Exactly 20 years after a clearly hesitant Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat to start the Oslo peace process, and almost 18 years after Rabin was gunned down by an Israeli Jewish right-wing extremist, Eitan Haber, Rabin’s closest aide, says he personally never believed Arafat was a partner and isn’t sure that Rabin did either. And yet, Haber insists, Rabin thought he could reach a permanent accord with Arafat because he, Rabin, would lead the effort, and he, Rabin, could attain the goal.

Haber issues a series of such complicated observations during an interview marking Oslo’s 20th anniversary. He also says that Israel benefited immensely from the Oslo process, even though it did not lead to the hoped-for end-of-conflict accord. He says the second intifada started because of then opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, not because of Arafat. But “to anyone who would say the opposite, I would say, he is also correct.”

He says he anticipates US Secretary of State John Kerry, if the current peace talks lead nowhere, “striking the table” and issuing America’s “take it or leave it” terms for an agreement… and that if Kerry does so, both sides would be “better off taking it and not leaving it.”

Perhaps most interestingly, he displays a highly empathetic, even forgiving, attitude to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as opposition leader relentlessly critiqued Rabin for rehabilitating Arafat, helping to create a domestic climate of bitter hostility to Rabin. “Netanyahu opposed Rabin when he didn’t know anything,” says Haber.

And what is it that the Likud leader didn’t know 20 years ago, that he does know as prime minister today? That only when you make it to the Prime Minister’s Office, says Haber, do you understand the extent to which Israel “is dependent on America. For absolutely everything — in the realms of diplomacy, security, even economically… Slowly your tone changes, because you understand that without the spare parts [from the US], your entire air force is grounded. And when you have no air force you have no defenses. You can barely do anything without America. Her diplomatic support, defensive support, economic support. We are in America’s little pocket.”

Eitan Haber (Photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Eitan Haber (Photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Haber, who first met Rabin when working as a journalist in the IDF, is a regular columnist at Yedioth Ahronoth, with a variety of other business interests. His features have not changed much over the past 20 years — or more pertinently the past 18, since that terrible night, November 4, 1995, when he emerged from Ichilov Hospital to tell Israel and the world, “The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv.”

The following are excerpts of our interview, conducted in Ramat Gan ahead of the Oslo anniversary:

The Times of Israel: Twenty years after the handshake, tell me, when you look back at the historical process — did we destroy it, did they?

Eitan Haber: First of all, I was the only one in the prime minister’s bureau who objected to the idea — for one very simple reason: I didn’t believe that with one signature, with one ceremony, it would be possible to overcome more than 100 years of terror and spilled blood.  You need years, even decades, of education. In spite of that, I think this event, the Oslo Accords, was possibly the most important turning point and milestone in the history of the State of Israel since the founding of the state, for one simple reason. It removed the masks from all of our faces — Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

We all knew exactly where we stood. Most importantly, it removed the most absurd of masks — about not speaking with the PLO, not recognizing the PLO — after it became clear to us that, in fact, the PLO was in charge of the entire Palestinian issue.

We can say that the Palestinians are Jordanians and we can say that they are Cossacks. We can say whatever we want. But in fact, everything went through Tunis, and it was from there that the orders were given. During the period, for example, of the Madrid peace conference, the Palestinians talked and talked and talked, went out, called Tunis, got instructions from there and proceeded according to the instructions from Tunis.

That is also how it was when Rabin, as defense minister, used to meet with large groups of Palestinian leaders from Gaza, from the territories, from the villages, small cities, big cities. Every few weeks there were meetings, with open discussions. But we know that after every meeting, they would report back to the PLO, and would receive instructions from the PLO.

So finally, in 1993, the State of Israel said to itself, the PLO is the partner, there is no other option. We don’t love them. But murderers, thieves, contemptible though they are, this is the situation. There is no choice. Peace is made with enemies, exactly as Yitzhak Rabin said.

Now, from that point of view, what happened in Washington and the entire Oslo process became a part of the annals of the Jewish people in the land of Israel for that one simple reason: We now knew with whom we were dealing — the PLO. For good and for bad. That’s the story.

Now, did you ever read the Oslo Accords?

I imagine I did – at the time.

There have been additions since, but in the Oslo Accords, the entire Oslo process, a Palestinian state was never mentioned. That term was never mentioned. Bibi started to talk about two states for two people? Well, in the 1980s, I can tell you, only [radically left-wing Israeli politicians] Meir Vilner, Esther Vilenska and Toufik Toubi spoke of it. So we have come a very, very long way since the Oslo Accords.

We didn’t give so much as a bullet to the Palestinians

The accords had holes, that is true, but the accords brought the State of Israel a considerable benefit. Dozens of countries — I believe 36, though I haven’t checked it thoroughly — recognized the State of Israel. The prime minister traveled, for the very first time, to various Arab states, to Oman for example, to Indonesia, to Morocco and a few other countries. No one realizes that the prime minister of the state of Israel, had not, until then, ever been to Russia, or China, Japan, Korea. All of those countries opened up to us.

Close to 200 international companies came to Israel — McDonalds, even McDonalds! Scores of kings, presidents, and prime ministers arrived to our shores. We barely had the strength to welcome all of them. Even Prince Philip [husband of Queen Elizabeth II] was here. The president of the Czech Republic, the King of Spain, everyone was here. 

And national growth was 7.4% How much is it today — 2%, 3% at best? It is customary to say, on the negative side, of course, that there were 1,500 killed. That the State of Israeli gave guns to the Palestinians. We didn’t give so much as a bullet to the Palestinians. We gave permission. Today, when I lecture and people say we gave them guns, I say we didn’t give them even one gun. Not even one gun. Never. I was with a veteran settler leader a month and a half ago. We talked about it. And I said it all started with [the religious settlement movement] Gush Emunim, which adopted the poem of Nathan Alterman — don’t let them have guns — they spoke about it during the Spanish civil war. The impression today is that we gave them guns. No.

Rabin’s assessment was, in my opinion, that he would be the one to deliver the end-of-conflict agreement – that everything would depend on him, that he would lead, he would do it all, he would get to the goal. And then what happened, happened

Everyone talks about the Mitsubishis [given to politicians in return for their votes] and the Oslo Accords — approved by a margin of two votes. Ridiculous. The Oslo Accords passed by an 11-vote majority — the Declaration of Principles. An 11-vote majority. Very nice.

So when was the Mitsubishi for Alex Goldfarb [a right-of-center politician who joined up with Labor]?

That was in the Oslo II Accords [in 1995], on the details of the agreement. And people forget. They needed the vote of Alex Goldfarb and Gonen Segev because Emmanuel Zissman and Avigdor Kahalani left the Labor Party. It’s ok that they left? That’s fair, that’s democratic? But when you bring someone else to replace them, that’s not ok?

Okay, but 20 years on, the accords did not bring peace.

They didn’t bring peace because, I think, it became clear to everyone — and I think that this was the greatest downside of the Oslo Accords — that the problems are much deeper and harder and wider than it was possible to imagine. It’s very important to me that you emphasize this, though you must differentiate by a thousand degrees of separation, that just as the [former Israeli] residents of Gush Katif [in Gaza] and Yamit [in Sinai] do not forget for a moment from where they were displaced, the Arabs of the Land of Israel as well have not, it seems, forgotten so quickly. It is a fact — they do not forget. And we can shout until tomorrow that they have 21 countries and that they have infinite lands. It’s all fine and good, and it makes absolutely no difference to the family that lived in Jaffa or in Acre or in Haifa. They remember. We may not like it, but both sides have to find a solution.

Now, how do we get to a situation where they will not remember? This is a very difficult issue. I remember the time that a Jordanian minister visited. I hosted him at a dinner, soon after the peace agreement was signed with Jordan. We were at the David Intercontinental Hotel [in Tel Aviv] and I said to him. You know, this hotel is located on what had been the border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. After the dinner he asked me, can you give me a ride to Jaffa? I said, with great pleasure. I took him — just him and me in the car — and he asked me if I knew where Bustrus Street was. I knew. He then told me the number. We arrived at the house and he didn’t get out of the car. He just looked out the car window at the house. It wasn’t a house that he remembered. But it was a house belonging to the family. Suddenly he burst into tears. I looked at the tears that were streaming down his face and I said to myself, this, it seems, is the human condition. There is nothing that can be done about it.

Now, will it always be this way? I hope that one day the two sides will see the light and will understand that they are not leaving this place and we are not leaving this place. And so we’ll have to live together.

Eitan Haber, surrounded by reporters outside Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, announces the death of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. November 4, 1995. (photo credit: AP PHOTo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Eitan Haber, surrounded by reporters outside Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, announces the death of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. November 4, 1995. (photo credit: AP PHOTo/Eyal Warshavsky)

And therefore, I thought, even then, before we traveled to Washington, before Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres went to Washington, I thought that we must be much, much more careful, with many more stops along the way. The Oslo Accords set out a long timetable. No one remembers that. It can’t be done in one fell swoop. Though Yossi Sarid wrote an article in Haaretz not long ago that it was a mistake that we didn’t go all the way, in one step — back then.

That was also [Oslo pioneer Yossi] Beilin’s conviction.

Could be. If, historically, there had been the concept of ‘if only,’ we could have done an experiment. But there wasn’t. There is no concept of ‘If only’ in history. And therefore we can’t work that way.

Once you said to me, though, that if Rabin hadn’t been murdered, it would have succeeded.

Rabin’s assessment was, in my opinion, that he would be the one to deliver the end-of-conflict agreement — that everything would depend on him, that he would lead, he would do it all, he would get to the goal. And then what happened, happened. And that’s how it came to be that the entire process was to a great degree dependent on one man, and that man was no longer.

No comparison, but I remember that when Ezer Weizman [serving as defense minister] appointed Raful [Eitan] as chief of staff, I said to him, ‘Weizman, not the most successful appointment that you could have made in your life.’ And he said, ‘Eitan, I will be defense minister. Trust me. I am the brains. He will do what I ask him to do.’ Well, one day, Weizman was gone and we had the Lebanon War.

But the same can be said about the other side. Rabin is gone, yes, but if you believe that we could have reached an agreement if Rabin hadn’t been murdered, that still requires another side ready to make peace…

I will never know. And therefore I don’t say it with confidence. I say it as an assessment.

I didn’t believe for a second that Arafat was a partner and I’m not at all sure that Rabin believed he was

It is also, in my opinion, very inaccurate to say that the tens of thousands who came from Tunis with Arafat are those who engineered the Second Intifada. Nonsense. Many of those who came with Arafat were clerks, religious figures, all kinds of administrators. I’m not saying that there weren’t terrorists among them. I suppose there were, but there was a seven year gap between the first and second intifadas, so there is no need to exaggerate. I think the Second Intifada started because Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount [in September 2000]. But of course in this case as well, there is no definitive proof. And to anyone who would say the opposite, I would say, he is also correct.

Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, September 28, 2000 (Photo credit: Flash90)

Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, September 28, 2000 (Photo credit: Flash90)

But you thought that with Rabin and Arafat, a deal could have been reached. You really believe that Arafat was a partner?

I didn’t believe for a second that Arafat was a partner and I’m not at all sure that Rabin believed he was. But Rabin believed — and of this I am certain, because we spoke about it — that peace is made with these types. I cannot say that he liked him, but toward the end of his life, relations between them were good. Arafat, who was presented everywhere as a liar and a cheat and crook…

and one who encouraged terror

… there were things that he said, and that he said he would do, and he was true to his word. But he also cheated us, and fostered terrorism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his meeting with United States Senator John Kerry in Jerusalem, June, 2010. (Photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets then-senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, June 2010. (Photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

And now, today, with the current effort at negotiations, why do you think Kerry thinks there’s an opportunity…?

I think Kerry understands today, better than any of us, that if it will be dependent on the Israelis, nothing is going to happen, and if it is dependent on the Palestinians, nothing will happen. And so, in my opinion, he believes, that in another few months, he will strike the table and will say that, ‘Gentlemen, we, the Americans, say this and that and the other.’ He will set out what he thinks needs to be done, ‘take it or leave it.’

What are the implications of a demand like that?

You’re better off taking it and not leaving it. Both sides. I think that he believes that that is how it will be. It is also possible that he is mistaken in this.

Former US secretary of state James A. Baker (photo credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Former US secretary of state James A. Baker (photo credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I cannot forget for a moment that once, James Baker, the secretary of state, got very angry at Rabin over something, and extended his head over the table and said, ‘America is right even when it is wrong.’ (Laughs.) America is America. Nothing can change that.

Many people, very many people, ask me what happens to political leaders when they enter the Prime Minister’s Office. Is there something in the ventilation system? Is there a special odor that causes dizziness? And I say, no. The people who make it to the second floor of Rehov Kaplan 3 in Jerusalem — only there, only there and not a moment before — is it understood to what extent the State of Israel is dependent on America. For absolutely everything — in the realms of diplomacy, security, even economically — we are dependent on America.

Therefore, when Uncle Sam is angry, they [in the Prime Minister’s Office] understand that a lot better than the group of irresponsible people in the Knesset who engage in all kinds of irresponsible argument at America’s expense and give advice and instructions.

When you talk about internalizing our dependence on the United States, does that mean that you are a bit more forgiving of Netanyahu?

Of course.

I mean from the historical perspective, as someone who led the opposition to Rabin. How do you feel toward Netanyahu?

When I sit opposite him in the Prime Minister’s Office, I see what he carries on his shoulders and how he came to understand over the years the extent to which his steps are constrained and that there is no connection between these incendiary gatherings — where they say, ‘We’ll tell America,’ and ‘Who is America to tell us what to do?’ — and the truth.

Netanyahu opposed Rabin when he didn’t know anything. And today he has gone much further than Rabin. Rabin never spoke about a Palestinian state, two states for two people. Today Netanyahu speaks of this. He could absolutely join the Labor Party’s right wing

Slowly your tone changes, because you understand that without the spare parts [from the US], your entire air force is grounded. And when you have no air force you have no defenses. You can barely do anything without America. Her diplomatic support, defensive support, economic support. We are in America’s little pocket.

Netanyahu opposed Rabin during the years before the murder. Mocked him.

Netanyahu opposed Rabin when he didn’t know anything. And today he has gone much further than Rabin. Rabin never spoke about a Palestinian state, two states for two people. Today Netanyahu speaks of this. He could absolutely join the Labor Party’s right wing. All of the others are irresponsible and don’t understand anything, don’t know anything. But when they come to power, if God forbid they come to power, you’ll see that they too will inch toward the center, exactly as happened to Ehud Olmert, to Arik Sharon, even to Menachem Begin. It happened to Roni Milo, it happened to Dan Meridor, it happened to Tzipi Livni. All those that came to power were actually in charge of real things, and saw how reality works. All those without experience and often without intelligence, not willing to learn from others’ experiences, continue to shout. So the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yuval and Dalia Rabin, the children of assassinated prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, in 2010 (Photo credit: Amos BenGershom / Government Press Office/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yuval and Dalia Rabin, the children of assassinated prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, in 2010 (Photo credit: Amos BenGershom / Government Press Office/FLASH90)

And yet we have still not reached an accord. Because the Americans haven’t gotten upset enough?

When they are really upset, we will know it. We will know very well when they are upset and it is not recommended that we put them to that test. The fact that the Americans speak in understatement and we say that they are naïve and stupid and that they don’t understand the region? It’s possible that they don’t understand the region and that they are naïve and stupid, but they are America.

And are we obligated to adhere to their suggestions? If they seek to impose a return to the pre-1967 lines…

I don’t know what they will seek to impose. I can only tell you that a week or two before Rabin’s murder we were in Washington for celebrations marking Jerusalem’s 3,000-year anniversary. And Olmert, who was then mayor of Jerusalem, organized a ceremony in Congress to mark the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He had even found a plot of land for the Jerusalem embassy. This was a ceremony with songs and speeches, with members of Congress in attendance and all of the Jewish-American leaders. I said to Olmert, speaking in Rabin’s name, that before the US embassy moves from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it’ll be another 3,000 years. He laughed and said what are you talking about? It’s about to happen. Twenty years have passed since, and even Olmert has changed his opinion.

Let there be no misunderstandings, I want the Israelis to live in Judea and Samaria. I want Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. The difference between me and those in the other camp is that I recognize the reality. We are only 6 million Jews [in Israel] in a world of a billion and a quarter Muslims. America is with us, with a limited guarantee, as long as she wants to be with us.

And Netanyahu understands this?

I am almost certain that he does.