Oslo Accord: Origins, goals, flaws of the Israel-Palestinian peace plan

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YAIR HIRSCHFELD: ‘We followed the teachings of David Ben-Gurion who knew that, in order to maintain the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel, the partition of the territory of British Mandatory Palestine is essential.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

By: SETH J. FRANTZMAN, TOVAH LAZAROFF  | Published On: September 15, 2023 07:50 | The Jerusalem Post

One of the architects of the Oslo Accords tells The Jerusalem Post about its origins, its aspirations, and its flaws

Dr. Yair Hirschfeld was one of the architects of the Oslo Process and has worked with every Israeli government since 1980, advising on Palestinian and Middle Eastern affairs.

He wrote his Ph.D. on Iranian Foreign Policy and taught Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa. Last week, he sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, what went into them, and what went wrong.

How did it all begin?

In 1978 Begin, Sadat, and Carter signed the Camp David Accords. They provided for the creation of a Palestinian interim Self Government and Permanent Status negotiations to be concluded within five years. For me, personally, it started in 1979-80, when I received, from the Austrian Chancellor Dr. Bruno Kreisky, a policy paper from King Hussein of Jordan.

The idea was then to get Palestinian support for the Jordanian option. Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin loved the paper and asked me to arrange meetings with Palestinian leaders for them. With Peres, I would meet the pro-Jordanian Palestinians, with Beilin the pro-PLO Palestinians, and with Naftali Blumenthal the business leaders. We succeeded in getting Palestinian support and prepared the way for the London Agreement, which Peres concluded with King Hussein of Jordan in April 1987. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said no. The US secretary of state Charles Schultz insisted Israel had to fulfill obligations made under the Camp David Accords. He started to speak to the PLO and in December 1988 created an ongoing US-PLO dialogue. It was Likud who got us to speak to the PLO.

What strategy did you pursue?

Our concept or basic strategy was that to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state there is a need to partition, and best to partition with Jordan in secure circumstances with international support. If this would not be possible, negotiations should be with the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. They wanted either to connect to Jordan or to have a state of their own beside Israel and would need to obtain Israel’s agreement. IN 1989, Beilin and I developed, together with Faisal el-Husseini, the first formula, which eventually, with changes, paved the way to Palestinian participation at the Madrid Conference in 1991. El-Husseini and his team would not move one centimeter without Arafat’s okay. In order to overcome that, Peres asked Rabin early in January 1993 for his agreement to suggest to Arafat that he return to Gaza. It would break the power of the PLO as an exile government, and make it necessary for them to negotiate how to move from Palestinian Self-Government to a Permanent Status Agreement creating a Palestinian national entity, beside Israel.

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US PRESIDENT Bill Clinton watches prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands after signing the Oslo I Accord, at the White House in Washington on September 13, 1993. (credit: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)

However, many Israelis were opposed. Didn’t you take this into consideration?

It all depends upon the basic strategic assumption. We followed the teachings of David Ben-Gurion who knew that in order to maintain the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel, the partition of the territory of British Mandatory Palestine is essential.

So the idea was to impose an agreement on the Israeli Right?

IN 1986 Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi, published a book called Fateful Decisions, arguing that the conflict with the Palestinians had a territorial, a national, and a religious dimension. In order to pre-empt a religious conflict we needed, as soon as possible, an agreement on the borders between both nations. It was a mistake. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies tend to be religious, and we cannot avoid addressing religious thinking and beliefs.

Were there other mistakes you made, or even were aware of at the time?

After 13 years of trial and error (1979-1992) and many thousands of discussions with Palestinian counterparts I wrote a study titled: “Israel the Palestinians and the Middle East: From Dependency to Interdependence”; having studied Iran under [former supreme leader of Iran] Ruhollah Khomeini – and [through] the works of Sayyid Qutb, (the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood movement) I assumed a long struggle with violence on the way had to be expected. And I was fully aware of the fault lines of the 1978 Camp David Accords. The Palestinians could not give Israel what we needed: security and normal relations with the Arab world. Accordingly, I argued that after concluding a Palestinian Self-Government Agreement it would be necessary to create a Middle East Security Organization (MESO) and a Middle East Community of Water, Energy, and Tourism (MECWET). Today I would say “Trade” instead of “Tourism.” And I tried to convince diplomats to change the existing paradigm. With no success.

So, is the process now what you were envisioning before?

Yes.

So you imagined a regional thing, so it is akin to what you said back then?

Absolutely. And I understood that in order to get there, we need to adopt the principle of gradualism.

When did you understand Oslo would grow wings and fly?

We began Track II negotiations in January 1993. I told Abu Ala’ [Ahmed Qurei, the second primer monster of the PA] that we needed to go through four phases. First, fact-finding, to understand if there were sufficient grounds for an understanding. Second, the Palestinians needed some indication to know that what we (Ron Pundak and I) said, on one hand did not obligate the Israeli government, but on the other hand, would be relevant. Third, in order to convince prime minister Rabin and foreign affairs minister Peres to come on board, the Palestinians had to take decisive steps to show they were willing to meet the basic demands of the Israeli leadership. Achieving this would lead to phase four: Breakthrough, when the officials, Uri Savir and Yoel Singer, would engage and negotiations would become official. Breakthrough was achieved at the end of April 1993. From then on Rabin controlled the negotiations; not Peres.

When was Rabin informed?

Early February 1993, when we knew there was sufficient common ground to work on.

When did you know that Rabin would give the okay for officials to come to Norway?

Rabin did not believe that I would be able to pull it off. However, he hoped the dialogue in Norway would make it possible to renew the negotiations in Washington between the two teams. You should remember that in December 1992 over 400 Hamas terrorists were exiled to Lebanon. The Palestinians immediately broke off negotiations in Washington and demanded their return as a precondition to renew the negotiations. We delivered. At the end of April 1993, the negotiations in Washington were renewed. From that moment on, Rabin was fully in charge, overseeing and directing every step.

How?

Yoel Singer, who was Rabin’s confidante, was the main negotiator.

When then, did you know that an agreement could be achieved?

On July 6, we thought we had an agreement. However, then the Palestinians came up with dozens of new demands. In response, the negotiations were broken off. However, Uri Savir maintained the dialogue with Abu Ala’, and he asked Abu Ala’ to prepare a new proposal.

So your role was done?

More or less. There were meetings in Stockholm and Peres spoke on the phone with Arafat, with the help of the Norwegian foreign affairs minister, Johan Jorgen Holst. There were negotiations in Stockholm and I wasn’t part of them. Yet, on August 23, we initialed the agreement for the Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Washington. Yoel Singer insisted we recognize the PLO and they recognize us. Peres was against it. I supported him. The legal logic was you needed to agree on mutual recognition first, and then permit the PLO to sign. This contradicted the political and strategic thinking of Peres [who wanted] to deal exclusively with the “inside” leadership and speak to Arafat not as the leader of the PLO, but as a leader who had come to Gaza.

Did you participate in the negotiations for the interim agreement, Oslo 2?

No, I actually was against it.

Did you think it would be permanent? Did the Camp David Accords provide for Permanent Status negotiations?

After signing the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, Yossi Beilin, Ron Pundak, and I  went to see Arafat, separately. And we started to work with Palestinian counterparts on a Permanent Status Agreement. In 1995, Sari Nusseibeh warned us and said it was dangerous to move too fast, it would create too much pressure on the Palestinians. In September, Arafat called, first Beilin and then me, again to tell us: “A Permanent Status Agreement and end of claims and conflict is not possible, don’t go for it.”

And I’m sorry we didn’t listen to his advice. One never should go for an unachievable utopia. For instance, when Abba Eban, in 1954, described peace in detail at the United Nations, it caused more damage than good. It creates unachievable expectations. In spite of the warnings, we concluded what became known as the Beilin-Abu Mazen understanding. It has been a disaster. It has put the goalposts too high. The international community believes it is doable and hence makes demands neither side can deliver. We need a continuing peace-building process, not “the solution.”  We should not expect the Palestinians to become Zionists. And we should not forget that hate has been building up for the last 100 years.

What else should have been done?

We – the team I lead, prepared for permanent status negotiations. When you negotiate you have to know who you are dealing with. And it was clear Arafat had the final say. I asked a Palestinian friend to explain to me Arafat’s strategic thinking. He said Arafat would always want to control money – and the various armed groups, and play one against the other, and always maintain two strategies: the first to go along with Israel seeking a doable path forward; and the second to maintain the option of violence. It was thus clear to me that negotiations would have to close the path to violence for Arafat, and put him on a trajectory along a peace-building strategy.

In order to do so, my team at ECF (the Economic Cooperation Foundation) together with outside experts prepared four major moves.

First, together with our Palestinian counterparts, we wrote a speech for Arafat demanding to “Move from the Logic of War to the Logic of Peace.” Arafat delivered the speech word-for-word in December 1998, in Stockholm.

Second, we negotiated a plan for Palestinian economic empowerment. The Israeli team was led by David Brodet, who had negotiated the Paris Agreement; and the Palestinian team was led by Maher el-Kurd, economic advisor to Arafat. They concluded and signed the Economic Permanent Status Agreement. (A document of over 60 pages).

Third, we prepared a trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian Security Understanding. The Israeli team was led by Gilad Sher.

Fourth, we prepared people-to-people activities. For the leadership to negotiate they needed popular legitimacy to commit to essential concessions. We had strong bilateral activities on health, on environment, on research, on art, and on education. Most important was cross-border cooperation between the Governorate of Jenin and the Israeli municipalities of Haifa, Gilboa, and Emek Hamayanot. We went into the Jenin refugee camp. I live in Ramat Yishai. My wife is an occupational therapist. So the therapists, kindergarten teachers, psychologists, and social workers from our area went to the refugee camp and worked with them on early childhood education.

Why did all of this fail?

Israel (including myself) elected a prime minister who knew everything better. His concept was intellectually brilliant, based on the “everything or nothing” approach. With the best intentions in mind, he did not understand Arafat, and seen from Arafat’s perspective, caused Arafat to re-adopt the strategy of violence against an Israeli peace government.

What would be the right direction?

We had these four prepared concepts on code of conduct, economic empowerment, security, and people-to-people. At the same time, at the government level, Otniel Schneller, a former head of the Yesha Settlement Council negotiated an understanding on civil and economic issues with Palestinian cabinet minister Jamil Tarifi, that provided the model of state-to-state relations. Too late, but still, Arafat asked to transfer 14% from Area C to A and give him the right to announce a state on 54% of the territory. Yet, we had a prime minister who knew everything better and got it wrong.

Who was that?

Ehud Barak. He has a brilliant mind but he has emotional issues. Barak’s idea was to get the best deal possible. Start by offering little to decrease expectations; then keep giving more until Arafat cannot say no. His idea was that everyone would be in favor and admire Israel for offering a very fair and generous deal to the Palestinians, leaving Arafat no possibility to say “No.” In case Arafat would do so, Barak prepared a fallback: unilateral Israeli action; a fence largely along the Green Line with the possibility for the Palestinians to return to negotiations later on.

He had done this in Lebanon?

Yes.

Back to Arafat. Do you think, there were constructive ideas that Arafat was willing to pursue?

There was Arafat “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Arafat “the good” suggested to move from the “Logic of War” to the “Logic of Peace”; we tested with him the possibility of getting Palestinian refugees from Lebanon to the United States and Canada. He supported the idea on two conditions: They would have to take more than 100,000 (of a total of 180,000) and it should be with as little as possible public knowledge. He wanted to become president even of a mini-state of Palestine. This opened up important options for Israel. Arafat “the bad” caused damage to his own people by undermining the effort at state-building; and Arafat “the ugly” was the terrorist.

When it all fell apart did you think you could put the genie back in?

No, I didn’t think it would be possible to put the genie back into the bottle. In 2000-2001 three or four major things happened. The security cooperation broke down; and so did the shared narrative of peacemaking. We, and most Israelis were, and are, convinced that the Palestinians started war against a peace government. They, the Palestinians were and are convinced Israel had cheated them with the settlements.

According to Beilin, did Israel cheat them on settlements?

Yes, the spirit of Oslo was to limit settlement expansion. We had 90,000 settlers in 1991 – and in 2000 we had 200,000. For us, we had a peace government.

What else made you think of the need to rethink the Oslo Process?

The 9/11 attack on the United States changed everything. It changed the strategic balance between Israel and the United States. From 1956 onwards and particularly from 1967 onwards, the rule of engagement was that Israel would receive arms from the US; diminish Russian influence in the area; and permit the United States to become the most important power in the Middle East throughout all the 1970s and 1980s. Now, after 9/11, the US has boots on the ground [in the Middle East].

Do you think it’s possible to get back on track for two states?

Today, the essential task is to maintain the prevailing “two nations reality.” Oslo is not totally dead, but the Abraham Accords are alive. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are starting to negotiate necessary understandings on how to promote regional cooperation and get back to peace negotiations.

Can this work?

It is an important path forward with many spoilers on the way. The basic idea is to allow Israel to strengthen its regional role as a constructive power contributing to stability, security, the struggle against poverty, unemployment; and water and food security and more.

Hence, what has to be done?

I believe the Israeli Government has to end what they call “the judicial reform”; intensify the political dialogue with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt and address the Palestinian issue; develop, with Saudi Arabia, a plan for building regional cooperation between the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Eastern Mediterranean which will serve not only Saudi interests, but will allow Egypt to develop Sinai, strengthen the Palestinian economy while building full cooperation with Israel along the Eastern Mediterranean coast between Alexandria and Ashdod; build an independent Palestinian infrastructure for water and energy, and allow the Arab states and the Palestinian diaspora to invest in trade promotion, agriculture, industry, and tourism, etc.

Do you think this is realistic?

Not with the present Israeli government. Unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu puts an end to the so-called “judicial reform,” and reaches an understanding, committing to a detailed plan, which will include turning at first Area B into Area A, and also encouraging Palestinian economic development in Area C, without moving settlements, but ending settlement expansion, I would recommend forming an alternative government under Netanyahu’s leadership with the parties of Gen. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, allowing Netanyahu to end his career like Churchill, by exercising magnanimity in victory. Otherwise, he will end up like Arafat, causing disaster to his own people. And we will need years to rebuild what is being destroyed.