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    Middle East

Andrea Kim

Author's Bio

Itamar Rabinovich was born in Jerusalem in 1942. He obtained a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies at UCLA then became Israel's Chief Negotiator with Syria and ambassador of Washington under the late Yitzhak Rabin from 1993-1996. He has served as Director of the Moshe Dayan Center, TAU rector, and Dean of the Entin Facility of Humanities. In 2003 he was elected president of Tel Aviv University, and is also the A.D. White professor-at-large for Cornell University. He is a historian, an expert on the Middle East, and the author of several books, articles and essays.

Israeli-Syrian Negotiations

     Itamar Rabinovich's work, The Brink of Peace: the Israeli-Syrian Negotiations, is based upon the history of failed peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. Rabinovich informs readers of his experiences in the meetings to help others understand the diplomacy of the United States in the Middle East and also the larger Arab-Israeli peace process. As Israel's ambassador to Washington from 1992 to1996 and as Yitzhak Rabin's chief negotiator with Syria, he looks back at the whole process with a neutral viewpoint. These historical negotiations affected the United States and numerous countries in the Middle East. Able to explain different sides and empathize with the members involved in the conflict with little or no bias, Rabinovich gives a detailed description of the long and troublesome Israeli-Syrian peace process.
     The book starts off by explaining how the long process of peace negotiations began. For more than three years, "the Israeli labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres negotiated a peace settlement with Hafiz al-Asad's Syrian Ba'th regime," but before the agreements could be reached, elections brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power as a government official.1 Netanyahu had inflated beliefs of his abilities to reconstruct the Israeli-Arab peace process and immediately tried to form new policies towards Syria. He quickly realized that he did not have as much power as he believed, and the negotiations could not be reached. They were at a standstill, and the few efforts to restart them were half-hearted, since "the Syrian-Israeli dispute has traditionally been regarded as the most bitter."2 Rabinovich was personally chosen by Rabin to work with him on the negotiations and the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Both Asad and Rabin were serious in their decisions to make peace, but the terms were extremely difficult to agree upon. They had different ideas of what peace was about and could not agree with each other. When the first round of negotiations was over, the Syrians handed the Israelis a paper on their peace terms. The Israelis believed the paper held valuable information on peace, but it was extremely ambiguous, providing no finality to the negotiations that had taken place for hours inside the meeting room. The talking and planning had all been for nothing. In addition, the presidential elections of the United States overshadowed the important talks for peace between the two Middle Eastern countries. A new leader of the United States had the potential to change the relationship between the Middle East and the U.S.
     After a few weeks there were more meetings and delegations for the peace conference in Washington, although the major policy decisions were made in Israel. Rabinovich felt that the Syrians were not helping as much as they could have, and "Peace¡­was rather difficult to define briefly."3 The meetings continued with more proposals being made, and on November 17th the Syrians attempted to break the deadlock by using an approach of hypothetical questions and answers. The Israeli side impatiently told the Syrians that they needed to know the full peace arrangements to get the deadlock over with and that hypothetical questions and answers would not help to get full peace. When the months began to pass, the Israelis thought about withdrawal because by December of 1992 the negotiations had run their course. There was another "effort to affect an Israeli-Syrian breakthrough [which] was resumed along two tracks: a direct American effort vis-¨¤-vis the Syrian government and two additional rounds of the Washington talks." 4 The ninth round of talks was an opportunity for the Syrians to keep the Israelis from full withdrawal, and a new draft was written and discussed. Even more phases and meeting were held, but to no avail. Rabinovich felt as though the delegates were just wasting time at the numerous meetings over the peace agreement. On September 9 President Clinton told Asad that he, along with the rest of the United States, was committed to an Israeli-Syrian breakthrough. After the Washington signing ceremony, the prospect of an Israeli-Jordanian agreement became evident. Asad, however, was suspicious and viewed this change of events as a threat to his authority.
From September 13, 1993 to April of 1994, no progress was made in the negotiations. The Israelis, with an American dimension, wanted to have a breakthrough with Jordan. Chairman Hamilton believed that "a humane gesture on the issue of great sensitivity in Israel would have a very salutary effect on Asad's and Syria's image in the United States and Israel."5 Rabin was displeased at being hounded by the Israeli media, and terminated another round of negotiations, and tried to have a meeting of minds, but it was futile. In late February 1994, the leaders knew the Israeli-Arab peace process was not doing well. The negotiations were at a standoff between Syria and Israel and Israel and Palestine. But as April drew to a close, it became clear that the Gaza-Jericho agreement was going to be signed. From late April to mid-May of 1994, Secretary Christopher and his teams made a trip to the Middle East; their main purpose was to receive and form new negotiations. Rabin suspected that "Asad was more interested in obtaining a clear Israeli commitment to a withdrawal from the Golan than in coming to an agreement." 6 They met more times and had lengthy conversations over the peace agreements, in which Asad made a concession, agreeing to a period of sixteen months for the negotiation. The 1996 elections were important for both Israel and the U.S. because a new president and a new Prime Minister were going to be appointed to office. The two new political leaders could change the outcome of the peace agreements, for better or for worse.
The leaders needed the negotiations to move along faster than ever and grew more conscious of the amount of time left--less than one year. Compared to a year earlier, the negotiations seemed to be close to finished. The actual negotiations between Israel and Syria "focused almost exclusively on the issue of security¡­unfolded in three stages." 7 A Syrian position was placed on a minimalist view of the security arrangements, but their concept of peace was extremely different from the Israelis'. Rabinovich was excited because "In nearly four years of negotiation with Syria, the first meeting with Hikman Shihabi stands out as a special moment."8 Shihabi's direct participation was a sign that Syria was serious about peace. On June 20 the chief of staff meeting was announced in advance with a fresh feeling of relief. Rabin wanted to avoid political furor over a hypothetical agreement, so it was kept a secret between the negotiators until they were sure it was going to go over well. The meetings were finally going somewhere and the agreements could be created without further debates.
     Discussion of territorial depth shifted to gaining land. Asad believed that the peace agreements could not be finished if there were no terms over boundaries and territories. Asad's opinions were legitimate and the assigning was scheduled September 28. In the summer of 1995, Rabin and Peres made peace with each other. Rabin accepted Peres as a partner and Peres accepted Rabin's seniority. They worked together until Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated November 4, 1995, when "the Clinton Administration¡­immediately turned its attention and diplomatic efforts to the Syrian Israeli track and to the fresh prospect of a Syrian-Israeli agreement and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement before the end of 1996."9 The President knew that Asad would not sign a peace treaty with Israel unless there was a complete withdrawal from Galaz Heights. This was because "Peres wanted a much deeper American involvement in the Israeli-Syrian Negotiations."10 Peres hoped to launch an initiative: The Clinton Plan, with the President's permission. On May 10, new negotiations were made on behalf of Peres. The compromise was concluded by his successor Benjamin Netanyahu on June 12th, as Prime Minister. The negotiation from 1992 to 1996 finally came to an end after four very long years. It seemed as if everything were changing for the better, with new leaders, new negotiations, and a final peace agreement on which both countries could agree to keep.
     Rabinovich wrote this book to inform others about what went on behind the closed doors of secret meetings during the whole four years peace discussions between Syria and Israel. He was the chief advisor of Rabin, overseeing all the parts of the peace negotiations, as well as giving an account of what he saw and experienced in the rooms. As an expert historian on the Middle East, Rabinovich tries his hardest not to be biased against Syria. It is impossible for him to be 100 percent unbiased because he was so involved in the peace process. He does show the leaders in a positive light instead of attacking them for their mistakes. Although he does a very good job of not choosing sides, he tends to offer many of his opinions to readers. Rabinovich gives a detailed account of what happened and doesn't impose his views onto anyone. Empathetic with the leaders of other countries, Rabinovich seems to understand what they are going through. He dedicated his book to the late Yitzhak Rabin in honor of all he did during his lifetime.
Fred H. Lawson from Mills College reviewed Rabinovich's book in 2000. Lawson felt that Rabinovich was the right person to oversee the peace agreements because of his impressive credentials, but his book "reflects a policy-maker's proclivity to highlight only the most salient and immediate aspects of complicated issues¡­most pronounced in the first two chapters."11 He feels that Rabinovich has neglected to inform readers on other aspects of the issues by giving them only the most immediate details. Lawson gives details as to why he feels this way, declaring, "Nor does the book provide much new insight into the details of the negotiations themselves¡­ [Rabinovich] offers thumbnail sketches of the protagonists."12 Instead of going in-depth about the people involved, Rabinovich does not want the readers to see them as real people. Lawson ends by claiming that "The Brink of Peace contributes little to the extensive literature on international bargaining and conflict resolution."13 Lawson believes that although Rabinovich was the right person for the job, he was not the right person to be the author of the book. Rabinovich's own beliefs prevented him from viewing the events from a different perspective.
Hanan Cohen gave his review in 1999 and approves Rabinovich's way of interpreting events. He believes that Rabinovich "meticulously dissects the process he oversaw. He seeks to explain why, if both sides made strategic decisions to pursue peace."14 Cohen is the opposite of Lawson, believing that Yitzhak made a good choice in choosing Rabinovich as his chief advisor and was the best person for that job. Cohen praises Rabinovich by stating that this book "is the clearest, most comprehensive articulation so far of the proceedings and their achievements."15 Rabinovich, who had inside knowledge and could show the world what went on during those four years, looked in depth at the case of the peace proceedings between Syria and Israel. Cohen shows that Rabinovich did not antagonize any of the leaders, since "Rabinovich rejects the cynical view that the aging Asad kept the talks going solely to mark time while currying favor with the United States."16 According to Cohen, Rabinovich is able to see the other points of view and empathize with leaders. Although Rabinovich tries not to judge the leaders, "[He] believes the talks and their aftermath taught Asad some valuable lessons about Israelis and forced him to discard the view that all Zionist parties are the same."17 The different opinions of everybody involved kept the peace conferences from going smoothly. These two reviews, while different in their approval, are both right about this book in their own ways.
Rabinovich has tried his best to be as nonbiased as possible. In most of the book he gives an accurate account of what happened and what he experienced. Sometimes I felt as if he was portraying the leaders of other countries as being manipulative and purposefully delaying the peace conferences. The tone was a bit flat at times with digressions after different explanations. He views Syria's vague paper on peace and their reluctance to restart meetings as ways to try and sabotage the peace conferences. Rabinovich displays the mistakes of all the countries involved, and gives readers explanations for why the peace processes took so long. The delays and reluctance of leaders to work together made the peace terms even harder to create than if they had been cooperative from the beginning. The book gives correct portrayals of the leaders involved, but does not go in-depth to describe them. The peace conferences took so long that the author forgot to see them as real people who had the potential to change politics. He had gotten so used to the fact that they could not agree with each other and saw them as incompetent. Rabinovich was the right person to write the book, but four years of peace negotiations need to be longer than just 260 pages. He skipped many of the important details, and I felt as though I was being rushed through the events in the book. Numerous times I had to reread a part in the book to try to figure out why they had a certain meeting, or to find out who or how important an individual was. If this book were longer and more in-depth about all of the meetings and people involved, it would not have felt so rushed and hurried. This book also focused on other situations besides the peace negotiations. It did not transition smoothly from one event to another, and if the book explained more about certain people and events, I would not have had to reread chapters to figure out what was happening. Although the book had potential with a good author, it needed to expand more on detail.
     Rabinovich believes these peace negotiations had a positive impact on the Middle East relations and the U.S.-Middle East relations. They changed the relations with the Middle East leaders and the U.S. President. The previously held values also changed because of the time it took for the peace negotiations to come to a close. The relationship between Israel and Syria became better with each country agreeing on the different aspects of peace. It had some impact on America, but not enough to drastically change anything politically between the U.S. and the Middle East. The years from 1992 to 1996 were filled with change, but Israel and Syria could not agree on the terms for peace. Rabinovich believed that the peace negotiations could have taken less time if only the leaders of each country could have been more agreeable from the beginning of the meetings. From this event, the Middle East leaders learned not to prolong the inevitable and to come to conclusions as soon as possible. The sooner the problems are solved, the sooner negotiations will be over.
     I believe these peace negotiations did have a positive impact on the relationships between the Middle East relations and the United States. Their relationship improved politically and economically. They had a historical impact for peace in the Middle East for Israel and Syria after years of unease between them. Their new relationship changed the belief that the two countries could not get along and would be enemies forever. These negotiations did have an impact on America because they changed previously held values that the two countries could not agree on peace terms. If the two countries were not able to get along, and the peace agreements were thrown out, then the President would have had a hard time choosing between the two. This historical event will impact future negotiations over peace because the two countries were able to work together despite their many differences. Overall, reading this book gave me more insight into the political side of the Middle East. It showed me that although these countries were uncooperative at first, they were still able to overcome their political differences. I now know that politics is an extremely complicated science.


1. Rabinovich, Itamar. The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998, 3. 2. Rabinovich, Itamar 14. 3. Rabinovich, Itamar 73. 4. Rabinovich, Itamar 93. 5. Rabinovich, Itamar 127. 6. Rabinovich, Itamar 143. 7. Rabinovich, Itamar 167. 8. Rabinovich, Itamar 173. 9. Rabinovich, Itamar 191. 10. Rabinovich, Itamar 203. 11. Lawson, Fred H. "Book Reviews." International Journal of Middle East Affairs. 2000, 192. 12. Lawson, Fred H. 193. 13. Lawson, Fred H. 194. 14. Cohen, Hanan. "Book Reviews."Journal of International Affairs. v. 52. 1999, 827. 15. Cohen, Hanan 827. 16. Cohen, Hanan 828. 17. Cohen, Hanan 830.

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