Interview'I have absolutely no doubt that Arafat was ready to have peace with Israel'

No regrets, many laments, from the architect of Oslo

Ron Pundak, who initiated the secret channel that led to the Rabin-Arafat handshake 20 years ago, argues that without the process he birthed, things today would be even worse

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former US president Bill Clinton looks on as then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. (Courtesy/GPO)
Former US president Bill Clinton looks on as then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. (Courtesy/GPO)

In 1992, Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld — two private individuals — started meeting with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and East Jerusalem trying to feel out if a peace agreement was possible. A few weeks after the first such meeting, Hirschfeld, who was skeptical about the chances to reach a breakthrough, turned to Pundak and said that what they were doing would perhaps one day become a historical footnote. Certainly nothing more.

“I told him, ‘Yair, you’re wrong,’” Pundak recalled this week. “What we have in our hands is something big. There is a chance that this will become something huge.”

And yet Pundak had relatively modest goals. He hoped their contacts might ultimately result in direct communication between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which at the time was prohibited by Israeli law. “Even in my wildest dreams I could not consider the possibility that our channel would become the channel, and that this channel would lead to an agreement with the PLO.”

But it did. A few months later, Hirschfeld and Pundak established a secret channel that eventually led to the signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993, and the iconic handshake that day by a hesitant prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and an enthusiastic PLO leader Yasser Arafat, brought together by president Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.

Ron Pundak, co-Chairman of the Peace NGO Forum, on January 25, 2011. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ron Pundak (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, as the first part of the Oslo Accords is formally known, Pundak recalled how he and his colleague arranged clandestine meetings with senior PLO officials, without the knowledge of the government, first testing the waters and later composing a first draft of the document that would eventually be signed.

Extremely critical of the way Jerusalem followed up on the two Oslo Accords (Oslo II, officially know as the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, was signed on September 28, 1995), Pundak in our interview blamed Rabin and his foreign minister (now President) Shimon Peres for the fact that the process did not yield a final-status agreement. He said he had “no doubt whatsoever” that Arafat truly sought peace with Israel.

In 1991, Pundak, a native of Tel Aviv, graduated from the University of London with a PhD in Middle Eastern Political History and returned to Israel, where he started working for the Haaretz newspaper. A short while later, he reconnected with his old friend Hirschfeld, who at the time served as a non-paid adviser to Labor MK Yossi Beilin. In what was a period of relative optimism, inspired by the Madrid Peace Conference, Hirschfeld reactivated relations with certain local Palestinian leaders that he had established in the 1970s and 80s. Hirschfeld had good contacts with senior Palestinian figures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi, Ziad Abu Zayad and Sari Nusseibeh.

After the June 1992 elections, when Rabin emerged as prime minister, Peres entered the Foreign Ministry and Beilin became his deputy. Rabin promised to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians within six to nine months. But Pundak, 38 at the time, and Hirschfeld felt things were not moving fast enough.

“Times passes. We are continuing our activity with the Palestinians as two outsiders who are assisting Beilin. And whatever information we’re gathering from the other side we report to Beilin,” Pundak, now 58, recalled this week in a Tel Aviv café. “We could be very helpful to the government, and we did it at our own expense, on our own time, as a kind of a service to the government, specifically through Yossi Beilin.” The duo only spoke with the local Palestinian heads; contacts with Arafat’s main PLO leadership, in Tunis, was still illegal.

By six months after the elections, Pundak and Hirschfeld were deeply frustrated that nothing concrete was happening. The Israeli government conducted official negotiations in Washington, but they yielded no results, mainly because the Palestinian delegation did not include key PLO figures; former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had vetoed them before agreeing to participate in the Madrid process.

“Rabin mistakenly continues to speak to them [the official Palestinian representatives to the peace process], but they do not represent anybody,” Pundak said. “We know that the only ones who can really represent the Palestinians are the PLO. Our contacts in Jerusalem and Ramallah and elsewhere are telling us: ‘Listen, if Israel would like to pursue this dialogue, the only address is the PLO. They are the real representatives and only they make the concessions. We cannot make any concessions.’ But the government does not accept this and continues with the bubbe maises [old wives’ tales], their blah blah, with the local delegation.”

Consequently, Pundak and Hirschfeld decided, as private individuals, without anyone in government knowing, to try to establish an informal channel for dialogue with PLO Tunis. After a short while, Ashrawi and Husseini, through their PLO contacts in Tunis, proposed a meeting with Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, a senior Fatah official who had followed Arafat into exile after he was forced to leave Lebanon.

A recent photo of Ron Pundak, left, and Abu Ala (photo credit: courtesy Ron Pundak)
A recent photo of Ron Pundak, left, and Abu Ala (photo credit: courtesy Ron Pundak)

“We didn’t inform Beilin because we didn’t want to embarrass him,” Pundak noted. “Had he told us to go to that meeting, that could pose a problem for him — if it leads nowhere. If he tells us not to go to that meeting, it could be a problem for us.”

On December 5, 1992, Hirschfeld met with Abu Ala in London. Pundak was not present, but his colleague informed him in near-real-time about everything that was said.

“The content of the talks actually gives us the feeling that we have a partner with whom to continue a dialogue — which is the PLO — and that they are keen to do it,” said Pundak, who details this clandestine activity in a new book, “Secret Channel: The Full Story” (published two months ago in Hebrew; an English version is in the planning stages). A few hours after that first meeting, the two academics-cum-wannabe peacemakers finally let Beilin in on their secret. The deputy foreign minister told them he didn’t mind their illegal activity; indeed, he gave them the green light to proceed, enabling Hirschfeld to speak more confidently during a second meeting with Abu Ala, held the very same day.

Hirschfeld returned to Israel and together with Pundak, they contacted several European governments asking for logistical support. The Norwegians were the first to respond. With Abu Ala’s agreement, the next meeting was scheduled for the outskirts of Oslo, on January 20, 1993. Only Beilin knew about it; Rabin and Peres had no clue. The two Israeli academics told their Palestinian interlocutors — Abu Ala was now joined by Maher el-Kurd, who represented Arafat, and Hasan Asfour, who represented Mahmoud Abbas — that nobody in Jerusalem knew they were there, and that there was an imperative to maintain total deniability.

“We tell them that we’re not representing anybody but ourselves, and what we are here to do is to assert, for ourselves, that they are real partners and that we can do something with them. With this we will come back to the government and report to them,” Pundak remembered promising.

The meeting was so successful that Hirschfeld and Pundak started working on the text of a possible agreement. Dubbed draft zero, this document tried to combine what the duo thought were the positions of all parties. Presented to the Palestinians at a third meeting, it took into consideration what the two Israelis believed would be Rabin’s standpoint, what they’d heard from their various sources in Ramallah and Jerusalem, and what they’d heard from their new PLO contacts from Tunis. “Draft zero was not our last word on all the issues, but it created the miracle.”

‘We looked at ourselves as a joint team with a joint objective, representing two interests — but jointly’

For the next five months, Pundak and Hirschfeld continued negotiating with the PLO officials in Oslo, meeting every two or three weeks. “We created the channel around the aspects of confidentiality, trust, reliability, candid dialogue, and a win-win approach,” Pundak said. “We sat around a round table, as opposed to a rectangular table, whenever we could, looking at ourselves as a joint team with a joint objective, representing two interests — but jointly.”

In May 1993, the five men agreed on a paper, the final version of which would become the Declaration of Principles. At this stage, Beilin informed Peres and Rabin.

Both leaders were initially skeptical, but ultimately gave their okay, and decided to turn the secret, illegal framework that Pundak and Hirschfeld had created into an official government channel. Uri Savir, then director-general of the Foreign Ministry, joined the negotiations, and sought first to verify Pundak and Hirschfeld’s reports.

“He discovered that not only everything we said was true, but that we had actually lowered the expectations,” Pundak said. “We were always very modest in our reporting; we didn’t want to create too many expectations. And Savir found that actually the achievements which Israel — which the two sides — can gain were much greater than we had [suggested], and that the Palestinians were serious partners, ready to sign an agreement.”

In the coming months, Pundak and Hirschfeld took a more passive role as Savir led the formal (yet still secret) negotiations, assisted by the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser Yoel Singer. Turning the draft into a legal document was “very, very difficult,” Pundak recalled. “That leads us to a period of ups and downs, where the Palestinians are leaving the negotiating table; we are leaving the table; we’re declaring everything null and void; we come back; there is a bridging proposal; the Norwegians are running back and forth between the two sides.”

Eventually, the two sides agreed on a text, and in the early morning hours of August 20, an agreement was signed by Savir and Abu Ala, in the presence of Peres, Beilin, Pundak, Hirschfeld and others.

The signing ceremony in Oslo, August 20, 1993. Pundak is on the far right (photo credit: courtesy Ron Pundak)
The signing ceremony in Oslo, August 20, 1993. Pundak is on the far right (photo credit: courtesy Ron Pundak)

Less than a month later, on September 9, Arafat sent Rabin a letter in which he stated that the PLO “recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” and “renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence.” Rabin responded, on the same day, by declaring that the government of Israel recognizes the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and would enter peace negotiations with the group.

The secret channel was made public and history took its course: On September 13, the Declaration of Principles was signed at the White House.

Twenty years on, many Israelis regard the process started by the Oslo Accords as a total disaster. Not long after the White House ceremonies, “Bring the Oslo criminals to justice” became an oft-heard slogan, as the dream of peaceful coexistence turned into a nightmare of terror and violence. During the fall following the Washington ceremony, 19 Israelis were killed in Palestinian terror attacks; in subsequent months and years, hundreds of Israelis, mostly civilians, lost their lives. Jewish opponents of the process resorted to murder as well: on February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at prayer in Hebron; a year and half later, Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin in Tel Aviv.

Palestinian citizens celebrating the arrival of Palestinian police in Jericho, May 13, 1994. It was one of the first cities handed over to Palestinian Authority control in 1994, in accordance with the Oslo Accords (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Palestinian citizens celebrating the arrival of Palestinian police in Jericho, May 13, 1994. It was one of the first cities handed over to Palestinian Authority control in 1994, in accordance with the Oslo Accords (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Many especially right-leaning analysts still see the “Oslo fiasco” as the root of the current impasse. Efraim Inbar, the director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, called it an “abject failure.” In a paper published this week, he notes that the Accords “clearly failed to bring a resolution to the conflict, and did not result in a peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.” The “nearly 1,500 Israeli casualties and many more thousands of wounded during this period by Palestinian terrorist and rocket attacks testify to this failure,” he adds.

Rabin’s land-for-security formula simply did not work, Inbar posits, arguing that the Palestinian Authority, which was established within the framework of Oslo II, “now rules in the West Bank and promotes anti-Israel hatred through its education system and controlled media.”

‘Had Oslo been implemented, the [second] intifada would not have occurred’

Pundak, on the other hand, has no regrets. He believes that the stagnation of the peace process, and subsequent Palestinian terror, resulted from what he calls the “non-implementation” of the Oslo Accords.

“Everyone who thinks that the Palestinians wouldn’t have started an intifada if the occupation would have continued, who thinks the Palestinians would have continued to sit and just accept the continuation of occupation and not revolt, doesn’t know the Palestinians and don’t understand anything,” he said resolutely. “Had Oslo been implemented, the [Second] Intifada would not have occurred.”

Arafat is often accused of never having lost his appetite for Jewish blood, but according to Pundak he did not instigate the Second Intifada’s onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings. “The intifada came from the people who could not stand that nothing is happening and that occupation continues, and that Oslo failed to bring the expected and hoped-for results.”

It is hard for Pundak to assert that Oslo was a great success, given that 20 years later a final status agreement is as elusive as ever. So what went wrong? Pundak holds both sides responsible, yet attributes the lion’s share of the blame to the Israeli leadership.

“Rabin and Peres contributed, in my mind, more to the collapse of the [Oslo] process” than the Palestinians, he posited. “Their contribution was much more strategic. For one, they allowed the radical continuation and expansion of settlements … in areas which undoubtedly should have been part of any Palestinian state in the future, small or big.”

The biggest tragedy of Oslo, however, was the lack of vision that followed the glamorous White House ceremony, Pundak suggested. Rabin and Peres failed to clearly state that a Palestinian state was on the horizon. They should have declared that if the Palestinians fulfilled their part of the deal and Israel’s security was guaranteed, the endgame of Oslo was a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. “That message would have achieved the miracle of changing the mindsets of everybody, and would have provided a vision for the process. Without this, the process did not have a vision,” Pundak charged. “When Israel negotiated the Interim Agreement, it actually negotiated an agreement which was brutally, I dare to say, doing everything to prevent and preempt the possibility of a Palestinian state.”

While he and Hirschfeld thought of a Palestinian state “from day one,” Peres rejected the idea until 1998. Rabin, Pundak believes, was in favor of a Palestinian state, yet he never publicly stated this position. (In fact, a month before he was assassinated, Rabin specified that he envisioned “an entity which is less than a state.”)

Pundak started to feel that the Oslo process would break down just a few months after the signing ceremony. “When I saw the attitude of the Israeli institutions and government toward the Palestinians, I felt that we are going to ruin everything with our own hands,” he recalled. “The activities on the checkpoints did not change, the attitude of the average Israeli soldier to the average Palestinian continued to be looking at three million Palestinians as enemies.”

The checkpoints in the West Bank should have been manned by specially trained forces, clad in white uniforms, as opposed to regular IDF troops, Pundak demanded at the time, to no avail. Israel made absolutely no effort to change mindsets or to encourage cooperation and dialogue incrementally, he lamented. “Put your money where your mouth is: If you want peace, invest in it. Nothing happened. Israel invested zero shekels.”

“It’s not that I’m not blaming the Palestinians for all their faults — they had many — but when I look objectively… I think that we f***ed it up. Unfortunately, I have to admit it. It was in our hands. We were able — we’re still able — to reach peace, but we haven’t reached it yet.”

The Palestinians, Pundak clarified, were not without blame for the collapse of the peace process. “Arafat did not make the personal, psychological transformation as a leader who moves from one status to another status.” The mere fact that he decided to wear a uniform to the White House signing ceremony showed that, in his own mind, he hadn’t made the switch from warrior to statesman, Pundak said. But that is not to say that he wasn’t ready to reach an agreement with Israel.

Rabin, left, chats with Arafat and Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994 (photo credit: courtesy GPO)
Rabin, left, chats with Arafat and Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994 (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

“I have no doubt whatsoever,” Pundak declared, “that he wanted to reach peace based on two states on the basis of the 1967 borders; that he wanted to have peace with Israel and end the conflict. I have no doubt about it. He is the man who took the highest risk for this, more than Rabin who eventually lost his life. The death threats on [Arafat] on the day after the signature were numerous, and he knew that there were seven plans to kill him. And in spite of this he went through the process, adamantly pursuing it in order to reach peace.”

However, Arafat did not address the Israeli public like a statesman seeking peace should, Pundak allowed, and he did not do enough to fight Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups raining terror on Israeli civilians.

Pundak, who headed the Peres Center for Peace until 2011 and currently chairs the Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella organization of 60 nonprofits, first met Arafat in Tunis in October 1993. “Arafat was not a typical person, in terms of his [interpersonal] behavior. Everything was rather extreme, to some extent awkward — his gestures, his language, his hospitality,” the Israeli academic remembered. “You would sit near him and he would feed you with his hands. He was taking food from his own plate usually, and giving it to you on your plate, or even to your mouth. Gestures that kind of wanted to show respect, but in reality were quite uncomfortable.”

Pundak said he never forgot that Arafat was responsible for countless Jewish deaths, and kept that in mind during their many meetings. “But at the same time I respected the dramatic change that he went through after 1988 and mainly in 1993 — from somebody who was a leader of both a national movement and a terrorist organization, into somebody who decided to recognize and sign peace with Israel and compromise on his and his nation’s historical demand for the entire Palestine.” This “dramatic concession,” Pundak said, demands respect. “My attitude toward him was always within this duality.”

Anything but apologetic about having initiated the Oslo Accords, Pundak insists both sides could have done much better. “We entered a process of mutual recognition, of beginning to work toward partitioning — that would safeguard, from my point of view, the future of Israel as a state for the Jews. Oslo is the continuation of real Zionism, which should bring Israel, eventually, into borders in which we [Jews] will not be a minority. Without the implementation of Oslo and a two-state solution, we will end up being a minority in our country. Eventually, if so, Zionism will die and we will become an apartheid state.”

Rabin and Arafat sign maps prior to the Oslo II signing ceremony at the White House, as US president Bill Clinton, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein look on, September 28, 1995 (photo credit: GPO)
Rabin and Arafat sign maps prior to the Oslo II signing ceremony at the White House, as US president Bill Clinton, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein look on, September 28, 1995 (photo credit: GPO)

Pundak claims Oslo as a breakthrough in that it marked the first time that Israel negotiated not with a group of local representatives but with the one organization internationally recognized to represent the Palestinian people. “For the first time in over 100 years,” he continued, “since the first Jew came to Palestine as part of the Zionist program, two national movements… who until then fought each other in a zero-sum game — everything or nothing — are going through a dramatic transformation of mutual recognition.”

The secret channel he helped establish more than 20 years ago eventually led to an agreement in which the two sides for the first time declared that all conflicts would be solved diplomatically, through the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242, Pundak said proudly. That meant both Israelis and Palestinians acquiesced to settling their decades-old conflict on the basis of territories for peace, he added.

And since Oslo, he concluded, “We’re no longer speaking about what was before 1948. We speak about a diplomatic solution based on 1967 borders; 22 percent versus 78 percent [of historic Palestine] — meaning the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel on 78 percent of historical Palestine. This is a revolution.”

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