Why has the Arab-Israeli conflict persisted over more than six decades, and why are the prospects for resolving it peacefully so dim? These are the central questions that Itamar Rabinovich seeks to answer in this recent sequel to his Waging Peace, initially published in 2000 and reissued in 2004. This volume includes two-and-a-half new chapters that cover the last two years of Ariel Sharonʼs premiership, Ehud Olmertʼs term of office, and the diplomatic interactions to date between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his quest for answers, Rabinovich relies not only on his academic credentials as a prolific Middle East scholar and former president of Tel Aviv University, but also on his practical experience and firsthand knowledge from his service as Israelʼs chief negotiator with Syria and as ambassador to the United States in the mid-1990s.
In the introductory chapter, Rabinovich argues that the Arab-Israeli conflict has remained unresolved because it is, in essence, a complex cluster of four distinct, yet interrelated, clashes. At its core lies the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, a conflict between two national movements competing for control of the same territory west of the Jordan River. At a second level, it is a broader national, political, cultural and religious conflict between Israel and Arab nationalism. A third dimension of the conflict includes several bilateral disputes between Israel and neighboring Arab states, particularly Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Lastly, the conflict affects and is, in turn, influenced by the broader international environment that includes the policies of the superpowers and direct involvement of numerous international institutions.
The first seven of the bookʼs nine chapters provide chronological accounts of the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. To minimize duplication of his earlier book, Rabinovich devotes slightly more than two pages to the years between 1948 and 1967. The period between the 1967 and 1973 wars is covered in five pages, and the two decades after the 1973 war are narrated in 14 pages. Each of the next six chapters provides increasingly more detailed coverage of the two decades since 1992. Those who regularly follow Middle East events will be familiar with the material presented therein. However, the final two chapters deserve particular attention because they subject the preceding narrative to highly original and critical analysis.
In Chapter 8, Rabinovich explains why genuine and lasting peace has been absent from the interactions between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians. He notes that Egypt was Israelʼs most formidable enemy during the first three decades of the Jewish stateʼs existence. After concluding the very first Arab peace treaty in 1979, Egypt under Anwar Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, pursued a rather cold peace toward Israel. While maintaining diplomatic relations and observing military force limitations in the Sinai, Egypt kept its commercial relations with Israel to a minimum, discouraged tourism to Israel by Egyptians, and tolerated virulent anti-Israeli and antisemitic attacks by the Egyptian press.
Despite the rapprochement between Israel and the PLO and Jordan in the early 1990s, the peace between Cairo and Jerusalem remained cold for several reasons. Confronting an increasingly radicalized Islamic opposition at home, Mubarak was determined to show that he was not an American stooge, and he was deeply concerned about Israel's becoming a competitive regional superpower due to its special relationship with the United States and its budding strategic cooperation with Turkey. Egypt also resented Israelʼs reliance on nuclear deterrence through its monopoly of nuclear weapons. In the aftermath of Mubarakʼs downfall in early 2011 and his replacements, first by a military takeover, then by the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi, and followed again by the military, the Israeli-Egyptian frigid peace "is hanging by a thread."
Rabinovich notes that during the first four decades of Israelʼs existence, Syria was its fiercest and most bitter neighboring Arab state. After Syriaʼs participation in the Madrid Conference in 1991, there began a series of negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus during which Israel agreed in principle to a full withdrawal from the Golan, and Damascus accepted the notions of a contractual peace, diplomatic relations and security arrangements. What was absent, according to the author, was "simultaneous political will to make the concessions and sign the deal."
The already slim prospects for a Syrian-Israeli peace vanished in 2000, when Hafiz al-Assad, whom Israel regarded as a difficult yet reliable interlocutor, died and was replaced by his son, Bashar. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was replaced by Ariel Sharon, who had no interest in pursuing a deal with Syria. However, in February 2007, Ehud Olmert, Sharon's successor, agreed to indirect negotiations with Syria with the assistance of Turkish mediation. That effort, which lasted until December 2008, failed to bear fruit and ended because Bashar was reluctant to deal with a lame-duck Israeli premier, and Turkey withdrew as mediator in retaliation for Israel's launching of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. While initially indicating that he was willing to accept the peace terms to which his late father had tentatively agreed, Bashar eventually joined the "resistance axis," comprising Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which has confronted the United States, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For Bashar and his allies, peace with Israel is equivalent to capitulation and must therefore be avoided. On the other hand, resistance to peace must be encouraged because it allegedly led to Israelʼs unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon (in 2000) and Gaza (in 2005), and will presumably end with Israelʼs expulsion from the whole of Palestine.
During Israelʼs first two decades, it was widely believed that Lebanon would be the second Arab state to make peace with Israel. While the anticipated chronological sequence was not borne out by subsequent events, the logic underlying this assumption nevertheless still holds true to this day. That is so because Damascus has been in effective control of Lebanon for most of the period since the 1991 Gulf War, thereby ensuring that no Israeli-Lebanese negotiation would occur as long as the Israeli-Syrian peace talks remained deadlocked and eventually became moribund.
In response to Hezbollahʼs clashes with the IDF in Israelʼs security zone in southern Lebanon and Katyusha rocket attacks against northern Israel, Israeli land forces invaded Lebanon in July 1993 and April 1996. The confrontations continued even after Israelʼs unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May-June 2000. The abduction of several Israeli soldiers along the border eventually triggered a large-scale, month-long war in August 2006. The already dim prospects for an Israeli-Lebanese peace became even dimmer in 2010, upon Hezbollahʼs takeover of the government in Beirut. Rabinovich predicts that "as long as Lebanon remains dominated and shaped by Hezbollah with the support of Iran and Syria, Israel and Lebanon face the danger of additional, far more destructive wars."
The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, signed in October 1994, has miraculously survived despite the collapse of several Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Yet, reminiscent of its disappointment with Egypt, Jerusalem has not been able to establish a warm peace and mutually beneficial economic interactions with Amman. Following King Husseinʼs death in 1999, the special personal relationship that he had cultivated with Yitzhak Rabin has yet to be replicated by King Abdullah and any of Rabinʼs successor prime ministers. Rabinovich believes that the lukewarm Israeli peace with Jordan will not evolve further as long as Israel fails to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian issue, thereby reinforcing the Hashemite anxiety about the potential creation of an irredentist Palestinian state east of the Jordan River.
The Palestinian Arabs became an important and independent actor in the Middle East arena only after the 1967 war, but it took the PLO under Yasser Arafat another two decades to endorse the principle of a two-state solution, a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The 1993 Oslo accords envisioned a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and eventual resolution of several issues: final borders, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, security arrangements, status of Jerusalem, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Initial high hopes notwithstanding, the Oslo process resolved none of these disputes. For most of the last two decades, the strong cooperation and what Rabinovich calls "a genuine sense of partnership" between Israel and the Palestinians never materialized. Powerful elements within each camp rejected reconciliation, and the so-called peace process was continuously punctured by mutual acts of violence. The failure of the Oslo accords manifested itself in suicide bombings during the middle to late 1990s, the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the second intifada from 2000 to 2003, the war against Hezbollah in 2006, the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel between 2002 and 2008, and the IDF attack against Hamas in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) in late 2008 and early 2009.
Prospects for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace were further diminished following the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in June 2007. Since then, the Palestinian polity has been split both physically and ideologically, with the more moderate, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority under Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank confronting the radically anti-Israeli Hamas in Gaza. As Rabinoviich correctly notes, "As long as Hamas is in control of Gaza, any agreement that Israel might make with Abbas can be implemented only in the West Bank, with Hamas possessing the ability to obstruct it by restarting a cycle of violence from the Gaza Strip."
In a most enlightening concluding chapter, Rabinovich traces the ever-changing understanding of the concept of peace articulated by Israel and the Arabs during the last six decades. He notes that following the 1948 war, Israel under David Ben-Gurion preferred modest armistice agreements over formal peace treaties. During the next two decades, peace remained an abstract notion for both sides, with the Arabs regarding peace with Israel as capitulation, betrayal and treason.
After the 1967 war, the United States began advocating a "land-for-peace" policy, involving the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai, the Golan, Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for a full-fledged peace settlement. This approach was initially rejected by the defeated Arab states and never accepted by Israel. Following the 1973 war, the United States helped to implement a "peace by pieces" approach, culminating in two interim agreements between Israel and Egypt in 1974 and 1975, and one with Syria in 1974. These involved incremental Israeli withdrawals from the Sinai and the Golan in return for security arrangements and mutual pledges to resolve remaining differences through "peaceful means."
Peace ceased to be an abstract notion upon the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979. Resting on the principle of land for peace, the treaty stipulated a full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for contractual peace, normalized relations and security arrangements. As previously noted, the subsequent evolution of Israeli-Egyptian relations clearly suggests that "peace could be made and maintained without a genuine reconciliation."
In the early 1990s, Israel sought to replace the cold peace with normalization. Rabinovich explains that normalization meant not only establishment of peaceful relations between Israel and each of its neighboring states and with the PLO, but also Israeli participation in regional organizations and international fora along with Arab partners. As already noted, the Oslo accords did not produce a mutual reconciliation with the PLO, the peace treaty with Jordan transformed shortly after its signing in 1994 into a very tepid peace, and Israel failed to attain normalization with Syria.
In March 2002, the Beirut summit of Arab states adopted the Saudi peace initiative as a basis for resolving the conflict with Israel. It called for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan to the lines of June 4, 1967; establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital; and a "just and agreed" solution to the Palestinian refugee problem consistent with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, thereby implying the inclusion of a demand for guaranteeing Palestinian refugees the right of return. After a Palestinian state comes into being, the Arab states would enter into a peace agreement with Israel and establish normal relations with it.
During the past decade, the Arab peace plan became one of the major bones of contention among its promoters — the moderate, conservative camp of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — and its opponents, the rejectionist camp including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. While the moderate bloc, which includes the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, is willing to negotiate the terms of the settlement; the rejectionists deny that Israel has a right to exist.
These camps have their counterparts within the Israeli polity. The more moderate elements on the right, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have recently accepted the ideas of Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal from large chunks of the West Bank, albeit not from East Jerusalem. The far right in Israel is quite content with the deadlocked status quo and rejects the need to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority.
What unites most Israelis, however, and separates them from the moderate Arab camp, are conflicting views about what a final settlement needs to produce as an ultimate outcome. Most Israelis insist that because they are willing to give up concrete assets (by withdrawing from territories and giving up settlements), they must have assurances that a peace settlement with the Arabs be definitive and final. From the Israeli perspective, finality means not only an end to military conflict, but also an end to all claims, including the insistence on the right of return for Palestinian refugees and Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.
According to Rabinovich, "at present, the prospect of starting and concluding negotiations on final status is dim." However, some progress might be achieved if the Israelis and Palestinians reach a long-term interim accord or Israel agrees on a partial, unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. Neither of these possibilities is likely to be seriously considered without a change in the positions of the Palestinian Authority and the present Israeli government.
Rabinovich deserves plaudits for synthesizing vast numbers of seemingly disparate pieces of the puzzle and weaving them into lucid and logically compelling explanations. Because it lacks a detailed history of the conflict, particularly from 1948 to 1992, The Lingering Conflict would not serve as an adequate text in introductory-level courses. However, anyone puzzled by the complexity and persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be richly rewarded by the sweeping scope and the thoughtful insights of this volume.