A conversation with Itamar Rabinovich
The Syria expert divulges the little-known history of Israel's adversary and his brush as a policy maker with attempts at peace
Itamar Rabinovich has long been one of the calmer and more insightful analysts of Israel's relations with the Arab world. For four years during the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were prime ministers, Rabinovich was also a "player," as Israel's ambassador to the United States, and as the head of its negotiating team with Syria. Rabinovich, who is a scholar of modern Syria, has just published a highly readable collection of essays on that subject, "The View from Damascus: State, Political Community and Foreign Relations in Twentieth-Century Syria" (Vallentine-Mitchell; 371 pages, $49.95).
The book serves to place a state that remains one of Israel's most formidable adversaries in its historical context, and details the ups and downs of an on-again off-again peace process between the two countries that began in earnest at the Madrid Peace Conference convened by George H.W. Bush in 1991.
But Rabinovich also looks back to such episodes as the four-and-a-half-month tenure of Husni Zaim in 1949, when Syria had a president who offered Israel a peace treaty and proposed that his country absorb up to 300,000 Palestinian refugees. (Zaim was deposed and killed by a coup in August of that year.) He also describes a more recent, and much closer, pass at peace - one to which he was a personal witness - when, in August 1993, Rabin deposited with the U.S. secretary of state a hypothetical, coniditional willingness of Israel's willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty, including "normalization" and massive security arranmgements with Syria. That, too, did not work out.
Rabinovich, 66, was educated at the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, and received his Ph.D. from UCLA. Most of his career has been at the Tel Aviv, which he served as president from 1999 to 2007. He spoke with Haaretz by phone from his home in Tel Aviv.
Does the history of modern Syria have any special bearing on our understanding of the current regime?
Of course. I'll give you some examples. Domination by the Alawite minority, which makes up only 12 percent of the population, is a cardinal aspect of Syrian life, even today. Alawis were willing to act with extreme brutality to protect the regime, for example in Hama in 1982, when they created a blood account with the Sunni majority. One little-known factor explaining Syria's special relationship with Iran is that Ayatollah Khomeini recognized the Alawis as a branch of Shi'a Islam. And if we go back much earlier in the 20th century, we can see the beginning of the process that brought the Alawis to the position of power they now enjoy. When the French came into possession of the Syrian mandate, they were threatened by Arab nationalism, which was prevalent among the Sunnis of the big cities. One response was to cultivate the Alawi and Druze minorities, recruiting them to the local levy, the original Syrian army. Alawis were also drawn to the Ba'ath, because it was a secular party. The coincidence of there being a lot of Alawis in both the army and the Ba'ath party is what brought them to power.
What sort of opposition does Bashar Assad face?
The one serious opposition in Syria today is the Muslim Brotherhood, which became an important issue when President Bush - he dislikes Bashar and the Syrian regime enormously - collided with Assad in Iraq and in Lebanon. In 2006, after the assassination of former president Hariri in Beirut, it seemed that Bush was going after Assad and the regime, particularly by way of the United Nations special prosecutor. At some point, this was stopped in its tracks. Among other things, Bush was told, if you topple Bashar, you may bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. That's not what he had in mind. Instead, the administration decided to avoid both extremes - not to use military power in a big way, but also not to engage with Assad, on the other. To isolate and penalize him. This was not a very effective policy. And it relates directly to our issues in Israel.
How so? Does this explain Bush's ambivalence about Israel's talks with Syria?
Bush didn't favor resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. As long as Ariel Sharon was in power, or during Olmert's first year, this was not a problem. But beginning in February 2007, Olmert changed his line and authorized the Turkish prime minister to begin a conversation with the Syrians. Bush decided not to be open or vocal with his criticism, but some of his people made critical remarks off the record.
Al-Qaida is very much Sunni Muslim, and as such is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian opposition. When the war on terror became a defining issue for the U.S., after 2001, the Syrians tried to collaborate with U.S. on Al-Qaida. But when Al-Qaida began leading a Sunni insurrection in Iraq, Syria was helpful to them. The recent U.S. raid was on an Al-Qaida base in northeast Syria, and was meant to expose this double policy.
After eight years, how would you characterize Bashar's performance?The jury is still out on Bashar Assad. Clearly, he is not of his father's stature. And as you will recall, he was not his father's original choice. Bashar was called back to Syria in 1994, and told he was the heir apparent. He had six years of training, until his father's death. He is not without abilities, but he is capable of rash decisions. One was his apparent authorization of the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. That was a capital error, and I'm not talking about the ethical aspect. It forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Another error took place soon after the Russian invasion of Georgia. Bashar was on a scheduled visit to Russia, and he took advantage of the opportunity to invite the Russians to put missiles on Syrian soil. The Russians were not interested, but for a country that wants to have better relations with the U.S., that was a peculiar offer.
What about the construction of a nuclear reactor?
There are conflicting reports about whether that project was begun by the father or the son. But it was run by the son, out of the palace, as almost a private organization. The army was not in the picture; that's why there was no air defense. It was a highly adventurous step to take. What does Bashar want? We don't know the answer, we'll have to wait. Some say he wants to bring Syria into the international mainstream, and wants good relations with Washington. Others say he can't free himself of Iran. And they ask whether the regime would have a justification for continuing to exist if peace were to arrive.
Do you the see the Israeli public supporting a Golan withdrawal in a referendum?
The public, I agree, would not be supportive, at least at first blush, of the removal of 18,000 settlers from the Golan. This was also the case in the 1990s, when Rabin and Barak negotiated with Syria. The main obstacle for that opposition was Syria's complete refusal to engage in public diplomacy. In this decade, though, the formula has changed: It's no longer territories for peace, but territories for strategic realignment. Syria is expected to disengage from Iran, and change its support in Lebanon. If the Israeli public is convinced that this is key to moving Syria back from the border, and to removing 40,000 rockets from Lebanon, this could make a withdrawal more palatable to it.
You don't reveal much in this book about your personal involvement in negotiations with Syria.
I wrote a whole book on the negotiations at the time, even though it wasn't a memoir. But I can tell you that it was the most powerful experience of my professional life, if not my personal as well.
What was especially powerful about your negotiating career?
One of my greatest privileges was to sit in, as a note-taker, on practically all the one-on-one meetings between Rabin and Clinton, or Rabin and the secretary of state. So I was there when Rabin deposited his guarantee with Warren Christopher, in August 1993. I thought then that peace was at hand. As we left the room, I said to Dennis Ross that I could hear the wings of history in the room.
At the time, in August 1993, Oslo was adumbrated but not signed. Rabin needed to establish if he had a Syrian option too. Assad had demanded an Israeli commitment of withdrawal from the Golan before he would talk, and Rabin's proposal was his way of walking around that obstacle. Assad's answer was "yes," in principle, but at the same time he began to haggle with Rabin's conditions. That wasn't enough for Rabin, and so he decided to go with Oslo.
Another powerful memory: At some point, we were joined in the negotiations by the Syrian army's chief of staff, General [Hikmat] Shihabi. I had had a student at Tel Aviv University who had been a pilot. He was captured by the Syrians and kept in jail and tortured. He told me how Shihabi personally had tortured him. And at the time of my first meeting with him, in 1994, he was considered to be the number two in regime. I couldn't get it out my mind.
I've always imagined you as a man of the left, but the truth is that you don?t reveal much of your politics, in the book or in general.
I can't pretend that my four years in the hub, as ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator and a close confidant to Rabin, were apolitical. And I enjoyed seeing politics and being a policy-maker for four years. But I made a conscious decision to steer clear of politics. I wouldn't regard myself as a man of the left. I was a peace negotiator, not a peacenik. I believe in a two-state solution, but as a negotiator, I never felt I had to bring home an agreement at all costs. It's dangerous to fall in love with your negotiation.
What importance do you attribute to the Saudi (or Arab League) Peace Initiative?
The Arab Initiative has two problems: The first is that it's not a policy, but a vague idea that needs to be worked out. Secondly, the right of return is still there. The formulation by which it calls for a "just solution" to the refugee problem is just too close to right of return. People are looking for a quick fix, that 20 states will recognize Israel, and we'll go back to the pre-1967 borders. But it's not good to negotiate with a collective. As a rule, the radicals will end up dominating. On the other hand, if the initiative can help the Palestinians make compromises - part of problem in July 2000 was that Arafat did not have real Arab support for compromises in Jerusalem or on the refugees - that would be helpful.