An interview with prof. Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli former Ambassador to the US
An interview with Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli former Ambassador to the United States and former Chief Negotiator with Syria (1993–1996) during the second term of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1992–1995), former president of Tel Aviv University (1999–2007) and professor emeritus of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, author of Prime Minister’s biography – Yitzhak Rabin. Soldier, Leader, Statesman (2017).
Israeli – American relations always command many of emotions. Today we hear about the pro-Israel attitude of Donald Trump and it's not difficult to find the evidences - recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights - as integral part of the country. What was the situation twenty years ago when Bill Clinton was a president and the Middle East became one of the main point of his foreign policy? Please treat this question as an incentive to talk more about your ambassador experience and the role of a diplomat in the modern world.
First of all, today the Middle East is much less important for United States than twenty, forty years ago. This time Middle East was important because of oil supply. It was important region during the Cold War, as an area of competition with the Soviet Union. It's important geopolitical points - an intersection between Africa and Asia. Today we are also observing the tension with Russia, but it's not the same scale as during the Cold War. US has become more independent in exporting oil and gas. After 9/11, the sign of danger of the terrorism threat from the Middle East, the attention returned to this place.
President Trump is really friendly to Israel and he made several gestures to Israel, but it's more symbolic than practical. Trump tries to be a peacemaker, he would like to finalize a grand deal during his term. The future plan should be more balanced to be acceptable for both sides. It hould be accepted not only by the Palestinians and Israelis, but also by other Arab countries governments - Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan. It's still an open question. It was different during the time of Clinton. He inherited his Middle Eastern policy from Bush's administration, involved to resolve the conflict in the Persian Gulf after the invasion of Iraq on Kuwait. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a convenient opportunity to find a solution for Israeli – Palestinian conflict, This is the reason to organize the conference in Madrid in 1991. Middle East was one of the higher priorities for Clinton. Warren Christopher, his Secretary of State, made about twenty trips to the Middle East. Also the personal relationship between president Clinton and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was really deep and authentic. One of the most important aspects of my ambassadorship in the US was to be a witness of this relation. I also think Clinton-Rabin relation was deeper and more profound than Trump-Netanyahu relation today. Clinton's policy was also more meaningful that time.
For several years we have been observing the conflict in Syria - sometimes calmer, at other times – tense, but one thing is certain - the war is still going on and the country is destabilized. In the 90s, Israel had two options - negotiations with Syria or Palestinians. Because the right-wing and religious communities protested against the return of the Golan Heights to the neighbor, efforts were concentrated on the second solution. What else failed? How about other circumstances?
The policy of Rabin was more focused on the first one - he actually preferred Syria, because Israeli – Syrian conflict was simpler, it wasn't a national conflict, only territorial, around Golan Heights. Now it sounds a little bit ironic, because Syria is destroyed, but in the 90s it was considered to be a strong and coherent country with very strong authoritative leader, Hafiz Al - Asad. Palestinians didn't have a state, they were a community, led by a very problematic leader, Yassir Arafat. It was considered easier and safer to make the deal first with Syria and later with the Palestinians. The problem with Assad was he refused to specify what he understands by peace. We first gave commitment to withdraw from the Golan, but it was not concluded by negotiations. Assad wanted to receive his bottom line without concrete details. It was difficult to move on, this process was slow. In the same time Oslo talks began and Rabin decided to focus on the Palestinians and to worry about peace with Syria later. Rabin also noticed the dangers from Iran, and Syria is a close ally of Iran. In August 1993 Rabin, Assad and Warren Christopher, American Secretary of State met to talk about the conditions of the withdrawal from Golan, but Assad didn’t pick it up properly. In this moment Rabin decided to focus on the deal with the Palestinians first and back to Syria later.
The Oslo talks began by unofficial channels. Two Israeli scientists - Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and Dr. Ron Pundak secretly met in London with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to get that way to Yasser Arafat and arrange talks under the auspices of the Norwegian government. This is probably not a commonly known story? Today, in the age of social media, when politicians like to share their thoughts on Twitter, the public has a constant access to the Internet, and journalists demand new materials and reports, is it possible to keep such things in secret?
It was a part of bigger case. They were emissaries, they were nominated by the prime minister to do this task. There have been many efforts to start an Israeli – Palestinian dialogue. This one picked up. We had two tracks - unofficial in Oslo and official in Washington. In the 90s, social media weren’t as developed as today, so keeping conversations secret wasn't such a big problem. But today it is also possible. A good example is American - Iranian agreement from 2015 on the Iranian nuclear programme. It was prepared in secret in Oman. Naturally, today it's more difficult, but it's still possible.
Professor Rabinovich, this conversation wouldn't be complete if I didn't ask about your relation with Prime Minister Icchak Rabin during his second term, doubtlessly in the most important moment of his political career - an attempt to achieve peace.
Rabin wasn't a charismatic, but a respectful leader. He was smart, very experienced, and open. As a human being, he was very shy and introverted. He didn't like politics, he preferred policy. His second term (1992 – 1995) was definitely more effective than the first one (1974 – 1977). I enjoyed very much working with him, it was a very positive experience - he demanded loyalty, but he was also loyal to the people who worked with him. Unfortunately, I was also a close observer of developing campaign of hate and incitement against him. It's hard to say what would happen if his assassination didn't happen. Probably he would be reelected in 1996 and he would complete talks with Arafat on the final status. I'm sure it was a great blow to the peace process and to the whole country, even more dangerous for Israeli democracy.
In an interview for the website The Times of Israel from 2017, you said that Rabin's murder was not a single incident in Israeli history, but the result of numerous coordinated actions inciting to hate and discrediting of him and his partners. This is not an isolated opinion. Many politicians who were more or less involved in this process continued their careers without feeling guilty about their past.
It's important to underline that, for example, Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu didn't incite to murder anyone, but he didn't keep distance from the people who did it. The same for other right - wing politicians. Many of the members of the Kahane movement (radical Orthodox Jewish, their ultranationalist political party, Kach, existed from 1971 to 1994), whose activities had even criminal character, became members of the Knesset, like Itamar Ben Gvir. He appeared in front of the TV cameras with the emblem that had been stolen from the government limousine belonging to Rabin and said: We got to his car, and we will get to him too. Today he is in the Knesset from Otzma Yehudit party. Of course I'm not happy with this and I'm not the only one. You can find more examples in my book (Yitzhak Rabin. Leader, Soldier, Statesman from 2017) and in the documentary film Rabin In His Own Words by Erez Laufer, composed of footages never seen before.
Only a month ago there were elections to the Knesset. In fact, we can say it was a competition between the two candidates. In the face of the permanent dangers toward Israel, is it right to assume that the Israeli citizens have more trust in the army and politics with a more hawkish than dovish attitude, represented by more pro-peace groups? In this case, can a government be formed in the near future that decides to give peace a chance - as the Rabin said about his cabinet during the last speech on Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995? After all, the attempt to achieve peace is always a risk, and his story is the best example of it.
People like to have a national and strong leader who cares about national security. Israeli politicians usually had a military past and security background. Now Netanyahu underlines this issue in his policy. Political moods are also more right-wing and centrist. The reasons are precisely those dangers that have been mentioned – Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. People are worried about it and become more hawkish.
Yes, peace is always challenging. Rabin said: We don't make peace with friends, we make peace with enemies. Egypt before Begin made an agreement with Sadat was an enemy, Jordan before king Hussain was an enemy too. Now we are a neighbors with good relations. Situation is changing. Poland was occupied by Germany, now you are together in the European Union and NATO, you are working together. Rabin i salso a good example, because he was a Chief of Staff of Israeli army who conquered West Bank, but over time he tried to be a prime minister who is able to achieve peace. If we don't look at the present and the future, but only at the past, we will also live in the past. Plan of Trump’s administrations for the Middle East and domestic politics created by prime minister Netanyahu will be one of the elements of the future agreement. Things could change and we have to be careful.
The last question is connected with your rich academic career. You spent many years as a professor of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University and as a guest at American universities. You are the author of many books, essays and articles about the Middle East, especially about Syria. What is the correct process of Middle East studies? How to explain to students the complex reality of a region like this? What do you think about the future of this field of academy?
Middle Eastern studies are a branch of wider category - area studies. This term appeared after the World War II, when America gained a global power and realized that they need a experts specializing in a different parts of the world. They started do invest in development of these studies. Before that Middle Eastern studies were a part of study of orientalism - now we perceive this term negatively, as associated with colonialism. Countries that had their colonies in the Near and Far East and in Africa had a long tradition in area studies, were most interested in this field and invested in it - Great Britain, France, Germany, Denmark. People involved in this study began working for the government, intelligence services. This type of study appeared at universities.
Nowadays area studies create a lot of opportunity for students and their research, like in history, political science or international relations. We have separate departments dedicated to these studies at universities, but we can also move in studying them between different faculties. During the preparation of my PhD at UCLA, I was registered in the Department of History, but I focused on the Middle Eastern studies. It's very problematic area because it's very highly politicized. We have many visions on studying it. It's a branch full of academic battles, controversies, questions and debates, for example Israelis - Arabs, Turks - Armenians, Iranians - Arabs. But the advantage is that the people are still interested in this part of the world that still remains important.