Shimon Peres and the genesis of the Oslo Accords

"A born unyielding optimist," Israel’s diplomat emeritus and key architect of the Oslo Accords always held fast to his faith in peace with the Palestinians.

Yitzak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat (photo credit: REUVEN CASTRO)
Yitzak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat
(photo credit: REUVEN CASTRO)
 ‘My greatest mistake is that my dreams were too small,” former president Shimon Peres told the audience at a TED talk in Tel Aviv last year.
“All experts are experts for the things that did happen. There are no experts for things that may happen. You should be the experts of things that may happen.
“Dream great. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hesitate,” he said.
More than two decades earlier, he similarly stated, “One is entitled to dream,” when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
The stroke he suffered this week brought Israel’s indefatigable diplomat emeritus to the headlines.
Good wishes and prayers poured in from around the globe for the 93-year-old who had shaken the hands of kings, popes and presidents.
At a time when Israeli diplomats are often condemned on the international stage, he has been lauded as the clear voice of peace for his persistent belief that a better future is possible between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians.
Among his most well-known achievements on that score are the 1993 Oslo Accords, which have defined the Israeli-Palestinian relationship for the last 23 years.
It was an agreement that launched a public and direct negotiations process with the Palestinians.
It acted as an interim agreement, which created a Palestinian government, known as the Palestinian Authority. Under the accords, the West Bank was divided into three sections, Areas A, B and C, and the PA was given autonomy over 40% of the West Bank, known as A and B.
The agreement also provided a framework for Israelis and Palestinians to interact around issues of governance when it came to the West Bank.
Although the talks never led to a two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians still operate within many of the guidelines of the agreement.
Among the most vivid memories of the start of the Oslo Accords is the famous handshake on the White House lawn between then-US president Bill Clinton, Arafat and Rabin.
It took place on September 13, the same date, on which 23 years later, on Tuesday of this week, Peres was hospitalized.
Although Rabin and Arafat were in the forefront of the photo, Peres played a pivotal role and is credited with being one of the architects of the agreement.
The actual text was signed by him and current PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
It was a moment of hope that never materialized and whose critics blame for the two decades of terrorist attacks that followed.
In a speech in Davos in 2009, Peres recalled the angry Israelis who in the aftermath of the signing of the accords had taken to the streets with chants against him and Rabin of “traitor” and “killer.”
Former Likud foreign minister Moshe Arens, who was an opponent of Oslo from the start, said that the agreement would not have happened without Peres.
“If it had brought peace to the country, then I would have told you that I was wrong and that it turned out to be a wonderful agreement,” he said.
But it did not bring peace, Arens added. Among its mistakes, he said, was that it allowed for the return of the “arch terrorist” Arafat and legitimized a terrorist organization – the Palestine Liberation Organization – as the representative of the Palestinian people.
The Oslo Accords elevated the PLO and made it a negotiating partner rather than allowing for a more homegrown local leadership to lead the charge for peace, Arens said.
“We brought these terrorists into the area and we foisted them onto the Palestinian population and the result we all know,” Arens said.
Former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin expressed frustration that the Right has been silent about Peres. He said it was because the Right had not provided enough of an alternative to Oslo.
“It’s as if Peres has immunity from criticism," Feiglin said. “Why it is illegitimate to say anything? It’s because the Right has never provided a different narrative. So it doesn’t matter how much damage Oslo caused, how much blood was spilled, how much money was wasted. That is why there is blind tribute to the man, no matter what he did. He is controversial, but the Right hasn't dared to criticize. We see the weakness of the Right. Peres is such an icon, and the Right hasn't come up with an alternative to his philosophy.”
Former Meretz Party head Yossi Beilin, who was deputy foreign minister in Rabin’s government and was also instrumental in crafting the Oslo Agreement, said the problem was not the agreement but the fact that it was not immediately transformed into a permanent one.
“I thought it would be conducive to a permanent agreement,” he said.
He recalled the first moment he had gone to Peres’s office after Rabin became prime minister in 1992, to report on the unofficial low-level talks that were taking place with the Palestinians. At the time Peres was the foreign minister. “If he had told me I am not going to do anything about it, that would have been the end. But he understood the importance of our meetings with the PLO and was committed enough to go to Rabin.”
Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote a biography of Peres that was published in 2007, said that Rabin had never intended to involve Peres in any peace efforts with the Palestinians. Undeterred, Peres moved forward in small steps, until he had a major role.
“One day he [Peres] came to Rabin and said there are two professors [Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak] who say they are in contact with low-grade PLO leaders and they want to negotiate with them in Norway. Rabin said yes, and that is how it started. He kept Rabin in the picture all the time,” Bar-Zohar said.
Rabin did not believe that anything would come of the talks, Bar-Zohar said. A few days before the accord was to be signed, he instructed Peres’s people to halt the negotiations because he feared that “Arafat was trying to cheat Israel,” Bar-Zohar said.
Peres brought him back on track, by focusing on the small details of what needed to happen in a way that allowed the process to move forward.
Neither Peres nor Rabin, however, realized that by signing the agreement with Arafat they were actually, in a de facto way, already agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state, Bar-Zohar said.
According to his calculation, the watershed moment in the peace process did not happen on the White House Lawn but six years earlier, in 1987, when Peres was foreign minister under prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Peres had meet secretly in London with then-Jordanian King Hussein and they agreed to start direct talks for the first time. Hussein knew very well, as he told the American media, that he would not get back all of the West Bank and Jerusalem, Bar-Zohar said.
Ecstatic Peres sent Beilin, then Foreign Ministry director-general, to intercept then-US secretary of state George Shultz, who was in Finland on his way to Moscow, to update him on the sudden breakthrough.
“Beilin arrived at midnight and woke up Shultz’s assistant to show him the agreement,” Bar-Zohar said.
Shultz was so supportive he called it “a touchdown” and was ready to start shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Amman, Bar-Zohar said.
But Shamir sabotaged the efforts by sending Arens to Washington to sway Shultz not to support the initiative, Bar-Zohar said.
Until then, any agreements with regard to the territories Israel acquired in the Six Day War had been done with Jordan.
Soon after the London agreement failed and Peres did not quit the government in protest, Hussein resigned from the process of negotiating with Israel about the West Bank. It was a move that gave Peres and then Rabin no choice but to deal directly with the Palestinians themselves, Bar-Zohar said.
“Until today, Peres fiercely defends the Oslo agreements and his thesis that there is a new Middle East,” Bar-Zohar said.
The former president holds to this belief in spite of Islamic State, the war in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Bar-Zohar said. He is certain that the young people in the Middle East are going to change everything, the author added.
That same optimism is what propelled him into the peace talks with the Palestinians, and it is an optimism that still pushes him forward today, Bar-Zohar said.
“Shimon Peres is a born unyielding optimist,” Bar-Zohar said.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.