What Israelis Weren't Told About the Alternatives to the Oslo Accords

What if almost everything we know about the lead-up to the signing of the Oslo accords is wrong? What if PM Rabin never became ‘disillusioned’ about the Washington talks that were then underway? A behind-the-scenes look at the alternatives to the Oslo track.

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The signing of the Oslo Accords.
The signing of the Oslo Accords.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

Not long ago, I spoke with a scholar from the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs about the possibility of visiting the society’s library, in Jerusalem. When I told my interlocutor that the reason for the visit was that I wanted to write about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that took place between 1991 and 1993, his response was, “So much has been written about that, what is there to add?”

Indeed, there is no shortage of research literature about the declaration of principles known as the “Oslo Accords,” which was signed at the White House on September 13, 1993. However, as is often the case with historical writing, which refurbishes and shapes memory, the standard version is different from, if not completely at odds with, the actual course of events.

The Israeli public is not being told what the alternatives to Oslo were.

In an article published in Hebrew in 2004 (in a collection of articles about the Israel-Jordan peace treaty), Elyakim Rubinstein, now the deputy president of the Supreme Court, who headed the Israeli delegation to the Washington talks in that period, wrote, “Neither the Madrid Conference (1991), nor the Washington talks that followed it, received its due credit, because the Oslo accord riveted attention with regard to the Palestinian issue.” Although Rubinstein made this observation more than a decade ago, the trend in the flood of academic and other literature on the subject remains constant. In short, we are not getting the whole story. To put it another way: The Israeli public is not being told what the alternatives to Oslo were.

Much has been written about the Israeli politics and diplomacy that led to the Oslo Accords. However, almost all the recent literature on the topic is based on books by individuals who were involved in the Oslo track and were close to the foreign minister at the time, Shimon Peres.

The conventional view today, which is largely based on those works, holds that in 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin “was persuaded” to fall into step with the Oslo process because he had become “disillusioned” about the talks that were then underway in Washington with a Palestinian delegation from the territories, and had come to believe that they would lead nowhere. In this version of events, Rabin later realized his historic mistake and grasped that a peace agreement must be signed with the “external PLO” (the Tunis-based leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat) and not – as the prime minister originally thought – with the “internal PLO” (the leadership in the territories, headed by figures such as Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi).

A photo from May 12, 1992 of Ashrawi, left, and Husseini, leaders of the 'internal PLO,' from the territories.Credit: AFP

To recap quickly: In 1991, following the first Gulf War, in which the PLO supported the losing side, Iraq, a peace conference was convened in Madrid under the auspices of the United States and the Soviet Union. The battered and bankrupt PLO was not invited. King Hussein of Jordan agreed to integrate the Palestinians into the Jordanian delegation. This meant that Israel recognized in practice the representatives of the territories as a party to the discussions about regional peace – but without any direct connection to the PLO and its exiled leadership in Tunis, and in luxury hotels in France. By the time of the Israeli general election in June 1992, in which the Labor Party under Rabin defeated Likud, five rounds of talks had been held in Washington. After taking office, Rabin continued to adhere to the principle that Israel would hold talks only with “internal PLO” – not with “external PLO-Tunis.”

Another six rounds of talks were held in Washington during the period of the Rabin government. At the same time, and without the knowledge of the negotiators in the American capital, the “Oslo track” was launched. The story goes that Rabin, understanding that the Washington talks were going nowhere, and having been apprised of the developments in Oslo, gave his agreement to the continuation of the dialogue in the Norwegian capital, which culminated in the festive ceremony in Washington.

Rabin’s letter

So entrenched is the myth of Rabin’s “disillusionment” today – accompanied by appreciation for the fact that “Mr. Security” had changed his mind – that there seems to be an assumption that it doesn’t need to be backed up by evidence. In fact, the evidence disputes much of this standard version.

Peres, left, with Rabin. Credit: Nati Harnik / GPO

A highly illuminating document in this connection is a letter written by Rabin to Peres in early June 1993, just three months before the signing of the Oslo agreement. The letter, classified as “top secret” at the time, was first published in the newspaper Maariv on September 12, 2003, a decade after the White House ceremony, but has barely been referenced in research and seems not to have generated new questions among scholars.

Rabin wrote: “Further to our conversation of Sunday, June 6, 1993, on the subject, I would like to repeat the main points I mentioned. In the present situation, the contacts known as the ‘Oslo contacts’ constitute a danger to the continuation of the peace negotiations [ellipsis in original] To begin with, they afford the Tunis group an opportunity to bypass the talks in Washington, and they weaken the positive element among [the Palestinians, namely,] the residents of the territories who are included in the Palestinian delegation. The Tunis group are the extremist element among the Palestinians who want the peace process, and they are preventing the more moderate elements from advancing in the negotiations with us.

“This was seen clearly in the ninth (the latest) round of the negotiations [in Washington]. It cannot be ruled out that the Tunis group’s intention is to torpedo every chance of achieving substantive negotiations in Washington and to compel us to talk only to them, in which case the peace processes with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan would be jeopardized [ellipsis in original] I request that the contacts be halted pending further clarification.”

Three issues of principle arise from Rabin’s letter: (1) “PLO-Tunis” is an extremist group that is out to torpedo the Washington talks; (2) “internal PLO” is a potential partner for peace moves; and (3) the “Oslo contacts” pose a threat to the ongoing negotiations with the moderate Palestinians.

I will add a fourth point: Implicit in the letter are the vast differences of approach and policy between Rabin and Peres in regard to the desired peace and the identity of the Palestinian partner that might bring it about.

Internal vs. external

An accepted distinction in any discussion of Palestinian politics is between “internal” and “external” – that is, between the Palestinian leadership in the territories and the one in exile (voluntarily or by necessity), which until 1982 had its headquarters in Lebanon, and later in Tunisia. In his book “Facing Their Fate: The Development of Palestinian National Consciousness, 1967-2007” (in Hebrew), Prof. Matti Steinberg, a former senior adviser to the Shin Bet security service, explains that “the routine use of the terms ‘higher-ups’ or ‘leadership’ creates a monolithic impression, but the reality was far from that.” The difference between the two leadership groups was not geographic, but political; Steinberg describes two competitive power centers.

The veteran Arab affairs correspondent Pinhas Inbari noted in his 1994 book “With Broken Swords” (English version: “The Palestinians: Between Terrorism and Statehood,” 1996) that Arafat’s policy toward the Palestinian delegation in Washington was consistent and had one aim: to undercut the group and keep it from signing off on a goal that was articulated in discussions at the Madrid Conference (which led to a framework agreement that included a transition period and sought a self-ruling Palestinian administration headed by the leadership in the territories).

In the critical months of June to August 1993, PLO-Tunis did all it could to hamper the Palestinian delegation, knowing that an agreement emerging from the talks in Washington would weaken considerably the PLO’s jihadist wing and mean the end of its sources of financing. In contrast to the Palestinian delegation, Inbari explains, Arafat sought to preserve the “revolutionary” frame of mind among Palestinians by creating a situation similar to the one in Bosnia, at the time. In other words, PLO-Tunis would preserve its power by maintaining and spurring intra-Palestinian violence, with the main victims being the residents of the territories who wanted normalization and development.

As a result of the struggle between the two competing leaderships, the Palestinian delegation in Washington threatened on a number of occasions to leave, and also called openly for Arafat’s resignation. The dispute revolved around two main issues. PLO-Tunis wanted to focus on an agreement with Israel in “Gaza and Jericho,” based initially on an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, and agreed to desist from violence against Israel in those regions only. In contrast, “internal PLO” wanted an agreement to be focused on the entire West Bank, and demanded an end to all violence in order to regularize life both there and in the Gaza Strip.

Paper airplanes

Arafat preferred a “police state” over elections.

The Washington talks were scuttled not only by Arafat but also by ranking Israelis. Ofira Seliktar, a professor of political science at Gratz College, in Philadelphia, writes in her 2009 book “Doomed to Failure?,” that Avi Gil, one of Peres’ closest aides, used the reports on the talks in Washington that were sent to his boss to make paper airplanes. His behavior sheds light on the attitude of some of the officials in the Foreign Ministry under Shimon Peres toward the Washington track and vis-a-vis Rabin.

One of the most interesting books about the Oslo talks was published (in Arabic) in 1995 by Mamdouh Nofal, an important figure in Palestinian politics and a confidant of Arafat. Their closeness can be gauged by the fact that he was smuggled into Gaza in the trunk of the Palestinian leader’s car in June 1994. Nofal maintains that Arafat preferred a “police state” over elections, and also that “Peres’ people” advised Arafat on how to torpedo the Washington talks. He adds that Peres sent messages to Arafat cautioning him against yielding to the bait held out by the Americans. Nofal writes that the Tunis-based group worked hand-in-hand with Israeli figures to thwart the Palestinian delegation.

Peres, Rabin and Arafat in 1995.Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO

The publication of Nofal’s book touched off a minor storm. In an interview with Maariv, the author related that before the ninth round of the Washington talks, Peres sent messages to PLO-Tunis emphasizing it that was necessary “to make this round fail and not to buy the temptations that Rabin and the administration will offer.” At the time, Yossi Beilin, who was Peres’ deputy foreign minister and an architect of the Oslo process, termed Nofal’s remarks “tall tales.”

Even if Nofal’s account can be dismissed on various grounds, Uri Saguy, who was director of Military Intelligence during the Oslo period and published an autobiography in 1998 (in Hebrew), quotes Elyakim Rubinstein there as saying, “I do not want to judge, but I have an unpleasant feeling that the management of the negotiations with the Palestinians in Washington was inhibited and even torpedoed in large measure by elements on the Palestinian side and elements in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who believed that the talks should be conducted in a different format and by other people.” Though politically right-wing, Rubinstein continued to head the delegation during the period of the Rabin government. He told me in 2011 that in the summer of 1993, a plan that stood a genuine chance was on the table in Washington, but was scuttled by means of a leak.

Peres vs. Rabin

The relevant individuals and the archives in Israel are silent with regard to the disagreements over the two tracks, but Palestinian politicians and official documents are full of information. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in a 1995 book, “Through Secret Channels” (English), “In Israel a silent battle raged between the Washington and the Oslo groups.” The usual approach in the vast literature about the Oslo track is to point to the inbuilt advantage of quiet behind-the-scenes negotiations (as in Oslo) over the highly publicized Washington talks, the argument being that a secret, intimate atmosphere made it easier to address the issues. Still, the main difference between the two tracks revolved around one critical point, with which the region is still dealing (and for which it is paying the price): Will the sovereign in the Palestinian Authority ultimately consist of representatives from the territories or from the exiled group?

In his 1995 English-language memoir “Battling for Peace,” Peres wrote that two Palestinian leaderships, one in Tunisia and one in the territories, would not be able to cooperate to control the Gaza Strip because of a “split personality,” and therefore the only option was to allow the key PLO leaders to settle in Gaza and cope with the real problems of life. Peres thought it would be advantageous if the headquarters in Tunisia would cease to exist and Arafat would move to the Strip.

At the same time, and contrary to Peres, the leadership in the territories viewed Arafat as one of the factors that would contribute to the continuation of the conflict, not the solution. There is much evidence for this, notwithstanding Arafat’s centralist form of governing and the violent character of Palestinian politics.

Rabin’s moves after the agreement was signed indicate that he thought he could correct some of the Oslo damage.

In his 2002 book “Authority Granted” (Hebrew), the investigative Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman writes that a senior Palestinian figure in the territories came to the office of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories on the day after the signing of the accord in Washington, and said, “How could you sign an agreement with that corrupt crook? He’ll just screw you like he screwed everyone who made agreements with him in the past. Within five years, he will bring the blood, the corruption and the degeneracy to your doorstep and will along the way annihilate our hopes, too.” The senior figure made no secret of what Peres and his aides already thought: “It’s a mafia, a terror syndicate.”

Rabin’s letter to Peres shows that he had a realistic view of the policy being pursued by PLO-Tunis, which undermined the true interests of Israel and the Palestinians alike. Peres related that, apart from the two tracks already mentioned, there was a “third” track: an Israeli one. “There was full dialogue between Yitzhak Rabin and me,” Peres was quoted as saying by the newspaper Davar on September 24, 1993: “We spoke in private No one recorded the history, all the conversations were held without stenographers, without minutes, without witnesses. They were not conversations intended to leave an impression or traces.” Beilin was one of the few who made reference to Rabin’s letter (in his book, “Touching Peace,” 1999, English), when he noted that he had no answer to the question of why Rabin changed his mind later that summer and no longer opposed the Oslo talks. It is, he wrote, “a question which I supposed will never now be answered.”

The Oslo Accords signing, September 13, 1993: From left, Rabin, Clinton and Arafat.Credit: AP

Did Rabin reverse his unequivocal approach after writing his letter in June 1993? No. The answer to the conundrum lies in the political forces arrayed between Peres and Rabin, and the latter’s fear of a putsch against him within Labor. There are several testimonies that affirm the existence of a struggle by Peres against Rabin in the party’s leadership at the time. According to one report, a large majority of Labor MKs attending a meeting said they backed talks with the “external PLO” (this was before the existence of the Oslo talks became known), and that when MK Yael Dayan called out, “Okay, friends, who’s coming to Tunis?” – she was received with cries of support,

The person who leaked the details of that meeting to the media added that Peres “was comfortable with that kind of talk. On the other hand, he was not in a position to say [out loud] what the others were saying.” Rabin found himself almost isolated in the party’s Knesset faction with his determined stance against PLO-Tunis, as the Hadashot newspaper reported on July 17, 1993. Rabin’s moves after the agreement was signed indicate that he thought he could correct some of the Oslo damage, and until his assassination, he worked hard to do that, after compartmentalizing Peres and senior Foreign Ministry officials.

The writer is a historian and author, most recently, of "The Struggle Over the Bomb" (Carmel Publishing House, in Hebrew), about the history of Israel's nuclear project. He can be reached at adam3raz@gmail.com.

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