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"I tried to persuade Rabin to negotiate a permanent settlement"

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Thursday, 12 September, 2013

Yossi Beilin, Israeli former negotiator and one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, discusses why the Oslo talks succeeded, what derailed the process in the years that followed, and the advice he would give the negotiators in the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Elders team: How would you compare the political climate around the current Israeli-Palestinian talks to that of 20 years ago, in the run up to the Oslo Accords?

Yossi Beilin: The political climate 20 years ago was very different.

The interests of all the parties brought them together to a point which enabled them to take bold decisions that otherwise would not have been made. The low point in which Arafat found himself after his mistaken support for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war, and his need to get out of the corner in which he was put by the Arab states and by the West. The inability of Rabin to implement his electoral campaign, which promised an agreement with the Palestinians within 6-9 months. The readiness of President Clinton to seize the opportunity given to him without any prior involvement of the United States as his first international achievement in his first term.

All those things do not exist today. The Palestinian Authority is torn between the West Bank and Gaza; the Israeli government is a very hawkish one and is not ready to pay the price of a permanent agreement (the price being the Clinton Parameters or the Geneva Initiative).

The good news in the current situation is the readiness of the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, to take the initiative and to bring the parties together. The readiness of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas to agree to the known parameters of the permanent agreement. And the awareness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that if he moves towards peace, he will have a majority in the Parliament and will be able to replace the Ultra rightist party, The Jewish Home, with the Labour Party.

Did Israelis and Palestinians differ in their early expectations of the Oslo process?

I don't think so. Both sides, whilst the process was exposed to them, believed it was conducive to a historic peace treaty between the two parties.

Back in 1994, how did you envision the region 20 years later?

My own vision was that peace with the Palestinians would be conducive to a regional organisation which would include Israel, Palestine and Jordan and be open for future participants such as Lebanon and Syria.

What was key to the success of the Oslo negotiations, and can it be replicated in 2013-14?

The key for the success of the Oslo negotiations was the fact that on both sides, the Israeli and the Palestinian, there were people who were eager to find a solution and did not give up even in very difficult moments. They were also allowed significant room for manoeuvre from their leaders so that they could bridge the gaps which had been seen before as unbridgeable.

I am afraid that this is not the situation today. And this is why if the American party is not involved enough, it will be almost impossible to get any agreement.

Can you identify a turning point when, in your view, the Oslo process switched from a positive to a negative direction?

The main turning point on the Israeli side was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I believe that had he not been assassinated he could have signed a permanent agreement with Yasser Arafat by the deadline of 4 May 1999.

The first turning point though, was the massacre at Hebron in February 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, which was followed 40 days later by two Palestinian suicide bombings in Afula and Hadera.

What, do you think, have been the unintended consequences of the Oslo Accords?

The main unintended consequence was that the Oslo agreement became an umbrella for the continuation of settlement building under rightist Israeli governments, who declared that they did not breach the Oslo agreement by doing so since there is no reference to it in the agreement itself.

It also became an asylum for those on both sides who did not want to get to a permanent agreement that would divide the land. Those who believe on the Palestinian side that their land is a Muslim waqf (permanent endowment), and those who believe in the Greater Israel, abused the Oslo agreement by deferring the real solution and kept it much longer than any of us had expected.

If you could go back twenty years, what would you do differently?

Twenty years ago, I believed that the special moment would enable us to cut a permanent deal rather than just an interim deal, and I tried to convince Prime Minister Rabin to try and negotiate a permanent agreement. Rabin refused this – he wanted to stick to the mandate of the Madrid Conference which referred to a Palestinian Authority for five years and negotiations on a permanent agreement to replace the interim agreement at the end of this period.

I thought that it was a big mistake and had it been up to me, I would have tried to sign a permanent agreement twenty years ago. Having seen that this was not going to be a permanent agreement, I would have included a settlement freeze clause. Eventually it was the Palestinian and Israeli pragmatic camps that paid a lot for not including this clause in the agreement.

If you could give one piece of advice to the current Israeli/Palestinian negotiators, what would it be?

Technically, find the right place, remain there and don’t come back before you have an agreement. Do not do it as a moonlight job. Dedicate all your time to finding a solution.

Think twice before you insist on something. In some of the cases you may win and regret your victory – as we 'won' the omission of a clause on settlements. Beware of your successes.

Is there one memory that encapsulates for you the spirit of the 1993 negotiations?

In 1994, towards the signing of the Cairo Agreement, there were negotiations led by Ahmed Qurei and Uri Savir. At one point Dennis Ross, then the American special envoy to the Middle East, entered the hotel room in which both of them were sitting with mountains of papers. A second before he entered the room, the two of them hid whatever it was that was on their tables and when Dennis entered the room and asked them whether there was any development, both of them said that nothing actually happened and even blamed each other for the lack of progress.

Once he left the room, they burst into laughter and put all the papers back on the table. This is for me an example for the way in which negotiation between the two sides should take place.

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.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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