On the Same Page, Ten Years On

The prime minister's map of 'settlement blocs' looks as if it was lifted straight out of Rabin's last speech in the Knesset, which he delivered a month before he was assassinated.

Thursday, October 5, 1995, was one of the stormiest days ever experienced in the plenum of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried to present the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ?(also called Oslo 2, which was signed a fews days earlier on September 28?), his words were drowned out by the loud cries of protest from rightist backbenchers. Likud MK Yehoshua Matza stood on his chair and waved toward the speaker's podium. His colleague, MK Abraham Hirchson, unfurled a black umbrella − an allusion to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and the infamous Munich Pact of September 29, 1938. Unable to complete the delivery of his speech, Rabin descended from the podium. Absolutely furious, he handed the text to the stenographer.

The hysteria in Israeli society, which culminated in Rabin's assassination a month later, pushed to the sidelines the contents of his most important speech on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It was the last one he ever delivered in the Knesset. Some pundits say it was the speech of his life.

Ten years later, Hirchson, who is now a cabinet minister and an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the evacuation of Jews from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, would find it difficult to distinguish between Sharon's ideology and the map of the interim agreement that Rabin tried to present to the Knesset plenum in the speech he was not allowed to finish.

Unlike Sharon, Rabin studiously avoided using the phrase "Palestinian state." Instead, he preferred to speak about a "Palestinian entity that would be less than a full-fledged state." Sharon's map of "settlement blocs," on the other hand, looks as if it was lifted straight out of Rabin's last speech in the Knesset. Rabin opened the speech with the statement, "First of all, a united Jerusalem, Israel's capital, that would include Ma'aleh Adumim, as well as Givat Ze'ev, under Israeli sovereignty." He then continued: "The security border for the defense of the State of Israel, in the broadest possible interpretation of that concept, would be established in the Jordan Valley." In the final segment of the speech, he spoke about "changes," such as the annexation of Gush Etzion ?(the Etzion Bloc of settlements?), Efrat, Betar and "other communities to the east of what was once the Green Line."

No uprooting of Jewish settlementsNo one knows what Rabin meant by the term "other communities." Was Ariel designated for annexation? How did he envisage the territorial link between Ma'aleh Adumim and the "security border for the defense of the State of Israel, in the broadest possible interpretation of that concept" that was supposed to be established in the Jordan Valley?

Eitan Haber, who was the director of Rabin's bureau and his speechwriter, can recall only one occasion when Rabin referred to the map of the final-status agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. According to Haber, Rabin said on that occasion that the Palestinians would receive 50 percent − at the most, 60 to 70 percent − of the West Bank. Haber is absolutely convinced that Rabin was not prepared to hear of territorial concessions on a scale of 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank, as was proposed in American president Bill Clinton's outline, which prime minister Ehud Barak presented to the Israeli cabinet for approval in late 2000.

Yahad Party leader Yossi Beilin says that, two weeks after the assassination, he asked Leah Rabin whether her husband had confided in her with regard to the detailed map he envisaged. She told Beilin that her husband had been a pragmatic, straight-to-the-point individual, and that he never projected more than two weeks in advance on any issue.

Beilin reveals that the agreement he drew up with Mahmoud Abbas "(Abu Mazen") - the text of which was finalized on October 31, 1995, four days before the assassination - was custom-designed to comply with what Rabin was assumed to have in his mind. First and foremost, it was meant to anticipate Rabin's fear of a confrontation with the settlers and the rupture of the national consensus. The final amendment to the agreement was made at the last minute, in response to Rabin's last speech in the Knesset.

Beilin persuaded Abu Mazen to agree to the presence of two military formations and two war reserves store units in the Jordan Valley and, most importantly, to the principle that there would be no uprooting of any Jewish settlements, not even those located in territories that Israel would not annex and would be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. Incidentally, Ariel was, in fact, slated for annexation.

In Beilin's opinion, Rabin would have adopted the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement. Beilin claims that Shimon Peres, who took over as prime minister after the Rabin assassination, rejected the document, arguing that the "Israeli people is not yet prepared to relinquish the Jordan Valley."

'He yielded to them, yet they cursed him'Uri Savir, who was director general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and was appointed by Rabin to head the Israeli delegation to the Oslo talks, is doubtful whether Rabin would have accepted the idea of skipping an interim agreement and proceeding directly to a final-status agreement. Savir believes Rabin did not have at the time a total picture of a final-status agreement, and that he would have arrived at that station very slowly and cautiously. Not only did Rabin refuse to hurry up the deadline for the start of negotiations on the Jewish settlements in the territories; according to Savir, Rabin instructed the Israeli delegation to even reject the Palestinians' request for an official copy of the document detailing the Israeli government's guidelines, which included the promise to end the policy of prioritizing the development of the settlements.

Attorney Yoel Singer, who was the legal adviser of the Israeli delegation to the Oslo talks, believes Rabin's fear of a collision course with the settlers led him in the summer of 1993 to abandon the prospect of talks with Syria, and to instead focus on negotiations with the Palestinians. Rabin preferred an agreement that would delay the evacuation of a small number of West Bank settlements for another five years to an agreement that would require the immediate evacuation of all the settlements on the Golan Heights. Haber agrees the settlements were a major consideration in Rabin's thinking, as was his promise in his election campaign to obtain, within nine months, an agreement on the establishment of Palestinian autonomy.

In his first term of office as prime minister, Rabin feared a confrontation with the settlers and gave his support to the precedent introduced by Sebastia. In the course of the negotiations on Oslo 2, Rabin totally rejected the proposal made by Ahmed Qureia ?(Abu Ala?) that, as a gesture of goodwill and as an indication of sincere intentions, Israel should evacuate two isolated settlements in the Gaza Strip, Netzarim and Kfar Darom.

In the winter of 1994, after the massacre of Muslims in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, and faced with both threats from the settlers and the dire warnings of the chief of staff, Ehud Barak, Rabin reversed his decision to evacuate seven families associated with the extreme right-wing Kahane camp from the illegal outpost they had set up in Tel Rumeida, a neighborhood in Hebron. Asked why he did not take advantage of such a golden opportunity to rid himself of this abscess, especially when the Israeli public was on his side, he declared, "According to the agreement, the issue of the settlements will be dealt with only within the context of the final-status agreement."Referring to the settlers, Savir says, "He yielded to them, yet they cursed him." In his last Knesset speech, Rabin promised that the Israel Defense Forces would not pull back from the seven cities in Area A before completion of the construction work on the bypasses, at a cost of some $500 million, in order "to enable the Israeli inhabitants to bypass concentrations of Arab population that would be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority." But Rabin wanted to take one step further. Despite the bitter experience of the Hebron massacre, he announced that the Israeli redeployment in Hebron would be delayed until the completion of the Halhul and Hebron bypasses in March 1996.

An attempt to bolster the Palestinian AuthorityThe contacts that Dr. Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace, and Yair Hirschfeld made with the Palestinians paved the way for the Oslo Accords. He is convinced that, had Rabin not been assassinated and had he remained prime minister, he would have championed a final-status agreement with Yasser Arafat, more or less along the lines of the Beilin-Abu Mazen document.

According to Pundak, if the evacuation of settlements located outside the agreed-upon blocs were an unavoidable option, Rabin would have evacuated them because he had a very clear understanding of how far the Palestinians were willing to go in their concessions. Savir recalls that, in one of the negotiation sessions, Rabin told the representatives of Israel's defense establishment, "You are asking for things that they are simply unable to agree to." In Savir's view, Yossi Ginossar and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak played a major role in increasing Rabin's empathy with the Palestinians and, to a certain extent, even with Arafat.

The major difference, argues Savir, between Rabin's approach and Sharon's policy is their attitude toward the Palestinians. Whereas Rabin attempted to bolster the Palestinian Authority's leadership so that it would be flexible enough to be a partner for a political settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Sharon is doing everything possible to weaken the PA's leaders and to persuade public opinion that they cannot serve as partners for peace negotiations. In Rabin's October 5, 1995, speech, he expresses his attitude toward the negotiations with the Palestinians with the statement that, even if the Palestine Liberation Organization is far from perfect, the alternative is infinitely worse. "The PLO, which is under the jurisdiction of Chairman Arafat, has stopped its terror attacks against us, as stipulated in the Oslo Declaration of Principles," notes Rabin in that speech, "while the other terrorist organizations are continuing to attack us. ... We have no intention of abandoning our quest for peace, even if the acts of terror continue. ... We will never let terror triumph over peace."

Beilin adds that, unlike Sharon, Rabin did not try to turn the Palestinians into disciples of the principles of democracy; he recalls Rabin's famous saying that the Palestinian security forces would find it relatively easy to keep radical elements in check, because they did not have to fear the might of the Israeli Supreme Court or B'Tselem. There is another difference: Rabin used his friendship with the U.S. president to support his efforts to arrive at agreements with the Palestinians within five years, before Iran would have nuclear arms. In contrast, Sharon is utilizing his close ties with the U.S. president to place obstacles in the way of a dialogue with the Palestinians and to follow a policy of unilateralism.