From the beginning of 1994 until early 1997, I was an adviser to a secret intelligence team established by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was my job to advise him on the peace process after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993 (the first of six agreements known as the Oslo Accords).
Rabin did not have a lot of trust in politicians within his own government. Nor did he have a lot of confidence in the intelligence community, and so he put together a team of five people from the different branches of “the community.” In 1988, I established the joint Israeli Palestinian public policy think tank (and “do tank”). IPCRI – Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information – started convening joint working groups of Israeli and Palestinian experts to come up with solutions on how to make the two-states solution workable.
By 1994 we had already held several hundred meetings of economists, water experts, security officials and experts, Jerusalem specialists and more. IPCRI was “discovered” by Rabin’s secret team. I was contacted by one of its members and began to hold almost weekly meetings. The team was disbanded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a couple a weeks after Israel broke ground in 1997 for Har Homa, the new Israeli settlement in Jerusalem. Even though he signed the Hebron Protocol in January 1997 and the Wye River Memorandum in October 1998, Netanyahu promised his base that the Oslo process would not continue or lead to a Palestinian state.
The Wye River agreement was essentially an attempt to resume the interim period in the Declaration of Principles, and to enable permanent status negotiations to begin. But Netanyahu had no intention of bringing Oslo to its presumed natural conclusion – two states for two peoples. He did not implement the commitments he took upon Israel in those two agreements that he signed, and the Palestinians also breached their commitments.
It is impossible to know if Rabin would have led the process to a positive conclusion. Rabin never publicly stated that he supported the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel. One of the major flaws of the Oslo agreements is that they avoided dealing with the “end game,” leaving too many open holes open for the spoilers to fill on their own. The feeling I had on our way home from Tel Aviv the night he was assassinated was not only that the prime minister was killed, so was the peace process.
That proved to be true. What was clear to me was that despite Rabin’s long years in the army, and his policy of breaking bones during the First Intifada, Rabin had succeeded in creating a level of trust and confidence among the Palestinian leaders – including Arafat – that has not existed since. Rabin, to the best of my knowledge, had personal problems of trust in Arafat, but he respected him and did believe that Arafat was leading his people toward the end of the conflict with Israel. Early in my engagement with the secret team, I suggested that it was very important that Rabin express to Arafat the need to create rapport with the Israeli people.
My advice was that Rabin’s representatives should tell Arafat’s representatives that Rabin and Arafat should be meeting as statesmen, and not as military personnel. And, therefore, it was essential that Arafat remove his tailor-made military uniform and show up to meetings with Rabin dressed as a statesman.
IF ARAFAT wanted to wear his military uniform, then he should meet with Israel’s generals, but not with the prime minister. This was, of course, symbolic, but I thought that the symbolism was very important. Rabin cordially rejected the advice, stating that it was improper for him to tell Arafat how to dress.
The Declaration of Principles stated that permanent-status negotiations should begin no later than the end of the third year of the interim period of five years. But it not say that they couldn’t begin prior to that. I urged Rabin, through the team, to begin those negotiations as soon as possible. In that way, the end game would become clear and could preempt the spoilers on the Palestinian side who were already against the process because Arafat, in their understanding, gave up 78% of Palestine by recognizing Israel within the 1967 borders. Rabin did not live long enough to begin those negotiations, but from the questions I received from the team, it was clear that he began planning for them.
Anyone who has studied conflict resolution and negotiation knows that building trust between the negotiators is an essential element for success. That was extremely clear in the negotiations that I carried out on behalf of Israel that resulted in bringing Gilad Schalit home from captivity in Gaza after five years and four months. It was clear that following Rabin, Peres was not trusted by the Palestinian leadership, and Netanyahu was trusted even less. It is also quite clear that Netanyahu has never had any trust in the Palestinian leadership either.
The mutual disdain and mistrust between Abbas and Netanyahu is more than evident today. The mutual disdain and mistrust has been earned by both sides, and the animosity between Israelis and Palestinians today is the result of mutual acts of confidence-destruction over long periods of breached agreements and understandings by both sides. The relationships between the existing political leadership of Israel and Palestine is probably beyond repair and without any hope.
Rabin’s murder was political. His murderer achieved his goals far beyond imagination. The Oslo process has been dead for a long time, and its failures, rather than being learned from in order to correct them, have been buried and dismissed. There is no better solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict at this time than the two-states solution which has a chance to put an end to the conflict. Each side in the conflict has demonstrated its willingness to fight, to kill and to die for a territorial expression of their own identity that they take from this land and give to this land. Giving new life to a genuine peace process will require new leadership, in both Israel and Palestine.
It will take new leaders who are able to develop trust and confidence, first between themselves, and then with their own people and with those on the other side of the conflict. I don’t see those people on the horizon – on either side – but they will come. We aren’t going anywhere – not us in Israel and not the Palestinians. We will either live on this land in one non-nation-state or we will find the way, together, to create two nation-states and live together in peace through cooperation, mutual interests and a lot of good will.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
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