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Former Israeli Ambassador Sees Few Ways ForwardItamar Rabinovich (left) with L.A. Fulbright Coordinator Ann Kerr and CNES Director Leonard Binder. Rabinovich studied with Kerr's late husband, CNES Director and American University of Beirut President Malcolm Kerr.

Former Israeli Ambassador Sees Few Ways Forward

Iraq war, Hamas electoral win, and Iran's ambitions make settlement with Palestinians still harder than before, says UCLA alumnus Itamar Rabinovich.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich (UCLA PhD in History, 1971), a former ambassador to Washington and chief Israeli negotiator with Syria, explained to a UCLA audience Feb. 16 that prospects for an Israeli–Palestinian settlement were "not very auspicious" in the wake of the war in Iraq, Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections, and uncertainties in Israeli politics. His public talk was sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Rabinovich considered prospects for a settlement from international, regional, and local political vantage points.

Internationally, the key problem is the inability of the United States to embark on major new Mideast initiatives. Rabinovich said that the Bush administration's attempts to advance broad regional aims through war with Iraq, viewed by some supporters as a prelude to greater U.S. involvement in the Israeli–Palestinian crisis, have failed. Russia's relations with Iran and welcoming stance towards Hamas complicate matters, he said. Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), a Sunni Muslim group with armed as well as social-welfare components, is labeled a terrorist organization by Western countries and Israel.

Within the Middle East, the spoiler's role is played by the Shiite theocracy in Iran, which does not stand to gain from an Israeli–Arab settlement, according to Rabinovich. Iran has an "ambitious leadership" with "an ideology to export" and growing influence in the region—especially in southern Lebanon via Hezbollah, in Syria, and among the newly empowered Iraqi Shia. During the question period following his talk, Rabinovich expressed concern that Iran could use its ties with Hamas to threaten central Israel militarily. On a separate point, he said that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be unlikely to use them at least in the short term but could attempt to constrain Israel with threats related to its "strategic capability." Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear arms.

"I interpret much of what the Iranians have been saying and doing in recent months" as an effort "to establish themselves as the major power in the Middle East and to [get] the United States to see them as such," Rabinovich said.

Depending on the nature of the relationship between Hamas and Iran and on the results of March 28 Israeli elections, he said, some "compatibility" is conceivable between the approaches of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Rabinovich noted that Hamas may be amenable to a long-term truce with Israel, even though it will not sign a permanent peace deal, and that a continuation of Ariel Sharon's unilateral policy of "disengagement" from portions of the occupied territories could fit into such a truce.

In Israel, polls indicate strong support—enough to win 40 seats in the 120-seat Knesset—for the centrist Kadima party launched by Sharon before he suffered a stroke in January. Rabinovich said that between 75 and 80 seats will be divided among Labor, Likud, and newcomer Kadima; he was hesitant to speculate on government policies that coalition-building negotiations would largely determine.

Center for Near Eastern Studies