Inside storyThen-IDF chief Barak: 'Very serious problems with security'

‘Difficult deal’: Declassified protocols show Oslo Accords okayed with marked wariness

30 years later, key cabinet quotes reveal Rabin, Peres feared Palestinians wouldn’t forgo terror, weren’t giving enough for Israeli concessions; Rabin foreshadowed own assassination

Michael Bachner

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

(L-R) Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on September 13, 1993. (Wikipedia)
(L-R) Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on September 13, 1993. (Wikipedia)

It was one of the most dramatic cabinet meetings since the state’s creation, the most comprehensive effort to that point for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and a decision that would change the course of history.

It brought about a historic handshake but also an assassination of a prime minister and countless terror attacks.

A 30-year veil was lifted Tuesday, declassifying the protocol (Hebrew link) of the August 30, 1993, government meeting where the first part of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was approved.

The protocol reveals significant concerns by ministers, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and especially then-IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak, regarding the ramifications of the highly controversial agreement on the country’s security as well as its cohesiveness, amid mass protests by the right wing led by then-opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the ministers eventually decided to give peace a chance despite the risks, believing there was no better alternative. Sixteen voted to approve the agreement and two abstained.

“This is a difficult deal,” said Rabin at the outset of the cabinet meeting according to the protocol, parts of which will remain classified until 90 years after it was held. “Of course, had we been negotiating with ourselves, the wording would have been much better. Some of the wordings are unpleasant, to say the least, but we must see all the different components with a much more comprehensive view.”

Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (second right) leads a cabinet meeting on August 30, 1993, at which ministers approved the first part of the Oslo Accords. (Tsvika Israeli / GPO)

Rabin said that Israel was giving the Palestinians more than it was receiving in return, and that it included “very few” commitments by Arafat, with no guarantee that the Palestinians were going to renounce terrorism.

During the meeting, Rabin criticized the West Bank settlement movement, saying it “complicated matters” and was “political” in nature, “without any security benefit.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the signing ceremony recognizing the PLO, September 10, 1993, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Peres: A sort of Hamas-like Iran here

Next to speak was then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, who highlighted the lack of clarity on how and to what extent the Palestinians would reject terrorism, and warned the Palestinian leadership could collapse and be replaced by more extreme elements — as indeed happened in Gaza in 2007 when the Hamas terror group violently took over from the Palestinian Authority, following Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and evacuation of settlements.

“I must say that there is a possibility that the whole deal of the PLO will dismantle and there will be a sort of Hamas-like Iran here,” Peres said. “We need to be careful. There is no certainty that they will stay in power, with all the rebellions, with all the pressure and all the things.

“We need to ask ourselves: Say the PLO disappears, what happens then? Who will we talk to? On what and with whom will we hold negotiations?” Peres added.

The Oslo Accords, the first part of which was formally signed with then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat two weeks later in Washington, DC, and the second part of which was signed in 1995, created the Palestinian Authority, handing the Palestinians limited authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for the first time. It saw Israel formally recognize the PLO and allow Arafat and others to come to the West Bank from Tunisia.

The first part of the Oslo Accords would see the Israel Defense Forces mainly withdraw from Gaza and the area of Jericho in the central West Bank, except for securing Israeli settlements. The second had the military cede control of other areas of the West Bank to Palestinian Authority security forces.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat listens to a question during a series of interviews on his way to Washington aboard a Boeing 707 jetliner provided by the Moroccan government on September 12, 1993. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Both parts were bitterly opposed by Israel’s right-wing opposition, which staged a series of mass demonstrations against the government, arguing that the Oslo Accords would be a security disaster and hand the Palestinians weapons that would be turned against Israel.

Indeed, Palestinian terror bombings proliferated over the following years, killing hundreds of Israelis and inflaming internal tensions and incitement that spiraled out of control and culminated in the November 1995 murder of Rabin by a Jewish right-wing extremist.

Chief of staff Barak: Very serious security problems

Back in the 1993 meeting, the main opposition to the deal came from IDF chief Barak, himself a future dovish prime minister, who had not been involved in drafting the Oslo Accords and had only read the text shortly before the cabinet meeting.

“I’ve spotted very serious problems with implementing the security aspect of this agreement,” Barak said. “There are already Palestinian police officers who were trained in Jordan. They could bring more people, including people with a background of belonging to military or paramilitary Palestinian organizations.

“I don’t know how we can coordinate with the Palestinian police an entry by Givati [Brigade] soldiers into Jabaliya [in Gaza] to get them out,” Barak warned. “When we have information about wanted people in Jabaliya or a terror attack being planned in one of the refugee camps, it won’t be simple to effectively act against it. There is always the danger that field operatives for the Palestinian police will tip off… the terror attack planners.”

Left to right: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak, Rabin’s aide Elyakim Rubinstein and Prime Minister’s Office Director Shimon Sheves confer in one of the rooms of Jordanian King Hussein’s palace in Aqaba, Jordan, September 29, 1994. (Tsvika Israeli/GPO)

Barak continued: “I’m reminding [you] that there will be extreme elements in the Palestinian society who will have an active interest in thwarting this agreement.”

“As well as in the Israeli society, but that’s not your business,” Rabin interjected, foreshadowing his own murder two years later by Yigal Amir, a young Jew whose stated goal had been to sabotage the Oslo Accords.

Many view the accords as also later being one of the causes of the Second Intifada, a series of Palestinian terror attacks in the early 2000s that killed over a thousand Israelis.

Deri: Hard for me to speak

The 1993 government was perhaps the most dovish in Israel’s history, consisting mainly of the ruling Labor party and the more left-wing Meretz, as well as the Haredi Shas — led then, like today, by Aryeh Deri.

Deri, a large portion of whose electorate was right-wing, was highly conflicted about the plan, and Shas later quit the government, which was then propped up instead by the outside support of two Arab parties.

Aryeh Deri in the Knesset, September 27, 1993. (Flash 90)

“It is very hard for me to speak. I needed special strengths to come to the meeting,” said the young Deri, who was then 32 years old, explaining that peace was very important to his party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. “Among the public we represent, which is quite right-wing… this public is finding it hard to accept this [deal]. Thus far, there are only concessions by us, and the right is utilizing this very effectively.”

Deri said Shas ministers would abstain, “not because we’re against the deal, but because we can’t take part in the collective responsibility regarding the continuation of the negotiations.”

Speaking 30 years later, now part of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, Deri told Channel 12 news: “I have no doubt that… after seeing the Second Intifada and all the blood that was spilled, [Rabbi Yosef’s] order today would definitely have been to vote against [the deal] and not let [the PLO leaders] enter the country.”

Though the Palestinian Authority is still in power today in the West Bank, the Oslo Accords that created it are largely seen as moribund, having failed to achieve their goal of facilitating peace or at least increasing trust between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The peace process has been completely dormant since 2010, and few are optimistic that true reconciliation can be achieved in the foreseeable future.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu raises both fists as he addresses the Knesset plenum, August 30, 1993, in Jerusalem. Netanyahu accused Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of “going behind the back of the nation” in his peace plans with the Palestinians and he called for national elections. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt)

The limits of protest

The protocol also contains an exchange that is relevant to this year’s mass protests against the Netanyahu government’s attempts to overhaul the justice system, and to claims that the government and security forces are taking a hardline approach aimed at curbing them.

In the 1993 meeting, as a large opposition protest was being held outside and amid escalating acts of protest and incitement against the Rabin government, then-minister Haim Ramon said: “I definitely think we need to make sure that not only do they have a right to protest and to utilize all legitimate means — but that the government guarantees this right.”

“There’s no need to go overboard,” Rabin replied.

“I propose going overboard, because this is a battle for democracy and we must allow citizens to protest with legitimate means, and the leadership needs to allow them to do it,” argued Ramon.

“But not nonstop harassment,” Rabin said. “The problem is what are legitimate means.”

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