Beware the Extremists: Lessons From Oslo, Twenty Years On

The consequences of the Oslo Accords, which gave Israel a Palestinian partner for negotiations, reduced its isolation, and confirmed a two-state solution, will be wiped out if the current talks process fail.

Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin
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President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.Credit: AP
Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin

On April 29, 1992, in the midst of the national election campaign in Israel, I met with Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, headquartered in Oslo, Norway.

At the time, no one could have predicted that the follow-up of this meeting would be the launching of a process that led to the establishment of a Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza, to the signing of an historic agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and to the astonishing handshake 17 months later between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who subsequently became Chairman of the Palestinian Authority. The ebullient Norwegian had offered the services of his institute in order to arrange a meeting between Faisal Husseini, a senior Palestinian leader in East Jerusalem and myself to solve problems that had not been resolved in the talks that were being held at the time between the Israeli delegation and the very artificial Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in Washington. This backroom channel turned into something quite different.

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An important milestone was the visit by Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Egeland, accompanied by Larsen, to Israel in September 1992, two months after I was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister. Following the official dinner that I held in Egeland’s honor in Tel Aviv, we held a clandestine meeting to which I invited my friend Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and in which we agreed on the principles for the initiation of the secret channel of talks. On December 4, when we were all in London, Hirschfeld decided that his partner for the talks in Oslo would be a PLO official from Tunis, Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia), who later became the PA’s Prime Minister. The negotiations were launched in Oslo, after Dr. Ron Pundak had joined up with Hirschfeld.

This was a very unusual move as I could not tell the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres (now President of the State of Israel): I knew that he would feel obligated to immediately update Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I also knew that Rabin had come to an agreement with Peres that the Foreign Minister would not participate in any bilateral negotiations but only in the multilateral talks that were then under way on economic issues and on other subjects, including water and environmental protection. Furthermore, I knew that Rabin would demand that Peres not maintain any secret channel of talks with the PLO.

Only after we felt confident that we had found a Palestinian partner for the negotiations and only after the two sides agreed to draw up an initial draft, I decided that now was the time to inform Peres of what had transpired. He immediately updated Rabin. I (metaphorically) held my breath as I awaited the outcome of the conversation between Rabin and Peres: I did not know whether the secret channel of talks would have to be shut down or whether it would be possible to continue with them. I was relieved and surprised when Peres told me that Rabin had given the green light for the process to continue.

The next critical moment came a few months later when the Palestinians agreed to the seven Israeli demands necessary for Israel’s recognition of the PLO. From that moment on, the talks, which were originally intended to solve problems that had not been resolved in Washington, became the main channel for diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and they led to the remarkable scene where Peres and Mahmoud Abbas (who is today President of the PA) signed an agreement in the presence of Rabin and Arafat.

The mutual recognition existing between Israel and the PLO has remained intact and, since that time, Israel has a definite Palestinian entity that it can address. Despite the deep hostility between the two national movements in the present conflict – the Zionist movement, which produced the State of Israel, and the Palestinian national movement – they do recognize one another, and today Israel and the Palestinians coordinate operations in all spheres of life, especially in the security field.

This is the major change that the Oslo Accords have brought about. The Oslo Accords immediately led to Jordan’s agreeing to an accelerated procedure intended to culminate in the signing of a peace treaty with Israel. It also led Syria to declare that it was prepared to enter independent negotiations with Israel, separately from the other Arab states. Dozens of countries with which Israel had had no diplomatic ties set up embassies in Israel; a significant portion of the Arab boycott was lifted; major multinational corporations, which had hitherto been reluctant to enter the Israeli market, set up branches in Israel; and the Israeli economy experienced its first boom in many years. For several years, Israel’s standing in the world and in international organizations changed dramatically; a number of Arab states sent semi-diplomatic missions to Israel; Israel established diplomatic relations with one of those states, Mauritania; and the world seemed to have opened its doors to Israel.

But we, the peace camp, had not properly assessed the determination of the opponents of the Oslo Accords on both sides. We were pleased when we saw the surveys predicting a large majority in both the Israeli and Palestinian populations in favor of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Although we anticipated violence, we thought it would come primarily from the Palestinian side and that it would closely resemble the first intifada.

We did not look back at our own camp. Even after the massacre in Hebron perpetrated by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, we still refused to believe that anything like the act committed by Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination, could take place. We did not anticipate the suicide bombings carried out by Hamas and by extremist Islamic groups. Yigal Amir succeeded - at least for a while. Had he not assassinated Rabin, I believe that we could have arrived at a peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the date that had been set: May 4, 1999. In future, both sides will have to look back and restrain the extremists in their respective camps. The enemies of peace are within both camps.

The current Israeli-Palestinian talks would never have been launched had it not been for the determination of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The presence of a third party (the Americans as well as the Europeans) is vital in a situation where the two sides themselves are not initiating anything. In the Oslo process and in the peace process with Jordan, there was no need for any third party. When the leaders of the two sides believe that the status quo is tolerable, there is the need for a third party to wake them up to reality.

If an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is reached in the course of the coming nine months, it will enjoy massive support on both sides. Nearly 70 percent on either side are prepared to accept the recognized principles of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the parameters of both the plan proposed by American President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Geneva Initiative of 2003). Having said this, a similar percentage on either side believes that the chances of reaching a solution are nil. However, if it should emerge that a peace agreement is a realistic prospect, the pessimism expressed on either side will be irrelevant. Apparently, the Israeli public and the Palestinian public want peace more than their leaders do.

The success of the Oslo Accords was meant to lead to a peace agreement within the timeframe we allotted for ourselves. The fact that, 20 years after the signing of the Oslo Accord, we are standing in front of scaffolding instead of a finished structure is disappointing. If, during the next few months, all attempts to arrive at a permanent or even a partial settlement, preliminary to the signing of a permanent agreement, fail, the Palestinians might decide to dismantle the PA, born in Oslo, to give the keys back to Israel and to join forces with the Israeli right, which today (for its own very different reasons) is also proposing a single state solution.

Dr Yossi Beilin served as Israel's Minister of Justice and is known as the architect of the Oslo Agreement, The Geneva Accords and Taglit Birthright Project. He is the founder and president of Beilink International Affairs, Ltd.



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