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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Oslo in the Perspective of 25 Years—the Dream and Its Demise: A Personal View from a Witness

Filed under: Israel, Palestinians
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 30, Numbers 1–2

I spent almost two years with Yitzhak Rabin as his political adviser. Twenty-three long and fateful months of intensive and stressful activity alongside an important Israeli leader who tried to reach a settlement with the Palestinians and the Syrians pragmatically, judiciously, and soberly.

I was not part of his inner circle. The role I played, however, enabled me to examine, ponder, and implement his conception of the world. Whenever I was called upon, and on almost every issue involving the diplomatic process, I did my best to carry out his directives faithfully and to convey the letter and spirit of his messages.

While serving beside him I became familiar with his political outlook. The book I published in 2016 under the title Between Rabin and Arafat: A Political Diary 1993-1994 (Hebrew) constitutes a summation of his words, deeds, and directives. Although I do not pretend to know more now than I did then, undoubtedly the distance from the focal point of activity in the Prime Minister’s Office, with the passing of 21 years, affords me a more objective view.

I learned from Rabin to distinguish between what is essential and what is frivolous. I learned the real meaning of holding fast to positions as well as the ability to be more flexible and reach a solution at the right time. Rabin had huge experience with negotiations; he was involved in them from the establishment of the state until his last day.

He was first and foremost a military man. He thought, worked, and operated as a soldier even though he removed his uniform 27 years before his assassination. The military habits of thought and behavior reached deep into his personality. Undoubtedly his worldview was derived from the norms of someone who had fought in the field, commanded thousands, and borne responsibility for the fate of great numbers of people. His political activity was directly influenced by this mindset.

Rabin was not an ideologue and certainly not a dogmatic, rigid, uncompromising thinker. He was a pragmatic statesman who knew how to adapt solutions to new situations. On one occasion he said, “It’s easier to talk about a canal linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea than about the web of economic ties between the Palestinians and Israel.” In that regard he saw himself as fulfilling the vision of the founding fathers: a Jewish state living in peace beside its Arab neighbors.

Already in 1992, when he became prime minister for the second time, he expressed great and genuine apprehension about what he called a “binational state.” Hence his supreme task was to put a stop to the “creeping annexation” of the territories—a policy that all Israeli governments since the Six-Day War have adopted in one way or another.

At the end of that war, in which he was the Israeli commander, Rabin came to the conclusion that he would succeed where his predecessors in the Labor movement had failed and bring peace to Israel. The circumstances of that period were conducive to that view: the public trust he had garnered, the international support he had received, and the weakness of his domestic political rivals.

Rabin also felt that he was endowed with the leadership ability that his predecessors had lacked. He saw himself as a path-breaker who would not just point the way but convince the Israeli public that his approach was the right one and succeed to fulfill the dream of every Israeli who desired to live.

Rabin believed that he would lay down his arms and apply all his willpower and energy to the task of ensuring that the Israeli people would no longer live by the sword.

Like many of the Israeli leaders, Rabin was a solitary man. He regarded those around him with suspicion, ensuring that he kept to himself. He ruminated deeply and came up with solutions that were a fruit of his isolation. He was well familiar with both Israel and the larger world. He observed the developments as someone who had undergone numerous, unique, and stirring experiences. He projected confidence and faith that led others to rely on his judgment, responsibility, and rich experience. Yet, unlike the hermits who live within the bubble of themselves, his feet were always firmly on the ground. He held fast to the reality from which he had developed and in which he functioned, and the solutions he presented always arose from a close examination of that reality and a quest for the truth.

Rabin aimed for achievements, but he was not prepared to make sudden, radical changes. He was not prepared to pay any price for a change. It was only when it appeared to him that the proportion between the achievement and the price would be tolerable from Israel’s standpoint, and would not jeopardize his government’s stability, that Rabin would undertake the task with all his energy and resolve.

Rabin was not an intellectual. He indeed felt scorn toward those who cast themselves as intellectuals. He never boasted about a book he had read, whether it was fine literature, political thought, philosophy, or poetry. If he read something he did not share the experience with those around him. He did, however, read a good deal of intelligence material and documents that were sorted for him by his immediate assistants.

Generally he would sign each document that was brought to him and record the date beside the signature. Sometimes he added a word of positive or negative assessment; sometimes he gave directives about work to be done; and sometimes he requested a discussion or consultation on an issue. He especially liked raw material, and he disdained written assessments. His experience with intelligence assessments had been disappointing, and he was not infrequently dismissive of them. More than he relied on the intelligence investigators, he trusted his own ability to analyze and judge. It was important to him to hear the opinions of key officials in the security, military, and intelligence establishment. He did not necessarily accept their opinions, but this was his way of testing his own assessments. He applied the test to all the senior officials of the security-military establishment who were subordinate to him, and he wanted to determine whether their opinions had not been influenced by their political, sectional, factional, or party worldview. As far as he was concerned, the information had to be free of personal inclinations and presented in a form that was pure as the driven snow.

No less worthy in his eyes was the knowledge of those who work in the field. He knew how to descend from the lofty heights of strategic assessments to the nitty-gritty occupation with details, especially when it came to investigations on the ground following clashes, terror attacks, or political and military developments. He assigned high credibility to those who worked in the field, and he usually saw the information they conveyed as the real truth.

Rabin, who came from the military school, believed in the military hierarchy and particularly in the authority pyramid prevailing in the different bodies engaged in the national assessment. As the first among equals, he saw himself as standing at the top of the pyramid and as the one who made the definitive decision.

As prime minister he had a plethora of open and covert sources that constantly plied him with information, but he knew how to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. He gave special attention to articles and reports on important events in the world at large, and unquestionably the Israeli media, both written and broadcast, played a significant role when he formulated his opinions and policy even though he did not always acknowledge it. He did not need a newspaper to know what was happening in Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis, or what the president of Lebanon or the president of Syria was up to. Nor did he have to read a newspaper to stay up-to-date on what was happening at the White House or in the political arena in Washington. Before each visit and for each meeting with national leaders, Rabin would usually receive an extensive briefing in person from the relevant Israeli ambassador.

Notwithstanding all that was said about his special attitude toward the United States, Rabin was well aware of other powers that shaped the world scene and affected Israel directly or indirectly, and first and foremost the role and might of Russia.

His first visit to China was an important milestone in his world travels. The photo of him leaning against the Great Wall of China reminded me of Theodor Herzl on the balcony at Basel. He loved that picture and it was specially displayed in the government’s meeting room in Jerusalem.

Rabin wanted to open new doors for Israel, and he emphasized the point that this was happening thanks to the peace process and the historic reconciliation with the Palestinians. Examples included the meetings in Indonesia with President Suharto, in Uzbekistan, or with Sultan Qaboos, ruler of Oman. The visits to world capitals were an important way to emplace Israel on the world map and promote the diplomatic process with all the Islamic countries.

I will not deny that I left the Prime Minister’s Office with a heavy heart. I wanted to keep being at the focal point of fateful decisions, but it turned out differently. My work with the prime minister was anathema to those who were not on my side. Day after day I had to deal with leaks to the media about reports I submitted to the prime minister. A large part of my time was devoted to denying claims that became obsessive. Aside from that, however, Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of compartmentalizing those who worked with him harmed my ability to function. I got tired of this game; I was not built for it, not thick-skinned enough.

When I look at my work with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the perspective of years, I try to understand how things really happened. Did Rabin take the Palestinian tack willingly, or was he swept into the diplomatic whirlpool that his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, had created? My work with Rabin leaves me with no doubt that he was aware of the contacts being held in Oslo, but not aware of the details of the understandings that were presented there, and he does not seem to have assigned enough importance to those understandings. To his chagrin, the Israeli political system was replete with political figures and academics trying their hand at independent contacts with PLO officials—something that yielded no results except for bits of gossip and information about the atmosphere prevailing in Yasser Arafat’s court.

The amateurish conversations and contacts that Israeli actors held with the PLO were a thorn in Rabin’s flesh and he viewed them with contempt.

Given the abundance of unofficial channels of communication with the PLO, it appeared that the negotiations conducted by Government Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein were no longer the real channel and that what Israel presented in them were opening positions only, while other, unofficial actors offered more flexible formulations that were eventually intended to gain the prime minister’s agreement and lead to a breakthrough. Indeed an American official expressed opposition to the various Israeli actors’ contacts with the PLO leaders, saying that contacts within “backdoor channels” caused damage to the process, sowed confusion, and weakened the position of the local leadership of the Palestinians.

In August 1993 a senior Palestinian figure told Egyptian Ambassador Bassiouni that “Israel is the one now providing oxygen to the PLO” and that otherwise the PLO would have died from a lack of resources, with its institutions collapsing and Arafat’s leadership being undermined. This information elated Rabin. In those days the prevailing feeling was that no settlement could be reached with the Palestinians, and that was presumably how Rabin regarded the group conducting the talks in Oslo until it turned out real progress had been made there. From Rabin’s standpoint the Oslo talks met two of the three conditions he had stipulated for the success of any negotiations with an Arab actor: nothing had leaked from them and they were being held with a separate Palestinian delegation, though they were not being conducted under American sponsorship but rather with Norwegian assistance. This replicated the relationship Moshe Dayan had forged with Egyptian General Tuhami in Morocco on the way to the Camp David Accords.

The structure of Rabin’s personality, his obsessive suspicion, the compartmentalization he practiced, his low esteem for intelligence assessments, his tense relations with the chief of Military Intelligence, and the fact that no one knew about the negotiations being held in Oslo—all this encouraged him to continue his policy of concealment. There was, however, one basic difference: when he learned that the contacts had led to an agreement on a Declaration of Principles, Rabin hastened to add the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry, Yoel Zinger, to the talks and told him to get involved in ironing out the terms. By that time, though, the Declaration of Principles had already been signed and there was nothing left to do but give one’s blessing to a done deal.

As for the information that he lacked, Rabin gleaned it from the direct talks that were held with Arafat after the signing of the Oslo agreements, and particularly from the lengthy meeting he held with Arafat in Cairo in December 1993, during which he was able to learn in detail about the PLO chairman’s expectations of Israel.

Today many ask what Rabin would have done regarding the Palestinian situation if his tenure had not been cut off by a murderous hand. Despite his desire to separate from the Palestinians, I am convinced that Rabin would not have hesitated to use force against the PLO or against Hamas as he did while serving as defense minister. He would not have made the slightest concession on Israel’s security, even if it meant no agreement could be achieved with the Palestinians.

Rabin was not well versed in the details of the understandings that had been reached in Oslo. This was well evident to me several times when I tried to clarify what had been said on the sidelines at Oslo, and if indeed Arafat had been given the promises there that he brandished later when trying to get around obstacles. The ambiguity of the Declaration of Principles was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because Rabin did not know Arafat’s real positions, he made a point of adding to the Declaration of Principles a protocol called the “Agreed Minutes” that became an integral part of the document. He was known to say that if not for this protocol the Declaration of Principles would have become a “national disaster.” Indeed, in hindsight one cannot know what would have happened if Rabin and Arafat had met before the document was signed. More gravely, after the failed summit with Arafat in December 1993, Rabin was furious at having been taken aback by Arafat’s positions. Turning to the Israeli entourage, he said, “Too bad I didn’t meet with Arafat before the Oslo agreements were signed! I would not have signed them!”

Undoubtedly I was lucky to be at the most important junction of events in Israeli history since the peace treaty with Egypt. I played a significant role in a historical process that was supposed to bring about a separation between us and the Palestinian people. On the Friday before the signing of the Oslo agreements at the White House, the prime minister explained that, unlike peace agreements with Syria and other countries, the agreement with the Palestinians was reversible. He reiterated that Israel could always return to the territory it was supposed to hand over to Arafat, without taking the risk of an all-out, onerous war. This may have been his way of trying to persuade his opponents to adopt his approach to the Palestinians. But the reality that emerged after 1993 proved that there was already no way to go back to the reality that had prevailed in the territories after the Six-Day War.

Even after Hamas took over Gaza, and particularly after several military assessments that were conducted regarding Gaza and the West Bank, not one of the prime ministers who came after Rabin called for a return to the territories that had been transferred to the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo agreements—the agreements that effected a separation, though not a complete one, between us and the Palestinians. Whether we want it this way or not, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank are not living under Israeli sovereignty, and no one in Israel desires to turn the clock back and return to Gaza and the Palestinian cities, renew the glory days of the Civil Administration, and assume responsibility for the lives of about four million Palestinians who live in those places. That is the real legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and we have no choice but to live with it.

Between Rabin and Arafat there was no love lost, and the romantic attempt to depict a true friendship with Arafat had no basis in reality. It was no more than a cold convergence of interests between two leaders each of whom had his own agenda. Rabin spoke of separation and peace, not about the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. Until his last day he remained to the depths of his soul a general who held a sword, but he was certainly prepared to try the diplomatic channel. Rabin did not call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and definitely not on the 1967 borders. He spoke of a political entity—a little more than an autonomy and less than a state—that would be obligated by federative or confederative agreements with Israel and Jordan.

We also cannot know what would have happened in the Syrian track, where the Americans constantly pressured Israel to show more flexibility. I am convinced that Rabin would not have withdrawn from the Golan Heights. Several times he stated explicitly that he could not have withstood the domestic political pressure if he had gone for an agreement with Syria. I am furthermore convinced that Rabin did not want to go down in the pages of history as the one who had ceded the Golan Heights. Not for nothing did he state clearly that he did not envy whoever would decide on a withdrawal from the Golan. He was convinced that he would not be the one to sign the document of withdrawal with Hafez al-Assad.

Rabin was concerned first and foremost about Israel’s security. All of his decisions and the entire world of his thoughts stemmed from his desire to ensure Israel’s security. He was prepared for difficult political concessions on one condition only: that they would not harm Israel’s security and its Jewish and democratic character.

The news about Rabin’s assassination came to me in the midst of a conference in the United States. I tried in every way to return to Israel but without success. Eventually I found myself stuck at Charles de Gaulle Airport facing a large television showing a live broadcast of the funeral procession. I was then reminded of things he had once said in reprimand to Arafat, when the latter complained to him that people were tearing up and burning pictures of him in city squares in the Arab and Islamic world. Rabin replied to his interlocutor, “I am aware that there are extremist Jewish circles that would want me dead. They are even training with live fire on an image of me wearing a keffiyeh…. I am not afraid of them. I will continue in my path despite their opposition because the role of leaders is to lead their people, and that is the reason for which they were chosen.”

Those words echo in my mind to this very day, 25 years after the signing in Oslo.

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  • This article is the last chapter of the author’s book Between Rabin and Arafat: A Political Diary 1993-1994 (2016, Hebrew). It has undergone some necessary reediting and revision.