Shimon Peres and Oslo: Addict or visionary?

Critics of the agreement say it was a mistake of which Peres simply could not let go.

Former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, then foreign minister Shimon Peres and then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (from L to R) show their shared Nobel Peace Prize awards to the audience in Oslo in this December 10, 1994 file photo (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, then foreign minister Shimon Peres and then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (from L to R) show their shared Nobel Peace Prize awards to the audience in Oslo in this December 10, 1994 file photo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Shimon Peres remained committed to Oslo until his last breath,” Yair Hirschfeld, whose secret contacts with Palestinian leader Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) paved the way for the negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo I Agreement, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
To be sure, Peres never voiced regret for Oslo even though it became a dirty word for many Israelis, conjuring up images of exploding buses and a second, more violent, intifada. As late as 2011, as president, he engaged in secret contacts in Amman with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, aimed at resolving issues left open by the Oslo Accords.
Palestinians react to the death of Peres blaming him for their suffering
For those who have forgotten, Oslo I (officially called the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements), which was accompanied by mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, established a Palestinian self-governing authority for a transitional period that was not to exceed five years, with final-status negotiations to be conducted beginning no later than the third year (1996) on Jerusalem, refugees settlements and other issues.
Critics of the agreement say it was a mistake of which Peres simply could not let go.
“The most negative part was to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians and to bring PLO leaders back to the territories,” said Zalman Shoval, a former MK for several parties, most recently the Likud, who was ambassador to Washington in 1990-1993 and 1998-2000. “Oslo made it impossible for Palestinians to develop an alternative leadership.”
Shoval said that it became obvious quite early that it had been a mistake. “This was evident soon after it was signed when buses began exploding. Putting an end to terrorism was clearly not achieved. This was quick and clear proof that part of the agreement didn’t work and still doesn’t.”
Peres clung to Oslo in subsequent years “because he was so identified with it. When you are so identified with an idea you don’t want to declare it dead,” Shoval said.
However, those who take a more positive view of the agreement, and of Peres’s politics, say his adherence was anything but misguided. Rather, they say, it reflected a determination to achieve peace.
Trying to cut a deal with Abbas as late as 2011 “reflects a long-standing Peres tendency,” said Galia Golan, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and a member of Meretz. “He spent all the time as president trying to have a breakthrough again. That’s the position he carved out for himself and that was him, that was how he saw himself and how he presented himself, as trying to reach an agreement.”
Hirschfeld, emeritus professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa, said that Peres’s motive from 1987, when he reached an agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein over the future of the West Bank, through the 2011 talks with Abbas was the same: to safeguard Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
“Peres was a Ben-Gurionist, and Ben-Gurion wrote in 1935 that we have to go for a partition of Eretz Yisrael,” Hirschfeld said.
“Peres was a strong supporter of the idea of partition to save the Jewish, democratic character of the state. The political structure was unclear but the concept of partition was very clear.”
Hirschfeld outlines three phases Peres passed through in his pursuit of a peace agreement: first, the accord with King Hussein, which was torpedoed by prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, something that in Hirschfeld’s view helped cause the first intifada, which in turn caused Hussein to cut Jordan’s ties with the West Bank. Then Peres backed efforts to reach understandings with the local Palestinian leadership, and only afterward did he back striking a deal with the exiled Palestinian leadership in Tunis. “He would have preferred an agreement with Jordan, but he adapted to reality,” Hirschfeld said.
Peres came to see Yasser Arafat’s moving from Tunis to the Gaza Strip as key to any agreement, Hirschfeld said. “He was someone who was fully aware of the interest of the other side and looked for the deal maker [idea] for the other side. In Oslo he provided the deal maker, that Arafat would come back to Gaza.”
Peres embraced a two-state solution as the means of resolving the conflict after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and stuck to it until his own death, Hirschfeld said.
“It was the only way to take care of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. Peres wanted a clear strategy for Israel to be sustainable and viable in the 21st century, and the only way to do it is to move to the two-state solution under controlled conditions, under conditions we negotiate,” he said.
But Peres made mistakes, said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, now the Institute for National Security Studies. “Not everything he touched turned to gold, he had successes and failures. Oslo looked to be a success for a while, he got the Nobel Prize, but ultimately it appears to be a failure. He remained committed to it because he saw the two-state solution as absolutely necessary, and because of his commitment he wasn’t prepared to stray and look at other possibilities – not that so many other possibilities presented themselves.
“Peres would probably say that Oslo could still succeed, but I think we’ve learned enough to know the concept was a failed one. It was difficult at the time to know and I agree that it was worth a try.”
Alpher puts the blame on the Palestinians for the failure of Oslo. “The concept that the PLO was ripe to enter into genuine two-state coexistence with a Zionist Jewish state has proven to be wrong by what we’ve learned of fundamental Palestinian views with regard to the Jewish people, the Jewish state, the insistence on the right of return. It took getting into deep negotiations on final status for us to understand that philosophically, historically, Islamically they were not and are not ready for genuine coexistence.”
Palestinians, however, counter that Peres and Israel were not serious about allowing Palestinian statehood. They point to continued Israeli settlement building as indicative of Israel’s real intention: undermining chances for a state and expanding the areas under Israeli control.
“Peres did Oslo in order to send a message to the international community that Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians,” said Hassan Khreisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “All he and Rabin wanted was to put the Palestinians in autonomy under their eyes, under the supervision of Israelis.”
Golan does not agree with those who dismiss Oslo. She says that even with all the subsequent failures, Peres’s agreement has made important contributions to the cause of an eventual peace, notably generating support among the publics on both sides for the idea of a two-state solution even if that doesn’t appear achievable to them now. “If the leaderships come with a peace agreement agreed by the two sides both populations will support it,” she said.
“Statistically this has been shown over and over [in surveys]. The majority still believes the two-state solution is the only solution.
“If and when there is a peace agreement one day, they will go back to Oslo and say this was the turning point because of mutual recognition,” she said.