My Word: Thoughts on Oslo and peace processes

Peace is not possible when accompanied by constant demonization and delegitimization of Israel.

YITZHAK RABIN, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres in the movie ‘The Oslo Diaries,’ about the attempt to bring peace to the Middle East through the Oslo Accords during the 1990s. (photo credit: SAAR YAACOV)
YITZHAK RABIN, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres in the movie ‘The Oslo Diaries,’ about the attempt to bring peace to the Middle East through the Oslo Accords during the 1990s.
(photo credit: SAAR YAACOV)
I got my first close look at what was wrong with the Oslo Accords very early on, before the proverbial ink could dry on the document then known as the Declaration of Principles. The main celebration took place on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, when then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and PLO negotiator Mahmoud Abbas signed Oslo I in the presence of US president Bill Clinton, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat.
For me the defining event took place on September 10, in a much less festive ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. It was my first glimpse at what would develop into the anti-normalization movement.
That Clinton managed to cajole Rabin and Arafat into shaking hands in Washington is well-documented. My strongest memory from the Jerusalem signing ceremony, however, is the absence of Palestinians. Journalists far outnumbered the “celebrants,” who consisted of a few Israeli officials and the four Norwegians who put the “Oslo” into the accords’ name. Norwegian foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst, his diplomat wife Marianne Heiberg and another husband-and-wife Norwegian Foreign Ministry team – Terje Rod and Mona Juul Larsen – could not hide their satisfaction. But Arafat’s absence made it clear that he was no Anwar Sadat, traveling to Jerusalem to put an end to hostilities. As I wrote at the time, the ceremony in which Rabin signed the document of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO “was like a wedding without a bride.”
Sitting at an unadorned table in the plain office, Peres, his Norwegian counterpart and Rabin managed to draw the ceremony out for barely 20 minutes, complimenting each other and their staff, and cautiously talking about “a new age of hope.”
Rabin did not look comfortable. This was not his idea. He tried to put on a bit of a show of reading the letter brought by Holst from Arafat in Tunis. But Rabin obviously realized that an empowered Arafat himself would soon land in the region after a period of failing power in exile in Tunisia.
Finally, a reluctant-looking Rabin put his name to the document. Journalists noted that the prime minister used a plain Pilot pen, which seemed to symbolize the lack of a sense of occasion. The show was reserved for the White House affair a few days later, by which time the first Oslo-related Palestinian terror attacks were taking place.
I was not happy about being required to give up a Friday morning to report on the event, although I was aware that – for better or probably for worse – this was a historic moment that needed to be recorded. From the start I had doubts about an agreement with arch-terrorist Arafat. That the accords were at the time known as “Jericho and Gaza First” did nothing to calm my fears. I was concerned that the Golan Heights and Jerusalem would soon have “second” and “third” attached to their names. My concerns grew when the Norwegian officials spoke about the need to continue to break the consensus.
In addition, I have never seen how Gaza and the West Bank can be safely combined as one entity, with tiny Israel in the middle. But “Jericho and Gaza First” could not bring about a reconciliation between the residents of the West Bank and those of Gaza, something even more evident since the Hamas overthrow of Fatah there in 2007.
Despite the natural tendency to mark significant anniversaries such as 25 years, there is today less reason than ever to celebrate, and in many ways relations and the security situation have worsened over the intervening years. As I noted in my column last week, Oslo architect Dr. Yair Hirschfield and I both found ourselves under attack at a UN-sponsored seminar on “The Question of Palestine” in Moscow at the beginning of the month and we both agreed that the two main reasons the Oslo Accords failed were the anti-normalization movement and terrorism.
Former deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin, the main force behind Oslo, remains unrepentant about the agreement that literally blew up in our faces. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman, he said: “It’s very difficult to call Oslo a failure. The failure is that Oslo was not implemented.”
Strangely, it was accompanying Beilin on an official visit that brought home to me one of the biggest faults of Oslo. It irrevocably killed the Madrid peace process started by Yitzhak Shamir, which combined the Jordanian and Palestinian tracks. In April 1994, using an Israeli passport, I traveled with a delegation led by Beilin to the Sultanate of Oman. The trip was under the auspices of the multilateral talks on water established by the 1991 Madrid Conference, and the Palestinians participated as part of the Jordanian team.
The nature of the multilateral talks was probably positively influenced by the atmosphere immediately following Oslo, but the DOP possibly set back relations with Jordan more than it aided them. The Hashemite Kingdom felt directly threatened by the secret negotiations and recognition of the Palestinians.
Peace with Jordan, which I also covered in 1994, came about despite Oslo, not because of it. And it was a very different process. I remember attending the opening of the first official talks which took place in a large air-conditioned tent at Ein Avrona in the Arava desert. It took a minute for me to realize I could simply walk around the conference table to interview the Jordanian officials sitting across from the Israeli team, and it took the Jordanians only a little longer to accept that they could be seen talking to an Israeli journalist, although not all wanted to be identified in print.
That Israel managed to reach peace agreements with both Egypt and Jordan (albeit cold ones) shows that peace is possible as far as Israel is concerned when there is a partner truly willing to accept the existence of the Jewish state.
After Oslo II was signed in 1995, I mentioned to Beilin that I knew families in Gush Etzion who were sounding out friends and relatives in Jerusalem about possible refuge should they be expelled from their homes. Beilin, looking surprised, dismissed their fears and stressed that there was no intention to evacuate the Etzion bloc.
I was not reassured. If the Jewish residents thought they could be ousted from their homes, the Palestinian leadership very likely had a similar impression. By then I had witnessed in the 1993 Declaration of Principles, the follow-up 1994 Cairo Agreement, and Oslo II the often haphazard way that maps were drawn up.
Oslo supporters maintain that it was Rabin’s assassination in November 1995 that killed the peace process. Beilin still cites this as a major factor. But Rabin’s horrendous murder did not bring Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Netanyahu was elected after Peres’s dream of a “new Middle East” turned into a nightmare strewn with the body parts of the “victims of peace.” If anything, implementing Oslo-dictated pullbacks despite the terror attacks cost Netanyahu his first term in office.
We will never know whether Rabin at some point would have said “enough is enough,” nor can we say whether Ariel Sharon might later have determined the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was a failure following the increased number of rocket attacks launched from there on Israel.
One thing is certain: Peace is not possible when accompanied by constant demonization and delegitimization of Israel. Palestinian incitement is not a nuisance, it’s a weapon and it costs lives. Staunch Israel advocate Ari Fuld stabbed to death by a 17-year-old Palestinian terrorist this week is neither “a victim of peace” nor “a victim of the lack of a peace process.” He is the victim of hatred and incitement.
Whatever the next 25 years bring, it is evident that treaties accompanied by a campaign of terror are not worthy of the title “peace accords.”
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