Barak on Podeh, 'Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict'

Elie Podeh
Oren Barak

Elie Podeh. Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 424 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4773-0560-7.

Reviewed by Oren Barak (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2016) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Elie Podeh’s Chances for Peace presents a detailed account of the missed opportunities for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the period 1919-2008. It also details the two opportunities for peace that culminated in the peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

The book starts off by defining what a “missed opportunity” is and presenting the major factors underpinning it. These include the degree of legitimacy enjoyed by the political leadership; the extent to which these leaders are willing, motivated, and determined to take bold steps in order to change the situation; the level of trust between the parties, which might be based on their past interactions; and the role of third parties in promoting dialogue between the parties. Podeh suggests that the more factors that exist in a particular episode the more plausible the opportunity is for peace.

The book then sets out to explore a total of twenty-eight cases where an opportunity for peace between Israel and the Arabs manifested itself, ranging from the agreement between Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Hashemite Emir Faisal in 1919 to the Annapolis Conference in 2007 and the subsequent talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). In each case, Podeh presents a concise description of the opportunity (if it indeed was one), which is based primarily on secondary sources. He then analyzes the causes for missing that particular opportunity according to the four factors outlined above, including the question of who was, or were, responsible for this outcome.

Overall, Podeh’s book makes a significant contribution to the study of the Israeli-Arab conflict and possibly to other conflicts where opportunities for peace have either been seized or squandered by the parties themselves and/or by outside forces. It is systematic, informative, and draws on numerous sources, including Israeli, Arab, and Western (mostly American) works.

Some of the book’s conclusions are significant. This includes the argument that, contrary to Israeli leaders’ rhetoric, both sides to the conflict have been responsible for missing opportunities for peace and Israel has not been very keen on reaching peace with the Arabs, especially since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Podeh’s emphasis on the level of legitimacy of the political leadership and these leaders’ willingness to take bold steps to transform the conflict is important. Another insight that he draws is that peacemakers should start early. When policymakers—including leaders of the parties to the conflict but also external actors—begin their peacemaking efforts early in their tenure, the chances for their peace initiatives are higher, and these, in turn, are liable to reflect positively on these leaders’ legitimacy. This was the case, for example, in the Egyptian-Israeli peace process in 1977-79, which was launched not long after the rise to power of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party in Israel. It is worth remembering, however, that in later years, Prime Minister Begin adopted a more hawkish policy toward Israel’s neighbors, which, in retrospect, can be seen as an attempt to make up for his early concessions. At the same time, taking the initiative when a leader’s tenure is coming to a close creates a situation whereby this leader’s success in the upcoming elections impinges on peacemaking efforts since it is not at all clear if the leader enjoys, or lacks, public support and whether his or her actions are geared toward achieving electoral success. The races against time during the second term of US President Bill Clinton (1996-2000) and the tenures of quite a number of Israeli prime ministers (e.g., Ehud Barak in 2001, Shimon Peres in 1996, and Ehud Olmert in 2008) are cases in point.

Another conclusion that can be derived from the book is the problematic role played by most US administrations as well as other foreign actors, who were involved in peacemaking between Israel and the Arabs, especially since 1967. These include not only US presidents and their secretaries of state but also the various peace teams that they assembled. This problematic role, demonstrated in most of the episodes addressed in the book, stemmed, or so it seems, from the lack of sufficient knowledge about the Middle East, which resulted either in over-optimistic assessments of the region (demonstrated most trenchantly in the US debacle in Iraq and in various episodes in the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially in the 1990s) or in a hesitancy to get involved in what appeared to be an intractable conflict (especially since 2000). Indeed, as the book suggests, only one US president, Jimmy Carter, was prepared to fully commit himself to achieving Arab-Israeli peace, including adopting an evenhanded position toward the parties and successfully employing both carrots and sticks so as to bring them closer to an agreement. That the parties’ leaders—Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—also became committed to the quest (after having demonstrated to one another, and to themselves, the futility of other means) helped bridge the differences. But, as the book suggests, this was a rare occasion.

Reading through Podeh’s detailed account of the various episodes of Israeli-Arab peacemaking and his analysis of the causes for the failure of the large majority of these opportunities, I was left wondering whether the four variables identified in the book, important as they are for accounting for its main “puzzle,” are, in themselves, not underpinned by deeper factors that have been at work in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the remainder of this essay, let me focus on three types of factors—structural, cultural, and rational (or interest-based)—drawing on the useful differentiation presented by Mark Lichbach.[1]

First of all, the power relations between the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and even more so between Israelis and Palestinians, seem crucial when accounting for the failure or success of opportunities for peace between them. Thus, for example, the period 1917-47 (the first and third episodes discussed in the book) saw the rise of the Jewish community in Palestine as a major political, economic, and military force in relation to the local Palestinian Arab community as well as the region, not least due to the support extended to it by the external actors (especially the British Mandate). This factor, in turn, affected its own position toward the various peacemaking efforts but also that of the other side (or sides). Similarly, Israel’s military victories in the wars of 1948 and 1967, which attested to its military power and boosted its leaders’ self-confidence, seems to have affected its (largely negative) reception of peacemaking efforts in these conflicts’ aftermath. Indeed, it was only after the 1973 war, when Egypt (and, to a lesser extent, Syria) managed to create a balance of power with Israel, that Israeli leaders became willing to consider trading for peace some—but not all—of the territories that they had occupied in 1967. The same is true with regard to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, where Israel, the more powerful side, never accepted a balanced relationship between the parties, including during the period of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (1993-2001). In fact, Podeh’s book suggests that Israel made only one sincere peace overture to the Palestinians, in Camp David in 2000, and even then its proponent, Prime Minister Barak did not have a detailed plan and mainly improvised. As it is well known, the result was not the replication of the successful Camp David summit between US President Carter, Egyptian President Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Begin in 1978, but, rather, an outcome that was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958).

Another structural factor that needs to be considered is the relative newness of all of the region’s states (and, of course, the Palestinian Authority since its establishment in the 1990s), and the implications that this factor has had on their leaders’ positions. Among other things, this made these leaders less prone to taking risks, especially if these were liable to jeopardize domestic consensus. Indeed, it seems that at least for some leaders the dialectic between war making and state building, suggested by Charles Tilly, was more appealing—or, at least, less threatening—than open-ended peacemaking.[2]

But the role played by cultural factors in peacemaking between long-time rivals, too, is important, and it cannot, moreover, be reduced to the question of whether this or that leader had sufficient legitimacy—a question that, by itself, is quite different in democratic and nondemocratic or partially democratic settings—or the question of trust between the parties and whether it existed or not. Indeed, for decades, Israeli and Arab leaders, as well as the political, educational, bureaucratic, media, and security institutions of their states, have been propagating the idea that the other side is evil and treacherous, and is part of a culture that is, essentially, belligerent. It is not surprising that when opportunities for peacemaking did offer themselves, leaders who sought to change course often became prisoners of their own device. Noted examples include Sadat who was assassinated in 1981 and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was assassinated in 1995. Whereas in the first case the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel remained intact, in the second case the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was effectively derailed.

Last but not least, actors—be it individuals or groups—and the roles they play in matters of war and peace are highly important when trying to account for the failure or success of peacemaking, including in the various episodes discussed in Podeh’s book. The first actors that come to mind are the parties’ leaders (Israeli and Arab) who, in most cases, preferred the continuation of the status quo, however problematic, to taking bold steps that were liable to alter the situation. But these leaders were often encouraged, and sometimes also pressured, by a host of other actors—not dealt with sufficiently in the book—such as their own ministers, security establishments, pressure groups, lobbyists, and numerous other actors (e.g., the Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories and their political allies) who did not spare any effort to shut the window of opportunity.

In sum, Podeh’s book is a welcome addition to the study of Arab-Israeli conflict and peace but one that seems to raise as many questions as it answers.


[1]. Mark Lichbach, “Social Theory and Comparative Politics,” in Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, ed. Mark Lichbach and Alan Zuckerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 239-276.

[2]. Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 3-84.

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Citation: Oren Barak. Review of Podeh, Elie, Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2016. URL:

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