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

Was Rabin Fooled by Arafat when They Signed the Oslo Accords?

Filed under: Israel, Palestinians
Publication: The Oslo Accords at 30: Lessons Learned

Was Rabin Fooled by Arafat when They Signed the Oslo Accords?
Cairo Agreement signing, May 4, 1994. Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin discovered that the PLO’s Yasir Arafat failed to sign a map of Jericho in the agreement. Arafat defiantly refused to sign despite urgings by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Arafat eventually signed. (Tsvika Israeli/Israel Government Press Office)

In one of my meetings with Arafat in Tunis, about two months after the signature of the Declaration of Principles (on the lawn of the White House in Washington), we spoke about the future of the negotiations. We dealt with the territorial dimension of the nascent Palestinian Authority (PA). To my dismay, Arafat told me that the future territory of the PA would stretch from Ein Gev in the north (on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee) to Ein Gedi (situated on the Dead Sea) in the south. Furthermore, he said that the hills overlooking Jericho (the Karantal Hills) were his, and he needed them to put “his antennas.” However, Arafat agreed magnanimously to allow Israel to put its antennas in the exact location. When I said this demand was utterly unknown to us, he replied, “Do you think I would have agreed to sign the Declaration of Principles?” Arafat added, “Abu ‘Alaa – his chief negotiator – had called him at night and said that the “Jews” were asking to keep the highway linking Jerusalem to the Dead Sea under their control. I agreed, knowing that the Israeli side had decided on the other issues!”

I could not believe my ears. Arafat was pointing at the territorial dimension of mandatory Palestine and claiming that Ein Gev was his as well as the whole territory extending from Jericho to Ein Gedi! I turned to my colleague, the assistant to the military secretary who accompanied me, and asked if he had written down all of Arafat’s interference. He answered in the affirmative! I knew at that time that I had triggered a land mine!

Back in Jerusalem, I briefed the Prime Minister about Arafat’s position. Rabin did not believe what his ears heard. He asked me to check with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I received three pages regarding the meetings in Oslo. There was no mention whatsoever of Arafat’s claims! Rabin listened to my investigation, but deep inside, I could see he did not believe me.

On the eve of the December 13, 1993, meeting in Cairo, I told Rabin we were running into a crisis because there was no way we could bridge our positions and Arafat’s. Rabin insisted on keeping the summit on time. He even intended to propose to Arafat to meet in the United States at Camp David under the auspices of the United States to reach a final agreement on implementing the Declaration of Principles.

As it happened, Rabin met with Arafat alone, face-to-face. Ten minutes later, he came out of the meeting, red with anger and furious at having been taken in by Arafat’s positions. Turning to the Israeli entourage, he said, “Jacques was right. Arafat really means what he said! Too bad I didn’t meet with Arafat before the Oslo agreements were signed! I would not have signed them!”

In the plenary session, Rabin said there were some issues we disagreed upon and proposed to Arafat to meet after ten days to see if there was a way to overcome the hurdles. Rabin did not mean to meet Arafat. It was his way of telling the other side that he was not ready to continue the course of negotiations. Arafat would complain later that Rabin had promised to meet him after ten days, and he did not fulfill his promise.

If this was so, the question arises about several issues: Was Rabin “fooled” by Arafat or by his own negotiators who did not report Arafat’s positions as expressed in his meeting with Rabin?

Rabin was not well-versed in the details of the understandings reached in Oslo. This was 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 actual 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 in by Arafat’s positions.

Looking at my work with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from the perspective of years, I try to understand how things happened. Did Rabin take the Palestinian track 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 fine details of the understandings that were presented there, and he did 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 question remains as to why Rabin stubbornly proceeded with the negotiations. In my view, there are several answers to that riddle:

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.” Rabin also felt he was endowed with the leadership ability his predecessors lacked. He saw himself as a path-breaker who would not just point the way but convince the Israeli public that his approach was right and would fulfill the dream of every Israeli who desired to live in peace. There was also a point that the only peace agreement signed between Egypt and Israel was concluded by the right-wing Likud party, headed by Menachem Begin. Rabin wanted to be remembered as another “peace-maker” and as the one who ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In August 1993, a senior Palestinian figure told Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed 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: its institutions were collapsing, and Arafat’s leadership was 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. 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. However, they were not conducted under American sponsorship but 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 nature 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 fundamental 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, Joel Singer, to the talks and told him to get involved in ironing out the terms. By then, though, the Declaration of Principles had already been signed, and there was very little left to do but give one’s blessing to a done deal.

Rabin: A “Reversible Agreement”

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 deal with the Palestinians was reversible. He reiterated that Israel could always return to the territory it was supposed to hand over to Arafat without risking an all-out, onerous war. This may have been his way of persuading 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 situation that had prevailed in the territories after the Six-Day War.

A primary reason must have been Rabin’s reluctance to return to the Israeli public and world opinion and declare he was pulling back from the agreement with the Palestinians. Rabin’s government leaning on a fragile majority of one Knesset Member would not have survived such a position that would have undermined his credibility as a leader. Furthermore, such a declaration would have been used by his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres and his eternal rival, who would have taken advantage of Rabin in the Labor Party.

Finally, Rabin did not consider Arafat’s positions as threatening, and to put it mildly, Rabin did not give them any importance as long as he knew that Israel’s positions were recognized and accepted. Arafat could claim whatever he wanted. There was no way Rabin would accept his whims. The campaign he initiated after the failure of the summit with Arafat and the positive feedback he received from world leaders, the United States, and some of the Arab countries led him to believe that Israel’s real protection against Arafat’s “fantasies” was the addendum to the Declaration of Principles, called “Agreed Minutes,” counter-signed by Arafat, which – as mentioned above – was his direct and most significant contribution to the Accords and was there to preserve Israel’s interests.

Between Rabin and Arafat, there was no love lost, and the romantic attempt to depict a genuine friendship with Arafat had no basis in reality. It was no more than a cold convergence of interests between two leaders, each with 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 establishing 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.

Looking back at the whole Oslo process, would Rabin have signed it today as he told his entourage in December 1993, knowing the consequences of two “intifadas” on the Israeli public, the corrupt and fractioned Palestinian Authority, the emergence of Hamas and the Islamic jihad in Gaza, the subversive activities of Iran and Hizbullah in Gaza and Judea and Samaria, the several military encounters with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and the thousands of rockets and incendiary balloons which landed in Israel, destroying buildings and burning crops?

Rabin was, first and foremost, a military man. He would not have hesitated to use the IDF to quell any uprising. His most significant error was to have let Peres and his team (of urbane, non-military “Blazers,” as they were nicknamed) lead him to an impossible situation and make him believe that genuine reconciliation was possible. On the first day of his arrival in Gaza, Arafat’s convoy was stopped: Arafat had in his car’s trunk three wanted terrorists. A few days later, a search in one of the planes that landed in the Dahaniyya airport, specially prepared to allow the Palestinians a direct link with the outside world, found a cache with unauthorized weapons smuggled to the Gaza Strip. Rabin should have known that Arafat would try every trick in the book to fool Israel. After the PLO was defeated in Lebanon by the IDF at the cost of hundreds of lives, ironically, Rabin was the one who opened the door of the territories to Arafat, mistakenly believing that the PLO leader had come to terms with the existence of Israel as a Jewish independent state.