Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo Accords, offers a peace alternative
Reprints from the Jerusalem Post. By Gol Kalev, February 5, 2018
Yossi Beilin. (photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1993, Israel surprised the world and its own citizens. It signed the Oslo Accords with its arch-rival, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and subsequently handed the Gaza Strip and major West Bank towns to Yasser Arafat’s PLO. The interim accords established the Palestinian Authority and shaped the realities that exist today.
Yossi Beilin was the “father” of the accords.
Nearly 25 years after signing them, Beilin sat down with The Jerusalem Report to reflect on the legacy. When asked if in hindsight he would have supported the Oslo Accords, Beilin is clear. “No! I would not do it then and I would not do it today. I would have gone to a permanent agreement instead.”
The accords were meant as an interim step that would be followed by a permanent peace deal. But with terrorism erupting shortly after the PLO took over, the parties never proceeded to such an agreement, which Beilin deeply regrets. “Oslo was a corridor, not a salon. Our catastrophe is that the interim became the permanent.”
In 1992, Labor won the Israeli elections for the first time since it lost power in 1977.
Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, Shimon Peres, foreign minister, and his protegé, Yossi Beilin, deputy foreign minister.
The new government inherited the Madrid Process, a US-led peace initiative that involved talks with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The delegation included Palestinian leaders from the West Bank and Gaza, but not members of the Tunisia-based PLO.
The PLO, considered a terrorist organization by both Israel and the international community, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Having supported Saddam Hussein in his 1991 war against a US-led coalition of Arab and Western countries, Arafat’s PLO was at its lowest point since its 1964 founding.
Yet, it was clear that the Palestinian negotiators in the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation were coordinating with Tunisia.
Negotiations were moving slowly and Beilin decided to take things into his own hands. “My idea was to have a back channel to solve the problems that were raised, like what would be the number of members in the Palestinian parliament and other stumbling blocks.”
Beilin established a clandestine channel with the PLO that he kept secret from both prime minister Rabin and from his immediate boss, Peres. He reflects, “When we began the talks [with the PLO], I saw that the relationship between the parties was so good, open and sincere, and that it would be so easy to solve the problems.” Soon, Beilin’s back channel became the main show and, within a few months, Rabin and Peres stood on the White House lawns alongside Arafat. They shook hands and signed the Oslo Accords.
Intense criticism sprang up from multiple directions. One concerned the nature of the partner, a designated terrorist organization whose charter comprised a commitment to destroy the Jewish state, and whose exiled leaders were allegedly detached from the realities in the West Bank and Gaza. This, while there were moderate leaders on the ground who were already negotiating with Israel. Beilin explains that there was no choice but to reluctantly pick the PLO. “The Palestinians with whom we spoke said, ‘We know you prefer to negotiate with us, but if you want to strike a deal, it is only [with] the PLO.’” With Arafat taking over Gaza and portions of the West Bank, Palestinian nationalist sentiment, which was previously suppressed by Israel, was now encouraged.
At the same time, Palestinians’ frustrations with the newcomers from Tunisia pushed many toward Hamas.
Soon, a massive wave of terrorism broke out, labeled by some on the right as the “Oslo Intifada.” This was followed by growing condemnation of Israel’s defense operations by the EU, UN and other multinational organizations, which subsequently stepped up their involvement and escalated their criticism. Beilin acknowledges these dire consequences but states, “Unlike an experiment, you do not have a control group.
So to say something is wrong, you need to compare it to business as usual, and you cannot know what business as usual would have been like.”
As confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority intensified, the notion of moving to a permanent agreement became moot. Tense relations continued in the ensuing two decades, which led Beilin to conclude that the Oslo Accords need to be canceled.
But Beilin points to a surprising reversal.
“Oslo became the best thing for the right,” he says. “It is a wonderful thing [for them]. The whole world is helping the Palestinians.
We don’t have to put a penny into this occupation, and we have security cooperation. It couldn’t be better. They [the right] can despise it, but they stick to it. So the father of Oslo is saying ‘put an end to this idiotic situation,’ and the right is saying ‘we will never give up on Oslo.’” Beilin is clear about what should be done. “Forget Oslo and dismantle the Palestinian Authority!”
Beilin wants to father a better child – a permanent agreement, based on the 2003 Geneva Initiative, calling for a two-state solution but with a twist, a confederacy between Israel and the Palestinian state. “We will be in charge of security for the entire confederation; they will be in charge of law and order in their own cities,” he explains, and adds, “No settlement will be evacuated.”
In Beilin’s confederacy, settlers will be permitted to remain as Israeli citizens and residents of the Palestinian state, while the same number of Palestinian citizens will be permitted to reside in Israel.
Viewing this as a feasible solution, he concludes, “We do not have a partner for Bibi’s ideas, but we have a partner for my ideas.”
Beilin stresses that he does not assume that things will go smoothly. “Even if there are some military incidents between us, this would be tolerable. The Palestinians are not a threat to Israel. The military might of Israel cannot be compared to that of the Palestinians.”
When asked if such an agreement would be sustainable, Beilin concedes, “I don’t know whether it would last. There is a limit to my ability to foresee things. What I can say is that we badly need a border. What happens on the other side of the border is important, but secondary.”
Beilin believes that a bigger existential threat faces Israel. “The worst alternative is the status quo,” he states. “That is because we are losing our Jewish majority.”
Beilin’s argument is simple. “What we need as a Zionist movement is to have a Jewish majority in a democratic state.
We are very close to a Jewish minority in charge of a Palestinian majority. We cannot afford this. That is the whole story.”
A border is so important for Beilin that if an agreement cannot be reached, he would support a unilateral withdrawal to a border such as to the current security fence. But in doing so, he stresses that Israel must apply the lessons of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip.
“I was never happy with Gaza,” Beilin states. “We did something that was not simple. We destroyed the settlements and evacuated people – second generation, third generation. And eventually we got nothing out of it. The hatred toward us is not any less and the military threat has only grown larger.”
Beilin was the head of the left-wing Meretz party at that time. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was dependent on Meretz’s vote in order to pass the Gaza disengagement plan. Beilin recalls their conversation, “I asked him what exactly is the situation. He was elusive in his replies.”
Beilin says he preferred to have the withdrawal implemented through negotiations, but Sharon had a different view. “Sharon said to me, ‘I appreciate your efforts for peace. I know you are a real Zionist. The only difference between us is that you trust the Arabs, and I do not.’” Beilin and his party voted for the disengagement and enabled its approval. “The only more idiotic idea was to remain in Gaza,” he says.
Yet, he argues that not having international recognition for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a grave mistake, which must not be repeated if withdrawing from the West Bank. “Have an assurance from the Americans that once you do that, you are not responsible [for the West Bank],” Beilin says. He argues that while the world would not accept a withdrawal to the security fence, whereby Israel keeps a portion of the West Bank and Jerusalem, America would. Hence, in such a scenario, Israel should negotiate with America instead of with the Palestinians about the terms of such a unilateral withdrawal.
“Trump is your partner. Negotiate with your new partner,” he says.
While Beilin remains concerned about Israel’s Jewish majority, he is optimistic about Israel as a whole. The Zionist narrative is strong, he declares. “Israel is an unbelievable success.”
Stating that he is very proud to be an Israeli, he adds, “For me the most important thing is Jewish continuity. It is very difficult to keep Jewish continuity in non-Jewish surroundings when you are not religious.”
This led Beilin to initiate the Birthright program for Diaspora youth during the years Labor was in power in the 1990s.
“Israel for me is a meeting point for the Jewish people,” he says. Beilin’s view on how to preserve this is clear. “I need a border in which there is a Jewish majority. This is very primitive, very simple, very possible. This is what I would like to do before I disappear. This is my dream.”
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