'A warrior for peace'

Ron Pundak, architect of Oslo Accords, dies at 59

Academic who initiated the secret channel that led to the Rabin-Arafat handshake 20 years ago succumbs to cancer

Ron Pundak (left), and Abu Ala (photo credit: Courtesy Ron Pundak)
Ron Pundak (left), and Abu Ala (photo credit: Courtesy Ron Pundak)

Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, passed away Friday at the age of 59 after a battle with cancer.

From 2001-2012, Pundak directed the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. He then chaired the Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella organization of 60 nonprofits.

“Ron Pundak was a warrior for peace until his last breath, a man of values,” said President Shimon Peres in a statement. “He dedicated his entire adult life to the fight for peace between us and our neighbors. He was willing to do anything for peace, to give every moment of his life. When it came to peace, he knew no compromise, he chased justice and breathed peace. He was a passionate man for whom peace burned like an eternal flame. He was passionate and encouraged passion in others; he was dedicated, and inspired dedication in others.

“Ron was the salt of the earth, a great spirit, a family man,” Peres concluded. “He will be missed by us all.”

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 Yair 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 contacts with local Palestinian leaders that he had established in the 1970s and 1980s. Hirschfeld had good relations 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 Yitzhak 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.

So Pundak and 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 in an interview with The Times of Israel in September 2013. “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)

Extremely critical of the way Jerusalem followed up on the two Oslo Accords (Oslo II, officially known as the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, was signed on September 28, 1995), Pundak blamed Rabin and his foreign minister (now President) 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.

Rabin mistakenly continues to speak to them [the official Palestinian representatives to the peace process], but they do not represent anybody,” Pundak said at the time. “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 the knowledge of anyone in the government, 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.

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 detailed this clandestine activity in a book, “Secret Channel: The Full Story” (published in 2013 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.

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.

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.

‘Had Oslo been implemented, the [Second] Intifada would not have occurred’

Pundak, on the other hand, had no regrets. Speaking 20 years later, he said he believed that the stagnation of the peace process, and subsequent Palestinian terror, resulted from what he called 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.”

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