Was Rabin fooled by Arafat?

by Jacques Neriah
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Yitzhak Rabin mistakenly believed that Yasser Arafat had come to terms with the existence of Israel.

(JNS / Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) During one of my meetings with Yasser Arafat in Tunis about two months after the signing of the Oslo Accords’ Declaration of Principles on the lawn of the White House in Washington, we spoke about the future of the negotiations.

We dealt with the territorial dimension of the nascent Palestinian Authority and, to my dismay, Arafat told me that the future territory of the P.A. would stretch from Ein Gev in the north (on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee) to Ein Gedi (situated on the Dead Sea) in the south.

Furthermore, he said that the hills overlooking Jericho (the Karantal Hills) were his, and he needed them to put “his antennas.” However, Arafat agreed magnanimously to allow Israel to put its antennas in the same location.

I could not believe my ears. Arafat was pointing at the territorial dimension of Mandatory Palestine and claiming that Ein Gev was his as well as the whole territory extending from Jericho to Ein Gedi. I turned to my colleague, the assistant to the military secretary who accompanied me, and asked if he had written down all of Arafat’s statements. He answered in the affirmative. I knew at that time that I had triggered a land mine.

Back in Jerusalem, I briefed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Arafat’s position. Rabin could not believe his ears. He asked me to check with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I received three pages regarding the meetings in Oslo. There was no mention whatsoever of Arafat’s claims. Rabin listened to my story, but deep inside, I could see he did not believe me.

On the eve of a Dec. 13, 1993 meeting in Cairo, I told Rabin we were running into a crisis because there was no way we could bridge our positions and Arafat’s. Rabin insisted on attending the summit on time. He even intended to propose to Arafat that they meet in the United States at Camp David under U.S. auspices to reach a final agreement on implementing the Declaration of Principles.

As it happened, Rabin met with Arafat alone, face-to-face. Ten minutes later, he came out of the meeting, red with anger and furious at having been taken in by Arafat’s positions. Turning to the Israeli entourage, he said, “Jacques was right. Arafat really means what he said! Too bad I didn’t meet with Arafat before the Oslo agreements were signed! I would not have signed them!”

In the plenary session, Rabin said there were some issues we disagreed upon and proposed to Arafat that they meet after 10 days to see if there was a way to overcome the hurdles. Rabin did not intend to meet with Arafat. It was his way of telling the other side that he was not ready to continue the course of negotiations. Arafat would complain later that Rabin had promised to meet him after 10 days but did not fulfill his promise.

If this was so, the question arises about several issues: Was Rabin “fooled” by Arafat or by his own negotiators, who did not report Arafat’s positions as expressed in his meeting with Rabin?

Rabin was not well-versed in the details of the understandings reached at Oslo. This was evident to me several times when I tried to clarify what had been said on the sidelines at Oslo and if, indeed, Arafat had been given the promises there that he brandished later when trying to get around various obstacles.

The ambiguity of the Declaration of Principles was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because Rabin did not know Arafat’s actual positions, he made a point of adding to the Declaration of Principles a protocol called the “Agreed Minutes” that became an integral part of the document. He was known to say that, if not for this protocol, the Declaration of Principles would have become a “national disaster.”

Indeed, in hindsight, one cannot know what would have happened if Rabin and Arafat had met before the document was signed. More gravely, after the failed summit with Arafat in December 1993, Rabin was furious at having been taken in by Arafat.

Years later, looking at my work with Rabin, I try to understand how things happened. Did Rabin take the Palestinian track willingly or was he swept into the diplomatic whirlpool that his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, had created?

My work with Rabin leaves me with no doubt that he was aware of the contacts being held in Oslo but not the fine details of the understandings that were presented there, and he did not seem to have assigned enough importance to those understandings.

To his chagrin, the Israeli political system was replete with political figures and academics trying their hand at independent contacts with PLO officials—something that yielded no results except for bits of gossip and information about the atmosphere prevailing in Arafat’s court.

The question remains as to why Rabin stubbornly proceeded with the negotiations. In my view, there are several answers to that riddle:

Already in 1992, when he became prime minister for the second time, Rabin expressed great and genuine apprehension about what he called a “binational state.”

Rabin also felt he was endowed with the leadership ability his predecessors lacked. He saw himself as a trailblazer who would not just point the way but convince the Israeli public that his approach was right and would fulfill the dream of every Israeli who desired to live in peace.

This was also a point at which the only peace agreement signed between Egypt and Israel was concluded by the right-wing Likud party, headed by Menachem Begin. Rabin wanted to be remembered as another “peacemaker” and the one who ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In August 1993, a senior Palestinian figure told Egyptian Amb. Mohammed Bassiouni that “Israel is the one now providing oxygen to the PLO” and that otherwise, the PLO would have died from lack of resources. Its institutions were collapsing and Arafat’s leadership was being undermined.

This information elated Rabin. In those days, the prevailing feeling was that no settlement could be reached with the Palestinians, and that was presumably how Rabin regarded the group conducting the talks in Oslo until it turned out real progress had been made.

From Rabin’s standpoint, the Oslo talks met two of the three conditions he had stipulated for the success of any negotiations with an Arab actor: Nothing had leaked from them and they were being held with a separate Palestinian delegation. However, the talks were not conducted under American sponsorship but with Norwegian assistance.

The nature of Rabin’s personality, his obsessive suspicion, the compartmentalization he practiced, his low esteem for intelligence assessments, his tense relations with the chief of Military Intelligence and the fact that no one knew about the negotiations being held in Oslo—all this encouraged him to continue his policy of concealment.

There was, however, one fundamental difference: When he learned that the contacts had led to an agreement on a Declaration of Principles, Rabin hastened to add the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry, Joel Singer, to the talks and told him to get involved in ironing out the terms. By then, however, the Declaration of Principles had already been signed, and there was very little left to do but give one’s blessing to a done deal.

On the Friday before the signing of the Oslo agreements at the White House, Rabin explained that, unlike peace agreements with Syria and other countries, the deal with the Palestinians was reversible. He reiterated that Israel could always return to the territory it was supposed to hand over to Arafat without risking an all-out, onerous war.

This may have been his way of persuading his opponents to adopt his approach to the Palestinians. But the reality that emerged after 1993 proved that there was already no way to go back to the situation that had prevailed in the territories after the Six-Day War.

A primary reason must have been Rabin’s reluctance to return to the Israeli public and world opinion and declare he was pulling back from the agreement with the Palestinians. Rabin’s government, leaning on a fragile majority of one Knesset member, would not have survived such a move, which would have undermined his credibility as a leader. Furthermore, such a declaration would have been used by Peres, his eternal rival, who would have taken advantage of Rabin in the Labor Party.

Finally, Rabin did not consider Arafat’s positions threatening and, to put it mildly, Rabin did not give them any importance as long as he knew that Israel’s positions were recognized and accepted. Arafat could claim whatever he wanted. There was no way Rabin would accept his whims. The campaign he initiated after the failure of the summit with Arafat and the positive feedback he received from world leaders, the United States and some of the Arab countries led him to believe that Israel’s real protection against Arafat’s “fantasies” was the “Agreed Minutes.”

There was no love lost between Rabin and Arafat. The romantic attempt to depict a genuine friendship between them has no basis in reality. It was no more than a cold convergence of interests between two leaders, each with his own agenda. Rabin spoke of separation and peace, not about the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. Until his last day, he remained to the depths of his soul a general who held a sword, but he was certainly prepared to try the diplomatic channel.

Rabin did not call for establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and definitely not on the 1967 borders. He spoke of a political entity—a little more than autonomous and less than a state—that would be obligated by federative or confederative agreements with Israel and Jordan.

Looking back at the whole Oslo process, would Rabin have signed it today knowing the consequences of two “intifadas” on the Israeli public, the corrupt and fractious P.A., the emergence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the subversive activities of Iran and Hezbollah in Gaza and Judea and Samaria, the several military encounters with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the thousands of rockets and incendiary balloons which landed in Israel, destroying buildings and burning crops?

Rabin was, first and foremost, a military man. He would not have hesitated to use the IDF to quell any uprising. His most significant error was to have let Peres and his team lead him into an impossible situation and make him believe that genuine reconciliation was possible.

On the first day of his arrival in Gaza, Arafat’s convoy was stopped: Arafat had in his car’s trunk three wanted terrorists. A few days later, a search of one of the planes that landed in the Dahaniyya airport, specially prepared to allow the Palestinians a direct link with the outside world, found a cache with unauthorized weapons smuggled to the Gaza Strip.

Rabin should have known that Arafat would try every trick in the book to fool Israel. After the PLO was defeated in Lebanon by the IDF at the cost of hundreds of lives, Rabin was the one who opened the door of the territories to Arafat, mistakenly believing that the PLO leader had come to terms with the existence of Israel as a Jewish independent state.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.


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