The Brink of Peace stands as a model of its genre: an aware participant in negotiations provides the inside skinny and the larger story of what he calls "an absorbing saga," neither burdening the reader with unnecessary information nor skimping on important details.

And, as the title implies, Rabinovich also has a thesis to argue: that Hafiz al-Asad, the Syrian president, had in principle accepted peace with Israel and that the two states reached "the brink of peace." Unfortunately, Rabinovich goes on, Asad conducted himself "as if time were no constraint" and so the talks ended in early 1996 in failure. Rabinovich surmises that, afterwards, "Asad must have realized that he had badly miscalculated." With this, he offers what might be dubbed the optimistic interpretation of Asad's intentions.

There is also another interpretation, the pessimistic one, that holds Asad never sought to end the state of war with Israel but instead entered into negotiations with his old enemy only as a means to an end. In this view, Asad used the talks with Israel as a way of improving relations with the West. He had no intention of ever signing a peace treaty with Israel. He wanted not closure but protraction; not peace but peace process.

To his credit, Rabinovich provides much evidence to support the pessimistic outlook and he candidly sums up his own implicit dissatisfaction with the optimistic analysis: "when all is said and done it is difficult to understand why Asad, despite his suspicions, reservations, and inhibitions, failed to take the steps that would have produced an agreement." Rabinovich falls back on the pessimistic interpretation because, no matter how positive his outlook, this makes better sense. He is a sophisticated historian and diplomat; the Rabin-Peres governments he worked for had an ambitious vision of conflict resolution. Unfortunately, their efforts were premised on hopes, not plans.