JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I’d like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us on this rainy morning as we welcome Itamar Rabinovich to our Books for Breakfast program
Today he will be discussing his book, Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs 1948–2003.
Attacks, counterattacks, retaliation, and revenge—this cycle of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors has continued for more than half a century, leaving the Israeli-Palestinian situation frozen in a pattern of terror, siege, and, for many, feelings of hopelessness.
We all know that the Middle East is changing. The future of Iraq is still unfolding, Iran’s effort to build nuclear weapons has yet to be resolved, and Ariel Sharon has declared his determination to continue building the fence separating Israelis from the Palestinians, along with a resolve to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
At this time, given the profound asymmetry between the Israelis and the Palestinians and their concepts about peace, one cannot be too optimistic in anticipating an untroubled future. Therefore, when a veteran Israeli diplomat and historian, such as Mr. Rabinovich is, tries to bring clarity to the relationships between Israel, the Palestinians, and its Arab neighbors we should avail ourselves of the opportunity to learn from him and his experience with history. Accordingly, this updated edition of Waging Peace should be your guide, for when you finish reading it I am confident that you will have a better understanding of what is at stake in the region and in the minds of its inhabitants.
Our speaker this morning is a highly regarded Israeli scholar and diplomat. He was head of the Israeli delegation that engaged in peace negotiations with Syria from 1992–1995, while at the same time serving as Israel’s Ambassador to Washington. His understanding of the history of this difficult period has provided him with unique insights into the relationship between Israel’s domestic concerns and her policy choices vis-à-vis her neighbors.
The result is a shrewd assessment of not only the past but a realistic view of the current state of affairs. In addition to Waging Peace, Mr. Rabinovich has written several other books, including Syria Under the Baath, Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations, and The Brink of Peace. Currently he is the President of Tel Aviv University and the Andrew White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
ITAMAR RABINOVICH: Thank you, Joanne.
I would like to start with a true story. It has to do with British policy in the Middle East, but more about the difficulty of understanding—and certainly predicting—Middle Eastern politics.
The British used to have a custom in the foreign service that every three months there would be a quarterly report written by the mission to the Foreign Office. In January 1954, the British Ambassador in Damascus sent home the last quarterly report for the year 1953. At the time, Syria was ruled by a military dictator called Adib Shishakli. The British Ambassador took a very sanguine view of Shishakli and his prospects, so much so that he ended the quarterly report with a predictive paragraph saying, “Unless he commits suicide, Shishakli is here to stay.” Two days after the report arrived in London, Shishakli was deposed in a military coup, and everybody in London was waiting for the Ambassador’s first telegram.
It became a classic, because it began with the sentence: “A close scrutiny of the events that unfolded in Damascus in the last two days inevitably would lead one to the conclusion that Shishakli committed a political suicide.”
Let me talk a bit about the book and its concept, and then move on to the current situation in the Middle East.
I spent four years in diplomacy, from the summer of 1992 to the summer of 1996. I decided to write two books and authorize a third. The third book, which publishers and agents were particularly interested in, was A Washington Memoir. I worked very closely with the Clinton White House and I could write a very interesting memoir, but that’s the book I decided not to write.
But I did decide to write two professional books. One was to be an account of the negotiations with Syria, which became The Brink of Peace.
The second was an overview of Arab-Israeli relations, trying to combine years of studying and teaching Arab-Israeli relations with the insights gained by four years of actual participation in the peace process. I was present at the creation of the Oslo Accords, involved in peacemaking with Jordan, and I certainly gained many interesting insights into the nature of Arab-Israeli relations, what peace meant, the level of peace, depth of peace, limits of peace. That book became Waging Peace.
It was originally finished in 1999, just before the elections that defeated Benjamin Netanyahu and brought Ehud Barak to power. It was published in 2000. By the time it was translated into Hebrew, we were deep into the Barak period, and soon enough Barak failed and the peace process collapsed, and suddenly a new chapter had to be added. Since I was the University President at that time and had a part-time job running a large and complex university, by the time I finished, we were into the second term of the Sharon government, and so there was to be a second new chapter about Sharon.
The revised English version is Waging Peace. It’s not merely an updated book; it’s about 40 percent different from the original.
The book has a chronological axis: it takes us from 1948 to the present, with a particularly heavy emphasis on the peace process of the 1990s, the two chapters that I have described and then there are two analytical chapters.
One looks at Israel’s relationship with all Arab parties. It argues that there is not a single Arab-Israeli conflict, this is an umbrella, a somewhat misleading title. In fact, there is a specific Israeli-Egyptian, Israeli-Jordanian, Israeli-Syrian, Israeli-Moroccan conflict—more and more a relationship, but originally a conflict—and that in order to understand the conflict you also need to understand each of these sub-conflicts. Therefore, I provide brief essays about these specific relationships.
Another analytical chapter, called “The Nature of Peace,” looks at the question: what do the two parties mean by peace? We use the word easily, casually, but what does it mean?
We know now that Egyptian-Israeli peace is what we call “cold peace.” “Cold peace” means that the Egyptians have been very good at keeping the formalities of the peace made in 1979. There are diplomatic relationships, there is commerce, Israelis can go to Egypt, Egyptians can go to Israel, but everything that we call normalization has actually been checked.
To cite one small example, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo is located in a tall office building. Every Egyptian who goes to the Israeli Embassy needs to register at the desk in the lobby. In a country like Egypt, nobody wants to have a file with the security service and nobody wants to register at the desk, so nobody goes to the Israeli Embassy. So you can have an embassy, but it is a very isolated embassy.
Israel and Egypt have a very elaborate trade agreement. But a truck cannot go directly from Tel Aviv to Cairo. If you want to send merchandise from Tel Aviv to Cairo, you have to send it with an Israeli truck, then you have to unload it at the border, load it onto an Egyptian truck, and the Egyptian truck will go to Cairo, which takes the spirit and the economics out of every deal.
So in many ways the Egyptians saw fit to empty the peace out of all normalization, and this is what we call “cold peace.” Is it wonderful? No. Is it preferable to having a warlike situation with Egypt? Definitely yes. This is the bedrock of stability in the Middle East.
When I was negotiating with Syria, we spoke about normalization. The Syrians began by telling us that there cannot be normalization, normalization is a matter for the society, not for the state. They said, “Syria is a free country and the government cannot tell anybody what to think or what to do, and therefore we can sign peace with you but normalization is left to the society.”
And we knew at the time that all we could get from Syria in return for getting off the Golan Heights would be a kind of “cold peace,” even colder than peace with Egypt. It was for our leadership to contemplate whether they wanted to make the decision on that basis.
Yitzhak Rabin was willing to do that. He was preoccupied with the security dimension of the relationship. What he wanted from Syria was a form of peace very much like peace with Egypt, but he wanted very elaborate security arrangements, which the then-President of Syria Hafez Assad was not willing to give.
When Shimon Peres became Prime Minister after Rabin’s assassination, he changed the Israeli perspective. He said: Real security between Israel and Syria will be provided when the Golan becomes a thriving zone of economic cooperation. We need normalization between Israel and Syria, and then to turn the Golan into an area of joint economic enterprises, and when you have billions of dollars invested in the Golan, no Syrian government will contemplate invading Israel through the Golan.
It makes perfect sense on paper, but what a frightening notion to the Syrians and other Arabs, because what Shimon Peres called the “new Middle East,” a Middle East based on Arab-Israeli economic cooperation, for them meant Israeli economic domination, or near colonialism. The Israelis would get through the front door, evacuate the territories and would come back through the back door as economic investors and colonizers. The more Peres pressed on economic cooperation, the more frightened and nervous Assad became.
The book gives us the background from 1948 to the early-1990s when the first sustained international effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict began, what is known as the Madrid Framework. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the first Bush Administration, and specifically Jim Baker as Secretary of State, put together this framework in order to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The idea was to take advantage of the new circumstances—the end of Cold War, the absence of the Soviet Union, the unprecedented degree of American power and influence in the Middle East—but also fear, because during the first Gulf War, for the first time, weapons of mass destruction or missiles were used by the Iraqis to attack Israel. The notion was that should there be another Arab-Israeli war, more ominous weapons of mass destruction would be used and it was high time to resolve this conflict.
This effort lasted throughout the 1990s. It was soon replaced by the term “Oslo Process,” because the first breakthrough in that effort was the Israeli-Palestinian agreement reached in Oslo and signed in Washington in 1993.
At the same time we continued to talk to others. The Oslo breakthrough enabled Israel to sign the second peace treaty with Jordan. We failed to reach agreement with Syria. And in the year 2000, three prime ministers later—Peres who replaced Rabin, Netanyahu who replaced Peres, and Barak who replaced Netanyahu—we had perhaps the most interesting effort.
Ehud Barak was chosen to be Israel’s Prime Minister in May 1999, with an unprecedented majority, 11 percent, only to be replaced by another unprecedented majority by which he was defeated, 22 percent, two years later. He was a brilliant man, former chief of staff, military hero, Israel’s most decorated soldier, MSC in Operations Analysis from Stanford University, an accomplished pianist, one of the most interesting political figures you would meet, who came in as Rabin’s successor, another former chief of staff, a disciple of Rabin, with the conviction that he had fifteen months to try to complete the process.
Why fifteen months? Because he had a President in the White House called Bill Clinton who was determined to participate, to help in this effort. Nobody knew who would replace Clinton. It could be a president who had no commitment to Middle Eastern peace. And so Barak set about trying to resolve the conflict on both tracks, the Syrian and the Palestinian, within fifteen months.
He assigned greater priority to Syria. He spent too much time actually on the Syrian track. It was in March 2000 that that track collapsed completely when Clinton met the dying Hafez Assad in Geneva and put a proposal on the table which Assad rejected. He died in June and we are in a different period in Syria.
Then Barak moved on, belatedly and in a harried fashion, between spring and summer of 2000. He tried to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians. These efforts culminated in the Camp David Conference, a resonant failure, to be followed by the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000, and this takes us to the present, what I call the Palestinian-Israeli “war of attrition” that began in September 2000 and continues to the present. The peace process collapsed and we are left to deal with two questions: why did it happen and what can be done about it?
I discuss the collapse of the peace process with the literature that has since appeared dealing with the collapse of the Camp David approach. I divide that literature into four categories—the orthodox, revisionist, deterministic, and eclectic. A word about each of them.
1) Orthodox is Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, Dennis Ross, Prince Bandar, and a few others, who squarely blame Yasser Arafat for the failure. They say that Barak put far-reaching proposals on the table, went further than any Israeli leader, further than anybody imagined, willing to give up more than 90 percent of the West Bank, willing to do land swaps, to partition Jerusalem. And yet Arafat said no; therefore, Arafat is to blame for the failure.
2) The revisionist version, given fullest volume in a piece in the New York Review of Books by Rob Malley, who was an official at the NSC, and a Lebanese scholar from England, Hussein Agha, said: No. Actually there wasn’t a real offer, Barak tantalized Arafat but never put a real offer on the table, so there wasn’t much to reject. Barak doesn’t have great qualities in human relations, antagonized Arafat, and humiliated him. He is to blame, not Arafat.
But Malley and Agha and others say: You know what? The Palestinians could not have been expected to make more concessions at Camp David because they had made their concession at Oslo. They agreed to a two-state solution based on 78 percent of Palestine being Israel, and that was a big concession, and they were not there to make additional concessions.
3) The deterministic school argues that this was doomed to fail anyway. Some in the right wing, both the Jewish right wing here like Norman Podhoretz, and the Israeli right wing, said: This was a hoax from day one. Arafat never meant to implement anything. As long as he was given, he took; the moment he had to give, he reverted to violence. We told you so all along. This was bound to happen.
Henry Kissinger offers a more profound analysis in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? where there is an interesting chapter about the collapse of the Camp David Conference. Kissinger, who developed this step-by-step approach when he managed the first peace process in the 1970s, says that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not ripe for resolution. Nationalist conflicts, by definition, cannot be solved in one fell swoop in an international conference. In a nationalist conflict of this nature, in places like Ireland and Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia, sometimes it may take decades, sometimes it may take centuries, but at some point there comes a time when there is the cumulative effect of attrition and there is the right leadership on both sides, the right international context, and the conflict fades away more than being resolved.
Look at what happened to the French and the Germans. Nobody decided at some point that the Hundred Years War was over, but it was over, and now Germany and France are at the core of the European Union.
To hope that the Israelis and Palestinians would sit at a table and legislate an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict was a mistake, and therefore it could not have worked.
4) To the eclectic school belong all the books and essays that tell us the story but do not give us a clear thesis.
I had the pleasure of presenting this for the first time in a conference in Tel Aviv, where about seven of the participants and authors sat in the front row. At the end of the session, each of them came to me and said, “You put me in the wrong school.”
In any event, the Camp David Conference failed and violence broke out. We need to analyze and understand specifically why the Conference failed, but also why the Oslo Process failed, why what was signed in 1993 failed in 2000 and did not produce the Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
The reasons for the failure of Oslo as a process have to do with its very nature. Oslo is based on the assumption that the parties were not ripe in 1993 for an end of conflict or final resolution, and therefore Oslo was predicated on the creation of a framework for five years, during which the parties should work at building a normal relationship and getting psychologically and physically to a point at which they could make a final status agreement. It was also based on mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
The core issues were the right of return, would there be a Palestinian state, with what territory and which boundaries. Right of return is the Palestinian insistence that in 1949, at the end of the war, things were to be governed by UN Resolution 194, which gave those who were evicted from or left Palestine the right to return to their homes provided that they were willing to live in peace with their neighbors.
Fifty-some years later, the thesis was that this right exists. It may not be exercised fully by the Palestinians. Not a million, or more than a million Palestinian refugees and their descendants need to go back, only 150,000, 200,000, 300,000 and without this there would be no legitimacy to an agreement.
As an Israeli who participated in the peace process and believes in it, I will state clearly that this needs to be taken off the table. Israel cannot accept this for two reasons.
One is the fundamental reason. The Arab or Palestinian insistence that Israel recognize the right of return—namely, recognize that it was born in original sin—is not acceptable to the state. No state wants to admit that it was born in sin.
If you put it in perspective, in 1947, 1948, 1949, this was not the only war and the only movement of people around the world. Dozens of millions of people in central and eastern Europe, between Pakistan and India moved in the aftermath of World War II. When peace was finally made in eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, nobody went back to the 1940s. People looked at the status quo, made peace and stability, and this should also be the case in the Middle East.
Practically speaking, Israel cannot admit 150,000 or 200,000 Palestinians. There is the domestic problem of an Arab minority that is now nearly 20 percent of the population. When the Israeli-Palestinian peace is finally made, we will have to address the issue of how majority and minority live inside the State of Israel. Twenty percent is a very large minority. These are individuals who regard themselves as Palestinians, but also as citizens of Israel. They will have to find a place in the state. It is difficult to do when we are fighting with other Palestinians and when peace has not been fully achieved with other Arabs.
One Israeli Arab put it classically: “My tragedy is that my country is at war with my people.” That war needs to be over before we can resolve the issue of the minority.
But to add 150,000 Palestinians to that minority and get to 24–25 percent now would be suicidal from an Israeli point of view.
So these core issues—statehood, frontiers, right of return—that were avoided in 1993, were to be discussed in the final stages. Then when we reached the final stages in 2000, Arafat was unwilling to do that because the timing was wrong. It was wrong to hold this conference just a few months before the American presidential elections. No Middle Eastern ruler wants to make a deal with an American president on his way out. Ehud Barak had practically lost his government and coalition by that point, and he came to Camp David as a very weak prime minister.
But most importantly it was the perception of time. One of my lessons from being a peacemaker and studying conflict resolution is that the single most important variable in conflict resolution is the parties’ concept of time: is time working for or against me?
In the early 1990s, when we went to Madrid and when the Oslo Accord was signed, Arafat and many Arabs felt, for the first time since 1948 that time was working against them. Before that, the sense was: “Numbers will talk—there are 3–4 million Israelis, 120 million Arabs, now we have 200 million Arabs—at some point demography will decide the issue, so all we need to do is wait. We Middle Easterners have time. We saw the Mongols out, we saw the Turks out, we saw the British out, we saw the French out. We’ll see the Israelis out—another episode of the Crusaders. And if it takes fifty years or 100 years, the Arab Nation and Islam can do that.”
In the early 1990s, this was not the case, because the Soviet Union collapsed and America was unprecedentedly strong, a million Jews came out of the former Soviet Union to Israel and began to reverse the demographic trend, and Arafat went to Oslo and signed.
Seven years later in 2000, his perspective changed, and he again became persuaded that time was on his side. He also miscalculated in other ways. For instance, he thought that George W. Bush had at least a 50 percent chance of winning the presidency, and George W. Bush in Arafat’s book was to be a great friend of the Arabs and the Palestinians, like his father. Little did he know. “So why hurry, why make the deal when Clinton is President? We can wait a few months and get a friendly President in the White House and then perhaps deal with these issues.” So he said no.
Was the Oslo Process doomed from the outset? I say no. This is an argument I have with the retrospective prophets of doom.
Igal Amir, the man who killed Rabin, is a man who changed history. If there was one man who could have seen the process through, it was Rabin. Had he been reelected in 1996, he might have completed the process, in the mid-1990s, when the time perspective was different, but he was assassinated and that did not happen. So there is no telling and we don’t know whether it was doomed.
We also know that the parties committed many mistakes. We Israelis did not think about Palestinian quality of life, we continued to expand settlements, the Palestinians engaged in incitement, Arafat did not crack down on terrorists, and the result was the collapse of the whole process.
I now come to the ironies of the present. Ehud Barak fails and the alternative is Ariel Sharon. One irony is that the man who ignited the second Intifada by going up to the Temple Mount, is the big winner, he is then elected Prime Minister.
The second irony is that this is the man who was the leader of the Israeli right, the father of the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank, a man whose outlook was described accurately in his own autobiography, called Warrior. This is the world view of somebody who believes that this is a hundred years’ war, he is a warrior in the service of the State of Israel. Peace is not a reality because the Arabs are not about to accept us, so we are doomed to fight.
He becomes Prime Minister, and his first task is to defeat the Intifada and stabilize Israeli life. He is partly successful in that respect. Militarily he defeats the Intifada. But he discovers that there is no military solution to the Intifada; only a political solution is possible, because what happens if we win and consummate our victory? What do we do? Do we re-conquer the West Bank and Gaza and again become the masters of an almost equal number of Palestinians, undo everything that was achieved in the 1990s, and become occupiers of an almost equal population? It is not a victory. It is not an achievement. You must have somebody to talk to on the other side.
And secondly, you cannot fully defeat terrorism by military means. It can only be defeated politically if you have a government in those territories that decides to crack down on terrorism at the local level. But for this again you need a partner.
And so Sharon comes to the conclusion that the policy that he stood for for many years is untenable. We see, ironically, a change of mind, Sharon beginning to give speeches about the need to have a Palestinian state, in his view still limited, not 90 percent of the West Bank, limited in sovereignty and ability, but a state. He speaks about “occupation,” not “liberation,” not “our historic right,” but “occupation.” That is sacrilege to many of his supporters, typically going against the grain and telling his own party, “This is what I believe in and this is what I will do.”
Ariel Sharon is the first Israeli Prime Minister in more than twenty years to be reelected. Before him Menachem Begin was the last Prime Minister who was elected in 1977 and reelected in 1981. Between 1981 and 2003, in twenty-two years, no single Israeli Prime Minister was reelected.
Since there is no partner, he is unwilling to accept Arafat, he decides on unilateral withdrawal and to begin with Gaza and a small number of settlements in the northern West Bank.
Here is the dilemma as a non-Sharon voter: we know that Sharon would like to be out of Gaza, withdraw from maybe 30 or 40 percent of the West Bank, and that he has in mind a very small Palestinian state. This is not the solution that someone like me has in mind.
But then I ask myself: If Ariel Sharon, of all people, wants to be the first Israeli Prime Minister to dismantle settlements and to get out of Gaza and part of the West Bank, which no other Israeli Prime Minister, from Rabin on, has had the courage or the power to do, do I want to support him or not? The answer is: yes, I do.
The Bush Administration went through a similar dilemma: “This is not a roadmap, this is not exactly what I have in mind, but if Sharon wants to come to Washington and announce that he is willing to do that, then grudgingly, you do that.” You eliminate the "grudgingly" because this is a very political time and you want to turn it into a political celebration.
President Clinton spoke at a Tel Aviv University symposium recently and essentially said the same: “It’s not what I had in mind, but this is the only game in town and we should support him.”
One question mark hovers over this for the moment: Sharon’s personal political fate. He has huge legal problems. We don’t know what the Israeli Attorney General will do.
In any event, nothing will happen before November because the Bush Administration does not want to take any risks. They do not want to see scenes in Gaza that would look like Fallujah in Iraq. Therefore, the message to Sharon was: “Don’t do anything, don’t actually implement anything, before November.”
And it will be later than November. If Kerry is elected, it will take four to six months to put an administration in place. Even if Bush is reelected, there will be some personnel changes. People who did not know about the war in time may no longer be Secretary of State. It will take time before there is a full national security team in place. So we are looking at about a year from now before we see real change.
A word about Syria. The new ruler of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, made noises a few weeks ago about wanting to resume negotiations. I am not very sanguine about that for several reasons.
First, he is the President of Syria, but he does not rule Syria like his father. He lacks that stature and authority.
Second, in the 1990s we had both a series of Israeli prime ministers and the Clinton Administration who believed in a “Syria first” policy. “Syria first” means that you first make a deal with Syria and then with the Palestinians. We now have an Israeli Prime Minister, Sharon, who is absolutely not interested in getting off the Golan Heights and a White House that is very hostile to Syria and to Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, this is not a viable option in the coming months. We have the Palestinian issue on our plate, and it will be the focus of our attention.
About three weeks ago, we did a book launching in Israel. I invited Ehud Barak to be the speaker, and graciously, despite the text of the chapter that deals with his period, he accepted. He asked me, “What do I talk about?” I said, “In two or three years there will be the new, revised version of Waging Peace, so speak about the next version.” Maybe in two or three years I will be here to talk to you about the third version.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: The example of normalization of relations that you quoted is not very apt. That trucks going from Tel Aviv to Cairo have to stop at the border is exactly parallel to the trade between the United States and Mexico. Go down to El Paso; that’s exactly what goes on between two very friendly states here.
On right of return, the reaction last week amongst the Palestinians and the Arabs to the President’s meeting with Sharon was not surprising on the question of settlements on the West Bank. But I was surprised by the vehemence of the reaction to the comments on the right of return.
Perhaps naively, I had assumed that for the reasons that you gave, that there was an underlying acceptance that right of return was a “no no” in any final settlement. Is that the case? Are the Arabs serious about this?
ITAMAR RABINOVICH: The vehemence you have alluded to had to do with the United States announcing that there was no right of return. The way the Palestinians and Arabs would like it to happen is that when there is a negotiation and tradeoffs, it will be their privilege or prerogative to give up the right of return, but not for Washington to do it on their behalf.
QUESTION: I don’t totally share your view about the situation in Europe, how the conflict played out between Germany and France. The process is a bit more complicated.
How do you see the future of the Geneva Initiative or the Geneva Accord?
ITAMAR RABINOVICH: I am sorry I didn’t give the example of Switzerland, how four different ethnicities after several centuries found this unusually successful way of living together.
Geneva has already had a great impact. One of the reasons that Sharon decided to announce his plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is that he felt that he could not afford a political vacuum in which he was doing nothing and into which others would move. He felt that he had to do something proactive. Geneva has already had an impact.
At the time, when speaking to the Israeli media, I said that the very notion that a group of Palestinians and a group of Israelis could meet and agree on a formula was very positive. The issue of right of return was not properly dealt with in Geneva. It was sneaked inside somehow.
Geneva itself will not turn into a formula for peace, but it will stand as a point of reference and pressure, and as such it’s a very important development.
QUESTION: When the United States went to war in Iraq, one of the underlying reasons, aside from weapons of mass destruction, which have never been found, was that this would create a democratic model in the Middle East that would make it easier for questions like the Israeli-Palestinian issue to be solved, as well as the rest of the Middle East to be democratized. Israel supported the Iraq war, at least officially. Now things are very different.
Could you put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict, in the context of what has happened since the Iraq war?
ITAMAR RABINOVICH: I thought at the time that the whole idea of rationalizing the war in Iraq as a way to bring democracy to Iraq itself and through Iraq to the rest of the Middle East thereby stabilizing the region was misguided.
In Iraq let us begin by having a state. Iraq is not a state. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, what did he say? “Kuwait is an artificial creation. It was created by British imperialism. Kuwait is illegitimate.”
The irony was that Iraq is as illegitimate as Kuwait, because it was also carved out by the British, who took the south which was mostly Arab Shiite, the center which was Arab Sunni, and the north which was Kurdish. The north never belonged together with the south and the center, but the north had oil, and if it were to be given to Turkey, the oil would have been in Turkey, and therefore British policy in the early 1920s was to add muscle in the north to Iraq.
The result was that you had lumped together three ethnicities—Arab Shiites, Sunni, and Kurds—in one state that had no traditional statehood in those particular boundaries, and you had to build a political community. This is not particular to Iraq. Syria and Lebanon are the same. The one state that was close to a nation-state in that part of the world was Egypt, and Egypt is a rock of stability because it is a real state.
Iraq, this non-state, was held together by the authoritarian or totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein. Very much like the former Yugoslavia when Tito died, or in the Soviet Union when communism came to an end, the iron hand was removed and the ethnicities and religious groups all popped up to the surface. It was quite clear that when you remove Saddam and don’t replace him with something genuine, authentic, and workable, you will have confusion.
There is no Iraqi state to speak of. There is still a discussion of: Are we going to have a federation, what about the Kurds? If we give the Kurds too much autonomy, what about Turkey? We have already had some Kurdish riots in northern Syria in the city of Qamishli. If we give the Shiites in the south too much autonomy, they may join with Iran.
So you don’t have a state. Even if you have a state, you don’t have civil society. How can you have democracy when you don’t have a state or a civil society?
The plan was doomed to fail, particularly if you want to take a group of exiles, bring them back to head the government. Unfortunately, I and others who criticized this view were right.
The Bush Administration also rationalized going to war, when this began to look a little thin, by saying, “This will help resolve the Arab-Israeli issue.” This was to help Tony Blair somewhat with the other Europeans and the opposition inside the Labour Party on the eve of the war.
And indeed, for a brief moment in the immediate aftermath of the war, and what seemed at the time a great success, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was revived for a few weeks, Abu Mazen was made Prime Minister, Arafat was made to step aside. President Bush came to Aqaba and Sharm-el-Sheikh and went home.
In September bad news began to come out of Iraq. Bush didn’t want to stand near anything Middle Eastern. The United States and Israel did not give Abu Mazen a great deal of help, Arafat undermined him, he collapsed, and that was the end of any beneficial influence from Iraq over the Palestinian issue.
If you have a situation whereby the unhappy Sunnis and radical Shiia, like the militia of Muqtada al Sadr, end up driving the United States out of Iraq, and if the United States exits in what would look like a dishonorable way, it may reflect on us in a negative way. Hamas and others would say, “Even the United States can be defeated by people who commit suicide bombings and by a determined population. Let’s continue with the same in this part of the Middle East.”
So whatever the arguments and the rationale were, it doesn’t work.
QUESTION: What happened to the Saudi Initiative, which fell like a lead balloon in Israel?
ITAMAR RABINOVICH: The Saudi Initiative was an idea raised in 2002 to find a “quick fix” to the crisis and the conflict with a very simple formula: full withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 in return for peace and normalization on the Arab side.
It was brought to an Arab Summit conference in Beirut, and then additions began to appear, including a right of return. Therefore, it lost all appeal to Israelis and had no real influence.