In two weeks, on September 13, we will mark 30 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. Amit Segal noted on News12 that only a year earlier, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin approved the last assassination of a senior PLO official. Indeed, the PLO was considered defunct following its deportation from Beirut in the Lebanon War. During the first Iraq War (1990-91), PLO leader Yasser Arafat sided with Saddam Husein and suffered international isolation when Husein was humiliated by the US-led coalition armies. Then, on April 7, 1992, Arafat narrowly escaped death when an aircraft he was on crash-landed in the Libyan Desert, and both pilots and an engineer were killed.
Arafat and the PLO were done for.
But then, in late 1992 and during 1993, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, who later left the Labor Party to lead Meretz––an impossible combination of bourgeois liberals and former communists––initiated secret direct talks, first in London and then in Oslo, with the PLO leadership.
This was not only a departure from official Israeli policy which agreed to contacts with local “Palestinian” politicians but completely ruled out contacts with PLO representatives – it was against the law.
As the talks progressed, Beilin reported on them to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and eventually to Rabin, who ordered Peres to stop them immediately. But a short time later, Rabin changed his mind and agreed to talks with PLO representatives, for reasons that have eluded historians for three decades. All we have are speculations about the particularly ugly relationship between Rabin and Peres, and Rabin’s perpetual fear of losing to the man he loathed so much.
A secret cabinet meeting was held on August 30, 1993, 30 years ago to the date. You can read the protocol here. It included Rabin, Peres, several Labor ministers, Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid from Meretz, which had peaked in the 1992 election, with 12 MKs. It also included a gifted newcomer from a religious Sephardi party: Aryeh Deri.
Deri later recalled: “At 6 PM, I received a message that there was a government meeting at 8 PM and that I should come if I wanted to see the Oslo agreements, which no one knew then what they were.”
According to Haim Ramon, who held the Health Services portfolio in Rabin’s government, not only the citizens of Israel were shocked, but also the army. “This agreement was made behind the army’s back,” said Ramon. “Military personnel were not involved in this agreement, unlike their involvement in all the agreements until then and since. They got to read the agreement almost at the same time the ministers did.”
Deri recalled, “Ehud Barak, who was the Chief of Staff at the time, sat next to me and during the entire meeting was telling me quietly that the agreement was dangerous, that there are holes in it bigger than Swiss cheese, and that it would harm the security of the state.”
Some of Barak’s vehement objections are omitted from the protocol as “top secret,” to be released for publication in 90 years. That’s 60 years today… Comments made by Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, who was Housing Minister in Rabin’s government, but had served as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, were also censored for 90 years.
Barak’s comments that were not removed included an astute observation of just how difficult it would be for the IDF to prevent the rise of a terrorist infrastructure in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip should the PLO’s cooperation not be as enthusiastic as Rabin was expecting it to be.
“When we have information about wanted persons in Jabaliya or about the preparation for an attack taking place inside one of the refugee camps, it won’t be easy to take effective action against it,” Chief of Staff Barak told the meeting. “There’s always a danger that the field ranks in the Palestinian police will leak or be infiltrated with sources from among the perpetrators of the attack.”
It’s amusing that the people who shot him down during the meeting, namely the folks from Meretz, would later become his biggest partners in his attempt to bring down the Netanyahu government using sabotage and street violence.
Rabin opened the meeting by saying this is not a simple agreement, representing one of two alternatives his government was facing: withdrawal from the “Syrian” territories in the Golan, or the “West Bank.” Of the two, the “Palestinian” option was more likely, especially since the Clinton White House had taken it up with vigor, to the point where the Americans had become the go-between for both sides.
Rabin said he also supported the “Palestinian” option because the Syrians were demanding a complete withdrawal, whereas the PLO would settle for a partial return of “occupied” lands. Rabin made clear that he saw no security value in the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. As far as he was concerned, they were political ventures, and so their viability had to be measured based on their current political value, which included their full or partial removal.
As far as Rabin was concerned, it all came down to PLO Chairman Arafat’s ability to deliver security within the Palestinian Authority, especially his ability to control Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Foreign Minister Peres then shared his surprise that the PLO did not insist on uprooting the settlements. Having to attempt that would have presented an impossible situation, morally and physically. He suggested that in that context, it was for the better that the peace talks with Syria had not been concluded, because the Syrians would have demanded a return of everything, and then the “Palestinians” would have insisted on the same demand.
IT COULDN’T BE DONE WITHOUT MERETZ
The party with a dozen mandates that pushed Rabin to the Oslo Accords celebrated what was seen at the time as a historic victory over the right. “If we don’t defend this agreement, I’m not sure there will be many others who would volunteer to defend it,” declared Minister of the Environment Yossi Sarid. “Certainly, the questions asked here are legitimate and maybe even necessary, but we know from our experience that even if precise things do not come out, the atmosphere comes out, and if this agreement collapses, I see no more prospects for peace.”
Sarid turned to Chief of Staff Barak at the same cabinet meeting and rebuked him: “You can’t hold the stick at both ends. On the one hand, it’s an achievement that none of the settlements were uprooted, and they could have been uprooted, perhaps in Gaza, and on the other hand, you can’t say later that the settlements are complicating the situation.”
Looks like everybody at that meeting had some power of prophesy.
Not everyone. Education Minister Shulamit Aloni declared, I kid you not: “The security concerns were given maximum responses in the agreement as it is presented here, and I think they’ve been covered from all sides and should not raise the feeling that we are risking here more than the alternative.”
Israelis would soon face a new concept: “The Victims of Peace” (aka Sacrifices for Peace). It described the thousands of them who have lost their lives in the rivers of blood that washed through the country as a result of Oslo. The term had been coined before, but it was Shimon Peres who had the privilege of assigning it to Israelis who died because of his Oslo Accords. On October 11, 1993, at the opening of the second session of the Knesset, and following the murder of Israeli hikers in Wadi Kelt, Shimon Peres said of the victims that they “fell in the campaign for peace.”