An Alternative History: How Shimon Peres Made Peace by Walking Away From Oslo

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Rabin, Peres and Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Sweden, 1994.
Rabin, Peres and Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Sweden, 1994.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO
Israel Harel

About a month after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, his stand-in Shimon Peres stunned the cabinet: That filthy murderer, Yigal Amir, was indeed the one who pulled the trigger, but the real killer – and here he hesitated briefly – was Yasser Arafat.

There was an uproar around the cabinet table. Peres calmed his ministers down and explained: If it weren’t for the murdered and wounded Israelis, the Oslo process could have been the key to an agreement with the Palestinians. At the beginning, most of the nation supported us and was prepared for painful concessions. But Arafat – as those of you who were in on the secret know well – was behind many of the acts of terror.

Oslo Accords - 25 years on

As Peres told his ministers, because of the bloody attacks, let’s admit it, we lost the people’s support. If we don’t shake ourselves free of Arafat and his crowd, even at this late stage, we’ll lose the next election to Benjamin Netanyahu. True, Yitzhak kept giving the process another chance, despite the terrorism – and I confess, in no small way through my influence.

Peres added: We have to confess something else: The media, which was captivated by our rhetoric that “we have to keep Oslo going as if there were no terrorism,” prevented us from sobering up in real time and admitting the truth. The time has come to analyze, honestly and fearlessly, how we deceived ourselves. Only then can we find the way to win back the people’s trust. Only when we free ourselves of the lies we told the nation and ourselves can we go back – this time without any self-deception – to achieving our highest aim: peace.

Peres’ confessions were leaked, some say by Peres himself. The media, which continued its blind support of Oslo even after the assassination, found itself in a particularly embarrassing position. After all, just a short time before, it had brought out celebratory, almost messianic, editions proclaiming the end of a century of war and the beginning of millennia of peace. It was no wonder that after Peres’ confessions, the media found itself in a state of cognitive dissonance, and found it hard, even more than the ministers, to digest this sharp, unbelievable about-face by the man they trusted as he strode (some say led them) along his yellow-brick road.

Thousands of Oslo opponents, most of them settlers, came to the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin in the square that now bore his name. Despite the hard feelings, and along with the great disappointment of those who embraced the slogan of Oslo at any cost, what Peres said created an atmosphere of reconciliation. The head of the Yesha Council of settlers was invited to sit on the main podium and even deliver a speech.

Face to face with Clinton

The energetic Peres didn’t waste a moment. “To eradicate terror” – that was the new style of speech – he appointed Ehud Barak defense minister; the military chief of staff at the time was Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. He believed that this team, which had commanded the successful Operation Spring of Youth in Lebanon in 1973, would put an end to Palestinian terror.

Once he felt that he had brought the situation under control, Peres flew to Washington. His message to President Bill Clinton was that Israel remained committed to peace, but that it sought a new path and new partners. Clinton, who still felt committed to the process he had witnessed with his signature, nevertheless understood that if Peres, the “father” of Oslo, abandoned him, there was no hope for the process. When Peres elaborated (“for your ears only, Mr. President”) that the alternative he was planning was a return to the Jordanian option, the president agreed to give it his discreet support.

On his return, Peres assembled a team of like-minded people to translate the basic idea into practical terms. Conspicuous by their absence from the team were those who had initiated and led the Oslo process, among them Yossi Beilin and Uri Savir – “alchemists” they called them now. The Oslo academics, who felt they had already touched the hem of the messiah’s robe, had to return to academia.

The new plan was based, in fact, on the 1987 understandings between Peres himself and King Hussein: the “London Agreement,” which never came to fruition because of the opposition of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The understandings were predicated on Jordan’s return to most of the territory it had lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, but in the mid-’90s, with the Jewish settler population passing 130,000, Peres’ team offered Hussein a return to the large Palestinian urban centers – Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah and their surrounding areas – while the Jewish settlements would be annexed by Israel.

Arafat in Gaza, 1995.Credit: AP

Peres held secret talks with Hussein and outlined the essentials of the plan, but the king rejected them out of hand. What you’re asking me to do, he said, is to fight on your behalf in the centers of terrorism, the crowded cities. No, Peres responded, we will neutralize Arafat, the one who tried to depose you in 1970, and we will suppress the terror before you re-enter the cities. The king was unmoved. Peres looked him in the eye and said softly: I ask to speak with Your Majesty in private.

When the aides of both sides left the room, Peres continued: Let’s speak openly. Your kingdom relies to a great extent on our security forces. You, of course, want the Kingdom of Jordan to endure, and have the crown pass on to your son, and from him to his son. We hold the key, at least in the foreseeable future. Our interest is that you take over the West Bank cities, establish strong control there, and rid us of that problem. When we control most of the land, but not most of the population, we will solve most of our problems, both internal and external. I believe that it’s a fair deal of interests.

Likud propaganda

The revival of the Jordanian option stirred great interest both in Israel and abroad. Many Israelis supported it, including some settler leaders. In the West Bank there were large and influential families that supported the plan but had concealed their desire to be ruled again by Jordan out of fear of Arafat and Hamas. Now, with Arafat and his cronies off the stage, a large contingent of notables presented themselves at the royal palace and asked the king to return to the West Bank.

The Likud propaganda for the 1996 elections targeted the old Peres, the Peres of Oslo, the “victims of peace” and the hopeless idea of a “new Middle East.” This propaganda, valid per se, no longer caught on. Israelis felt an easing of the security situation once the Barak and Lipkin-Shahak duo had broken the back of terrorism, and they were persuaded that Peres was a changed man. His talks with Hussein held out hope that this time a longer period of quiet was within reach. Also, Israelis loved Hussein.

Peres and Ehud Barak in 1986.Credit: אוסף פרטי שמעון פ�

The national elections of May 29, 1996, were the first in which there was a direct ballot for the prime minister. Peres was elected with 57 percent of the vote. Netanyahu’s consolation was that his Likud party won 43 Knesset seats to the Labor Party’s 41. Labor was able to cobble together a stable coalition with ultra-Orthodox party Shas, left-wing Meretz, United Torah Judaism and the Third Way party, which was led by defectors from Labor.

An agreement with Jordan on the partition of the West Bank was never signed. Neither side really wanted it. Hussein feared being branded a traitor if he formally gave up on large parts of the West Bank. Israel, ideologically, couldn’t sign away forever parts of the homeland over which Hussein had begun to rule with Israel’s consent.

Hussein’s people slowly began to deploy over a mere one-fifth of the area of the West Bank, but an area that was home to 95 percent of the population. Israel, meanwhile, gave full citizenship rights to the Arabs who remained in areas that it intended to keep. To a great extent the granting of citizenship healed the breach within Israel. Terrorism did not stop entirely, but it was substantially reduced. The flourishing economy in the West Bank, and the sense that Israel and Jordan were very serious about the cooperation between them, reduced support for terror.

Peres, who now understood that important achievements in foreign policy and security depended first on his domestic policy, invested much of his energy in healing the rifts that the Oslo process had caused. The result was that his coalition lived out its full four years, that in the 2000 elections, at age 77, he was elected with a solid 62 percent of the vote, and in 2004 with 64 percent. In 2008, at age 85, with Israel at the height of his power, he stepped down, with a long list of achievements, and beloved by most of his compatriots.

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