Jacques Neriah, Between Rabin and Arafat: A Political Diary, 1993-1994

, March 8, 2017

Jacques Neriah,  Bein Rabin Le-Arafat: Yoman Medini, 1993-1994  (“Between Rabin and Arafat: A Political Diary, 1993-1994”) (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2016, Forward by Freddy Eitan, 399 pp.

From August 1992 until June 1994, Jacques Neriah served as the political adviser of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Neriah kept a diary during part of this period, and it was published several months ago. Although he was not involved in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that took place in Oslo in 1992-1993, Neriah’s diary provides fresh insight and interesting revelations. He enlightens the reader as to Rabin’s attitudes toward the Palestinians, the Americans, Shimon Peres, several Arab countries, the Europeans and Israeli politics. Furthermore, the diary presents interesting information that enables us to understand the personality of Prime Minister Rabin. For example, Neriah wrote that Rabin kept certain issues completely to himself, while selectively informing some of his staff about other matters. In fact, in order to get a fuller picture, the members of his staff used to exchange information with each other. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that during the two years that Jacques Neriah served as Rabin’s advisor, the Prime Minister never asked him about his wife or his children, and Neriah never talked to Rabin about his family. 

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Rabin was aware of the negotiations in Oslo, but at first he did not think they would succeed. He only became seriously interested them one month before the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993. At that point, Rabin asked Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) indirectly for clarifications regarding the procedures. Since Rabin did not know Arabic, Neriah translated many documents for him, including the answer from Mahmoud Abbas which assured Rabin that negotiations with the Palestinians would take place in two stages. Before his first meeting with Yasser Arafat, Rabin was informed that Arafat’s English was poor and that he preferred to have an interpreter present. Therefore, the Prime Minister invited Neriah to join him in order to make sure that the interpreter would translate Arafat’s Arabic correctly.  The diary states the Palestinians often regarded symbols as more important than content, such as Arafat’s request that Palestinian policemen be posted on the bridges over the Jordan River.

Neriah comes to the conclusion that Rabin’s motivation for negotiating with the Palestinians derived from the desire to prevent Israel from adding large numbers of Palestinians to its population and that he thought that a final agreement with the Palestinians could be reached without the establishment of a Palestinian state. At the time, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak, had many objections to an agreement because of his concerns with security and defense. While Rabin regarded security as a priority, he overruled Barak’s concerns.

Regarding the Americans, the diary states that the U.S. government wanted an agreement between Rabin and Syria’s President Hafez Assad. The latter, however, demanded that Israel withdraw completely from the Golan Heights. The Americans pressured Rabin to follow the Syrian track of negotiations. Nevertheless, Rabin was well aware that negotiating simultaneously with the Palestinians and with Syria was not possible in light of Israel’s internal political situation. According to Neriah, Rabin informed the Americans that any withdrawal from the Golan Heights would have to be ratified in a referendum by Israeli voters. With hindsight, in light of the recent developments and the protracted civil war in Syria it has become evident clear that Israel’s control of the Golan Heights is crucial for its security.

While Neriah is loyal to Rabin, he occasionally expresses criticism. For example, he did not approve of Rabin’s approach to the American political establishment. The Prime Minister was convinced that he would achieve his objectives by speaking directly with President Clinton and members of his administration. By bypassing Congress, Rabin enabled the Likud to set up a lobby in Congress against his policies. Regarding American Jewry, Rabin was suspicious of AIPAC.  However, he was open about his intentions with the heads of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish organizations. He also did not devote sufficient attention to important American Jewish leaders. They became a vociferous opposition against the Israel’s agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Surprisingly, Rabin also opposed strengthening the American friends of Israel’s Labor Party.

As far as the relationship between Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres is concerned, Neriah clearly is loyal to his boss, but judges Peres fairly. On occasion, he describes Peres positively. For example, in October 1993, when Neriah joined Peres and his entourage to meet the Palestinians in Cairo, he pointed out that Peres was the opposite of Rabin, who usually was silent during flights. In contrast, Peres was at ease, speaking with journalists and military personnel and even joking with the flight attendant. He exuded openness in every way.  Furthermore, Peres on the previous day chaired the preparatory session held in his office in a professional manner. First, the main points for the Cairo meeting were discussed in an orderly fashion, and afterward, he noted several more informal matters which would be raised at the meeting with the Palestinians. Peres allowed all who were present to express themselves freely and listened carefully. He gave the impression that he was willing to take their arguments seriously. Unlike Rabin, Peres did not seem to be competing with the participants as far as knowledge was concerned. Finally, the diary makes it clear that Shimon Peres invented the myth of his close relationship with Rabin during the three years before the latter was assassinated in 1995. Nothing in the book indicates that their relationship had ever warmed up.

Neriah’s diary also contains interesting revelations about relations with Arab leaders.  For example, in December 1993 Neriah was sent to Morocco to meet with King Hassan II in order to get his support for Israel’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The subject of international forces came under discussion. The King of Morocco said that he had been pressured to allow an international force to be placed in the Sahara. However, he adamantly refused and asserted that only he was responsible for defending the borders of his country. King Hassan also was highly critical of Palestinian plans to make Jerusalem into the capital of a Palestinian state and stressed that Jerusalem was an issue of importance for all of the Islamic world, not only for the Palestinians.

According to Neriah, the Egyptians had a low opinion of Yasser Arafat. Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouni, told Neriah that President Hosni Mubarak had informed Arafat that if he continued to take increasingly extreme positions in his negotiations with Israel, he would lose everything. Mubarak warned Arafat to listen carefully to Rabin because he would never find a better partner for negotiations and that he should keep his mouth shut and accept what Israel was willing to give him. Mubarak’s adviser, Osama Al-Baz even called Arafat a “convenience store owner from a small village.”

Regarding the Europeans, Neriah dismisses their frequent claims that if only Rabin had been in power instead of Netanyahu, European-Israeli relations would have gone better. According to Neriah, “Rabin was disgusted by the European institutions which used to condemn Israel automatically and even discriminate against it in comparison to their indulgent attitude toward Arab countries. His staff members knew in advance that every European issue which would be raised for discussion would receive a critical reaction from him.”  For example, when Yitzchak Rabin had a scheduled meeting with the new Secretary General of the Italian Socialist Party, Neriah told him that the guest is waiting outside. Rabin reacted gruffly: “Who needs this?” Neriah pointed out that it was the first visit to Israel of this Italian socialist and it may be worthwhile to meet with him. Rabin rebuffed Neriah: “What for? Europe today is worthless. It is only about economics and nothing else.” Rabin believed that Europe was two-faced and opportunistic. Europeans were willing to look in the other direction if it were a matter of a business deal, even in the case of a country that suppressed human rights or tried to obtain weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, Europe preached morality to Israel about its relations with the Palestinians.

According to Neriah, Rabin had a particularly negative opinion of the French. France was the first European country whose foreign minister received Arafat and it had supplied Iraq with a nuclear reactor. (Israel destroyed the reactor in 1981when Menachem Begin was prime minister.)  Rabin also was suspicious of Russia. Like Europe, he regarded the Russians as too involved in the region and too favorable toward the Arabs to play a balanced role in regional politics. It is noteworthy that while the West supplied Iran and Iraq with technology that could be used for military purposes, Russia never allowed technology that it transferred to Muslim countries to be given to the military.

Neriah deals with the well-known problems of Israeli politics as well. For example, various politicians from the Labor Party met and talked with Palestinians without Rabin’s authorization. They promised to convince Rabin to accept any concessions they proposed should the Palestinians agree. Finally, Neriah was sent to Arafat in order to inform him that whatever Rabin had not agreed to personally was worthless. This trip made Peres furious with Neriah, because Peres was among those who conducted unauthorized talks with the Palestinians. Sometimes meetings would take place between Israeli and Palestinian delegations even though it was clear that nothing would be achieved. Those present had to go through the motions. Another unpleasant feature of Israeli politics was on display in the United States when many members of the Israeli delegation complained about not being invited to specific dinners, meetings, and so forth. This led to considerable intrigue. Neriah describes the intrigue among the Palestinians as well, when members of Palestinian delegation made critical remarks about their fellow Palestinian colleagues.

 The diary is particularly valuable because Neriah wrote his observations in real time. Thus, the reader may often feel that he actually is present. For example, Neriah describes the meeting between Rabin and Arafat in Cairo some time after the signing of the agreement on the White House lawn. The members of the Palestinian and Israeli delegations were present before Rabin and Arafat entered the room. A minute passed in complete silence. Finally Shimon Sheves, the director general of Rabin’s ministry, broke the silence. He said: “We cannot sit here and say nothing,” and went over to the Palestinians and shook their hands.  During the meeting Rabin introduced the members of the Israeli delegation along with their titles. But when it came to Jacques Neriah, the Prime Minister said that he was from Lebanon. The Palestinians who had lived in Lebanon then became involved in an animated discussion. Neriah’s descriptions give the reader a feeling for the atmosphere of the meeting. Most of the time, it is polite and fairly constructive. However, Rabin scolds Hanan Ashrawi after she got on his nerves him by raising the same subject repeatedly.

Rabin emerges as a solid analyst, capable of reaching decisions, and a man of integrity. It is clear that human relations and  politics were not his strong suit – both as far as his own Labor party was concerned and in his dealings with American politics. Hopefully, the diary will be translated into English and other languages, and this would further contribute to our understanding of the inflexibility of current Palestinians positions.

About Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.