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By Itamar Rabinovitch. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1998.
Professor Rabinovitch was an ideal choice for the daunting task of chief negotiator with Syria. A professor of history of the Middle East, author of several books on the Arab-Israel conflict and an expert on the contemporary history of Syria, he was well equipped with the expertise that was vital for his assignment.
An added asset was the author's acquaintance with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his own total identification with Rabin's policy, especially with regard to Syria. This may provide some explanation of the fact that throughout the fascinating account of the negotiations, Rabinovitch rarely provides the reader with a personal view of events, or a critical analysis of the instructions he got from his government. Nor does he make some comparison, even minimal, of his conduct of the talks with my own, since I myself had held the same position, from the Madrid Conference in October 1991, until the elections of May 1992, which brought down the Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir.
Evidently, Rabinovitch, a historian and academician to the core, has tried hard to present us with a historical, rather than autobiographical presentation of his experiences. His academic training, rather than his short experience in diplomacy got the better of him. Probably, he would have done better to concentrate on a personal account and leave it to future historians to analyze and place this chapter in the context of the enfolding Syrian-Israeli relationship.
Election Campaign Promises.
For obvious reasons, Rabinovitch did not dwell on the difference between Rabin's pre-election position on the Golan Heights and the emergence of his policy on that issue. He said only that in the election campaign, the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian deal was not an issue (p.81). In fact, however, the election campaign was taking place during the negotiations between Israel and Syria that followed the Madrid Conference. In the course of that campaign, there was one noteworthy event that had drawn special public attention then, and subsequently even more. Both contenders, Shamir and Rabin, shared a podium at a mass meeting in the town of Katzrin, on the Golan Heights. In his speech, Rabin made a statement that was repeatedly advertised in the following years by his political opponents and by the Council of the Golan Heights Settlements. He said: "To raise the thought that we descend from the Golan Heights would be tantamount to abandoning, I repeat, abandoning the defense of Israel."
The 180-degree turn that Rabin made subsequently, was received with bitter disappointment by the Golan Heights representatives, when they met with him on September 6, 1992. Disappointment with Rabin's policy on Syria grew even bigger in the following months. In a radio interview that same month, he said that Israel "would be ready to implement Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which means acceptance of some territorial compromise...." In November, he went a step further and declared that "the depth of withdrawal will reflect the depth of peace."
Evidently, Rabin was publicly declaring acceptance of the principle of withdrawal in the Golan sector so as to draw the Syrians to a give and take mode in the negotiations, in advance of any concession from them.
Sure enough, Rabin's unilateral concessions encouraged the Syrians to dig in. At the subsequent round of negotiations in April 1993, the Syrian delegation came to Washington with instructions to elicit a commitment from the Israelis on total withdrawal and not to divulge what they would be willing to reciprocate on the substance of peace (p. 94). Notwithstanding, Rabinovitch registered satisfaction on the use of the term "full peace" by his interlocutor. Apparently, he had not read the minutes of the talks that were held during the Shamir administration. In those talks, the head of the Syrian delegation, Ambassador Muwafiq 'Allaf had repeatedly stated that his country was ready to satisfy Israeli desires regarding peace, but only after receiving a commitment on total withdrawal.
Rabinovitch went on to complain that there was no symmetry between the Syrian so-called concession--"full peace"--and their demand for full withdrawal. Unfortunately, this was a belated awakening. It was Rabin himself who had sanctioned that symmetry when he coined the equation that "the depth of withdrawal would reflect the depth of peace." We had fought this battle with the Syrians right from the beginning of the negotiations in 1991. From day one, the Syrians had incessantly pounded the phrase "territory for peace." You give us (our) …