When Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich published his book, “Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs, 1948-2003,” in 2004, the title conveyed the optimism he felt about the prospect of achieving normalized Arab-Israeli relations. The book focused primarily on the 1990s, during which Rabinovich—who served as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1995 and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1993 to 1996—had high hopes for the peace process.
With the release of his new book, “The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East, 1948–2011,” it is not difficult to infer that the Ambassador—one of the foremost experts on the Middle East and a distinguished global professor at New York University—has a decidedly more pessimistic outlook. Focusing primarily on the past decade, during which he lost much confidence in the peace process, Ambassador Rabinovich bears witness to the dispiriting 2000s and recent social and political turmoil in the Middle East, including the Arab Spring uprisings.
Prior to a reception launching the new book, hosted by our Foundation at the Brookings Institution, Ambassador Rabinovich sat down with Lisa Eisen, our National Director, to talk about the impetus for writing the book, trends among young people in their views of Israel and what gives him hope for the future.
Lisa Eisen (LE): What inspired you to write, The Lingering Conflict?
Itamar Rabinovich (IR): The primary reason for writing another book was that colleagues who used my earlier book [“Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs in 1948 to 2000”] as a textbook told me that they need something more updated. I reached the conclusion that it couldn’t be just a technical update—I had to write a different book. “Waging Peace” was a deep look at Arab-Israeli relations from 1948, but it focused on the peace process of the 1990s. Everybody had high hopes in the 90s and nobody has high hopes now. “The Lingering Conflict” doesn’t have a 90s focus. [It] is designated in some respects as a textbook. It’s also meant to be a book for the lay reader who just wants to find out about either the whole story or parts of the story.
LE: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing interest in the field of Israel studies in the U.S. and beyond. What impact has that growth had and what do you think are the next possibilities for the field?
“When you talk about Israel, people think first and foremost about the Arab-Israeli problem. They look at politics, diplomacy, military issues, and I think the next step needs to be a greater emphasis on culture.”
IR: This is a success story. It has become a field with several centers, a considerable number of chairs and a considerable number of candidates for these chairs. I was delighted to find out that last year, when two or three chair positions opened up, there were first-class candidates competing for these vacancies. This is a very good sign; it also indicates that maybe more chairs are needed. We now have the whole food chain from students, local candidates, post-docs and full-fledged academics; there is an association, there is a review, and I think we need to see more of the same. When you talk about Israel, people think first and foremost about the Arab-Israeli problem. They look at politics, diplomacy, military issues, and I think the next step needs to be a greater emphasis on culture.
LE: As a long time scholar and observer of Israel and the Middle East, what do you see as trends and views about Israel among young people and within academia? Where do you see those evolving?
IR: I’m afraid I see a negative curve. I think that a book like Walt and Mearsheimer’s on the Israel lobby is considered a mainstream academic book and has a nefarious influence, and there are other books like that bashing Israel, bashing Zionism. The other week I was struck while reading a novel by the British novelist Ian McCuen called “Solar,” which has nothing to
do with Israel. It’s a satirical book poking fun at science. There is in passing a sentence mentioning a situation where a person is criticized for taking an anti-feminist position, and an Israeli academic comes to his defense. He thinks to himself, ‘This is not going to help me much because this audience is not going to take its loot from an Israeli.’ So we have now been stereotyped and ostracized. When it gets into this deep level in popular literature, it’s a very bad omen. Our work is cut out for us.
LE: What would you like to see in the next generation of Israeli leaders?
IR: First of all, I’d like to see the next generation of Israeli leaders. I think we’ve had the same faces for too long, and the number of young, new faces in Israeli politics is too small.
Politics is a profession, you have to learn it, you have to spend a period in the trenches and then make a bid for big leadership positions. To give one example, a man like Erel Margalit, the Jewish venture capitalist, joined the Labor Party and made a bid for leadership, didn’t do too well, but he’s not deterred. He’ll stay in, and I think when the next round comes, he’ll probably do better. There’s Margalit, a couple of others, and I hope there will be many more.
The cost of being in public and political life is high in Israel and [the U.S.], the scrutiny by the press, the need to raise money and the huge investment that you have to make in cultivating voters in primaries and then in general elections discourages many good people, but I think it’s a huge challenge for us to make it worthwhile and attractive enough for a much larger number of young people to join politics. Of course, the system needs to be reformed. The electoral law and other laws governing politics just don’t work. It’s not easy, but I would say in terms of national security challenges for the future of Israel, this one ranks very high.
LE: You referred to the de-legitimization of Israel entering the mainstream culture. Do you see this as a serious threat to Israel’s future and its role in the world? What do you think we can do to counter these efforts?
IR: I do. In the long run, particularly given the kind of challenges we have to face, it’s a national security threat for Israel.
“[The] two best days of my year in Israel [are when] we interview 25 young Israelis who are in public service [to go on Wexner fellowships to Harvard]. Only 10 of them get to go, but every year this gives me a fresh boost.”
We have to recognize where the threats come from and deal with them head on, in the right way. We know that some European companies give money to NGOs that engage in virulent anti-Israeli propaganda, and we need to fight it. The way to fight it is not to prohibit Israeli NGOs from receiving money from abroad, but the right way is to receive some transparency. But it’s a day in, day out conflict. We need to challenge Jews in the Diaspora, particularly young Jews, to not just bemoan the facts, but join the ranks and create frameworks for them to do that.
I was very impressed by the mobilization of young Israelis on social and economic issues last summer. I would like to see comparable numbers mobilizing for protecting the Supreme Court, the rule of law and similar issues, but this is up to us.
LE: You’ve served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, chief negotiator with Syria, as a professor, scholar and author. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment thus far?
IR: I think I was able to combine an academic career with other pursuits: diplomacy and political administration. Being able to do that while maintaining a decent academic career and continuing to publish was a challenge. I think I met it, and I’m proud of that.
LE: What gives you hope for the future?
IR: The young generation! One of the advantages of being in a university is that you don’t grow old, the students keep getting younger. You meet a lot of young people both on Israeli campuses and U.S. campuses and more recently on Paris campuses. I see wonderful young Jews and young Israelis, and I look specifically in Israel at those who maintain our high tech and the young generation in the IDF. [The] two best days of my year in Israel [are when] we interview 25 young Israelis who are in public service [to go on Wexner fellowships to Harvard]. Only 10 of them get to go, but every year this gives me a fresh boost.