successor, disappoints.
        In his account, Abbas also details the political ties between the Israeli Arab parties and the PLO leadership, and in particular, the efforts to coordinate support in this community for the Israeli Labor Party in the 1992 elections.  Although the involvement of the PLO in Israeli domestic politics was not surprising, Abbas’s revelations caused a major controversy in Israel, forcing him to dissemble and attempt to reinterpret his own words.  The political controversy that erupted also demonstrate some of the limitations of Abu Mazen’s understanding of Israeli political sensitivities.
        As a major player, Beilin is in a good position to provide insights into the Labor’s party’s positions and internal divisions, particularly on the impact of relations between Rabin and Peres.  In the first section of his volume, Beilin focuses on meetings between Israelis and Palestinians prior to 1993, and on the difficulties posed by the Israeli law that, at the time, prohibited meetings with PLO officials.  He hammers home the absurdity of this law, but fails to discuss the background of terrorism, and the consistent failure of the Labor Party to understand its impact, including prior to the 1996 elections).  The influence of terrorism on the Israeli political system is consistently underestimated, and Beilin also underplays the importance of Rabin’s decision to expel 400 Hamas activists following a series of terrorist acts in late 1992.  These events and the international criticism they generated, along with the growing threat of revolt by the religious parties in the coalition, led Rabin to search for a dramatic step that would bind the government.  (Rabin’s first stint as Prime Minister in 1976 ended when the religious parties decided to seek new elections.)
        Although Beilin’s book is a highly personal account (many sentences begin with “I”), he provides some interesting insights regarding Israeli decision making. Following his appointment after the 1992 elections, Beilin claims that his primary goal was no less than the complete resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The Washington talks that began after the Madrid Conference were stalled, and at the urging of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Beilin, along with two academics (Hirschfeld and Pundak) who were also part of Beilin’s group in the Labor Party, initiated a “track two” channel with representatives of the PLO to discuss ways of breaking the deadlock.  At first, Peres and Rabin had very limited expectations from this informal channel (one of many), but by early 1993, the coalition government was close to a split, and a breakthrough in the negotiations was seen as a means of holding power.  At this point, Peres immersed himself in these meetings, while Rabin remained skeptical.
        In contrast to the clear Palestinian goals, articulated by Abu Ala in his opening presentation during the first round in Sarpsborg (and summarized in Abu Mazen’s book), the Israeli delegation never agreed on the objectives to be sought in the final status negotiations.  Beilin favored a Palestinian state incorporating Gaza and most of the West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria, with a capital in Abu Dies, which is considered to be part of Jerusalem by the Palestinians, but not by Israel.  Peres favored a loose (and probably unworkable) functionalist cooperation involving Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians.  Rabin appeared to favor partition, but the details of his views of the final settlement are unknown, and he may not have formulated them very clearly.
        As a result, Beilin and the Israeli team in Oslo was told to focus on the interim steps, based on the old Camp David framework of a five year transition period.   In the initial conception, during this time, Israel would withdraw in stages (beginning with Gaza and a small enclave around Jericho), and these areas would become the responsibility of a “trusteeship” modeled on the old UN system. 
        Later, after Rabin became engaged, Yoel Singer, a lawyer working under contract for the Foreign Ministry began redrafting the documents.  Singer decided that the trusteeship model was unworkable, and instead, proposed the creation of a Palestinian Authority.  In August, as the draft was being completed, Rabin demanded an explicit Palestinian pledge to end terror.  Beilin told him that in the preamble, both sides state their commitment to peace, but Rabin responded “for me, the central issue is terror.... It is inconceivable that we will sign an agreement with the Palestinians and without a PLO pledge to end terrorism.”  Negotiations then began on the nature of this pledge, but the problem continued through the signing ceremony at the White House and long after.
        Writing after the series of terrorist attacks and the Labor Party’s defeat in the 1996 elections, Beilin admits to fundamental errors in judgment.  Based on the  enthusiastic support the agreement received in 1993, “We thought that everything was ripe for an ideological revolution, but the real response was shock. ... We thought that we were exempt from [developing national] agreement.  We erred because we did not show the public our objectives for the end of the process.”  He argues that the process should have been accelerated, with a framework on permanent status linked to the interim withdrawals and transfer of security responsibility.  But at the same time, there was no Israeli consensus on the key issues, and Rabin and Peres did not believe that Israel and the Palestinians would make the necessary compromises without a significant period of confidence building and peaceful coexistence.  The interim agreements were designed to provide this time.
        Flamhaft, like Beilin, focuses on the evolution of Israeli domestic political factors and their impact on the process.  Although an academic, she displays a clear ideological and even emotional bias that weakens her analysis.   A Labor Party supporter living in New York, she credits Shimon Peres as the first to envision “a peaceful and integrated Middle East”, going on to say that this concept “is actually coming to life”.  Until Peres was able to make policy, Israel was “the stubborn partner”.  In the preface, the author states her beliefs that “peace remains the only option for both Israel and the Palestinians”, that the assassination of Rabin “will draw many indecisive Israelis toward the Labor government” and that “the peace process will be enhanced in spite of the setback by the Hamas reign of terror.”  The veracity of these predictions speak for themselves.
        Substantively, this is a very broad analysis, couched largely within the framework of the Cold War, aimed at undergraduates and newcomers to conflict resolution efforts in the Middle East.  The chapters on the Reagan and Schultz Initiatives and on the negotiations preceding the Madrid conference are prologues to Oslo, which itself is treated very briefly.  The analysis focuses on links between changes in the international system and the evolution of views in the Israeli domestic political environment.  She concludes that without the changes in Israeli domestic politics, American mediation efforts were doomed to failure.  However, she provides little that is not available in other analyses, and there is no consideration of the impact of the conflict between the Shamir government and the Bush/Baker team on the 1992 Israeli elections. 
        Of these four publications, Makovsky’s description and analysis are the most insightful and useful for further research.  Based on extensive interviews and documents, this volume gives a more complete picture than emerges from the other publications.  From his analysis, it is apparent that the combination of intense activity at each of three levels of analysis created the framework for these historic events.  However, it appears that the changes in the systemic environment (the end of the Cold War and the coalition that defeated Iraq), as well as the related changes in the domestic political environments in Israel and among the Palestinians were necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the beginning of the Oslo process.  Personal factors and interests of major actors were also critical to these events.
        While the Palestinians sent relatively high level officials led by Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei), on the Israeli side, the negotiations began with two academics close to Beilin and the Labor Party.  Hirschfeld and Pundak, like dozens of other academics, were deeply involved in unofficial “track two” meetings, but, as Abu Mazen understood, their links to the political leadership provided the basis for more substantive talks.  However, as Makovsky notes, they were also amateurs, mixing their own ideologies and personal views (Pundak more than Hirschfeld) with the policy guidelines that they were expected to fulfill.  Thus, in the early drafts of the Declaration of Principles, they agreed to terms that had not been approved by Rabin, and later, at a high cost, these had to be revised.  Makovsky concludes that “As invaluable as the academics were in establishing the Oslo channel, in retrospect, it appears that they should have taken a backseat once the drafting process had begun.”         
        In contrast to Beilin, Makovsky also explores the reasons for Norway’s intense (and somewhat naive) devotion to reaching an agreement between Israel and the PLO.  He notes that “The Norwegians believed that precisely because they did not have major interests in the region .. yet were on good terms with both Israel and the Palestinians, they were uniquely suited to prod the talks along.”  The late Foreign Minister Holst was inspired by the example of post-war Europe, in which Monet succeeded in “transforming the mutual hatred of France and Germany into a web of interdependent economic relationships.”  It was a vision that also captivated Peres, and which proved, at least so far, to be irrelevant to the Middle East.
        Makovsky, in contrast to the other authors, rightfully places the major emphasis on the two key actors, Rabin and Arafat.   Without access to Arafat, he explores Rabin’s personality at length, using various sources, including his own extensive interviews with the late Israeli Prime Minister.  In the Oslo process, as in the rest of his political career, Rabin was largely reactive, rather than active, and a tactician rather than strategist.  After the 1992 elections, Rabin had no grand design for dealing with the Palestinians, but rather, as was consistent with his behavior in other situations for decades, he adopted a pragmatic approach, taking “one step at a time”.  It was only after this approach appeared to have reached a dead-end, and Rabin was pressed to find an alternative, that he agreed to consider the potential in the Oslo talks.  Rabin never underwent a fundamental transformation, but rather was slowly edged by a combination of pressures from inside and out, and by the lack of alternatives, into adopting and then adapting the draft prepared in Norway.
        As was the case throughout his political career, Rabin’s distrust of experts and politicians, and the Rabin-Peres rivalry, played key roles.  After the elections, Rabin maginalized Peres, stripping the Foreign Ministry of control over the bilateral talks, and Makovsky asserts that the Prime Minister believed that he could use his instinct to single-handedly manage the peace process.  Peres and Beilin were left with some of the multilateral working groups, and they also opened up a number of unofficial channels (Track 2 talks) to the Palestinians.  There were numerous such contacts, all over the world, including meetings sponsored by groups such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and also the Oslo channel. 
        Makovsky, like Beilin, recalls that at first, Rabin was uninterested in reports of these meetings, but by the Spring of 1993, following the first round in Oslo, he agreed to a briefing from Peres, on the grounds that the meetings provided information about PLO objectives.  In contrast to Beilin, Makovsky highlights the combined impact of the domestic pressure (Rabin was under pressure from the Left, who reminded him of his pledge of a breakthrough within a year, and from the religious parties) and the external pressure following the deportation of the Hamas activists to Lebanon.  Rabin also found the idea of giving the PLO responsibility for Gaza attractive.  Once he had opened the door, Peres and Beilin steadily pressed Rabin to go further, including Jericho in the first-stage autonomy plan, agreeing to a five year time-table for permanent status, arbitration procedures that were contrary to Israeli policy, the exchange of letters on Jerusalem, and the elevation of Arafat and the PLO to the status of equal partners. Yet, according to Makovsky, Rabin was never comfortable with Oslo, and as his body language clearly demonstrated, he did not put any faith in Arafat’s interest in or ability to keep his end of the agreement.
        In contrast to his distrust of Peres and other politicians, Rabin often turned to the IDF for advise and analysis, and as Defense Minister, he chaired the weekly meetings of the General Staff.  The military was his source of advise on Oslo as well, and as Makovsky demonstrates, contrary to published reports and Beilin’s version, Rabin consulted IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak frequently along the way.  When Barak later raised serious objections to the final draft of the DOP before the cabinet, he may have been acting as Rabin’s alter-ego, expressing the misgivings that Rabin felt but could not state while leading the effort for approval.
        These volumes provide a beginning in the effort to understand the process, substance, and impact of the what has come to be known as the Oslo agreements, but many questions remain.  Perhaps a less ambitious framework, negotiated in formal channels, with a longer time frame and more checks and balances, would have been more successful. These analyses also show that the failure of the Rabin government to articulate or reach agreement on the overall objectives of the process, in sharp contrast to the Palestinians, was a major mistake. 
        These books provide a first layer of source material and analysis, to be supplemented as archives become available and more memoirs from other players are published.  In the meantime, these volumes provide valuable resources for anyone involved in conflict resolution, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.

 

ON THE BRINK OF PEACE? MORE ISRAELI MEMOIRS

 

Gerald M. Steinberg

 

Published in Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. 16 – 1999/2000, Oxford University Press, pp. 313-319

 

Eitan Bentsur, Ha’Derech Lashalom Overt B’madrid (The Road to Peace Crosses Madrid), Yediot Aharonot Books, Tel Aviv, 1997 303 pp.

 

Itamar Rabinovich, The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1998 (Published in Hebrew as Saf Hashalom, Yediot Aharonot Books, Tel Aviv, 1998) xv. + 283 pp.

 

Uri Savir, The Process: 1,100 Days that Changed the Middle East, Random House, New York, 1998 (Published in Hebrew as Ha’tahalich, Yediot Aharonot Books, Tel Aviv, 1998) xi + 336 pp.

 

            The Madrid Conference, held in October 1991, came at a time of unique optimism in the world, and in the Middle East in particular.  The Cold War was over; the Soviet Union was on the edge of disintegration; while a coalition led by the United States and including Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia had just defeated and destroyed much of the Iraqi army.George Bush’s proclivity to exaggeration not withstanding, it seemed that a “New World Order” under the umbrella of a Pax Americana was indeed possible.

            For the U.S., the first order of business after the war’s abrupt end was to jump start Middle East peace talks.  For three years, the Bush Administration had tried to find a formula under which the leaders of all the states involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as Palestinian representatives, could gather for negotiations.  While declaring that they did not have maps or a specific settlement in mind, the Americans believed that, once the ice had been broken, by sitting together and talking to each other, Arabs and Israelis would find a workable solution.

Before 1991, the U.S. efforts were unsuccessful, as each of the parties to the dispute did little more than jockey for position.  Following the Gulf War, however, the situation changed radically.  Having embraced Saddam Hussein, the PLO emerged in a weakened position.  In Israel, the government headed by Yitzchak Shamir recognized that it would have to compromise in order to avoid the wrath of the Americans.  In Damascus, meanwhile, Hafez Assad continued to hide his cards, lecturing U.S. officials on his version of Middle East history, while considering the costs and benefits of participation in the planned conference.

In retrospect, the Madrid Conference was the pivotal event that gave life to a sputtering but persistent Middle East peace process. Like a political big bang, its terms of reference would guide the rest of the process, and once precedents were set, they would not be readily altered.  Events moved relatively slowly at first, but the pace changed in 1992, after the Israeli elections installed Yitzchak Rabin as Prime Minister.  The Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed in 1993, followed the next year by the Israeli Jordanian peace treaty.   Israel and Syria also began serious talks, which, at the time, were expected to lead to an agreement.

            Substantively, the Madrid conference can be seen either as a masterful triumph of (mainly American) diplomacy, or, in contrast, the first step on the road to collapse.  For those in Israel who view the Oslo process as a disaster, and an agreement with Syria based on withdrawal from the Golan Heightsas catastrophic, Shamir’s decision to go to Madrid was a huge error.  In contrast, for enthusiasts of the peace process, the reluctance with which Israel agreed to participate, and the conditions that were attached, prevented a quick and historic breakthrough.

            Eitan Bentsur looks at these issues from a unique perspective.  As Deputy Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, he was one of Israel's most senior professional diplomats, and a major player for over a decade.Like John Foster Dulles, he was "present at the creation."  As he notes, before Madrid (or rather, before the events unleashed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990), even the greatest optimists focused on a narrow Israeli-Palestinian arrangement, and there were no hopes for involving Syria.  The Madrid formula, combining a series of parallel bilateral negotiations with five multilateral working groups, changed all that.

            As can be seen in Bentsur’s description, the intense negotiations that preceded the conference were more important than the words exchanged during the brief meeting.  Despite the US hegemony, it took James Baker III 9 visits to the region in a span of a few months to nail down the details. (Some members of his team, such as Dennis Ross, made the trek more often and stayed longer).

While much of this story has been told in the memoirs of other participants, each player had his own concerns and emphases.  In this narrative, which is both personal and institutional, the Foreign Ministry emerges as the major facilitator and promoter of the Madrid concept in Israel.  As the process developed, Bentsur and company slowly brought a skeptical Israeli government to recognize that rather than tilting at the windmills powered by Baker and Bush, Israel’s interests would be served by a strategy designed to get the best possible terms for the inevitable conference.

            The co-sponsors (primarily the Americans) painstakingly negotiated the letters of invitation and individual missives sent to each of the major participants.  Syria's President Asad still clings to every nuance and punctuation mark, convinced that in 1991 he made all of the concessions necessary for recovering the Golan, and more importantly, to qualify for massive U.S. economic aid.  The compromise that created a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation eventually legitimized the PLO, paving the way for the Oslo agreement in 1993.

Bentsur’s book reminds readers that in Israel, the build-up to Madrid was far from smooth.  Despite unusual restraint following the Scud attacks, relations between Jerusalem and Washington were strained.  Shamir saw the international conference as a trap, where Israel would be pressured into making dangerous concessions.  (Asad's “enthusiasm” was seen as evidence that the Americans had indeed prepared a trap for Israel.)

While attempting to persuade Shamir to consider some degree of cooperation, the Israeli team, including Bentsur and the MFA, sought to minimize the participation of  malignant "outsiders" -- Europe, the UN, and Russia.   At least the Americans – even in the era of the cold and WASPish Baker and Bush – understood Israel’s security requirements.  Israel demanded and received agreement to limit the full conference to a largely ceremonial task, whilethe substantive negotiations would take place in the bilateral frameworks.

            Bentsur's detailed description of the road to Madrid also provides important insights into the ever-present jockeying between the bureaucrats and diplomats in the MFA and the political leadership, including the Prime Minister and his top advisors.  Shamir seemed to allow his chief advisor, Yossi Ben Aharon, free reign in blocking the American initiatives, and in neutralizing the Israeli MFA.  Like so many other politicians, Shamirencouraged the face-off as a means of balancing between different perspectives, sources of power, and interests.  The Americans found this very frustrating, but for Shamir, this was the only way to slow and attempt to influence the process.

            Shamir’s forebodings regarding the outcome of the Madrid Conference turned out to be accurate, at least with respect to his ideology and political career.  Although the speeches, including the aggressive performance of Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A’-Shara, did not mark an auspicious beginning, the dye had been cast.  When the months that followed failed to bring any progress, the Israeli public wanted to accelerate the process, in the hope that Israeli risks and concessions might yield breakthroughs with both the Palestinians and Syrians.  Although perhaps not the central factor, these concerns led to the victory of the Labor Party, headed by Yitzchak Rabin in the June 1992 elections.

 

            Rabin, “Mr. Security”, shared some of Shamir’s skepticism, but he was even more pessimistic about the long-term impact of a standoff.  In 1992, Rabin and IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak viewed a peace agreement with Syria as the key to ending the cycle of war that had plagued Israel since 1948.

            To run the negotiations with Damascus, Rabin went outside the Foreign Ministry (like Netanyahu and later, Barak, he viewed the Ministry as overly bureaucratized, insufficiently professional, and undisciplined) and appointed Itamar Rabinovich.   A professor at Tel Aviv University, Rabinovich had written extensively and knowledgeably about earlier efforts to reach a treaty with Syria.  He was close and loyal to Rabin (in contrast to many other academics linked to Peres), and could be relied upon to deliver the Prime Minister’s positions without injecting his own political or personal agenda.  Later, Rabin also appointed Rabinovich as Israeli ambassador to the United States, and his Syrian counterpart, Ambassador Walid Mu’allim, headed his country’s negotiating team.  The fact that the two chief negotiators served simultaneously as ambassadors in Washington was a reflection of the degree of American involvement in the talks.

            As Rabinovich notes in this memoir (The Brink of Peace), Rabin wasted no time.  The effort to draft a declaration of principles began in August 1992, but it moved very slowly.   At every session, the Syrians pressed Israel to accept full withdrawal, before making any public gestures or confidence building measures.  (Rabinovich’s detailed description of the meetings, and the analysis of each of the participants on the Syrian team are, in themselves, important contributions to understanding the process.)  In the absence of a response from Damascus, Rabin transferred focus to the Palestinians and the Oslo track, putting the Syrians onhold in order to avoid overloading the domestic political circuits.

            The Syrians bargained from inflexible ideological positions, rather than more pliant interests.  The ideology was reinforced by Hafez al-Asad’s ultra-rigid negotiating style, and attempts to probe the depths of the Syrian President’s views and to develop informal back-channels, failed.  Rabinovich reports that even before the first meeting in August 1992, “We knew by then that Asad gave nothing without getting something in return.” (p. 58)

In August 1993, as the Oslo negotiations were in their final phase, Rabin made one more effort to reach an agreement with Syria.   Shuttling between Damascus and Jerusalem, U.S. Secretary of State Christopher carried questions and answers between Rabin to Asad on the details of a possible agreement.  As Rabinovich notes, “August 1993 was a crucial watershed.  …. Rabin then took an initiative, and authorized Secretary Christopher to explore in a hypothetical way Syria’s readiness for a comprehensive agreement with Israel in which the possibility of withdrawal … was put on the agenda.” Indeed, as Rabinovich notes, the Syrians claimed that Rabin had responded to the American exercise, which they later confirmed was non-binding, by agreeing to a full withdrawal from the Golan.  However, “President Asad did not quite pick up the glove.” (p.13)  Christopher reported that the Syrians “had difficulties with the very term 'normalization'." (p.106)

With no change in Asad's very negative public diplomacy, it was clear that despite the numerous meetings and shuttle trips, there was no sign of progress.  Stubborn and inflexible, Syrian President Asad was surprised when the Oslo agreement was suddenly revealed, and felt betrayed by Arafat.  (Similarly, in 1996, the Syrians were not prepared when Peres lost the elections to Netanyahu.)

            In considering the events from July 1993 to May 1996, the title of Rabinovich’s memoirs, The Brink of Peace, may be misleading.  Although the direct meetings and exchanges went farther than before, these talks stopped far short of agreement.  At critical times, Asad dropped the ball.  Although he later insisted that Rabin had told Christopher that Israel would withdraw from the entire Golan, Asad did not grab the supposed opportunity.  Instead, he continued to play the Arab leadership card, supporting Hizbollah in Lebanon, providing safe haven for terrorists in Damascus, and continuing the propaganda war against Israel.

When substantive talks resumed in mid-1994, following the opening of the less formal “ambassador’s channel”, Rabin proposed a 3 phase-process, with the first Israeli withdrawal from the Druze villages near Mt. Hermon within 9 months after signing an accord, accompanied by Syrian steps toward normalization.  The second phasewould include further Israeli pullbacks over 18 months, and full withdrawal in 4-and-a-half years. (p. 140)  Asad responded by demanding full withdrawal in 12 months (up from 3 initially), and also insisted on a return to the “June 4 1967” lines, as distinct from the international border).  At this point, Rabin decided again that Asad was not seriously engaged. (p. 149)

In parallel, talks were held focusing on security, and at the end of 1994, the chiefs of staffs of the Israeli and Syrian armies met at the Wye Plantation outside Washington.   The gaps, both perceptual and substantive, remained wide.  Although both sides agreed to keep the meetings secret, the Syrians deliberately leaked their version.  Rabinovich notes that “This was a bad omen.  By publicizing his rejection of these Israeli demands Asad was deliberately tying his own hands.”  (p. 175)  Ten weeks of intense American pressure and shuttle diplomacy led to the negotiation of a brief and very general “Non-paper on the Aims and Principles of the Security Arrangements”, followed by a second round at Wye in June 1995.  This did not go well either.  “General Shihabi was determined not to share a meal or even a cup of coffee with his Israeli interlocutors.” (p.181)

In 1995, Rabin needed all the political strength he could gather in the face of the waves of Palestinian suicide bombings, and when the Syrians continued to support these attacks, he broke off the talks.  After the assassination, Peres was ready and even eager to reach an agreement with Asad before the May 1996 elections, but he also came up empty-handed.  Although Asad complained that Rabin was too slow and cautious, he now protested that Peres was moving too fast.

            Were Israel and Syria really on the brink of peace at any point during this period?  Rabinovich himself provides plenty of evidence to the contrary, arguing convincingly that Syria was primarily interested in ties with the U.S., and not peace with Israel.  Asad expected the Americans to “deliver” the Rabin government (p. 136, p.144).  Indeed, an eager President Clinton sought to oblige, trying “several times to extract from [Rabin] whether he would be willing to accept full withdrawal as part of a settlement with Syria." (p. 92)

Syria did not give the Americans anything in return, and when the U.S. urged Asad to open a secret channel, he refused.  (Rabinovich does reveal that two individuals passed messages between Jerusalem and Damascus, but provides no information on the content or identities involved. (p.138))  In January 1994, Asad shared center stage with Clinton during a rare summit meeting in Geneva.  However, instead of using this platform to alter his and Syria’s image as a spoiler, Asad’s behavior highlighted the most negative aspects of the negotiations (pp128-30).  A repeat performance during Clinton’s visit to Damascus in October 1994 further alienated the Americans.

This is a masterfully written diplomatic history, the epitome of scholarly detachment, without heroes or villains.   Both Rabin and Asad held their cards very closely, coming as close as possible to the “unitary rational actor model” of international politics.  Both planned their moves with great care, like chess grandmasters moving their pieces slowly across the board, while looking out for traps and deeply hidden opportunities.  As a result, progress, if any, was glacial.

 

            While Rabinovich was attempting to reach a breakthrough agreement with Syria, Shimon Peres, Yosi Belin, and Uri Savir were busy negotiating with the Palestinians.  Of the three, Savirwas clearly the junior partner, and the last to put his version of the Oslo process into print.  For Savir, this was a personal journey, in contrast to Bentsur, who focused on the institutions (particularly the Foreign Ministry), and Rabinovich, with hisfocus on the competing interests of the major players.  Enthralled with the visions of Shimon Peres, who took the junior diplomat from the New York consulate and made him Director General of the Foreign Ministry, Savir was also convinced that his Palestinian counterparts shared the same objectives.  If there are differences, they are merely based on tactics and emphases.

For those who view the Oslo process as a well-intentioned but ultimately naive effort, Uri Savir's book (The Process) provides ample evidence.  After the gravitas of Rabinovich’s analysis, Savir's book appears light-headed.  Instead of clashing national interests and the historic struggle for survival, Savir analysis of events is simplistic and cliched.  The intense ideologists, generals, diplomats and terrorists of traditional Middle Eastern history are replaced by sentimental tales of father and daughter dreaming wistfully of peace.  At the beginning of this tale, the reader is told that Savir’s daughter had accompanied her parents to peace demonstrations since the ago of four.  As he left for the first meeting, “I wanted her to sense that one of our dreams was about to come true.” (p. 7)  Resistance to concessions and risks is attributed to “a kind of psychological jet lag as long-standing perceptions resist the impact of new ideas and realities.”  (p. ix) In contrast, “Peacemaking tries to reset perceptional clocks.”

To Savir, personalities and perceptions are the critical factors.  In this world, there is no room for conflicting national interests and ideologies.  Rather, the coin of the diplomatic realm is based on personal relationships and trust between interlocutors.  Instead of confronting real problems, Savir, like Beilin and Peres, relied on the analyses and promises of officials such as Abu Ala (Ahmed Queri),  Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Hassan Asfour, Sa’eb Erekat, and, at times, even Arafat.

In a chapter called, ironically, “Planning Security”, Savir focuses on the terrorism that not only continued, but increased after the Palestinian Authority took control in Gaza and Jericho.  As “it became clear to us that Arafat and his men were not using their new power base to dismantle Hamas”, Rabin “demanded that the Palestinians do a better job of countering them.”  Hassan Asfour explained that “Arafat has a different strategy, and it will succeed.  Trust him; strengthen him, and you’ll see.  We’re negotiating with Hamas, and many of their people are coming over to our side.”  Abu Ala revealed details of an “evolving agreement between Hamas and Fatah … that included an end to violence and the acceptance of a central authority that would legitimize political pluralism.” (p. 147)

These personal assurances from trusted partners came a few weeks before the kidnapping of Nachshon Wachsman (on theday that Nobel prizes for Rabin, Peres, and Arafat were announced) and the suicide blast on a Tel Aviv bus that killed 22 people and wounded many more. As demonstrations against “the murderous peace process” mounted, Savir reports that “Arafat still failed to grasp the extent of the menace posed by terrorism”.  (p. 151)

While frustrated by the terrorism and by the failure of their “partners” to act against it, Savir, like Peres and Beilin (and perhaps Rabin, although we will never know)was so committed to the Oslo process that, as this book shows, he never questioned the validity of his initial assumptions.  For Savir, the path was set on the first of the 1,100 days that the Rabin/Peres government held office, and he never looked back. However, amidst the waves of suicide bombers, the Israeli public demanded more evidence that the process would indeed bring peace.  In the elections of May 1996, Peres and Labor were voted out of office, and Savir’s role in the negotiations ended.