This document is one in a series of publications addressing the role played by Israeli intelligence at strategic, fateful junctures in Israeli history. The previous document, written by Brig. Gen. Amos Gilboa, dealt with the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. In the present case as well, which concerns the role of intelligence in the process leading to Prime Minister Rabin’s 1993 decision on the Oslo agreement, it emerges that while intelligence engages in a collection and research effort aimed at understanding the Arab side’s way of thinking, and may thereby enrich the decision-makers’ thinking about the fateful issues they confront, prime ministers prefer to keep a considerable part of the political picture to themselves and do not ask intelligence and its leaders to directly address the decisions on the agenda. Rabin, for his part, did not update the intelligence chiefs about the Oslo process, and even when they discovered its existence, he did not inform them of its contents or ask for their views.
At the heart of the document is the personal testimony of Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, who served during the relevant period as political adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office and kept a diary in which he recorded the events in the office as he experienced them. Jacques, a senior research officer in Military Intelligence (Aman), who, before coming to Rabin’s office, served among other things as the assistant for assessment of the head of the Research Department, which meant he was responsible for the diplomatic research, was privy to many sensitive activities. Hence his perspective affords special insight into the issue of the relations between the national leader and intelligence. Having recently published a more comprehensive book as well, in the present document Jacques focused on the issue of intelligence and the national leader while also presenting the broader contexts.
In addition, the document includes a chapter on how the Research Department viewed the Palestinian issue. This was made clear by the documents that the department presented at the time and by the overview written by the head of Military Intelligence in that period, Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, who also offered some of his perspectives in his book Lights in the Fog, published in 1998.
The purpose of this series of publications is not only to better understand what happened, but also to try and learn what can be done so that intelligence inputs will be properly taken into account. The document’s epilogue discusses some lessons and ideas in that context.
Rabin and the Intelligence Services on the Eve of the Oslo Accords from Jacques Neriah’s Standpoint
I spent two years in the vicinity of Yitzhak Rabin (from August 1992 to May 1994). Twenty-two long and fateful months of intensive and nerve-wracking activity alongside an Israeli leader who worked to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Jordanians. While I was not part of his inner circle, the tasks I performed enabled me to observe, learn, and implement his approach and outlook. Each time I was required to do so, on almost every issue having to do with the diplomatic process, I tried my hardest to faithfully carry out his directives and convey his messages.
During my service alongside him, I became familiar with his political outlook through daily note-taking, speeches, commentaries, and separate statements in response to particular events or to remarks by leaders he met with. I would record the items in my personal diary, a sort of private documentation of the emergent history. From a certain standpoint these records also constitute a summation of words, deeds, and directives in general during that turbulent period. Although I do not purport to know more than what I knew then, undoubtedly the time—more than 20 years—that has elapsed since my work in the Prime Minister’s Office affords me a more objective view.
I learned much from Rabin, particularly the need to distinguish between what is secondary and what is important. I learned what it really meant to hold fast to positions, and, at the same time, how to be flexible and arrive at a solution. Rabin carried a huge trove of experience in negotiations, having been involved in several of them since Israel was established. Some were held at the end of wars; others opened the path to peace with our Arab neighbors.
Much has been said and written about the emergence of the Oslo Accords. Many have also pondered what factors caused Yitzhak Rabin not to inform either the different intelligence agencies or the heads of the defense establishment about his political moves vis-à-vis the talks that were held with PLO officials, which ultimately became known as the Oslo Accords. That Rabin kept them out of the loop is undeniable.
To understand why Rabin made this choice, one must first, in my view, understand the context in which he operated, his outlook, his historical experience, and also—perhaps most important—his attitudes toward the different figures who represented key positions at that time.
When Rabin took office as prime minister in the summer of 1992, it was after 15 years of Likud rule, whether alone or in a unity government with the Labor Party. The left-wing camp had now again been elected to lead Israel on its own. The “blocking coalition” that this camp had created in the Knesset was a kind of miracle that would not repeat itself; most of the politicians of the Labor-led coalition indeed saw it that way.
For Yitzhak Rabin this entailed a certain closure. In 1977 he had had to resign before completing his term as prime minister. It was he who handed the reins of governance to the Right. Now the wheel had turned again, and the Right had to hand him the reins. This time Rabin was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He would complete a full four-year term and even more. Not infrequently the prime minister would reiterate those points, particularly when the meetings that were planned for him were held on Fridays. Rabin would grow impatient, look at his watch, and even declare to his hosts that he had already lost the prime ministership because of Sabbath desecration and did not intend to do so again.
Also not to be ignored is the human factor involved in Rabin’s attitude toward his political rivals from the Right. The only peace treaty that had been signed between an Arab country and Israel was the one with Egypt, and all the credit for it went to the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Israeli Left, with the Labor movement at its forefront, had always been in favor of reaching peace with the Arabs, but unlike the Right, which had been able to attain the peace with Egypt, the Labor governments had never managed to do so. A long list of factors and basic problems, and to a not inconsiderable extent, errors as well—many of which had reflected mistaken assessments of the regional and international environment as well as a lack of leadership and daring—were responsible for the fact that the governments of the Labor movement had only paved the way but never achieved a single actual result.
The historical perspective provided by the lessons of the Egyptian-Israeli peace, and by the precedents the Right had created, made Rabin’s task easier. He knew how to make use of the heated debate about the future of the Land of Israel. Indeed Rabin more often quoted the words and mentioned the deeds of Begin than the words and deeds of the leaders of the Labor movement. In fighting for his outlook and his policy, Rabin also made use of Begin’s rhetorical skills. Moreover, Rabin often asserted to the right-wing camp that he had managed to obtain better terms for Israel than the right-wing governments had. He was referring particularly to Begin’s consenting to uproot the Sinai settlements in return for the peace treaty with Egypt.
Rabin was convinced that he would be able to survive for four years as prime minister and made every effort to ensure that this was the case. He was not happy, to put it mildly, about having to lead a narrow government without the Shas Party or some other party such as Tzomet. Although he knew his government had an awkward composition, for lack of an alternative he preferred a government with a mere one-vote majority to possibly having to compromise his positions in order to add a problematic partner to the coalition. He tried for a long time, however, to get Rafael (Raful) Eitan, leader of Tzomet, to join the government, and he invested countless hours in an attempt to find a common denominator that would enable Shas to return to it. Yet all these efforts came to naught.
I often heard the prime minister reiterate to foreign guests: “A majority of one is a majority.” He would then immediately lean back in his armchair and smile a little. A bit uneasy and a bit amused, as if awaiting his listeners’ reply, he would ask them: “So? What do you say about that?”
Generally Rabin felt very good about being prime minister. Despite the many and lengthy hours, the exhausting schedule that would have worn out any young person, he enjoyed the job. To the best of my recollection he did not miss a single day of work during his service as prime minister. At most, when not feeling well, he would disappear for a few hours after countless pleas from his close aides. To former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who commented to him about the stress involved in his work, Rabin said: “Nobody forced me to be in this role. It’s my choice and I enjoy every moment.” Many of the visitors, who knew him from his “political desert” period, noted the difference in his prime ministerial deportment compared to the past. Rabin would always smile, and everyone around him, sensing the special vitality that filled him, would infer that it came from the wonderful fit between the person and the job, a matter of the right man in the right place.
In the summer of 1992 there was much innocent enthusiasm among the leaders of the Labor Party. The return to rule was intoxicating. In their view, the years of Likud rule under Yitzhak Shamir had, in light of his “Sit and do nothing” policy, gone to waste. It was “time for a change”—the slogan that had been bruited during the election campaign. Rabin was supposed to be the engine of change, recharging the batteries that had been neglected. No one was particularly concerned that he was 70 years old when he took office. He himself did not feel any limitations of age and behaved as if at the peak of his powers. The public, for its part, saw the prime minister as a commanding and responsible figure who was worthy of leading it. No one asked themselves whether a man at such an age was capable of altering positions that he had held for years. No one wondered about his ability to bring about the longed-for change. And this was despite the fact that the world’s great military leaders and reformers, from Alexander of Macedonia to Napoleon and others, were barely even 30 years old when they reached the summit of their activity.
The expectations of Rabin were great. The public and most of the politicians, who were aware of the weight of his responsibility, believed that this time he would be able to meet all the great challenges confronting Israel.
Rabin was first and foremost a military man. He thought, worked, and operated as a soldier, even though he took off his uniform 27 years before his murder. Such habits of thought and behavior were deeply rooted in him.
Generally speaking, Rabin believed in hands-on activity and respected all those for whom it was paramount. Undoubtedly his worldview was derived from the norms of someone who had fought in the field, commanded thousands to follow him, and held responsibility for the lives of great numbers of people. His attitude toward political activity was directly influenced by his military past. All who viewed the world as he did could take part in the same special experience and, naturally, join him in the work.
Yitzhak Rabin was not an ideologue and certainly not a dogmatic thinker. He was a statesman, a pragmatic person who knew how to adjust solutions to new situations. Rabin was not messianic and did not present himself as a man of vision. On one occasion he said: “It’s easier to talk about a canal that will connect the Red Sea and the Dead Sea than about the fabric of the economic relations between the Palestinians and Israel.” He saw himself as someone who would realize the vision of the founding fathers: a Jewish state living in peace beside its Arab neighbors.
Upon taking office as prime minister for the second time, Rabin expressed great and authentic anxiety about what he called a “binational state.” Hence his supreme task was to stop the policy of “creeping annexation” of “the territories,” a policy that had been adopted in one way or another by all the Israeli governments since the Six-Day War.
Rabin believed that, unlike his predecessors in the Labor movement, he would succeed where they had failed and bring the Israeli people the coveted peace. The time for this was right thanks to the public credit he had accrued, the unique regional and international circumstances (a unipolar world after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the First Gulf War, which had weakened Israel’s foes in the region), the international support he had garnered, and the weakness of his political opponents on the Right.
Rabin felt he had leadership traits that were lacking in his predecessors, and that he, as the standard-bearer, would not only point the way but could also convince the Israeli public that it was the right way. He would succeed at realizing what he regarded as the time-honored dream of every Israeli who loved life. He would lay down the sword and do his utmost so that the Israeli people would no longer live by the sword.
Like many of Israel’s leaders, Rabin was a loner. His obsessive suspiciousness toward the people around him rendered him a solitary person. Rabin was well familiar with Israel and with the world at large. He observed events from the perspective of someone who had already undergone many unique and stirring experiences. Hence he exuded a confidence that he could easily rely on his own judgment, responsibility, and rich experience. He thought deeply within himself and the solutions he offered were a product of that solitude. He did not, however, see himself as someone living inside a bubble, but as someone who always had his feet on the ground. He remained faithful to the reality in which he had developed and functioned, and the solutions he presented were all an outcome of direct learning and a search for truth.
Rabin aimed for achievements, but he was not prepared to make immediate, radical changes just for the sake of change and certainly was not prepared to pay any price for them. It was only when it appeared to him that the relation between the achievement and the price was tolerable from Israel’s standpoint, and did not endanger the stability of his government, that he would fully commit himself to the task and invest all his energy and strength in it.
Rabin was not an intellectual and he felt not a little disdain toward those who flaunted themselves as such. Unlike, for instance, Shimon Peres, he never preened before any audience regarding a book he had read, whether it was fine literature, political thought, philosophy, or poetry, and if he read he did not talk to anyone about it. Nevertheless, as prime minister, Rabin read a good deal of intelligence documents that were sorted for him both by his bureau chief and his military secretary. He would closely peruse every document that was passed on to him. The fact that it had reached his desk meant it was of importance, a message the prime minister needed to know. Generally he would sign each document that was conveyed to him and record a date beside the signature. Sometimes he added a positive or negative assessment, sometimes directives, and sometimes a request for a discussion or consultation on a matter brought to his attention.
Rabin especially loved raw material and loathed written assessments. His experience with intelligence assessments had been disappointing, and often enough he dismissed them. More than he relied on intelligence researchers, he trusted his own analytical and judgmental ability. He had respect for major figures in intelligence—for example, former head of Aman (Military Intelligence) Aharon Yariv—but went solely by his own assessments and judgment. At the same time, it was important to him to hear the opinions of key officials in the security, military, and defense establishment. This did not necessarily mean he would accept their opinions, but it was a way of testing his own assessments. He put to the test all the senior figures of the security-military establishment who were directly subordinate to him, wanting to hear with his own ears whether their opinion was influenced or derived from a political, sectional, factional, or political-party outlook. Information, he believed, was supposed to be detached from personal influences and to be provided in totally pure form.
No less important in his eyes was knowledge of the facts on the ground. Whatever the lofty heights of strategic assessment, he had an almost compulsive concern with fine details, especially with regard to investigations in the field after clashes, terror attacks, or just diplomatic or military events or developments. Rabin also ascribed high credibility to those with field assignments and usually saw the information they supplied as indisputable truth. As a product of the military world, Rabin believed in the military hierarchy and particularly in the pyramid of authority within the different entities dealing with national assessment. For him, the first among equals was the person at the top of the pyramid, and his opinion was decisive.
As prime minister he received a constant, voluminous flow of information from open and covert sources, and given his experience and insight he could immediately tell the wheat from the chaff. Undoubtedly the written and broadcast Israeli media played an important role in formulating his opinion. Rabin would devote special attention to articles and reports covering major events in the world at large. He was not interested in articles by publicists, except for a few elite journalists whom he especially esteemed and appreciated. He also was interested in the fate of politicians he knew personally and followed their political or electoral moves. Clearly he did not need a newspaper to know what was really happening in the headquarters of Yasser Arafat, with the president of Lebanon, or the president of Syria; nor did he need a newspaper to keep up-to-date on what was happening in the White House or in the Washington political arena. Before every visit or meeting with national leaders he would receive a lengthy rundown from the relevant Israeli ambassadors, usually in the form of a conversation.
In his role as defense minister, Rabin was a different person. Before every meeting or trip aimed at forging security ties, dealing with security exports or imports, he would get briefings orally and in writing from the top foreign relations official of the Defense Ministry, the director-general of the Defense Ministry, and from others engaged in assessment. Before each meeting he always requested that the diplomatic and political ramifications be included in all the briefings, even those that only concerned technological matters.
The same is true of the meetings that Yitzhak Rabin held with the hundreds of guests he encountered while serving as prime minister. However, unlike the “important” meetings, in these cases the prime minister sufficed with a written briefing that was written in the office of the diplomatic adviser, in coordination with the personnel connected to the issue. If he had the time, he would read the document and mark some of its important points. If that was not possible, he would ask for an abbreviated oral update about the person and the subject of the conversation.
The prime minister devoted hundreds of hours to meetings with foreign guests. His patience was remarkable, and his ability to repeat the same diplomatic declarations, sometimes up to five times a day with many and varied groups, was amazing. For Rabin, the unmediated encounters with visitors from abroad served as a barometer for how the world related to his government and to Israel—and, more important, as an inexhaustible source of information that was stored in his phenomenal memory.
Rabin had knowledge of the world through his personal acquaintance with statesmen, politicians, artists, actors, and thinkers who met with him over the years, and through his experiences during countless visits he made to the countries of the world. His memory was legendary. Not infrequently he would surprise his guests from distant countries with stories from a visit he had made thirty years earlier, and he evoked astonishment with references to statesmen from those countries whom he had met way back then. Rabin would ask how they were doing, and he took great interest in those countries’ political affairs. For him the frequent meetings with national leaders were an opportunity for updating and learning. He was particularly curious about upcoming elections, interested in the arrays of forces in the various parliaments, and keen on understanding how the European machine operated.
Despite the importance of his unmediated learning about the international and regional environment, Rabin’s database relied first and foremost on the entities working under him. These were orderly and disciplined in their functioning, while competing with each other in the manner of all the governmental entities in the world. They constituted the prime minister’s ongoing link with the outside world, and there was no substitute for them. It was no slip of the tongue when the prime minister, asked in the summer of 1994 how he felt about my resigning from his office, said: “One more or one less adviser does not make a great difference. I’m sorry about his leaving, but there is an orderly system in which the prime minister works with an existing hierarchy. Chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, head of Military Intelligence…”
Not coincidentally, Rabin chose to leave the position of head of the national security team vacant after Haim Asa’s resignation. This position was a direct outcome of the recommendations of the Agranat Commission, which investigated the intelligence failures in the Yom Kippur War. The post was supposed to offer the prime minister an additional “safety valve” when weighing intelligence assessments and particularly their credibility. The Likud government anchored the position in law, and indeed it had been filled at all times since then. Rabin, who understood the complexity of producing an intelligence picture, was not eager to add another person to the advisory pyramid, fearing that this would spark disputes with the traditional assessment entities. An overly dominant personality would sooner or later have clashed with the other intelligence entities, while a gray personality would have had nothing to offer. Moreover, the head of the team was supposed to formulate his assessments independently. To that end he had to receive raw intelligence material just like the other heads of the intelligence entities. Hence the head of the team needed a mechanism around him that would help in crafting the assessment. That, in turn, would entail establishing an additional intelligence entity that could well clash in its assessments with the many intelligence entities and existing mechanisms in Israel. This scenario was not acceptable to the prime minister, who was also the defense minister, directly responsible for the IDF and Aman, and he rejected it out of hand.
It is worth noting that during the Likud government that preceded Rabin’s government, the national security team headed by Elyakim Rubinstein dealt with basic issues that were not the daily concern of the intelligence services. When Rabin took office, the old team was dissolved and a different one was set up with Haim Asa at the helm. But the intelligence entities’ lack of cooperation and the prime minister’s lack of support led eventually to the end of its activity.
In general, Rabin did not want a plenitude of advisers. He relied on himself, on his own judgment and analytical ability. He felt sufficiently sure of himself to forgo the presence of experts, especially those who had not been with him during his long political career. Moreover, as defense minister, Rabin was entitled to all the advisory services within the military establishment along with those of the Mossad and the Shabak (Israel Security Agency), which he was directly in charge of as prime minister.
That was how Rabin operated. It was hard to reach him, hard to win his trust, and hard to persuade him or to dissuade him from things he had made up his mind about in advance.
It is not clear whether, in the summer of 1992, Rabin’s assessment was that he would reach a peace treaty with Jordan or shake the hand of Arafat on the White House lawn in Washington. At the same time, it is clear that already at the start of his second term as prime minister, he intended to put his full moral and political weight behind the effort to achieve a breakthrough to the much-desired peace.
Many have tried to explain the dramatic change that occurred in Rabin on the issue of talks with the PLO, and his famous handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn, by saying he was dragged along by Shimon Peres. Undoubtedly there is a grain of truth in this view. At the same time, it bears emphasizing that from his first day as prime minister, Rabin was convinced of the necessity of first reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. As he saw it, they constituted the heart of the conflict, and an agreement with them would divest the Arab states of the main motive for going to war—ostensibly to “get back the land stolen by Israel”—and enable the forging of diplomatic relations with them. This was clear to those in Rabin’s vicinity; he did not hide his preference for solving the Palestinian problem. He was also disdainful toward all those who asked him whether it was desirable to establish ties with Arab states that were not democratic. To this Rabin would reply: “And what are the alternatives? If I have to wait until democracy prevails in the region, will I wait another generation? Another hundred years? Look at what happened in Iran…. So I will always prefer a moderate regime to wild extremism.”
Furthermore, Rabin preferred the Palestinian track because he thought that any solution reached with the Palestinians would be reversible. This was because of the contiguity of the land in question, the Israeli control over external security, the absence of a Palestinian army, and the possibility of a quick return by the IDF to territories that would be handed to the Palestinians. In his eyes, a peace settlement with an Arab state would specify borders and hence would always be irreversible; a return to the status quo ante would require a war. Moreover, he believed in a federative solution with the future Palestinian entity. Such a solution would be based on self-determination for the Palestinians and their integration into the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian economic-political system. In an agreement with Syria, however, it would not be possible to impose normalization and trade relations, but at most to lay the groundwork for the future.
Pragmatically speaking, in light of the damage that could be caused by a unilateral attempt to change the format of the peace talks, Rabin chose to continue the Madrid format. It had enabled the convening of the Madrid Summit in October 1991, and it was supposed to provide a framework for progress toward peace relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors and enable coexistence with the Palestinians in “the territories.” Already in August 1992, Rabin had dispatched all of the negotiating teams to Washington to renew the peace talks with the Arab delegations, with one change: as head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Syrians he appointed Itamar Rabinovich instead of Yossi Ben-Aharon, who had been director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Shamir’s tenure. He did not alter the other teams and allowed Elyakim Rubinstein, the government secretary, to continue as head of the negotiating team with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and Uri Lubrani as head of the negotiating team with Lebanese representatives.
In retrospect, it can be said that Prime Minister Rabin accorded all the negotiating teams a merely symbolic importance because he did not see the “Madrid process” as an appropriate formula for reaching peace with all of Israel’s neighbors.
The atmosphere in the different delegations was tense, marked by distrust toward the Arab interlocutors. The power games among the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation continued, and the rift between the representatives of the territories and those of PLO-Tunis was foreseeable. Only on the Syrian front was there a real change. The new atmosphere, and especially the reports on statements about the peace issue by the head of the Syrian delegation, Muwafiq Alaf, quickly became the talk of the town in Jerusalem. The possibility of a breakthrough with the Syrians came as a major surprise.
This is the place to note the special contribution of the head of Aman, Gen. Uri Saguy, who assumed the position in 1991 and, through his representatives, followed after the work of the negotiating teams in Madrid and afterward in Washington. Uri Saguy took a very clear stance in favor of a peace process with Syria. Such a process would eventually ensure a settlement with Lebanon and create a ring of peace around Israel. Saguy believed that negotiations with the Palestinians were pointless. In each briefing of the prime minister he made sure to emphasize the tumult among the Palestinians, the wars between personalities, the confrontation between the “inside” and the leadership in Tunis, Arafat’s lack of credibility, and so on—in contrast to the order and discipline prevailing in Syria. In Syria there were “those you could trust.” President Assad had proved that he could uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces agreement between Israel and Syria. In brief, in Damascus there was an address, whereas in Tunis there was no one to be trusted.
As noted, the possibility of a breakthrough in the negotiations with Syria fired the imagination. On September 9, 1992, Rabin said in response to a question in the Knesset: “We have deep disagreements with Syria but there is the beginning of a dialogue.” About the Palestinians, however, Rabin declared in the Knesset on October 26, 1992: “I fear that again the Palestinians are making a mistake with their illusions, they are again having hallucinations.” On the Syrian issue he stated more forthrightly:
You ask what we have proposed in the negotiations with the Syrians? Indeed the format that was set by the previous government before the Madrid Summit has been maintained, but we will make an effort to give it new contents. We have determined that our goal is a real peace treaty with Syria. We said that Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 are applicable to achieving peace with Damascus. The meaning of that statement is that we are prepared for the IDF to withdraw to secure and recognized boundaries. I emphasize: a withdrawal on the Golan Heights, but not from the Golan Heights. However, we will not discuss the location of borders with the Syrians, we will not draw maps as long as Syria does not fulfill at least two conditions:
The first condition: that Syria will be prepared to sign a full peace treaty with Israel, which will include open borders for the movement of people and goods, diplomatic relations including embassies, normalization of relations between the two states and the two peoples, and appropriate security arrangements.
The second condition: a peace treaty with Syria will stand on its own two feet and not be conditional on the development of the peace negotiations with the other Arab delegations.
Up to this moment, as of today, Syria has not expressed willingness to meet those conditions. Herein I say to the members of this house, that so long as there is no agreement to those conditions from Damascus, the negotiations will continue, but according to our ways and our positions.
The wave of terror perpetrated by Hamas at the end of 1992, along with the expulsion of 415 of its operatives to southern Lebanon, led to the end of the talks in Washington. Additional terror attacks carried out at the beginning of 1993 led Rabin to declare a long-term curfew in the territories, a step that brought about a freeze in the talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. In July 1993, Operation Accountability effectively put an end to the Madrid formula.
That may have been what Rabin was striving for from the start. He never felt comfortable with the Likud legacy for the format of the negotiations that was determined in Madrid. He did not like it but could not unilaterally abrogate it. He did not believe it would ever be possible to make progress when all the Arab participants appeared together for talks. He claimed that in such a situation no Arab side would dare to make progress for fear of being accused of treason. Each Arab side would monitor the other, and this was an ideal prescription for a lack of progress and for merely marking time.
Rabin thought differently and adduced, for example, his personal experience as a member of the Israeli delegation to the 1949 armistice talks that were conducted on the island of Rhodes after the War of Independence. More than once he pointed to the fact that the logical prescription for progress consisted of step-by-step negotiations with all the Arab states.
Apparently the chiefs of intelligence and of the defense establishment did not pay heed to an interview Rabin gave to the IDF weekly Bamahane on September 29, 1992, in which he said:
When I was defense minister in the National Unity Government a different format for the peace process was used. Whoever looks into the history of the relations between the Arab states and Israel since the War of Independence will find that in none of the international summits did we achieve peace. Even if there was a limited agreement, like the armistice. Sitting opposite you is a person who was a member of the delegation to the first negotiations between the state of Israel, which was not yet a year old, and Egypt. We sat in February and March 1949 and reached an agreement. We finished with the Egyptian delegation, we sat with the Jordanians. In the negotiations with the Syrians we no longer needed to go to Rhodes. One meeting was held on the Israeli side, at Rosh Pina, and a second meeting—at the Syrian customs house, which at that time was located in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights; the talks with Lebanon were held in Nakura. That is, there too we did not have to remove ourselves from the region.
After that there was a 25-year drought; the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War did not end in agreements. Only after the Yom Kippur War was there a return to agreements. We signed a Separation of Forces agreement with Egypt, and after that we began negotiations with Syria. Then came the Sinai Interim Agreement, then Camp David, and then the peace treaty was signed…. Since 1979 no agreement has been signed except a stillborn one on May 17, 1983, the peace treaty with Lebanon that was already null and void before the ink of its signers had dried.
The Madrid Summit is an international-conference format with all the shortcomings entailed. The three Arab delegations—Jordanian-Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese—come together at the same time and the same place. Because this situation creates a linkage that spells danger, the format is not ideal. It was pressure on the Shamir government that produced the format, and I inherited it. There is no doubt that it is not ideal. Therefore we insist that each negotiation with the Arabs stand by itself.
Rabin asserted that only clandestine contacts, far from the media spotlight, could lead to the long-desired agreements. He would reiterate countless times that the peace with Egypt could not have been reached without the prior meetings between Moshe Dayan and Hassan Tuhami in Morocco. The same held true for Oslo and for the peace treaty with Jordan. Moreover, Rabin believed that without intensive American involvement no peace negotiations would reach their ultimate goal.
Both in private conversations and in open declarations, the prime minister would point to the peace agreements with Egypt as an example of the advantages of separate or step-by-step negotiations, and to the complexity that characterizes all negotiations, requiring secrecy. He would emphasize especially that President Carter had to come personally to Cairo, to Jerusalem, and back to finalize all the understandings that were reached between Israel and Egypt before the peace treaty was signed in Washington on March 26, 1979. Without Carter’s personal involvement it is doubtful whether the gaps between the sides could have been bridged, even despite the fact that Israel had agreed from the start to return the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.
On December 29, 1992, Yitzhak Rabin gave a speech in which he said, among other things:
If the U.S. president had not invited Mr. Begin and President Sadat and isolated them at Camp David for 13 days without media, they would not have come out with the same Camp David Accords, and this was despite all the crises that occurred. Six months after the Camp David Accords, when he had to come for the signing of the peace treaty, the U.S. president flew by himself on Air Force 1 to Cairo and from there to Jerusalem and back. The agreement, of course, was not signed either in Cairo or Jerusalem but on the White House lawn in Washington.
Nevertheless, Rabin could not abandon the Madrid formula without an alternative one, and certainly could not have allowed himself to do so from a public and political standpoint. He was especially concerned about the issue of Palestinian representation. Any attempt to jettison the Madrid formula could have raised the issue of PLO participation in direct negotiations, a problem that was circumvented, with U.S. agreement, before the Madrid Summit in October 1991. After 10 rounds of talks, it was clear to everyone that it was impossible to continue in this manner, and certainly not at that level.
It was President Assad himself who offered Rabin a way out of the cul-de-sac. It was he who proposed to the U.S. emissary Dennis Ross that negotiations be held “in the Henry Kissinger style”; he thereby signaled to Rabin that he was prepared to negotiate at the most senior level and with full U.S. mediation. Assad was aware of Rabin’s intentions and knew that only in that way was there perhaps a possibility to reach some compromise. Rabin had a special attitude toward Hafez al-Assad. He esteemed him as a leader who kept his word; like the military and intelligence chiefs, he assessed that in Syria “there is an address.” It was not for nothing that he often reiterated that the separation agreement with Syria had been maintained without any Syrian violation, making the border with Syria the quietest of Israel’s borders for more than 18 years.
Beyond all those factors, however, it was the contacts with the Palestinians in Oslo that really made it possible to abandon the Madrid formula. This was despite the fact that, at first, those contacts were not taken seriously by Rabin himself.
On Thursday, July 29, 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher called Rabin, rousing him from sleep, and told him he had decided to visit the region. With the secretary of state’s visit approaching, Rabin decided to hold an urgent meeting at his bureau in Tel Aviv. It included Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office Shimon Sheves, director of the bureau Eitan Haber, Government Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, Aman chief Uri Saguy, the head of the Aman Research Department, Yaakov Amidror, and the military secretary.
The prime minister asked to hear the intelligence assessments first. Saguy gave an overview and explained that there was turmoil in the Palestinian camp and no chance to reach a settlement with them. The head of Aman pointed clearly in the direction of Syria. He added with a half-smile: “But you know well what has to be decided. I cannot be in your place and know what you will do, but you are well aware of Syria’s positions.”
The prime minister expressed distrust toward the Palestinian issue and said it would not hurt to make that attitude clear to the Americans. Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, too, came out in favor of dealing with Syria first, saying it would afford a rare opportunity to change the situation in the north and in Lebanon.
The prime minister asserted that the Palestinians would start to “move” only once they realized that the Syrians were progressing on their own front, and said he agreed with Aman’s assessment of the Palestinian issue. Following the meeting, the prime minister made clear to Dennis Ross that he was sticking with his position that an interim settlement on the Palestinian issue had to be reached first. At this stage of the negotiations he was not interested in discussing the final status of the territories. “That will not advance anything, and if the Palestinians hold up Syria and Jordan, then we’re stuck. So it is important to reach an interim settlement that will help in reaching an agreement with Syria. If we add final-status elements, that will be a problem.” Rabin thereby expressed his frustration with the Palestinian track.
The beginning of August 1993 was also a landmark for the Palestinian camp. Already during Christopher’s visit, details emerged about sharp disagreements between PLO-Tunis and the Palestinian delegation to the talks. As Rabin described the situation to Christopher: “There’s a mess there that will be hard to get out of.”
When I entered his office on the morning of August 16, 1993, the prime minister pulled out a green envelope and drew from it two printed white pages, one in Arabic and one in Hebrew. “They tell me this arrived from Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. Translate it and bring it to me.”
The document in Arabic that the prime minister gave me included these five paragraphs:
- The two stages: We agree to two stages—a transition stage and a final stage. The final-status issues will be defined within the framework of the Declaration of Principles so that the two stages can be linked: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, and so on, in accordance with the agreement.
- Jerusalem: We agree that the status of Jerusalem will be discussed as part of the final settlement. At the moment: participation in elections, to elect and be elected.
Linkage between the Jerusalem institutions and the temporary authority, and supervision of them.
- The settlements: We agree that their status will be discussed in the final stage. For now they will remain under the Israeli army’s responsibility as the transition stage. A special agreement will address this issue at the transition stage because of its difficulty and complexity.
- Security: External security is under Israel’s responsibility during the transition period and internal security is under the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility. A liaison and coordination committee will be formed to solve the common problems and the disagreements.
- We think any agreement on a Declaration of Principles must be accompanied by the taking of a big, significant step between the Palestinian organization and the Israeli government, before the agreement and the signing of the declaration.
When I finished the translation, I brought the document to Rabin. He smiled, folded it into the green envelope, put it in a drawer of his desk, and again told me not to speak of it to anyone. At that moment I told myself that Rabin had gotten what he wanted and from now on the way to an agreement with the PLO would be open. Until then there may have been talks and understandings with the PLO, but only on August 16, 1993, a month before the signing on the White House lawn, did the constellation emerge that enabled Rabin to cross the political Rubicon and favor an agreement with the PLO. Undoubtedly, up to that point, Rabin had known about the activity of Peres and his team, but only on August 16 did he decide to make his contribution to reaching understandings with the PLO. From a certain standpoint, that day of August 16 symbolizes Rabin’s transition from an uncommitted observer (perhaps even a nonbelieving observer) to a key and decisive actor in the negotiations with the PLO.
That same day, the cabinet minister Haim Ramon called and asked to see me urgently in the afternoon, even for a few minutes. The meeting was held at about four o’clock, after a discussion with the prime minister on the coalition issue. Haim Ramon, uncharacteristically, was furious. He thought the government’s days were numbered. He was convinced that the Supreme Court’s ruling against the continued tenure of Ministers Deri and Pinhasi would cause the Shas Party to bolt from the coalition. “We’ll be able to stay afloat until October and maybe a little beyond that. In October there’s supposed to be a no-confidence vote. Sixty-one votes are assured, but not for long. What this means is that we could soon be going to elections. So we have to achieve something in the peace-process sphere so as to strengthen Yitzhak Rabin’s position in case of early elections.”
Minister Haim Ramon was thinking about the Palestinian track. I tried to explain to him that we were in an impossible timeframe and the Americans would not enter the picture again before October. Ramon was perturbed about Christopher: “He saw that there was progress on the Syrian-Israeli track! He should have stayed in the region, like Henry Kissinger, until a settlement was reached.”
I made clear that his intention in the coming round was to try and set an agenda with the Syrians, and it did not appear that it would be possible to reach a more inclusive agreement. We did not have a mandate when holding talks with the head of the Syrian delegation, Alaf, and we did not know explicitly what agreements had been reached—if any—between Prime Minister Rabin and President Assad via Christopher. As for the Palestinians, I again made clear the lack of belief in achieving a breakthrough on that track. Haim Ramon thought otherwise; he had long been convinced that a settlement could be reached with them. He had already hinted to me more than two weeks earlier that the Palestinians wanted direct negotiations with the prime minister, who was the only and most credible address.
Here it became clear to me that Ramon was indeed behind Abbas’ responses to the prime minister. He said that, after his speech to the Knesset the previous week as the government’s respondent to the proposals that were put on the agenda, Arafat’s political adviser Dr. Ahmed Tibi had told him that the PLO had been very impressed by his speech, in which he had stressed that the Palestinians should not be seduced by all sorts of voices being heard in Israel and that it was better for them to heed the prime minister’s words. Tibi said that, because Ramon was close to the prime minister, the latter now had an opportunity to gauge the PLO’s intentions via questions that Ramon would direct to Tibi. The questions were formulated and sent after the prime minister was updated on the whole procedure. Now, Ramon believed, there was a real possibility of reaching a Declaration of Principles.
In the government meeting of August 22, 1993, Rabin declared that it would be a mistake to stop the negotiations with Syria because of an incident in Lebanon. Rabin stressed that it was impossible to demand that Syria promise to stop the terror in Lebanon as a condition for continuing the talks; the Likud government before him had not done so. Therefore, the Lebanese problem remained as it was: “painful, threatening, and unsolvable.”
Several days before the eleventh round in Washington, Elyakim Rubinstein asked me to inquire of Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouni whether he could obtain an update on the Palestinians’ position on the “Gaza and Jericho first” issue. On August 23, 1993, I talked about this by telephone with the Egyptian ambassador, and on that very day he came to Jerusalem and with answers that Saeb Erekat had given him. I delivered the report to the prime minister and afterward to Rubinstein.
Saeb Erekat said that the Palestinian delegation to the talks in Washington would have six or seven members. The reduced number was for financial reasons; each delegation member cost $7,000! (This was double the cost of a member of the Israeli delegation that would leave for the same two weeks of talks in Washington.)
Erekat also said that on August 22, the Americans had called the Palestinians and told them that the Washington talks would mainly be devoted to reaching an agreement on a Declaration of Principles and on the early transfer of powers; that enhanced bilateral meetings would be held between the Palestinians and the Americans; and that the Americans did not oppose the raising of new ideas such as “Gaza and Jericho first.” Erekat added that the Palestinian delegation was preparing maps and a complete plan, a “mixed model” that would constitute an interim stage between the transition stage and the final-status stage regarding Gaza and Jericho. The document that had been prepared for the meeting made no mention of words like independence, state, and so on. According to Erekat, on August 26 some members of the Palestinian delegation were to go to Tunis to obtain Arafat’s approval of the plan. The Palestinians stated that absent a considerable “aid package,” the “Gaza and Jericho first” plan would have no chance of success. Finally, Erekat said that it might be possible to discuss the “Gaza and Jericho first” issue before agreement was reached on the Declaration of Principles.
Two days later Haim Ramon, who was taking a brief vacation in France, asked to talk with me by telephone. I informed him that the prime minister had asked to freeze the contacts with Abbas at this stage, and told him about the intentions of Minister Yossi Sarid. Ramon said he would be returning to Israel and that he meant to keep pressuring the prime minister about the meeting with Abbas. In this context, I could not ignore a statement by Shimon Peres on August 22 that he had a feeling Rabin had something “cooking” in the Palestinian domain. Ramon promised to update me later in the week but did not manage to do so. His many activities and especially full schedule did not enable holding a conversation on that issue.
On August 25, 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin revealed his moves in the diplomatic sphere to the representatives of the Presidents’ Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein and Lester Polack, particularly regarding the Palestinians and the PLO. The two first wanted to know whether the president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, could be trusted at all, taking into account that he was preventing the Lebanese army from deploying in the south, encouraging Hizbullah to attack Israel, continuing to transfer weapons and ammunition from Iran through Syria to Hizbullah, and acquiring ground-to-ground missiles from North Korea. The prime minister replied that Assad was now meeting all his obligations. True, it was very difficult to reach an agreement with him; on the other hand, one should take note of his ability to stand by his commitments. Rabin remarked that in the understandings that had been reached on the Lebanese issue followed Operation Accountability, Assad had stated that he had not changed his views about the right of the Lebanese to fight to liberate their land. The Likud government had agreed to Syria’s participation in the Madrid negotiations, while Syria had refused to commit itself to end its support for the Palestinian rejectionist organizations and for Hizbullah. The prime minister did not deny the paradox in the Syrian stance; on the one hand it was negotiating with Israel, while on the other it was allowing the Syrian-based Palestinian rejectionist organizations to attack the Palestinian delegation that was likewise negotiating with Israel. He summed it up, however, by saying that while Assad was a difficult enemy, “ultimately you don’t make peace with friends but with enemies.”
Rabin went on to explain that as far as he was concerned, and as he had made clear to Christopher, he would not be able to make a decision that would include both tracks together, the Syrian and the Palestinian. He would not be able to manage that politically; instead he would choose one of the tracks as soon as there was a chance of a breakthrough. When Hoenlein and Polack asked for his position on the “Gaza and Jericho first” option, Rabin explained that as he saw it there were two problems: Jerusalem, which he was in no way prepared to concede, and the question of the location of the Palestinian Authority that would be established following the agreement on self-rule. He would not agree to the Palestinian Authority being in Gaza or in Jericho. He then added: “Possibly in Ramallah.” But not Hebron, because it was a city with a significant Jewish presence. Rabin added that the PLO’s situation was difficult; it had internecine problems, leadership problems, and financial problems. “Maybe, now that they’re down, they’ll agree to give up some of their demands,” the prime minister remarked. Later in the candid conversation, Rabin admitted that there was a package deal on the agenda in which he would agree to include Jericho in the Gaza-first agreement if the Palestinians were to concede on the Jerusalem issue and the location of the Palestinian government.
Those were not all of Yitzhak Rabin’s disclosures. He noted that the PLO was now prepared to pay a very heavy price to be recognized by Israel. Hoenlein, taken aback, asked in a constricted voice whether the prime minister was really considering such an option. Rabin replied: “There are many conditions, such as stopping the terror, changing the Palestinian Covenant that includes a call to destroy the Jewish state, and so on.” He said that every day ministers and members of Knesset were telling him they had received phone calls from PLO members who promised changes in the PLO’s stance if Israel were to recognize the organization. Rabin did not reveal how he had come to know the PLO’s position but said the burden of proof was on the PLO. “And in any case,” he added, “it’s not a reality at present.”
On August 26, 1993, Rabin held a briefing for the heads of the Israeli delegations to the talk. It was just before the resumption of the eleventh round in Washington. Summoned to the meeting were Elyakim Rubinstein, Uri Lubrani, Shimon Peres, Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, Aman chief Uri Saguy, the military secretary and his deputy, and Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur.
In typical fashion, Rabin opened the discussion and asked Gen. Saguy for the intelligence assessment. The Aman chief began by asserting that “Assad has crossed the Rubicon,” though he immediately added: “That does not necessarily mean there will be progress at this point.”
Saguy said Assad knew he could no longer suffice with the same stock phrases; he would have to meet the full price that Israel demanded, which included, among other things, diplomatic relations. “Assad decided so himself.” The Aman chief added that unlike in the past, Assad was prepared for progress in the Lebanese arena, even before a Syrian-Israeli agreement. He stressed that Syrian figures had referred to the need “to accept what is hard to accept,” thus hinting at Syria’s readiness for normalization with Israel. Saguy remarked that despite his lack of knowledge of Arabic, he was following the Syrian media and it showed a moderating trend on the issue of peace with Israel. “Experts in Arabic” had told him their impression was that Assad was seeking a comprehensive settlement “and it does not matter to him whether it will involve the Palestinians or another arena. Assad will not wait for the Palestinians indefinitely.” With this the Aman chief ended his statement on the Syrian issue.
The prime minister responded with a single sentence: “The Americans spoke with Assad about an agenda and not about the Declaration of Principles.”
Saguy went on to describe the Palestinian arena and likened the latest developments there to an “earthquake.” The struggle between the “inside” and the “outside” was having its effect. Some understood that Arafat had already made a decision and that his political future was at stake. True, there was no substitute for the PLO “and Arafat has lost status,” but still the Aman chief believed Arafat would prevail. “Those who are fleeing the ship understand what he has done.” At the same time, Saguy repeated his familiar thesis that even though Arafat would win out, in the struggle between the “inside” and the outside” the former were gaining strength.
The prime minister did not bat an eye. He did not say a word about the deal that was taking shape with the PLO, and he gave an exaggerated assessment of the results of the coming round, as if that track were the only one that existed. Rabin declared: “If this round ends with nothing, there will be a very serious problem for Arafat!”
On the issue of “Gaza and Jericho first,” Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said that it had a problematic aspect from Israel’s standpoint and that he asked himself whether it should at all be regarded as a small-scale achievement. “We have an interest that it should not turn into a mini-sovereignty; that could hinder our freedom of action. It creates leverage on the Syrians.”
To this the prime minister responded: “The Syrians will not retreat from their demand for a full withdrawal. Assad told Christopher that he would be prepared for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan to take five years.” (This was the first time Rabin revealed that detail.)
At a certain point, Rabin asked the participants what was more important: to first reach a settlement with Syria or with the Palestinians? The Aman chief replied immediately that it was preferable that Syria come first, but said this would entail a price for Israel. Rabin answered that he was seeking his opinion and not that he should respond in his stead, “not at this stage at least.”
Rabin added that the strategic advantage in reaching peace with Syria was clear, and the price was clear as well. However, while what would be achieved with Syria would be irreversible, what would be achieved with the Palestinians would be reversible; it would involve territories adjacent to Israel in which Israel’s ability to intervene was beyond question.
Here Rabin clearly indicated that he preferred the Palestinian option. Elyakim Rubinstein, who had been uncharacteristically quiet for most of the discussion, now stated that in his opinion, what would be achieved with the Palestinians would likewise be irreversible.
Chief of Staff Barak commented that the autonomy to be established would pose very complex security problems and that “we are not thinking to ourselves about how they would develop and essentially turn us into hostages of the Palestinian society.” Here the prime minister remarked: “What you are saying is that there is no solution to the Palestinian problem.”
Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur also came out against the “Gaza and Jericho first” option, saying: “It is not a solution.” However, Gur also pointed to the fact that Assad would be able to compel Israel: “You won’t be able to tell him “Stop.’” Gur added that the “Gaza and Jericho first” solution appeared to him “absurd.” When Rabin asked for a clarification, Gur said that he did not support that option because it bore implications of a permanent settlement. Politically speaking, it amounted to authorizing a Palestinian state.
Rabin remarked at the end that before the elections, Likud people had turned to him with the request: “Just get out of Gaza.” The discussion concluded without decisions being made and without directives to the heads of the delegations. Rabin rose from his chair with the statement: “I do not envy whoever will give back the Golan!”
It was clear to the participants that Rabin was not disclosing any secrets to this forum regarding the “Gaza and Jericho first” talks. And this was despite the fact that the Israeli press had been reporting extensively for days that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was preparing a “package” that was now taking shape. Nor did any of the participants know about Peres’ upcoming trip to the United States with an almost-finalized agreement in his pocket—except Elyakim Rubinstein, who had sat throughout the discussion with an expressionless face.
Just before the conversation began, Rubinstein had submitted his resignation. I observed him throughout the proceedings. When Rabin asked what should take precedence, the Palestinian track or the Syrian one, I saw Rubinstein take hold of a page in the notebook in which he was recording the discussion, write a few lines, and hand the page to the prime minister. Rabin read the page, folded it punctiliously first in two and then in four, and put it, with no change in demeanor, in his shirt pocket. He then put on his glasses, lit a cigarette, and appeared to be detached from the discussion. I said to myself, “At this moment Elyakim Rubinstein tendered his resignation.”
Before I went with the delegation to Washington for the continued negotiations with the Palestinians, I was able to take part in a meeting that the prime minister held with Steve Grossman, then the president of AIPAC. Rabin made use of the occasion to update him on his diplomatic moves. For the first time, Rabin told about the four months of direct talks between Israel and the PLO.
Grossman, who spoke first, said that AIPAC wanted to help the peace process and asked for an update on the latest reports about an agreement that been reached concerning Gaza and Jericho.
The prime minister said there were two main problems both with Syria and with the Palestinians. Finding a solution to the issues of Lebanon and Jordan depended on solving those two problems. The chances of an agreement with the Palestinians, and even with the Syrians, were good. The Syrians were gradually moving toward readiness for a settlement. That was the assessment of Christopher and of Israeli intelligence. The question was what price Israel would pay regarding the Golan. As the Syrians saw it, Israel had to withdraw fully to the June 1967 lines; Assad said he would not want to get less than Sadat had gotten. The principle had been established in the agreement with Egypt. With regard to the Palestinians, there were two problems. When Israeli officials had talked with them before the present government was formed, it had turned out they were acting under the orders of Arafat and the PLO and did not say anything without their prior approval. Arafat had forbidden any step that he had not decided on. Meanwhile, the influence of Islamic extremism was growing. In the various elections being held (student organizations, trade organizations, etc.), Hamas was winning. If Hamas were to take charge, there would be no chance of reaching any settlement.
Rabin went on to say that, during the last four months of contacts with PLO representatives, the PLO had suffered from a lack of budget and was in a state of bankruptcy, and for that reason it was losing ground. Hamas was receiving funds from Saudi Arabia and from the Muslim community in the United States for the charity organizations it sponsored. Whatever would be decided about the Golan was irreversible. However, what was done in the territories would be reversible, and there was no problem regarding Gaza. The talks had reached the stage of a Declaration of Principles. Jerusalem, the settlements, and the military bases would not be given to the Palestinian Authority. As for the Authority’s powers, they would be determined together with Israel. There was a readiness to withdraw from Gaza, while the lines of confrontation (the Jordan River, the bridges across it) would be in Israel’s hands. The IDF would protect the settlements and the Israelis in Gaza. Rabin stated: “Wherever there are Israelis, we will be there.”
Regarding the role of the PLO and the impact of the talks on the Americans, the prime minister said that was the reason he had sent Foreign Minister Peres to the United States. The agreement would have to be reached in the framework of the negotiations in Washington pending a decision of the government, which would meet on August 30, 1993. The agreement did not entail any formal recognition of the PLO, though Israel was now talking with it directly whereas in the past it had talked only with representatives of it. The Palestinians want to bring Palestinians to Gaza who are not from the area, claiming that they were operating against Hamas. The Israelis had made difficult concessions. About a year and a half ago, Rabin had agreed to talks with Faisal Husseini in order to strengthen the Palestinian representation, but this had not achieved results.
On the question of financial assistance for the process, the prime minister said that Europeans, Saudis, and others had promised to help and that the United States had not been asked to contribute its share. The United States was working with the Saudis regarding the initial powers to be given the Palestinian Authority. Arafat, however, was opposed. The Saudis had promised money if there were to be an initial transfer of powers. It was possible that they would now agree to help out.
The prime minister noted that many matters were up for negotiation and that there was no interim agreement but instead a Declaration of Principles. On the West Bank, IDF forces would redeploy outside the cities after the elections were held.
Rabin referred to three levels of the negotiations. The first concerned the implementation of “Gaza and Jericho first.” (He did not mention the other two levels at all.) He said Israel would have to take painful measures. The United States would have to help Israel counter the Arab boycott, help it develop relations with moderate Arab states, and give it financial aid so as to strengthen it.
On September 9, 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the document recognizing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and it was finally agreed that the signing ceremony for the Declaration of Principles would be held on the White House lawn. On September 13, 1993, the agreement was signed.
If so, how could it be that Israeli intelligence did not know or was not informed about the Oslo measures? In my assessment, it was for a number of reasons.
First, the talks at the beginning of 1993 between PLO officials and an Israeli group led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were held, in more ways than one, far from the spotlight. They were held in Oslo (sponsored and hosted by the Norwegian government) on several occasions, at the end of which the document known as the Declaration of Principles was drafted. As it turned out later, Rabin was aware of the Oslo talks but did not look into the details of the agreements being reached and hence was not knowledgeable about them. Presumably Rabin saw these talks as less important than they were. The Israeli political scene was rife with political figures and academics who, to Rabin’s chagrin, held talks with PLO officials. Nothing resulted from all these talks except gossip and intelligence information about what was happening in Arafat’s court.
In general, the whole issue of the talks between Israel and the PLO was very irksome to the prime minister. Not only did he know about almost all the channels of dialogue between official or other Israeli actors and PLO representatives, but the prime minister knew details of all sorts of deals that were hatched, of initiatives apparently taken by Israeli actors who said that if the Palestinian delegation were to adopt a certain stance they would ensure that Rabin would agree to it, and the like. Rabin would scorn these efforts and say that the Israelis involved were wasting their time.
Because of the large number of unofficial channels of communication with the PLO, for a time it appeared that the negotiations being held with the delegation led by Elyakim Rubinstein, which had received its instructions directly from the prime minister, were not the real negotiations and that the positions presented by Israel were just initial talking points, while the softer lines taken by various Israeli interlocutors would be accepted by Rabin, so that he would adopt Palestinian positions. In actuality, nothing happened without Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s agreement and the lines that he laid down were the parameters of the negotiations. Things reached the point that an American official who was involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians said he opposed the talks that various Israelis were conducting with the PLO. The American diplomat asserted that the direct “backchannel” talks that Israelis were holding with the PLO were causing damage to the process, sowing confusion, and weakening the status of the local leadership.
A senior Palestinian figure told Egyptian Ambassador Bassiouni at the beginning of August that Israel was the one “now giving oxygen to the PLO.” Otherwise the PLO’s decline and death would have been inevitable. It had no money, its institutions were collapsing, and Arafat’s leadership was now in doubt. Rabin welcomed this description of the state of affairs.
Presumably, Rabin kept regarding the group conducting the talks in Oslo the same way until he realized that the progress being achieved there was real. From Rabin’s standpoint the Oslo talks met two of the three conditions he had posited for the success of any negotiating process with an Arab actor: nothing had been leaked about them and the meetings were with a separate Palestinian delegation, though instead of U.S. sponsorship there was Norwegian involvement. It was a replication of the Dayan-Tuhami meeting in Morocco that had preceded the Camp David Accords.
If so, how to explain the intelligence failure? How did intelligence not detect the talks being held in Oslo? How did the matter not leak to the media? There is no explanation for this. Intelligence was surprised in 1977 about Sadat’s intention to reach peace with Israel, and here again it was surprised in 1993 on the Palestinian issue.
Possibly the most reasonable explanation lies in the simple fact that the eyes of intelligence, like the eyes of the security and political leaders, were focused on the Syrian track. The Palestinian-Jordanian track did not stir anyone’s hopes. The feeling was that it was impossible to get anywhere the Palestinians. The intelligence-collection branches were focused mainly on the Syrian track.
Rabin’s zigzags between the two tracks—Palestinian and Syrian—did not make things any clearer for intelligence. Moreover, there is no doubt that Rabin remained committed to his approach and enjoyed obfuscating the issue of the talks with the Palestinians. His gamble was simple: if the talks failed, it would not be possible to blame him, and if they led to a positive outcome, he would be part of the success. Hence it was preferable to keep the whole issue of the negotiations with the PLO in secrecy, and so long as intelligence did not know about it, there was no reason to update it and endanger the existence of the talks through a chance and unintended (or perhaps intended) leak by any of the customers of the intelligence material.
Rabin’s personality structure, obsessive innovativeness, the compartmentalization policy he practiced, the dim view of intelligence assessments that he had developed, his tense relations with the Aman chief, and the fact that no one apart from those negotiating in Oslo knew about the talks, encouraged Rabin to continue his policy of concealment. There was, however, one major difference: when Rabin realized that the talks had led to agreement on the Declaration of Principles, he hastened to add the legal adviser Joel Singer to those who were in on the secret and instructed him personally to get involved in the talks. The Declaration of Principles, however, had already been agreed upon. Hence Rabin insisted on adding what he called “Agreed Minutes,” or clarifications, to the document. More than once Rabin said that without the “Agreed Minutes” the Declaration of Principles would have been a “national disaster”!
In retrospect, it appears possible that Rabin would have reconsidered his steps if he had met (as he said several times in different forums) with Arafat before the signing of the Declaration of Principles. Rabin was not well-versed in the negotiations that were held in Oslo. This became clear to me several times when he asked to know what was being said in Oslo and whether promises had been made that Arafat had flaunted so as to cut corners and reach an agreement. Both the advantage and the disadvantage of the Declaration of Principles lay in its ambiguity. Rabin did not know Arafat’s real positions, only what was told him by those engaged in the Oslo talks. Several times I heard him say that without the “Agreed Minutes,” which were an outcome of his direct intervention, the Declaration of Principles that was reached with the PLO would have been a national disaster.
On the critical point of the negotiations on the implementation of the Declaration of Principles, Rabin said that he did not have the information he needed on the PLO chairman’s positions to help him decide on the issues at stake. The question that is asked, therefore, is whether intelligence could have supplied him with the information he lacked before the Oslo Accords were signed. The answer is: maybe yes, maybe no. Eventually Rabin received the information he had lacked through direct contacts with Arafat after the signing of the Oslo Accords, and particularly in the long meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the PLO chairman in Cairo in December 1993, during which Rabin was directly informed of Arafat’s positions. The problem was that Rabin did not give intelligence an opportunity to disprove Arafat’s claims.
As in the talks that preceded the peace with Egypt, in the Palestinian case, too, intelligence remained outside the initial meetings that later developed into the Oslo Accords. True, Rabin chose not to inform intelligence of his considerations, but intelligence bears some of the blame as well. The basic shortcoming of intelligence remained the same as before the 1973 Yom Kippur War: difficulty in assessing leaders’ intentions. The inclination to prefer the Syrian track and to disdain the Palestinian camp, describing it as not knowing what it wanted, is an indication of a conception that had rigidified and had all the elements of an assessment failure.
The Perspective of the Then-Chief of Aman, Gen. (Res.) Uri Saguy
I have no intention to deal directly with Jacques’ words, which reflect the picture from his perspective, especially since the decisive majority of his statements accurately describe how things were done. I would like to add some aspects, however, some factual and some qualitative, concerning the relationship between Aman, and particularly the head of Aman, and the prime minister during that very special period.
First, regarding the facts. Apart from the meetings that Jacques describes because he knew about them, there were other meetings between me and the prime minister, usually also including the chief of staff. On those occasions we gave him the information we had acquired about the existence of the Oslo channel. At first Rabin did not deny or confirm what we told him. He appeared to me perplexed but not surprised, and his body language indicated that he too had discovered the existence of the channel after the fact. In any case, we did not have substantial information about the content of the Oslo talks, and Rabin was not eager to reveal the details to us. Even when he let us in on the secret at a later stage, he sufficed with an update and did not ask for our opinions about the agreement taking shape.
Notwithstanding the picture Jacques paints of the fascinating discussion on August 26, 1993, Chief of Staff Barak and I already knew, before that meeting, that Rabin had already decided to prefer the Palestinian track in the Oslo Accords format—that is, interim agreements that enable progress toward a permanent settlement without deciding at that stage on the core issues—over the Syrian track. Nevertheless, when I was asked to present the intelligence picture and to give my opinion, I had do so according to my best judgment, based on the assumption that despite the prime minister’s decision, he could still change his view; otherwise he would not have raised the matter for discussion. I had to do so without revealing to the other participants what I had promised to keep secret. From Jacques’ words it appears that I did so quite successfully.
Second, regarding the conversation itself. In two-person and three-person talks with Rabin, we dealt in no small measure with the strategic questions. What was the meaning for our neighbors of the post-Gulf War reality that had emerged? What opportunities and constraints did this reality create, and what were the implications for Israel? And how would one or another policy adopted by the government affect Israel’s ability to promote its strategic goals, that is, to ensure the ongoing existence of a democratic and prosperous nation-state for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel? Even though my own responsibility in these discussions, given my post, was to describe the behavior of the other actors, my words had clear implications for the preferred approach according to what I determined to be the intelligence perspective, not the political perspective. I delved particularly into the changes that had occurred in Hafez Assad’s attitude toward the issue of peace with Israel, emphasizing his ability to “supply the goods” on the one hand and his unwillingness to compromise on his demands on the other. This was in comparison to the problematic nature of the Palestinian camp at that time. I did the same in the final and decisive discussion on August 26.
In my eyes, what was unique in that conversation was that Rabin asked me, as head of Aman, to put myself in his place and say what I would do if I were the prime minister. This is an unnatural situation for anyone holding a professional position and particularly for the head of Aman, who is responsible for representing “the other” in parleys of this kind. I already had some experience in this situation on a smaller scale when, before the operation to kidnap Lebanese militia leader Mustafa Dirani, with the chances of success unclear, Rabin—while giving a green light—had proclaimed to me: “You are in charge.” I did not understand that as a removal of responsibility from himself but, instead, as an acknowledgment that, as his underling, I would be in charge of the operation. This time the significance of the decision was even greater, and yet, even though I could have, I did not make the valid claim that this was not my role. After I explained the difficulty of such a situation, I did not resist the temptation and dared to present my own opinion, in the spirit of the words presented by Jacques.
A long time after that discussion, I kept thinking about that roleplaying game. What brought Rabin to ask me to assume the burden of the prime minister for a moment? Was it right to accept the challenge? I have no clear answers even today, and certainly then I did not have enough time to analyze the meaning of the request. My decision to accept the challenge was, on the one hand, impulsive, and, on the other, the result of being trained to take responsibility and not be deterred by challenges. Today, years later, it seems to me that in the background of the prime minister’s request, and of my willingness to respond, there was also my experience not only as head of Aman but as a commander and an operations officer. Rabin did not request my professional assessment only as an “expert on the Arabs” but also as someone who could see the broad picture and from different viewpoints, including that of the commander (and even the politician). In my eyes, the event underlines the fact that the head of Aman should have significant command experience to be able to understand “our forces” and not only the other side, and to make connections between the strategic objective and the tactical considerations. Clearly he must be endowed with civilian and not only military courage, and with the intellectual honesty that is required in order to listen to other opinions and sometimes even accept them.
This discussion, along with the two- or three-person meetings that preceded it, also showed that in the end the real target audience of Aman is very small. Even in democratic regimes like Israel, the main decisions are ultimately made by the one at the top of the pyramid, who has overall responsibility and thus will always feel isolated, as Rabin felt.
Ultimately Rabin did not dismiss my analysis, but he did not accept my conclusions because they were outside my analytical range. Whereas I, in considering the political angle and the makeup of Israeli society, maintained that the settlers on the Golan would not oppose a peace treaty with Syria even if it entailed the dismantlement of their settlements, Rabin claimed that he would not be able to get a Knesset majority for such a measure and stuck with his choice to give priority to the Palestinian track.
Aman’s Assessment of the Palestinians’ Room to Maneuver in the Negotiations
Over the years Aman tried again and again to assess what positions the Palestinians were likely to take in the negotiations with Israel. Naturally they did the same regarding the negotiations with the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. In general, even though Aman did not know about the negotiations in Oslo, the description of the Palestinian positions was quite close to those the Palestinians actually espoused; the head of Aman offered similar insights in the discussions with Prime Minister Rabin that were held.
According to Aman, the negotiations in Washington would lead to a dead end because the Palestinians would not agree to the autonomy framework that Israel had proposed, and Israel, for its part, would reject the Palestinian position that, already at the interim stage, the Palestinian entity would have almost all the characteristics of a state. At the same time, it was assessed that the Palestinians, who wanted to advance as much as possible toward establishing an independent state, would agree to defer the discussion of the especially difficult issues to the final stage, and hence, in the interim stage, would be prepared:
- To concede sovereignty in east Jerusalem in return for Israeli agreement to discuss the future of Jerusalem as part of the final stage and to allow the Jerusalem residents to participate in the Palestinian elections.
- To defer the discussion on the future of the settlements to the final stage and to forgo at the current stage a demand for the settlements’ removal, while adhering firmly to the demand for a freeze on the settlements (an almost total cessation of building within the settlements and no expansion of them).
- To agree to defer the discussion of the refugee issue to the final stage while demanding a limited return, mainly of persons who had fled in 1967.
- To forgo, in the interim stage, control over the border crossings and the responsibility for external security.
- To defer the discussion of the permanent borders while aiming for the borders of the Palestinian entity to be as close as possible to the 1967 lines.
It was also assessed that the Palestinians would not create a linkage between progress toward a settlement on their own track and the state of the negotiations in the other channels, and that from their perspective—in light of their predicament since the Gulf War—the diplomatic process was their main way of achieving their goals.
At the same time, it was assessed that the Palestinians would insist on several demands that would ensure aspects of independence, as they progressed toward their state, already in the interim stage:
- Control over a large and contiguous territory.
- The right to legislate laws and regulations.
- Characteristics of independence (sea- and airports) and symbols of independence (a flag, currencies, and stamps).