At the end of August 1993, Shimon Shiffer, then the diplomatic correspondent of Yedioth Ahronoth, bushwhacked his journalist rivals. He reported on Shimon Peres’ contacts with PLO leaders on the impending Oslo Accords – first uncovered in July by Haaretz’s Yerach Tal, but largely ignored. A day later, Shiffer provided details of their contents. As one of his despondent victims, working for Haaretz then as well, I immediately assaulted Peres’ bureau with a campaign comprised of pleas, threats and dire predictions about my personal and professional future, in an effort to receive commensurate compensation.
After a few days of intense harassment, which included a virtual sit-down strike in front of the door to Peres’ office, my efforts were rewarded. I was the first to publish that in addition to the Oslo agreement itself, Israel and the PLO would exchange separate letters of mutual recognition.
The public reverberations of my consolation scoop were minimal, I’m sorry to say. The media and the public were already overwrought about the agreements themselves and totally engrossed with the preparations for the signing ceremony at the White House on September 13. My main source of succor was my late friend and mentor David Landau, then editor of Haaretz’s English edition, who told me that the report on the mutual recognition was more important to history than the actual signing of the first Oslo agreement. I believed then that he was simply trying to relieve my distress, but with the benefit of hindsight I suspect today that his diagnosis was uncannily accurate.
The Oslo agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on September 13 pointed the way to a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but lacked details about its actual address. Its title reflected its limited nature: “Declaration of Principles on Self-Government Arrangements.” The wording of the agreement allowed both sides to continue living with their delusion that the final settlement would more than meet their most basic demands and imperatives. Shimon Peres, and not just Yitzhak Rabin, was still far from accepting the idea of an independent Palestinian state: In off-the-record briefings, Peres clung to an upgraded version of the “functional autonomy” proposal that he had concocted with Moshe Dayan, which entailed a semi-independent autonomy on the West Bank, linked to Jordan.
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Yossi Beilin, arguably the chief architect of the Oslo process, nonetheless worried that the amorphous final settlement and lack of willingness to tackle it head on were a fatal mistake: In retrospect, he too comes out as prescient.
In terms of its practical, doable clauses, the first Oslo agreement did not stray from previous Israeli proposals, including Menachem Begin’s autonomy proposals to Anwar Sadat in late 1977 and Yitzhak Shamir’s 1989 peace initiative, which included elections for a new leadership in the territories that would replace the PLO. Like Oslo, these autonomy offers envisaged a permanent solution in the distant future, which its proponents assumed – or would ensure – could never arrive.
The main stumbling block to even these modest proposals, which plagued the negotiations in Washington with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, was Israel’s refusal to talk to so-called “PLO-Tunis,” on the one hand, and the Palestinian negotiators’ insistence on getting their marching orders from Arafat alone, on the other. The result was a dead end, which was perfectly fine as far as the leaders of the Israeli right were concerned.
The Israeli-PLO mutual recognition not only cut this Gordian knot, it constituted a bold and daring reversal in the Israeli approach to the Palestinian issue, above and beyond the actual details of the Oslo deal. The recognition brought Israel, ostensibly, past a point of no return. It embodied a revolution in the Israeli attitude towards the Palestinian problem as a whole. It marked the final burial of the Israeli efforts to detach the Palestinian residents in the territories from the PLO leadership abroad. The conflict was no longer restricted to the future of Judea, Samaria and Gaza and their inhabitants but now encompassed the entire Palestinian people, including its refugee diaspora. After all, the trauma represented by the PLO was not focused on the “defeat” of 1967, known as the “Naksa,” but on the “catastrophe” of 1948, aka the “Nakba.” Mutual recognition implied an Israeli willingness to move the starting point of the time frame of the Palestinian problem back from 1967 to 1948 and to look at its roots, rather than its later manifestations.
The general direction was marked at the beginning of 1993, when the Rabin-led Knesset revoked the law that prohibited contacts with the PLO. Much of the credit for the shift rightly belongs to the late former air force commander, future president and then Labor Party minister Ezer Weizman, whose illicit contacts with PLO leaders led to his dismissal from the inner cabinet and the eventual dismantling of Shamir’s second national unity government in 1990. For people like Peres, Beilin and other proponents of Oslo, mutual recognition was an unavoidable prerequisite to achieving a breakthrough, the logic of which was eventually accepted, albeit kicking and screaming, by Rabin as well. The convenient excuse that had enabled the right to block peace moves, supposedly through no fault of its own, while constantly expanding Jewish settlements in the territories, was terminated.
Nevertheless, mutual recognition provided the right, already led by Benjamin Netanyahu, with valuable talking points. The attitude of Israeli public opinion towards negotiations with the PLO had softened in the wake of Weizman’s activities, the Reagan administration’s 1988 recognition of the PLO and the dramatic September 13 handshake between Rabin and Arafat at the podium on the White House lawn, but it was still taken aback by Arafat’s triumphant first visit to Gaza in July 1994. For many Israelis, it seemed like a confirmation of the Palestinian right of return.
Rabin’s agreement to recognize the PLO and allow its leaders to return enabled Netanyahu to hold Rabin personally responsible for the wave of suicide terror attacks that followed Baruch Goldstein’s murderous assault on Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in February 1994. The fact that most of these attacks were carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which paid no heed to Arafat’s orders, didn’t curb the inflamed hysterics fanned by Netanyahu, which eventually led to Rabin’s assassination and his own ascent to power in 1996.
The recognition of the PLO, and the need to provide employment to its officials, also paved the way to their appointment as the heads of the newly-established Palestinian security organizations, including ex-Tunis dwellers such as Tawfik Tirawi, Amin el-Hindi, Mohammed Dahlan and the currently FIFA-censured chief of Palestinian soccer, Jibril Rajoub. The imported personnel made it easier for Netanyahu and Co. to depict the Palestinian police as a reconstituted terrorist arm of the PLO, even though it later emerged that it was more effective as the policing arm of the Israeli army in the occupied territories. The success of the Palestinian security apparatus enables the leaders of the Israeli right to convince the public that maintaining the status quo is preferable to all other available options. It underpins the Israeli fantasy that it can have its cake and eat it, that it can maintain a regime of military occupation without the need for its soldiers to personally enforce it.
Today, the Palestinian police force is one of the last surviving remnants of the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu and his Likud have long abandoned any intention of carrying out the so-called “further redeployments,” a euphemism for withdrawals, specified in the second Oslo agreement signed in September 1995 and seemingly accepted by Netanyahu in the 1998 Wye River agreement. Their commitment to achieving a permanent settlement, if at all mentioned, is nothing more than a joke.
In fact, the Israeli position under Netanyahu has reverted to the autonomy blueprints offered by Begin and Shamir, which are meant to change the status of Palestinians in the West Bank but not of the lands on which they live. Netanyahu, who has reneged on the ostensible support for a two-state solution that he voiced in his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, presents a softer version of the plan, elements of which are sure to be included in Donald Trump’s “ultimate” peace plan: It envisages a neutered Palestinian statelet that is still controlled by the Israeli army. Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennet outlines a more honest version of the Israeli designs: The establishment of separate metropolitan autonomies in the cities already controlled by the Palestinian Authority, much like the Bantustans established by white South Africa in order to maintain its apartheid regime.
Netanyahu, however, is not resting on his laurels. After demolishing the Oslo agreements, he is now working to deplete the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and its role as the representative of the Palestinian people as a whole. He ignores Mahmoud Abbas, refusing to make even a minimal effort to earn his trust. He is willing to contemplate de facto recognition of Hamas rule in Gaza, a move that would undermine the Palestinian Authority’s claim, as heir and arm of the PLO, to represent the Palestinian as a whole; His aides have even been heard to whisper in Trump officials’ ears about the desirability of making the separation permanent by linking the future of Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank’s, in one form or another, to Jordan. With the active assistance of the Trump administration, Netanyahu is also endeavoring to eradicate the very concept of a Palestinian diaspora and its refugees, a move that would subvert the very raison d’etre for the PLO’s existence in the first place.
So the anniversary of the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and the Oslo Accords, this week a quarter of a century ago, is actually a day of mourning, a Jewish yahrzeit, for their supporters. It is a day of celebration that marks the victory of Oslo’s opponents, who are happy to mock the failure of their naïve political rivals. “All of the Oslo Accords are null and void,” Netanyahu declared 15 years ago, and if he wasn’t right then, he’s certainly made sure that his statement is accurate today.
Were it not for the great benefits that the Israeli right derives from the Palestinian security forces, Netanyahu would have issued a formal death certificate for Oslo, mutual recognition and all that jazz, which created a fleeting illusion that what Arafat described as “a peace of the braves” was entirely possible. The illusion started to dissipate shortly after the agreement was signed and the first waves of terror were launched. It was liquidated along with Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995. And it continues to haunt Israelis, like the walking dead, whose killers refuse to give it the dishonorable burial it so richly deserves.