In looking at the dismal state of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sighing Israelis often misquote the late great diplomat Abba Eban, shrug their shoulders and say, “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
“Well, it seems this is contagious,” former Shimon Peres adviser Nimrod Novik told The Times of Israel this week. “If we look at the history of the last few decades, on quite a few occasions we ended up doing something that, had we done it previously, we would have prevented, possibly, a burst of violence.”
Novik was a central player during one such potentially pivotal moment — the 1987 London Agreement. Following years of secret meetings and behind the scenes international political dealings, at a London meeting in April 1987, a document was drawn up between then foreign minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan that was meant to kick-start the peace process.
In an era of stalled efforts, under the cover of an international convention — with Hussein, and not the terrorist PLO group, negotiating for the Palestinians — the London Agreement was intended to pave the way forward to direct negotiations and find a solution for the Palestinian problem in the West Bank and Gaza.
There was just one little problem: Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to sign on.
“When you look at the missed opportunity it’s very difficult to tell what would have transpired had you taken the other arm in the fork of the road. What would have happened if, instead of saying no, he [former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir] had said yes,” said Novik.
On the face of it, the failed agreement signaled an indelible change: A few months after the failed London Agreement, the First Intifada broke out in December 1987. King Hussein disengaged Jordan from the West Bank in July 1988, leaving the Palestinians to negotiate their own peace.
For his part, Peres clearly saw this as a missed opportunity: “We could have saved ourselves and the Palestinians six years of Intifada, and the loss of so much human life, had the former head of the Likud-run government not undermined the agreement I had worked out with King Hussein of Jordan,” he wrote in 1993.
Today, however, scholars disagree among themselves about the Peres-Hussein agreement.
Was it merely another blip on the bumpy path to peace, or the road not taken?
The Jordanian option
In the political theater of 1980s Middle East, it was not always clear who was puppet master and who was puppet. Even as the Cold War wound to a close, the region was utilized in a long game of chess that pitted the United States and Britain against the crumbling USSR.
In this round, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, fearful of an arms race fueled by the Soviets in the Middle East, decided to block Soviet gains through an ounce of prevention — facilitating a peace deal brokered through Jordan and Israel — and prevent several British pounds of cure.
In a new book by Dr. Azriel Bermant, “Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East,” the British leader is cast as a dominant international force behind the London meeting, incessantly pushing for and brokering communications between Hussein and Peres, both of whom she felt were ripe to make peace.
At the same time, the Americans, who shared Thatcher’s Cold War concerns in the Middle East, still felt burned from the less-than-successful reception and outcome of the 1982 Reagan Plan. Promoting “the peaceful and orderly transfer of domestic authority from Israel to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza,” the plan was spurned by Israel, and eventually by Jordan and the PLO.
Reaching the April 1987 London meeting was a complicated, years-long, multi-national dance. According to Peres adviser Novik, to begin drawing up a deal acceptable to all those involved, Hussein and Peres needed to smooth the path with Cairo and Damascus, via the Soviets. The PLO was to be sidestepped altogether.
“What Peres was trying to do was to engage King Hussein as the driver of the vehicle where the Palestinians are respected passengers, but none the less passengers, where someone else is navigating,” said Novik.
Although unwilling to negotiate with the PLO, the Yasser Arafat-led terrorist organization, Peres as prime minister was determined to solve the issue of the West Bank and Gaza.
“He didn’t need the demographic data of 2016 to realize back then that either we grant equal rights, and eventually that’s the end of the Zionist project; or we permanently occupy and deny them of rights, and that’s a prescription for repeated waves of violence,” said Novik. “He was looking for a responsible partner who shared the concern with the instability in the West Bank.”
In his book “Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” Hebrew University Prof. Elie Podeh charted the history leading up to the April 1987 meeting.
“Jordan, as will be recalled, in September 1982 accepted the Reagan Plan, which accorded it an important role in the negotiations. The defeat of the PLO in the Lebanese War and the fact that that organization was unwilling to recognize UN Resolution 242 and renounce terrorism left Jordan — at least in Israeli and US eyes — as the only viable partner for dialogue… The most preferable option for Israel, it was estimated, was to open direct peace negotiations with a Jordanian delegation including Palestinians, not members of the PLO,” wrote Podeh.
Jordan and Israel had a number of shared interests, including the need for secure borders. (Novik said there were no maps drawn in the negotiation process, not even for internal use.)
“We had a partner that wanted to see stability in the West Bank, and had a history of conflict with the PLO, like we did,” said Novik. “In broad strokes, we wanted to somehow create a confederal reality of Jordan on the east bank and Jordan on the west bank while viewing the Jordan River not as Israel’s political border, rather security border.”
The ticking term clock
During the mid-1980s, Israel enjoyed a unity government in which the Peres-led Labor and Shamir-led Likud parties formed a coalition based on a rotation of the prime minister and foreign minister posts. The shared term presented many conflicts within the government itself, and nowhere more than during the fallout of the 1987 London Agreement.
As portrayed by Bermant, Thatcher clearly favored a Peres-led government. But since Peres was slated to leave office in October 1986, there was a real deadline for potential negotiations. (In reading of Thatcher’s years of strategy and scheming over the peace deal, one begins to wonder if, less than 40 years following Israeli’s independence, the leaders of the three countries were still haunted by their previous roles as colonist and colonized.)
As opposed to former Lehi militant Shamir, wrote Bermant, “Thatcher increasingly began to view Peres as the great hope for the achievement of a peace settlement in the region. In a letter to Reagan in 1983, she maintained that King Hussein was ‘a moderate, courageous and pro-Western force for stability in the Middle East.'”
Peres as prime minister agreed with Thatcher and, according to Podeh, Peres met with Hussein in July 1985 to advance the Jordanian option. It was their first meeting in 10 years.
At the same time while facilitating and pressing Peres and Hussein to action, Thatcher continued to conduct frequent meetings with each of the two leaders. In 1986, to further bolster Peres, she made a state visit to Israel. It was the first time since the Mandate period that a British prime minister set foot on Israeli soil.
“As the first British prime minister to visit the Jewish State, there would be a unique opportunity for Thatcher to enhance her credentials as a friend of Israel,” wrote Bermant. During the same tour, Thatcher met with eight Palestinian leaders who expressed willingness to resume dialogue with Jordan as a path towards negotiations.
Thatcher was very aware of a ticking clock. As Bermant quotes from her memoirs, “The succession of Mr. Shamir as Prime Minister would soon seal off even these few shafts of light.” According to Bermant, she probed Peres over potentially not stepping down as per the rotation agreement. Peres, apparently, didn’t reply.
And so, in October 1986, without finalized negotiations, Shamir assumed the role of prime minister and Peres stepped down to become foreign minister.
I will continue ‘even if I have to feed Shamir snakes and scorpions’
Speaking with The Times of Israel the day Peres died, close adviser Novik reminisced and struggled to put in words the legacy of his former employer.
‘One of the most significant skills of Peres is the ability to almost intuitively appreciate the limits of the possible’
“One of the most significant skills of Peres, which I think was innate, and that people don’t talk about, is the ability to almost intuitively appreciate the limits of the possible,” said Novik. “It sounds simple, it sounds like a bumper sticker, but it entails a very sophisticated thing, not just about himself, but every single player involved in the move he is contemplating.”
Peres, said Novik, “had to appreciate the limits of possible and the interests of all the relevant players in a complex puzzle that he skillfully put together, leading to that moment on April 11 when King Hussein had the blessing of Damascus and Cairo to sign on to the concepts.”
Unfortunately, however, while Hussein had the blessing of Israel’s Arab neighbors, Peres did not have the benediction from Shamir when he signed the London Agreement. The document outlined the idea of an international peace conference with the attendance of the five standing members of the Security Council: China, France, the Soviets, the United Kingdom and the United States. The document also included an understanding that Israel would negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation (exclusive of the PLO) on the future of the West Bank.
Among other red flags, Shamir mistrusted this international input, afraid of outside coercion. Coming from vastly different perspectives, the pair also had a personal combative history in Israeli politics. Peres knew that Shamir — who had been briefed over the years by Peres and his advisers — would attempt to torpedo his efforts.
Just prior to stepping down from prime minister, an angry Peres stated, “I will continue with my initiatives, even if I have to feed Shamir snakes and scorpions.”
According to Bermant, Peres viewed the London understandings as a major accomplishment. “He had long sought an agreement with Hussein, and now he had one.” However, he wrote, “the failure of the London Agreement may have been linked in part to the underhand manner in which Peres treated Shamir.”
After the April 11 London meeting, a paranoid Peres chose not to show Shamir the resultant documents, rather sent his right-hand man, Yossi Beilin, to US Secretary of State George Shultz to shore up American approval for it.
In describing this episode, scholar Podeh quotes from Shultz’s 1993 memoirs: “The foreign minister of Israel’s government of national unity was asking me to sell to Israel’s prime minister, the head of a rival party, the substance of an agreement made with a foreign head of state — an agreement revealed to me before it had been revealed to the Israeli government itself!”
Shamir, as prime minister, was further outraged by Peres’s accusation that his office would leak the document, and sent his defense minister, Moshe Arens, to Shultz to ask the Americans not to adopt the plan, claiming it was a matter of internal Israeli politics.
Podeh wrote, “Shultz, however, was not easily put off; he thought that the agreement ‘represents a possibility that never existed before,’ and that the time was propitious ‘to try to come to terms with each other before real trouble [in the West Bank] breaks out.’ Yet the inner squabbles between Peres and Shamir convinced Shultz not to embrace the London document, though he felt that Shamir was wrong.”
‘One-on-one, it seems he was an even more capable chess player’
Shamir told the Israeli public that Peres had conducted these “unauthorized” negotiations behind his back. Novik, who personally briefed Shamir, noted in conversation with The Times of Israel that there was never a witness in the room during their meetings.
“One-on-one, it seems he was an even more capable chess player so no one would witness the fact it was not behind his back,” said Novik. Likewise, he said,
“when we came to the Foreign Ministry, we found in the archives 34 reports of the US ambassador at the time to Shamir as foreign minister about progress in the London negotiating process.”
Death of the peace plan that wasn’t
Without the American’s support, the London Agreement “was asphyxiated at birth,” wrote Peres. Britain did not have clout enough to sell it to the Israeli public; indeed, historians tend to gloss over the country’s role in this round of peace negotiations.
“Britain was a declining power by this point in history,” author Bermant told The Times of Israel this week. “There has been very little written about Britain’s role because the focus has always been on the United States and to a lesser extent on Russia/the Soviet Union. I think this is mistaken.
“Margaret Thatcher was a leader who sought to restore Britain to greatness, and the Middle East was one arena where she sought to make Britain relevant but she fell short,” said Bermant.
The same could be said for Peres, who, despite promises to the contrary to Hussein, did not break up the government coalition over the London Agreement.
Podeh recounted that, “On May 6, Peres presented to the inner cabinet a detailed proposal based on the London document; as expected, it met with unanimous opposition from the Likud ministers. Peres decided not to put it to a vote because the outcome was certain to be a draw (which meant, in fact, rejection).”
Podeh said Peres’s decision not to resign was “because such a step would have entailed giving his reasons in public, which would be an even greater violation of the pledge of secrecy” he gave the Jordanians in London about the years of talks between the two nations. However, wrote Podeh, “Peres’s decision to remain in the government sealed the fate of the London document.”
Soon after, when the Israeli public next visited the polls, in a close election Shamir was asked to build the next government’s coalition — a unity government in which Peres would not be asked to serve as prime minister.
Was this a missed opportunity?
In his book, “Chances for Peace,” Podeh dissects the storied history of Arab-Israeli peace efforts. It starts with the 1919 Fayzal-Weizmann Plan, continues to the Partition Plans of 1937 and 1947, and ends with the 2008 Abu Mazen-Olmert talks. The London Agreement is the fifteenth chapter.
“In contrast to Peres, my findings were that this episode did not constitute a missed opportunity. My feeling is that Peres, in this case, overstated the importance of this episode,” Podeh told The Times of Israel this week.
Before launching into why the peace effort should not be considered a missed opportunity, Podeh wrote, however, “With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that the London document was the last attempt to revive the Jordanian option with regard to the solution of the Palestinian problem in the West Bank and Gaza.”
For the scholar, what disqualified the London Agreement from the category of “missed opportunity” involves a calculation of four factors. The first is the level of legitimacy of the leaders.
Peres, wrote Podeh, “as foreign minister, did not represent Prime Minister Shamir and other Likud members in the government. In other words, Peres had no mandate for agreeing to an international conference.” On the Jordanian side, while Hussein was obviously the legitimate Jordanian ruler, “he did not enjoy an Arab mandate to represent the Palestinians.”
The second factor is “the willingness of leaders to take a bold step and change the course of events.” Here too, wrote Podeh, Peres, “when blocked by Shamir and the Likud, was unwilling to disband the government.”
The third variable is “the history of past interactions between the parties to the conflict, which influences the level of trust (or mistrust).” In not bringing down the government, Jordan, which already had a tenuous relationship with the Jewish state, felt rebuffed. And the final factor is the level of involvement of the third party. While Britain was clearly fully invested, the United States “was not fully committed to the process.”
Oxford lecturer Dr. Sara Hirschhorn suggested to The Time of Israel this week that the London Agreement was part of a larger pattern of “collusion across the Jordan” between Israel and the Kingdom since the 1948 war.
“While in retrospect, it seems like ‘another opportunity to miss an opportunity,’ I’m not sure the terms of the agreement — which were basically that the Palestinians wouldn’t have recognized representation — would be acceptable today,” Hirschhorn said.
“Peres was something of a ‘Johnny come lately’ to the idea of Palestinian sovereignty — something that we shouldn’t gloss over as part of his legacy,” said Hirschhorn.
‘Some of his efforts may not even yet be known’
The secret negotiations leading up to the London Agreement “were a kind of precursor,” she said, to the 1991 Madrid Conference, hosted by Spain and co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, which led to the 1993 Oslo Accords.
What is unquestionable is the London Agreement “demonstrates the decades of effort Peres spent both in public and private trying to reach a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — some of his efforts may not even yet be known,” said Hirschhorn.
“Sadly, he is only survived today by the dream, rather than the reality, of peace,” she said.
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- Israel & the Region
- Israel Inside
- Shimon Peres
- Hussein Abu Hussein
- Israel-Jordan relations
- Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
- London Agreement
- Margaret Thatcher
- Yitzhak Shamir
- First Intifada
- King Hussein
- Cold War
- Yasser Arafat
- Nimrod Novik
- Ronald Reagan
- George Schultz
- Madrid peace conference
- Abba Eban