As the play Oslo opens in London, Fathom’s Calev Ben-Dor sat down with Yair Hirschfeld who was, with Ron Pundak, one of two architects of the Oslo peace process. If the human story Hirschfeld tells about how the peace process got going and reached the White House lawn is fascinating, his political analysis of the failure – of the mistakes made, the constituencies ignored, the open roads not taken – is essential reading for Israelis, Palestinians and the international community.
Calev Ben-Dor: Oslo won best play at the Tony Awards and will arrive in London in September. Your character appears in the play in a way that many have said is inaccurate. What are your thoughts on it?
Yair Hirschfeld: The play’s idea is excellent in that it demonstrates that Oslo is an important historical development and it will likely open up a public debate in the US, the UK and also in Israel and Palestine, which is very welcome. However, it’s important to bear in mind that it is an imaginary piece – as far as I know, the author made no effort to speak to any of us.
The play also has two basic faults. The first is similar to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden,’ in the sense that the play suggests that Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of making peace, so require Western, enlightened, white-skinned Norwegians to do it, which is far from the truth. The conflict is between two peoples whose homeland is in the same place and who have both experienced serious existential threats that have been played out over the last 130 years. The idea that it can just disappear with a click of the finger is a very dangerous proposition and viewing the conflict through this lens distorts the basic facts and realities. There are deep emotional, historical, political and psychological components to the conflict and each requires long-term trust-building and legitimacy in order to resolve the conflict. It is a pity that this is not portrayed in the play.
CB-D: Returning to reality, how did your role in Oslo come about?
YH: The play portrays the Oslo process as beginning in 1992 when Norwegians arrived on the scene to break a deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians. My role in the process started in February 1979. My academic field is Iran, and following the revolution I was invited to speak on Austrian television, which led to a meeting with Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who asked me to become involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
A proposal I made to Kreisky was taken to the Crown Prince of Jordan and in October 1980 we received a paper in response, which I took to Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres. I worked very hard with both sides to get Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian negotiations going. We went through a trial and error period of approximately 12-13 years behind the scenes to see what was and what was not possible. I was able to build trust and confidence with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza. Based on the lessons learned from that initial process, Secretary of State James Baker launched the Madrid conference and Peres sent me to Madrid to watch what was going on with the major players – the Americans, the Europeans, and the Jordanian-Palestinian side.
A Palestinian friend gave me a detailed description of Israeli and Palestinian positions in Madrid and when Yitzhak Rabin came to power a year later, we began to review how we could move forward. In 1992 the formal talks in Washington were going nowhere – there was a major terrorist attack and Rabin exiled some 400 Hamas members to south Lebanon. In this context, following the Knesset removal of the law forbidding Israelis to speak to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), my former student Ron Pundak and I met the PLO delegation in Norway where we saw our role as primarily fact-finding.
Israelis had previously raised the idea of a ‘Gaza-first’ approach, and in Norway Abu Ala suggested the same approach, but Beilin asked me prepare a new paper. My task in these Track II talks was to prepare a concept paper that could be transferred to Track I and ultimately become the basis for negotiations. I spent four days at home and wrote a new draft for an agreement based on the knowledge of what had happened before and what I believed was possible. This draft later became the blueprint for the Oslo Accords (with some important changes, which I believe weren’t as good as the original!).
During this period I specifically asked for the Norwegians not to be in the negotiation room. They hosted us and for that we were grateful, but I believed that the conflict can only be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians, and we did not want them involved in the substance of the negotiations.
CB-D: What memories do you have of the relationships between the negotiators? How close did you become? Were there particular moments when conversations were difficult?
YH: Negotiations are not a social engagement. Negotiators ultimately have to represent the national interests of their country and they begin with contradictory statements. On the one hand they express a real determination to reach an agreement, but on the other they have to emphasise their red lines. I personally had an additional task, which was to propose relevant ideas while maintaining total deniability, so that it wouldn’t necessarily obligate our government. The social part of Oslo has been overplayed by journalists. There was friendliness and serious engagement, but in essence we wanted to define common ground and to see how we could create conditions for a deal.
Similar to other negotiations, there were at least two major conflict moments: first, when we initially identified common ground, we also inevitably identified the area of ‘non-common ground’ – those places we had conflict. The challenge was how to eliminate those areas of disagreement. What helped us break through was Peres’s dramatic offer for Yasser Arafat to return to the territories (from Tunis) if we reached an agreement. This was already raised in the third meeting, while we were still doing fact-finding (and before we hit a crisis). So we already had a ‘deal-maker’ before we reached the first conflict moment. Peres’s offer made Abu Ala feel he had to deliver what Arafat had always wanted – the position of the returning exiled leader of his people, in his homeland.
The second conflict moment appeared after I had already told the Norwegian foreign minister that we reached an agreement on 6 July 1993. In many negotiations, one side often tries to enlarge the pie and create a crisis at the last moment (because only then can one ensure the agreement is the best one possible). The Palestinians did this between early July and mid-August but it was skilfully handled by Director General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir.
CB-D: One of the most important features of the Oslo agreement was postponing the talks on final-status issues until the end of the process. In hindsight, how would you judge that structure?
YH: I’m convinced more than ever that this was the only option. The assumption that a conflict of over 100 years can be solved by a piece of paper is totally detached from reality. In order to resolve final-status issues like Jerusalem, refugees, etc., we need to build trust and legitimacy as well as the structures of a functioning two-state solution. What is needed is a gradual process.
After the signing of Oslo, we tried to negotiate all the final-status issues straight away, (through the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings in 1994), an aim which led to failure after failure. Arafat told Beilin and me at that time that negotiating final-status wouldn’t work, but we didn’t listen to him. This was my biggest regret. Sari Nusseibeh also told me that we needed the Likud, rather than the Labour party, in government (which is like telling Bernie Saunders supporters that we need Donald Trump!). Nusseibeh reasoned that if the Likud was in government Israelis would move slowly towards a peace agreement and the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have the time to build institutions while being supported by a pro-peace opposition in Israel. We didn’t believe him then, but I now know he was right, on the condition that a differentiated approach toward settlements expansion would be adopted, permitting settlement construction within built up areas, but not beyond.
CB-D: So you’re saying the Palestinians needed a gradual approach in order to build legitimacy, establish the structures of a state and to gain control?
YH: Yes. Fatah’s challenge was to move from a revolutionary movement into being the leaders of a responsible, prosperous, contiguous state in their homeland, and possessing territory on which they would have to forge an agreement with their enemy. In addition, it was a situation in which a future Palestinian state would need to cooperate with Israel (due to the geographical proximity and the enormous economic advantages we can offer) to be successful. All this takes time.
CB-D: What do you think Oslo’s biggest achievements and failures were?
YH: My generation grew up in the 1950s and 1960s at a time in which Israel was totally isolated, internationally and regionally. US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, said Israel was a millstone around America’s neck and the Soviet Union militarily threatened us. The enormous achievement of Oslo was that we opened Israel to the entire world. We’ve built a serious relationship with the Palestinians, even a partnership (and to claim there is no partner for peace is an outrageous claim because they are partners, for better or worse); we have relations with Egypt, Jordan and with other Arab states; we have a very close relationship with the US and Europe. Oslo is a major component of this process. And it gave us the higher moral ground, which I believe was very important.
In terms of shortcomings, on the practical side, the Palestinians promised less terrorism but we had more terror; Israel promised less settlements but we had more settlers; we both promised a peaceful transfer to end the conflict and that was not achieved. But from a birds-eye view, we had the wrong paradigm – we needed to strengthen the concept of a two-state solution, advance mutual recognition, and build a functioning, responsible, and contiguous state of Palestine. We had to go through the process of turning the Palestinian revolutionary movement into a state-building society and the five year interim period was an overly ambitious, unrealistically short amount of time to do this.
In 2000 two key developments actually provided us with the opportunity to adopt this paradigm. Arafat wanted to announce the State of Palestine on 1 January 2001 and to gain control over 51-53 per cent of the territory, (with an additional two years of negotiations over the rest of the territory), to hold municipal elections in East Jerusalem, and for Israel to reduce financing of settlements.
At the same time there was a parallel agreement. A former secretary general of the settlement movement who was in government, Otniel Schneller, had concluded a deal on civil affairs with his Palestinian counterpart Jamal Tarifi. Arafat’s proposal together with the Schneller-Tarifi framework provided a perfect agreement which could have led the Oslo process to a clear success. Instead we had a prime minister who proposed the idea of ‘everything or nothing’ – either final status agreement or nothing at all, which was an outrageous proposition.
The second mistake was we hoped to make peace without the religious dignitaries of both sides. As an example of how secular we were, in 2006 the delegations were invited to Spain by the government to celebrate the 15 year anniversary of the Madrid conference and when we were served pork, none of the Israeli or Palestinian delegations had any difficulty eating it. We obviously weren’t fully representative of our publics. The idea that we can keep religious dignitaries outside was problematic. We will only get to final-status agreement and finality of claims when we have some form of religious blessing for it.
C-BD: Twenty five years on, there have been several attempts on final-status, there’s currently no agreement to restart negotiations, and both publics seem ambivalent towards the two-state paradigm. What do you believe are the future challenges?
YH: From the Israeli side there is still a majority in Israel for the two-state solution, which I believe is necessary for the identity and security of both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people, even in the present Knesset. We have to pass on the work to the younger generation who will need to deal with the religious issue, the Islamic-Jewish interface and internal issues on the Israeli side between different strands of society. Israel needs a five component strategy: a sufficient majority in Israel to agree with the Palestinians on building a two-state solution; building a partnership with the Palestinians; widening our relations with the Arab world; and strengthening our relations with Europe and the US.
For the Palestinian people, I believe the challenge is to direct their energies toward building a secure, prosperous and dignified life for themselves in their own state, which like Israel, will be able to offer existential protection to their people who live outside of the state.
The challenge for both peoples, working together, is to build a bridge between East and West, between Europe and the US on the one side, the Arab and Islamic world on the other.