Peace is Pos­si­ble: Con­ver­sa­tions with Arab and Israeli Lead­ers from 1988 to the Present

S. Daniel Abraham
  • Review
By – October 17, 2011

Read­ing Peace is Pos­si­ble, S. Daniel Abraham’s stir­ring new book, any­one with a pass­ing knowl­edge of the Arab- Israeli con­flict may find him­self tick­led by an unfa­mil­iar sen­sa­tion: Hope. 

Abra­ham, the suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur behind the Slim Fast weight loss prod­ucts, has ded­i­cat­ed the last two decades to his inde­fati­ga­ble effort to bring about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between Israel and its neigh­bors. For this pur­pose, Abra­ham, accom­pa­nied by the late Con­gress­man Wayne Owens (D.-Utah), trav­eled exten­sive­ly in the Mid­dle East, meet­ing with lead­ers from Syria’s Hafez Assad to Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty Chair­man Yass­er Arafat. His new book, sub­ti­tled Con­ver­sa­tions with Arab and Israeli Lead­ers from 1988 to the Present, is a frank and com­pelling account of those meetings. 

To a neo­phyte, the book is like­ly to read like a stream­lined and elo­quent­ly told brief his­to­ry of the con­flict; Abra­ham tells the sto­ry of his efforts in chrono­log­i­cal order, pro­vid­ing con­text and leav­ing no loose ends. From the pre-nego­ti­a­tion days of the late 1980s to the cur­rent and uncer­tain present, he presents key fig­ures, basic demands and sem­i­nal ideas in a straight­for­ward man­ner, there­by res­cu­ing the nar­ra­tive of the peace process from the episod­ic treat­ment it usu­al­ly receives in most news­pa­per and mag­a­zine reports. 

But there is anoth­er lay­er to Peace is Pos­si­ble, which ele­vates it far above the pre­serve of sim­ple chronol­o­gy. An art­ful racon­teur, Abra­ham pro­vides valu­able insight not only into the intri­cate machi­na­tions of back­room nego­ti­a­tions, but also into the psy­ches of the region’s emi­nent fig­ures. Read­ing, for exam­ple, Abraham’s amused obser­va­tions about Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Barak fuss­ing over seat­ing arrange­ments before a meet­ing with Arafat, one is relieved for a moment of the unbear­able seri­ous­ness of the con­flict. This, in a sense, serves Abraham’s bot­tom line well: In his telling, the con­flict is not a face­less Leviathan, but an inher­ent­ly human sto­ry, with pride, fear and prej­u­dice all inter­twined to cre­ate an impos­si­bly com­plex knot.

Despite the com­plex­i­ty, how­ev­er, the over­ar­ch­ing theme of the book is opti­mistic. Abra­ham has devot­ed his life to con­vinc­ing Israeli and Arab lead­ers to nego­ti­ate with one anoth­er; despite the short­com­ings of these nego­ti­a­tions, the read­er is nonethe­less like­ly to leave the book with a sense that more has been accom­plished than had failed. Com­pare, for exam­ple, Abraham’s rec­ol­lec­tions from con­ver­sa­tions with Arafat and Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Shamir cir­ca 1988 — con­ver­sa­tions rife with mutu­al refusals — to both sides’ stances less than a decade lat­er, and the pic­ture por­trayed is one of progress; cau­tious, stut­ter­ing, and finicky, but progress nonetheless. 

But Abra­ham is no mere boost­er. Through­out the book, he does not hes­i­tate to pro­vide unflat­ter­ing assess­ments of his con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists. When Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin, for exam­ple, deports 415 rad­i­cal Pales­tini­ans to Lebanon on the eve of a pos­si­ble break­through in the then-secret talks with Arafat and the PLO, or when Syr­i­an nego­tia­tors prac­tice polit­i­cal brinks­man­ship to avoid any con­crete com­mit­ments to peace, Abra­ham is unremit­ting in his critiques.

Here­in lies the book’s life-force: Objec­tive, pas­sion­ate, and straight­for­ward, Abra­ham is the per­fect nar­ra­tor for a sto­ry as com­pli­cat­ed as that of the con­flict. Free of jar­gon or diplo­mat­ic name­drop­ping, he is a sort of well-con­nect­ed Every­man, a quin­tes­sen­tial out­sider armed with good­will and com­mon sense on a del­i­cate and demand­ing mis­sion. Watch­ing this out­sider trade ideas — and jokes, such as respond­ing to a com­pli­ment by Assad by tout­ing his own weight loss prod­ucts— with a bat­tery of world lead­ers brings the con­flict down to a man­age­able size. This is the book’s con­sid­er­able val­ue; there are no mag­i­cal solu­tions here, no secret plans p r e v i o u s l y unearthed. All Abra­ham offers is a dose of real­is­tic optimism.

The ene­my of the Israelis,” he observes, was not the Pales­tini­ans, and the ene­my of the Pales­tini­ans was not the Israelis. The ene­my was the con­flict itself. That’s what had to end.” By putting the con­flict in per­spec­tive, Abra­ham makes yet anoth­er impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to achiev­ing just that.

Abra­ham J. Edel­heit is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Kings­bor­ough Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege (CUNY) and the author, co-author, or edi­tor of eleven books on the Holo­caust, Zion­ism, Jew­ish and Euro­pean his­to­ry, and Mil­i­tary affairs. His most recent pub­li­ca­tion appeared in Armor mag­a­zine, the offi­cial jour­nal of the US Army Armor and Cav­al­ry Command.

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