A Conversation with Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich
These are dramatic times in the Middle East. For the first time since the end of World War I, the region’s very borders are being challenged. As old conflicts solidify, new enduring ones emerge. Ambassador Rabinovich, who made his reputation as a scholar of Syria, will address how Israel views these developments and how they impact debates on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Israel's approach to regional and international actors and potentially unpredictable challenges.
A Conversation with Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich
Itamar Rabinovich, founding President of the Israel Institute, addressed Israel’s views of recent regional and international issues and the challenges and opportunities these issues present.
On April 1, 2016, the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Middle East Forum of the Middle East Program hosted the event “A Conversation with Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich,” who is also a former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and former Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Barkey began the conversation by addressing the current turmoil in the Middle East. He asked Rabinovich, given the regional chaos, what he sees as the strategic threats and opportunities for Israel. Rabinovich indicated that this kind of mayhem is unprecedented. From the Israeli point of view, this is a time that he believes presents opportunities. He went on to assert that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less present now in the eyes of many Arabs, although it still remains an important issue. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries are willing to cooperate with Israel in ways they were not previously. He acknowledged that despite these positive circumstances, there are still threats. Rabinovich said that we now face asymmetrical wars, which are difficult to wage and win, when compared to conventional wars. He concluded what is missing for Israel is a government that takes bold initiatives to make the most of these opportunities and to minimize risks.
Barkey then asked Rabinovich what kinds of bold initiatives could have been taken to capitalize on those opportunities. Rabinovich said he would like to see a more palpable movement toward improving the Israeli-Palestinian issue, if not resolving it. Though this is not a good moment to attempt to resolve the conflict, he noted, there are still a whole gamut of options for Israel to pursue. Barkey asked if not now, then when is it time to find a comprehensive solution. Rabinovich noted that though a resolution should still be sought, what we do not want is another failure. He cited Camp David in 2000 and an outbreak of another intifada as examples of what to avoid.
Rabinovich asserted that in order for agreements to be reached, all parties involved need to work in tandem. This, he said, is unlikely in the immediate future given the right-wing Israeli government and weak Palestinian counterpart. Trying to force any agreement could ultimately lead to failure, and instead Rabinovich said he hopes for something more modest for now. But he followed this up by saying that he believes in a two-state solution, and that it is important for the Palestinians to eventually have their own state.
Given the current crisis in Syria, Barkey remarked how Israel has been remarkably quiet. He asked Rabinovich what the best outcome in Syria could be. Rabinovich replied that Syria put together again would be the ideal result but would only be possible under a reasonable regime, which we will not see anytime soon. First, he said, the conflict in Syria and Iraq need to be addressed, and ethnic groups will have to be formally recognized. Though Israel has kept itself well out of the Syrian civil war, Rabinovich said they have, however, offered humanitarian aid to refugees and the wounded. Barkey then discussed the ironic possibility of the United States gearing up to fight ISIS, ISIS then eventually being defeated, and leaving Syria with the rebels pitted against the current regime. Rabinovich agreed this would indeed be an issue, because finding a solution given the opposition’s certain insistence in Assad’s departure would be challenging. He said that Syria would then muddle on as a failed state, as was the case in Iraq and Lebanon.
One of Barkey’s final questions for Rabinovich was why he thinks great leaders in the Middle East are so rare, and what being a real leader would take. Rabinovich replied that leadership is not only rare in the Middle East, and alluded to Europe having a similar problem. He concluded that a leader needs to have strong core convictions, be able to make bold decisions, and be able to carry public opinion with them.
By Elena Scott-Kakures, Middle East Program
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more