Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Why Did Rabin Fall for he Oslo Accords?

From Middle East Quarterly Fall 2018 Volume 25: Number 4, SEPTEMBER 01, 2018, by EFRAIM KARSH:

Precisely two decades after the failure by the Golda Meir government to identify a willing Arab peace partner triggered the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur war, another Labor government wrought a far worse catastrophe by substituting an unreconstructed terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction for a willing peace partner. Instead of ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the “Oslo peace process” between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) created an ineradicable terror entity on Israel’s doorstep that has murdered some 1,600 Israelis, rained thousands of rockets and missiles on the country’s population centers, and toiled tirelessly to delegitimize the right of the Jewish state to exist.

(Left to right): PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin accept the 1994 Nobel Peace prize in Oslo. Instead of peace, two of Israel’s foremost security and foreign policy veterans created an ineradicable terror entity on Israel’s doorstep.

How did this come to pass? Why did two of Israel’s foremost security and foreign policy veterans—Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres—lead Israel into what a prominent PLO official candidly described as a Trojan horse designed to promote the organization’s strategic goal: “Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea”—that is, a Palestine in place of the state of Israel.
Eyes Wide Shut
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was a diehard man of war who made violence, dislocation, and mayhem the defining characteristics of his career. In 1970, he nearly brought about the destruction of Jordan. Five years later, he helped trigger the horrendous Lebanese civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern Middle Eastern history, which raged for more than a decade and claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. In 1990-91, he supported the brutalization of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, at an exorbitant cost to the Palestinians living there, thousands of whom were murdered in revenge attacks while hundreds of thousands more were expelled after Kuwait’s liberation. In between these disasters, Arafat made the Palestinian national movement synonymous with violence and turned the PLO into one of the world’s most murderous terror organizations with the overarching goal of bringing about Israel’s demise.
How, then, did the Rabin government come to believe in the instantaneous transformation of the man and his organization into dedicated agents of peace? ...
In Peres’s view, by joining the Oslo process, Arafat and the PLO had become partners to a momentous historical odyssey; and as long as this partnership remained intact, its success was a foregone conclusion:
"I think what is really important for a peace process is the creation of a partner, more than a plan [b]ecause plans don’t create partners, but if you have a partner, then you negotiate a plan. …When I was thinking about the peace process, I knew in my heart that the greatest problem is how to transform Arafat from the most hated gentleman in this country, and himself with an array of very strange ideas, into a partner that we can sit with, and make him become acceptable to our people— maybe not beloved but at least accepted." 
But what if the would-be partner failed to act out the role ascribed to him? What if his “array of very strange ideas” proved impermeable to change? Peres’ response: “We close our eyes. We don’t criticize because, for peace, we must produce a partner.” 


Peres fully lived up to this principle, going out of his way to deny, dilute, and whitewash the countless Palestinian violations of the accords, or indeed—anything that alluded to the PLO’s continued commitment to Israel’s destruction. “The right of return is in my view an Arab dream that is bound to remain a dream,” he dismissed the Palestinian euphemism for Israel’s destruction through demographic subversion as late as September 2001, after the issue had been instrumental in wrecking both the July 2000 Camp David summit and President Clinton’s proposed peace plan several months later. “I thought then, just as I think today, that one can solve problems without giving up the dreams."
Peres was similarly delusional about the PLO’s failure to abolish the clauses in the Palestinian covenant calling for Israel’s destruction, as required by the Oslo accords. Thus, for example, when the speaker of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s semi-parliament, conditioned the covenant’s amendment on fresh Israeli concessions, Peres dismissed his demands out of hand. “We did not sign an agreement with the PNC speaker. We signed it with the PLO leadership and it is incumbent upon them to ensure its implementation,” he argued, as if it were not the PNC that had adopted the covenant in the first place in 1964, revised it in 1968, and was the only body legally authorized to execute the required amendments. Small wonder that when Arafat informed him on May 4, 1996, that the covenant had been amended, Peres instantaneously lauded the alleged move as “the most important event in the Middle East in a hundred years” though it quickly transpired that no such amendment had actually taken place. Indeed, the covenant, with its plethora of articles calling for Israel’s destruction, stands unrevised to this very day.
When, in May 1994, Arafat told a closed meeting of Muslim leaders in Johannesburg that the Oslo accords were a temporary arrangement designed to bring about Israel’s eventual demise, urging them to help spark a pan-Muslim jihad against Israel, Peres excused the comments as reflecting Arafat’s tortuous adjustment to the new reality while Beilin brushed the remarks off as “silly words.”

In May 1994, Arafat told a closed meeting of Muslim leaders that the Oslo accords were a temporary arrangement designed to bring about Israel’s eventual demise, urging them to spark a pan-Muslim jihad against Israel.

...[Beilin predicted] that “the greatest test of the accord will not be in the intellectual sphere, but will rather be a test of blood.” Should there be no significant drop in the level of violence and terrorism “within a reasonable period of time” after the formation of the Palestinian Authority, he argued, the process would be considered a failure, and Israel would have no choice but to renege on the Oslo accords. “This will only be a means of last resort,” he said. “But if we realize that the level of violence does not subside, we will not be able to proceed, and will most certainly not implement the final-status agreement. And should there be no choice, the IDF will return to those places which it is about to vacate in the coming months." 

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (right) shakes hands with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Jerusalem, November 20, 1977. Following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979, Rabin believed that the greatest remaining threat to Israel’s national security was Syria and that a Syrian-Israeli agreement was also likely to pave the road for peace with Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Twenty-five years and thousands of deaths later, with the Gaza Strip transformed into an entrenched terror entity and Israel experiencing horrific waves of terrorism as never before, there is no doubting the abysmal failure of this “test of blood.” Yet rather than reconsider his disastrously flawed premises in the face of their horrendous cost, let alone follow his own pledge to stop the process in such circumstances, Beilin, like other “peace camp” acolytes, continued to willfully ignore the Palestinians’ wanton violation of contractual obligations while blaming Israel for the stalled process. This, despite the public endorsement of the two-state solution by five successive Israeli prime ministers: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rabin’s Reversal
If Peres and Beilin’s self-delusion can be partly explained, if not condoned, on ideological grounds, Rabin’s behavior seems nothing short of the extraordinary. Unlike Beilin, he did not equate peacemaking and reconciliation with appeasement and self-flagellation; unlike Peres, he had no pipe dream of a budding “New Middle East.” Rather he was a quintessential representative of the “activist” approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict dating back to Zeev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion, which upheld that peace would only follow upon Arab realization of the inability to destroy Israel by force of arms. And since the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had removed the largest and most powerful Arab state from the circle of war, Rabin believed that Israel’s top strategic priority was to neutralize the remaining greatest threat to its national security: Syria. A Syrian-Israeli agreement, he reasoned, was also likely to pave the road for peace with Lebanon, long under Damascus’s tutelage, and with the Palestinians, who would have no choice but to fall in line with their stronger Arab allies.
It was only upon realizing that President Hafez Assad would not take the plunge despite Israel’s readiness to withdraw from virtually the entire Golan Heights that Rabin turned his sights to the Palestinian track. ...

Yossi Beilin (right) with Mahmoud Abbas, then the PLO signatory for the Oslo accords. Rabin’s lack of faith in Oslo was a corollary of his distrust of Shimon Peres and Beilin, whom he labelled “Peres’s poodle.”


Above all, Rabin’s readiness to embrace Oslo was grounded in his conviction in the reversibility of the process. As he told a high-ranking consultation shortly before departing for the Washington signing ceremony:
"An agreement with the Palestinians is reversible. An agreement with Syria is irreversible. Should the Palestinians cause trouble, we will reenter [their territory]. This is our backyard. But if we give the Golan Heights to Syria, we will have to launch a full-fledged war [should Damascus violate the agreement]." 
...On October 20, 1994, a week after delivering his toughest reprimand of Arafat following the murder of twenty-one people in a suicide bombing on a Tel Aviv bus, Rabin stated that it would be a mistake to blame the PA for the rampaging terrorism. At a press conference with Arafat on January 19, 1995, he went further by claiming that Israel did not expect watertight guarantees on the halt of all attacks from PA-controlled territories. When three days later nineteen Israelis were murdered in a suicide bombing at the Beit Lid junction in central Israel—with Arafat publicly applauding the atrocity—Rabin temporarily banned Palestinian movement from the territories to Israel and threatened that “we will not be able to move forward unless we are confident that the personal security [of Israelis] is assured." 

At a press conference with Yasser Arafat, January 19, 1995, Rabin claimed that Israel did not expect watertight guarantees on the halt of all attacks from PA-controlled territories

Yet for all his exasperation, he could not bring himself to break with Arafat. When Israeli president Ezer Weizmann, himself a leading proponent of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, called for a response to the Beit Lid massacre by halting the Oslo process, Rabin was reportedly “livid,” though some of his ministers backed the suggestion and even Uri Savir, Oslo’s chief negotiator, warned, “We need a profound change of direction to make the next stage a success."
This was not the first time that Rabin rejected the idea of constraining Arafat’s power. In 1994, he had declined a request by the two most prominent “inside” politicians, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, to assist with the creation of a democratic regime in the territories that would replace the corrupt and oppressive rule established by Arafat and his Tunis cronies. The idea was to hold proportional elections for a legislative council, after which the winning party or parties would form a government. This was naturally anathema to Arafat, who insisted on presidential elections where his victory was a foregone conclusion. Rabin dutifully complied, turning down the proposal.
Having ruled out the possibility of a more democratic and less militant Palestinian regime likely headed by the local leadership he had preferred in the first place, Rabin stuck with Arafat, whom he considered, in a curious twist of logic, both a tacit supporter of terrorism and a peacemaker. Acknowledging that Arafat had made no serious effort to fight terrorism or to enforce law and order in Gaza, he nevertheless insisted that “there is no other partner ready to make peace … [or] negotiating with a partner who is ready to make peace … We must abide by our commitments provided Arafat will contain the terrorism emanating from the territories under his control." 


The problem with this assertion was, of course, that Arafat was not trying to make peace or curb terrorism. In April 1995, Maj. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, commanding officer of Southern Command, described Gaza as a hotbed of terrorism and questioned the PA’s ability to fight terrorism in the West Bank once it took control of the area at the end of the year. In the same vein, the head of the military intelligence research department estimated that once the IDF withdrew from the West Bank’s populated areas, the PA would lose all remaining incentives to fight terrorism. This stark prognosis was corroborated by a senior Gaza police officer who revealed that mass arrests carried out by the PA after major terror attacks were “a big show” for Israeli and American consumption, with most detainees released shortly after their arrest having promised not to engage in future acts of terrorism.
Even Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, the IDF’s chief-of-staff and Rabin’s protégé, who had carried out delicate political and diplomatic missions on the prime minister’s behalf, warned the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee on August 23, 1995: “If the PA will not act decisively against Palestinian terrorism, everything we are doing now will fail.” Two weeks later, as the Interim Agreement was about to be signed in Washington, the head of the military intelligence research department argued that the PA intensified its anti-terrorist measures only when it feared Israeli retribution. “For Arafat,” he added undiplomatically, “peace is shit.”
Ignoring the considered opinions of his most senior military advisers, Rabin signed the Interim Agreement on September 28, 1995. When questioned about the prudence of this move by American Jewish leaders, he exploded and told the Israeli press, “One should not waste any time on them. They are pariah Jews. They will be judged by Jewish history.” This outburst, however, seemed to reflect Rabin’s inner doubts about his latest move rather than an unwavering conviction in it. Shortly afterwards he confided to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Weisel, “Initially, I thought that Arafat was the solution. Now I am convinced that he is the problem.” 
Rabin’s Real “Peace Legacy”
In the decades attending Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995, an extensive “peace legacy” associated with his name has been created, transforming him from “Mr. Security,” as he had been widely known prior to Oslo, into an indefatigable “peacenik,” who would leave no stone unturned in the tireless quest for reconciliation. Had it not been for his assassination, ran a common argument, the peace process would have made substantial progress if not been brought to fruition.

Shimon Peres (standing) shakes hands with Jordan’s King Hussein during Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, November 6, 1995. Rabin did not embrace Oslo out of a burning desire for peace but was maneuvered into it by Peres, hoping that it would help consolidate Israel’s security.
Reality, of course, was quite different. Rabin had never been a member of the “flower generation,” to use Henry Kissinger’s handy quip, but a hardened security man who viewed peace through this prism rather than the other way around. He did not embrace Oslo out of a burning desire for peace but was maneuvered into it by his lifetime nemesis, hoping that it would help consolidate Israel’s security yet lacking a clear idea where the process was headed or, indeed, should be headed. As his widow put it shortly after his assassination, “He was very pragmatic, hated to deal with something that would happen years down the road. He only thought of what would happen now, in the very near future. As far as I know, he did not have a very clear picture of what the final-status agreement would look like.”
Had it been up to Rabin, he would have avoided Oslo altogether in favor of an Israeli-Syrian agreement, and in its absence, a deal with the West Bank and Gaza leadership. As it were, not only did he not view the process in anything remotely reminiscent of the posthumous idealism misattributed to him, but the farther he walked down that path, the greater his disdain for his “peace” partner became—and the lesser his inclination for concessions. He repeatedly lamented that had he known in advance Arafat’s real intentions, he would have never signed the Oslo accords, telling confidents and subordinates (including Henry Kissinger, Tel Aviv mayor and former comrade in arms, Shlomo Lahat, and head of military intelligence Moshe Yaalon) of his intention to revisit, if not abandon, the process after the 1996 elections.
It is doubtful whether Rabin would have indeed disengaged from Oslo in the rather unlikely event of his reelection (at the time of his assassination, he was trailing Netanyahu in most polls, in some by as many as thirteen points) —something that even Netanyahu found impossible to do. It is clear, however, that his perception of the broad contours of the final-status arrangement, as presented in his October 5, 1995 Knesset defense of the Interim Agreement he had signed the previous week, was far more restrictive than that of any of his successors, Netanyahu included.
Rejecting the two-state solution altogether, Rabin foresaw “an entity short of a state that will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its control” within narrower boundaries than the pre-June 1967 lines. The Jordan Valley area, “in the broadest sense of the word,” was to constitute Israel’s security border, and a united Jerusalem “comprising Maale Adumim and Givat Zeev” was to remain under Israel’s sovereignty. 
It is a historical irony that it was Benjamin Netanyahu, who had vehemently opposed the Oslo process from the outset, who publicly announced Israel’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state, both in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and May 2011 address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. In doing so, he went further not only from Rabin’s “Palestinian entity short of a state” but also from Peres’s preferred vision of peace. For, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Peres did not consider the creation of a Palestinian state an automatic, or even desirable, consequence of the Oslo process. Rather he subscribed to Labor’s old formula of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, which he sought to sell to Rabin, Arafat, King Hussein, presidents Bill Clinton and Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, and Morocco’s King Hassan II, among others.
It was thus Beilin who shrewdly steered his two superiors towards a path they had not planned to take despite his keen awareness of the untrustworthiness of the “peace” partner. As he put it on one occasion:
"I never had any illusions regarding Arafat. I never considered him an important world leader. I think he has committed numerous follies. He could have achieved a lot for his people many years ago, and his personal record includes almost every possible mistake … But since I have only Arafat, despite all the stupidities he utters, I must negotiate with him." 
This approach probably makes the Oslo process the only case in diplomatic history where a party to a peace accord was a priori amenable to its wholesale violation by its cosignatory. There have, of course, been numerous agreements where one or both parties acted in bad faith. The September 1938 Munich agreement, to give a prime example, was conceived by Hitler as a “Trojan Horse” for the destruction of Czechoslovakia, a strategy emulated by Arafat fifty-five years later with the Oslo process. But while there was little Czechoslovakia could do given its marked military inferiority and betrayal by the international community, in Oslo, it was the stronger party that allowed its far weaker counterpart to flaunt the agreement with impunity—with devastating consequences that would haunt both sides for decades to come.
Efraim Karsh, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London

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