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Behind the Headlines; from Pieces of Paper to Peace: Israel’s Ambassador Looks Ahead

On the eve of Rosh Hashnah, Israel’s ambassador to the United States envisions a new year of concrete implementation of the historic accords Israel signed with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“The challenge is to make sure that the breakthroughs are not only a collection of agreements and papers, but that it results in a peace,” Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich said in an interview at his embassy office in the waning days of 5754.

Approaching his second anniversary as Israel’s most senior diplomat in the United States, Rabinovich hailed this past year’s achievements and “an almost unprecedented closeness” between Israel and the United States.

“What we see is an integrated process at work, a comprehensive strategy for trying to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Rabinovich, a former rector of Tel Aviv University whose academic career centered on Middle Eastern history.

BOYCOTT OF ISRAEL AND JEWS COLLAPSING

“You now have Arab states in the Gulf opening their states to Israelis,” he said.

With regard to the Arab boycott, he said both the economic policy and general Arab view of boycotting Israel and all Jews is “collapsing.”

The ambassador also expressed hope for continuing progress in negotiations with Israel’s strongest foe, Syria.

“Assad realized that the breakthrough with Jordan was a landmark event,” said Rabinovich, who also serves as Israel’s chief negotiator in the long-stalled talks with Syria.

Noting that the Syrian leader allowed the state-run television station to broadcast uninterrupted the July 25 signing ceremony between King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington, the ambassador said: “By exposing his own population to the event, he was, for the first time, engaging in the type of public diplomacy we have been advocating for years.”

Rabinovich described the overall peace process as a tremendous success.

“What we now have is an ongoing process trying to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.

In order to give peace a “complete picture,” he said there are significant issues that need to be addressed, including the need to work on economic development, scarcity of water resources and the ballooning population in the region.

Rabinovich expressed unbridled optimism for the coming year, while at the same time acknowledging this year’s bumps and bruises along the road, especially with the Palestinians.

Despite the obstacles, he said, the important thing is that Israel is out of Gaza and the Pales tinians are beginning to govern themselves. And, he added, “the friction between Palestinians and Israelis is reduced.”

When Israel signed the declaration of principles with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat last September, he said, “we made a problematic agreement from our point of view with a former deadly enemy.

“I think the prime minister embodied, in the most vivid fashion, the ambivalence of many Israelis, myself included, in making this act of reconciliation,” he said, referring to Yitzhak Rabin’s obvious discomfort at the Sep. 13 signing.

With the first anniversary of that historic signing approaching, Rabinovich assessed the progress of the agreement to date.

“The delivery is not perfect and there are several aspects (with) which we are very unhappy,” he said. “We don’t think Arafat fights terrorism and violence with the degree of conviction and assertiveness that are called for.

“We think that his conduct and rhetoric is not that of somebody who has buried the hatchet, but that of somebody who continues the competition, if not the struggle,” he continued. “And we think that he doesn’t place significant emphasis on economic development and on raising the standard of living. This robs his own people of some of the economic opportunities that have been afforded to them,” he said.

But despite these problems, the ambassador believes “the bottom line was extremely positive.”

On the Jordanian front, Rabinovich also expressed the need for continuing implementation of signed agreements.

“With Jordan, the Washington Declaration was wonderful and the ceremonies very impressive, but we do want to see its implementation,” he said.

Jordanian and Israeli negotiators are currently hammering out agreements on outstanding issues such as the allocation of water rights and borders.

Beyond agreements with Jordan and the PLO, Rabinovich said, peace with Syria is essential to the overall resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He said that many Arab countries “make no secret of the fact” that they are waiting for Syria before they normalize relations with Israel.

‘WE HAVE NOT ACCEPTED THE SYRIAN DEMAND’

Direct talks between Israel and Syria have been on hold since reaching an impasse last year. Talks were deadlocked as Israel waited for Syrian clarification on the kind of peace President Hafez Assad would offer, while Syria was demanding full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before it would spell out terms of any future peace.

“For us this is not a story of withdrawal, but is about setting the relationship between Syria and Israel,” Rabinovich said, adding, “We have not accepted the Syrian demand for full withdrawal.”

Assessing the current status, Rabinovich said, “What we now have is an Israeli package that was elaborated on last spring and laid on the table in May.”

While he would not reveal the details of the package, he said the Syrian response to date “is not satisfactory.”

But the sides are continuing discussions through the mediation of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who has made several trips to the region recently.

Rabinovich said that whatever Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would take place, it will be spread over a period “longer than 3 years.”

He said that despite Israel’s concern over Israeli-Syrian relations, his government recognizes that Syria’s goal of achieving better relations with the United States is part of its motive for movement with Israel.

Rabinovich praised recent trips by American Jews to Syria as a help to the process.

“It’s important they meet with Syria and express their point of view and serve as another important bridge between Syria and us, and Syria and the United States.

“But it is never a substitute for the two principal negotiating avenues,” he said, referring to the bilateral and multilateral Middle East talks.

Assad’s overtures to the American Jews represents an important start to public gestures of reconciliation necessary on all fronts, Rabinovich said.

As for the American Jewish community, Rabinovich said he is “grateful” for their support for the peace process.

“Support is not universal, but a comparatively small number of critics oppose the process,” he said.

“There is a significant number of individuals with concerns and questions and, in this respect, the American Jewish community is a reflection of the Israeli Jewish community,” he added.

CALLS U.S. ROLE ‘CRUCIAL’

Rabinovich categorized the United States’ role in the peace process as “crucial” and lavished praise on both the Clinton administration, especially Christopher, and on former President George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, for getting the process started.

“When it comes to the Middle East peace process, this is an area in which the administration has very distinct and very significant achievements,” he said.

This year will end with “an almost unprecedented closeness” between Israel and the United States, the ambassador said.

One example of this improved relationship, he said, was the Clinton administration’s decision to allow Israel, for the first time, to compete in the aerospace industry.

Israel also purchased the most advanced American fighter planes available, the F-15s and F-16s.

Looking to the year ahead and Israeli election primaries slated for November 1995, Rabinovich predicted that the Labor-led government has “over a year that is largely free of political consideration” to pursue its peace initiatives.

“Time is not in endless supply” but “this government does not conduct its peace policy with any sense of a ticking clock,” he said.

Due to the Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah holidays, JTA will not publish a Daily News Bulletin on the following dates: Sept. 5, Sept. 7 and Sept. 8. There also will be no DNB on Yom Kippur, Sep. 15. Shanah tovah!

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