The Road to Damascus . . .

The Road to Damascus . . .

Mini Teaser: Itamar Rabinovich's The Brink of Peace is a masterly chronicle of the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations of 1993-96, in which Israel and Syria--and America--once staked so much hope.

by Author(s): Fouad Ajami

Itamar Rabinovich, The Brink of Peace: The Syrian-Israeli Negotiations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 238 pp., $24.95.

We can only marvel today at the extravagant hopes that attended Syrian-Israeli diplomacy in the interlude between 1993 and 1996, and at the American expectation that a deal was imminent between these two antagonists. It was what the Clinton administration wanted and yearned for. There may have been no great American investment in the endeavor, but a conviction had seized American officials that a Pax Americana that would marginalize Iran was within reach, and that such a design required a Syrian-Israeli accord. Indeed, as the scholar and diplomat Itamar Rabinovich, who conducted Israel's negotiations, tells us in his masterful chronicle of this period, a time had been set aside on Bill Clinton's schedule for a possible meeting with Hafez al-Asad and Yitzhak Rabin in November of 1995.

No such meeting, of course, took place, and it was not just the assassination of the legendary Israeli leader early that month that had brought these hopes crashing down. There had been other troubles along the way, and the thing itself was always a hope against hope that the stalemate would be broken, that Syria's concept of peace and Israel's stake in the Golan Heights could be brought together by agile diplomacy. There was, to begin with, the style of the Syrian strongman, and his method of diplomacy: as Rabinovich writes, Asad had acted over three and a half years "as if time were no constraint." He had brought himself, as it were, to the brink of peace. He had talked of a "peace of the brave", but that peace slogan was "cryptical, cold and enigmatic. Israel was not mentioned by name, and was told that it could enjoy peace with Syria on the latter's terms." The hesitation of the man in Damascus had only fed the caution of Rabin; the Israeli leader would not leap into the void. "Cerebral, direct, and blunt", Rabin could only countenance a reciprocal peace. In Rabinovich's summation, for Rabin the depth of territorial withdrawal on the Golan Heights would reflect the depth of peace.

The Syrian ruler had been too slow and methodical for his own good. Other options soon overtook the possibility of a Syrian-Israeli accord. There was a stealth peace in the making between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which bore swift results in September 1993. And there was an easier peace between Jerusalem and Amman which was concluded in the summer of 1994 and formally signed in October. Asad had drowned the diplomacy in the details; he had never assimilated the facts of Israel's political system; the circuits had grown overloaded and a Rabin government ruling with a slim majority could not give him the full territorial withdrawal he demanded in return for that "enigmatic" peace.

Nor could Shimon Peres, Rabin's successor, give Asad what he sought. True, Peres had extended an olive branch to Asad, had offered, as Peres put it, "to fly high and fast or low and slow" to accommodate his Syrian counterpart. But whatever promise lay in those negotiations soon fell to the wave of terror that hit Israel in February-March of 1996, and to a bitter proxy Syrian-Israeli confrontation over the Israeli-Lebanese borders shortly thereafter. By the time Peres had been defeated at the polls by Benyamin Netanyahu in May of 1996, the Israeli-Syrian negotiations of 1992-96 had come to an end. The prospect of peace between Israel and Syria had held the Americans in thrall, and it had tantalized the protagonists, but the differences could not be wished away; time overtook the diplomatic work.

It is diplomatic history's luck and good fortune that Itamar Rabinovich was there for that critical interlude. Not since Henry Kissinger's intricate record of his negotiations with Syria and Israel in the aftermath of the October War of 1973 has anyone written of Syrian-Israeli matters with such artistry and precision and knowledge. Everything in Rabinovich's life came together, it seemed, to bring him to those negotiations, and he has honored these gifts with an unforgettable work of diplomatic history. Chance and the exigencies of war had taken him, as a young captain in the Israeli army, to the local headquarters of the Ba'ath Party, in the town of Quneitra on the Golan Heights in June of 1967. There he had found the documents and memoranda of the party, and those documents were to provide the material for his Ph.D. dissertation and for his first book. Over the intervening quarter century--until his patron, friend and neighbor, Yitzhak Rabin, named him as negotiator with Syria and ambassador to Washington--Syria had been his calling and vocation.

That country, so near and yet so far, had tugged at Rabinovich, and had been one of the centerpieces of a distinguished academic career at Tel Aviv University. He knew and understood Syria's history and its currents as precious few people anywhere did. He had the historian's best fidelities: he bore Syria no animus, he entertained no great illusions about an imminent transformation in Syria's politics; he had the historian's fascination with his subject and attentiveness to its details. It must have been the fulfillment of a dream when the assignment was given him by Rabin. Here is my favorite scene, from a book loaded with poignant scenes and happenings. On a Saturday morning, Rabinovich was summoned by his neighbor Rabin. "The prime minister was typically careful. As a hedge against a negative answer he asked me to recommend a suitable academic expert on Syria with public standing to become the new head of the Israeli delegation to the peace talks with Syria. . . . I was naturally reluctant to recommend myself, but we soon found our way around the problem." A book with this kind of stark candor is a delight to behold and never loses its way.

In his work as an historian, Rabinovich had written a prior work of great relevance to this new pursuit, The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations (1991). The most arresting part of that book concerned a Syrian adventurer, a colonel by the name of Husni Zaim, who had seized power in March of 1949 and had talked bravely, through American handlers and secret channels, of a great accommodation with Israel. A product of France's colonial levy in the Levant and aloof from the currents of Syrian nationalism, erratic and possessed of fantasies that he was something of a Syrian AtatŸrk, Zaim was given to grandiose talk about a joint Israeli-Syrian army that would dominate the region. But the adventurer was struck down a bare four months into his rule. Rabinovich had given his Syrian interlocutors a copy of that book. "Right policy, wrong man", the Syrians had said of Zaim. Gone were the days of wild swings in Syrian diplomacy; in Asad excessive caution would now have its day. But caution, too, could fail, we were soon to learn.

Though understated in its tone, Rabinovich's book has a bold thesis of its own: Asad had made the decision for peace, but his particular definition of peace, his personal history, his fear of what peace might do to the closed polity he had come to build over a quarter century--all these would not enable him to make that breakthrough. He was a "meticulous tactician", but a new relationship with Israel that would return the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty required more than that. Asad had before him the example of Anwar Sadat--the daring passage to Israel in November of 1977, the direct appeal to Israel's people, the relationship he built with its leaders, the land he recovered. But Asad had nothing but contempt for Sadat and his legacy and his example. On Rabinovich's telling, the mere mention of Sadat's name to his Syrian interlocutors was sure to provoke their fury. The Syrians wanted the wages of peace, but the public diplomacy that Israel's political culture required was anathema to them and to their ruler.

Asad's caution brought him the very outcome he dreaded: Yasser Arafat and King Hussein would steal a march on him, in precisely the same manner that Sadat had done a generation earlier. The deal Arafat struck in 1993 must have been particularly bitter to Asad. He had been upstaged, Rabinovich writes, by "a man he despised and disliked." Worse still, that breakthrough with the PLO had not been Rabin's first choice. It was the Syrian peace that had the greater appeal to Rabin. For all its faults, Syria was a stable polity, and its centralized rule, he thought, could deliver a meaningful accommodation that was beyond the reach and the means of Arafat and his lieutenants. The green light Rabin gave to Shimon Peres to bring the Oslo negotiations to fruition was given only after the Syrian option had stalled in late 1993. Rabin had envisaged a good measure of normalization in return for phased withdrawal from the Golan over a five-year period. He needed the Syrian ruler's help to bring his polity along, to reconcile it to the territorial concessions, but this was not to be. Instead, peace with the Palestinians became "the cutting edge" of Arab-Israeli peace. Thus the Israeli leader ended up making the bold decision of his all too brief career as prime minister "in the Palestinian and not in the Syrian context."

Where Rabin's deliberateness had once taxed the Syrians, they now would have a new alibi: the very "boldness" of Shimon Peres, the audacity of his concept of a "New Middle East" transformed by commerce and the free flow of ideas into a utopian world, a vision of the Benelux in the lands of the Levant. The will to fly "high and fast" exhibited by Peres was not to Syria's liking; nor was Peres' new, liberal utopia the sort of vision to captivate them. Peres was more ambitious, hence more troubling, than Rabin. And then the electoral calendar of Peres imposed its own discipline and limitations on the process. Peres had a choice to make: early elections in the Spring of 1996 or in late October. He went for early elections, in part because he could not secure from Asad an outcome that could serve as the cornerstone of his campaign. That decision wrote the rest of the story, for no great concessions could be granted the Syrians in the midst of a fierce, close election.

Asad took Peres' decision as a deed of betrayal. He was now free to set the Lebanese-Israeli border ablaze, through Hizballah operatives. Peres' response, Operation Grapes of Wrath, a mere few weeks before the elections, boomeranged on him. It ended in failure and tragedy when Israeli artillery hit a group of civilians in southern Lebanon, in the village of Kafar Qana, and took a toll of more than one hundred lives. In the Syrian narrative of late, a breakthrough had been aborted by Netanyahu's victory. But in truth, as we know from this tight account, the process had independently arrived at its own moment of truth.

A day may yet come when a peace without illusions will materialize between Syria and Israel. This possibility is held out in Rabinovich's final pages. If it should come, it would most likely approximate Yitzhak Rabin's stark, unadorned vision: a soldier's peace, one without frills and trumpets. In other words, the sort of peace that Rabinovich labored for and has retrieved and chronicled for us--and for the negotiations yet to come--in this knowing and moving book. In the interim, this uneasy accommodation on the Syrian-Israeli border is the best that could be hoped for.

Essay Types: Book Review