A century seems to have passed, light years from that 13 September 1993, when on the lawn of the White House, two rather hesitant hands moved towards each other before the President of the United States and photographers from every part of the world to immortalize the ‘moment’. The event that has passed into history, writing the destiny of a people, marking the beginning of a new road.
Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, Bill Clinton clearly follows the gesture, symbolically underlining the effort put into that meeting. Before walking over the lawn of the White House, the two legitimate representatives of Israel and Palestine had walked along a long road, fraught with unforeseeable difficulties and setbacks, but paved with an unhoped-for dream for peace.
THE OSLO DIARIES, the documentary of Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, premiered at the last Sundance Film Festival, is an important and moving reconstruction of the history of the Oslo Accords through the diaries of the main creators, unknown people, who behind the scenes masterfully wove the plot of this extraordinary and unrepeatable diplomacy of peace. The material used in THE OSLO DIARIES is first-rate. Beginning with the participation of Shimon Peres, the last testimony before his death. There were many films made of the era, interviews with survivors, reconstructions of the secret meetings of the negotiators.
December 1992. The relations between Israel and Palestine are at an all-time historical low. In an attempt to stop the spilling of further blood, the Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, Yossi Beilin, sets underway a series of informal and secret meetings with the Palestinians. The last and only card left to play.
There is no official documentation of these negotiations, only the individual memories of a group of Israelis and Palestinians who meet off stage in the surroundings of the city of Oslo – Ron Pundak, Yair Hirschfeld, Uri Savir Abu Ala, Mather al Kurd.
Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld are the 007 Israelis. But they have nothing to do with secret agents, they are two teachers with a history of research on the Arab-Israeli question and no ties with the government. Perfect for the role. The eminence grise of the Palestinians is Abu Ala, Minister for Finance of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. With him is Mather el Kurd, among the closest of Arafat’s advisors, and Hassan Asfour, a particularly aggressive Communist militant.
“The cover was an academic conference”, Ron Pundak remembers, “we had false invitations, brochures, everything… two Israelis and three Palestinians – this was the academic summit […]. We, differently to the Palestinians risked being arrested for high treason, we were acting illegally. [..] The first handshake was quite tense, the beginning quite unpleasant, the Palestinians began on the wrong foot, comparing the Nazi occupation to the Israeli one, immediately raising the question of the withdrawal from the occupied territories.”
This secret channel in Oslo is the only road open for Peres and Rabin. The tension between Israel and Palestine is very high, Israel is up in flames, the Intifada has begun again.
Yitzhak Rabin had been elected Prime Minister in June 1992 on the basis of a program promising the Israelis peace and security, but after a few months into his mandate, it was clear that he had failed. The violence increases, the peace talks are at a dead end. And the opposition of Benjamin Netanyahu is close on his heels.
The time is right for an about-face. Arafat is trapped in Tunisia (where he has set up the PLO head-quarters), and with little hope to break the status quo. Rabin is ready to take on the risks of peace.
“We will overcome this difficult moment, I will not give up my objective – to achieve peace”, Rabin responds to those calling for his dismissal.
The beginning point for the secret meeting is the Gaza Strip.
“With a heavy heart we are authorized to continue. When Peres read the document containing the Accord’s points, he understood that he had something explosive in his hands.” (Yossi Beilin)
Surrounded by the pure white snow, in ‘lion’s den’, they negotiate peace, while the war rages on back home. “From tomorrow, no Palestinian will be able to leave the occupied territories […]”
Rabin’s decision to close The West Bank, in a response to the resumption of Palestinian terrorist attacks, is a blow that is felt in Oslo. The positions are irreconcilable. The Palestinians call for the implementation of UNO Resolution 242, Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories after the Six-Day War of 1967. For Israel, the first step in the negotiations must not and cannot include the issue of borders. Rabin hopes that a roadmap, a gradual understanding, can play in his favor in the difficult internal battle against his ostracism in the Knesset, against the hostility of part of the people of Israel.
“The Palestinians never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity.” (Uri Savir, Head of the Israeli delegation)
“The Israelis rejected our proposal, they refused to discuss the border issue in this step of the negotiations. Peace is being offered at the cost of enormous compromises. Giving up peace or giving up our struggle, that was our choice.” (Abua Ala)
Over almost three years of meetings, the Palestinians and the Israelis got to know each other, clashed and cajoled each other. In some cases, they really liked each other as occurred between Nabil Shaath and Amnan Shahak, who remained friends until the latter’s death in 2012.
Days and nights (many) trying to weave an impossible fabric, the constant mutual distrust slowly weakened, was exorcised – “A terrorist kissed me, my God” (Joel Singer Head Legal Consultant for the State of Israel) – without everything disappearing.
Dismay and resignation overcome by the determination and courage of the ‘conspirators for peace’.
“We spent all night softening our positions, to come to a compromise on five questions. Last night, the Declaration of Principles for peace between Israel and the PLO was born.” (Ron Pundak)
For the first time in their tormented history, the Israelis and the Palestinians have come to terms with their respective existences. The Palestinians have recognized the State of Israel in exchange for their right to exist as the new Palestinian National Authority with legitimate powers of representation for all Palestinians (Oslo A) and government of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. This is the so-called Oslo-B, the core of the historic accord. Five years to settle all the issues on the table – the status of the city of Jerusalem, the right of refugees to return to the occupied territories and the borders of the new Authority. No mention or allusion to the creation of a Palestinian State at the end of the transition period.
The ‘Versailles of Palestine’, as Edward Said, the celebrated Palestinian intellectual, called the Oslo Accord. The West bank is divided into three sections: Zone A with six towns under full Palestinian control, Zone B jointly governed by the Israelis (military) and the Palestinians (civil administration) and a Zone C (more than two-thirds of the West Bank) under full Israeli control. A division that is still upheld today, intensified by the policy regarding the Israeli settlements in Zone C, which have mushroomed in the last years.
In the Norwegian capital, the news of the Accord spreads, the media unsuccessfully tries to hunt down the secret negotiators, the television broadcasts the scoop of the historic Israeli recognition of the PLO. “I know nothing, there is no recognition”, Beilin quickly lies. But the vicious circle of violence, the attacks and the reprisals have already begun. Likud, the nationalist right-wing party led by Netanyahu launched the campaign against the ‘traitors of the Israeli people’.
The images of the secret ceremony for the signing of the Accord are among the most moving of the THE OSLO DIARIES.
“You are the neighbors we wish to live with.” (Uri Savir)
“Now begins the most difficult fight, the fight for peace.” (Abua Ala)
“It was strange, there were fifteen of us after hundreds of hours of negotiations. There was no feeling of euphoria or joy but a sort of heaviness, extraneousness.” (Uri Savir)
On 13 September1993, in the White House, the clock of history comes to a stop for a second. “The moment for peace has arrived”, Rabin announced. Arafat is unshakable. He had dressed in military uniform and not civilian clothes, as Bill Clinton had wanted.
It is memorable the stance of peacekeeper before the clear hesitation of the Israeli Prime Minister in approaching Arafat. Yet, it is his hesitation, composed and honest, that makes us realize, perhaps more than any of his speeches, the greatness of this statesman, able to set aside the man, sacrificing his most inner convictions in the name of reason.
“He was against the PLO. His heart was not in it […]” (Shimon Peres)
What occurred after that 13 September was the progressive shifting away from the peace process begun in Oslo.
“The biggest tragedy of Oslo was the lack of any vision after the White House ceremony. Rabin and Peres did not clearly proclaim that the creation of a Palestinian State was on the horizon.” (Ron Pundak)
On 4 May 1994, the first step of the Oslo Accord is taken with the signing of the Cairo Agreement in the presence of the Egyptian President, Mubarak. Gaza and Jericho pass over to the Palestinian Authority. The negotiations prior to the official meeting in Cairo are carried out in an explosive climate following the Hebron massacre, when on 25 February 1994, an Israeli colonel, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinians praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
“A Jew who kills is a murderer. A Jew who shoots believers in the back in a holy place, for us and the Arabs, is a Nazi, not a Jew.” (Rabin before the Knesset)
14 days after the Hebron massacre, the Palestinian reprisals begin. 21,000 Palestinians are arrested.
“[…] our people are losing faith in the peace process”, Saeb Erekat, Head of the Palestinian delegation, says, “82% of Palestinians was in favor of the Oslo Accord, but the Israelis have continued the policy of settlements and destruction. Why, if it was clearly contrary to the commitments we made? Our nightmares have become a reality. But I knew in my heart that we shouldn’t have given in.”
On 1 June 1994, Arafat returns to Palestine, returning once again to his hard line in the struggle, haranguing the crowds, but Palestine is officially divided and the buses for Jerusalem continue to be blown up. In September 1995, in Taba, negotiations hit their lowest, on the verge of failure, bogged down in the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
“Based on the Accord, Israel should have withdrawn most of its troops from the West Bank, the Palestinians were expecting to take control of the territories, instead, Israel, to everyone’s surprise, asks for a gradual withdrawal and only for 2% of the territories. The remaining 98% would have remained under the control of the Israeli army. It was a complete humiliation for Arafat who walked out of the meeting.” (Mather el Kurd)
A few hours later, after a total collapse, Abu Ala is admitted to hospital. However, the negotiations begin again, and miraculously go ahead, despite the death threats that rain down on Arafat. At this moment, it is the Palestinian leader who must pay the highest price. But ‘the day of results has arrived’, as Rabin defined it.
“Today, the Israeli army controls more than two million Palestinians, it governs their lives. It is not a solution for peace, we can continue like this, continue fighting, or we can try for peace.”
On 4 November 1995, the Labor Party organizes a great demonstration to support the Oslo peace accord. At the beginning, Rabin does not agree, he is afraid that the people ‘will not leave their homes’, that the people of Israel will desert the Kings of Israel Square. Instead, they do leave their homes to demonstrate, crowds of people, especially young people.
A few days before, Benjamin Netanyahu had gathered his people for a counter-demonstration to protest against the Accord, declaring, “Let’s put an end to all of this, the nation is stronger than this government.”
The hand of Yigal Amir, the religious fanatic, who on the evening of 4 November takes the life of Rabin, and with him the hope for peace, is certainly much stronger. Yigal Amir is not a lone wolf, the protest against the Accord with the Palestinians and against the man who embodied them, has many proselytes and in Netanyahu they have a charismatic leader. “Death to Rabin,” the continual cry of the crowds that Bibi does not silence.
The death of Rabin is almost immediate. In the streets bursting with joy up to a second before, the icy awareness hits that something has gone forever.
“I remember never having seen him so happy as on that evening. I had known him for 50 years and had never seen him sing. We all sang together a song of peace. «Don’t say the day will come, bring the day».” (Shimon Peres)
Rabin’s tragic exit from the scene widens the divisions in the country and the shifts towards nationalism. Hamas’s terrorist strategy undermines the support for the Socialist Party, in favour of Likud, traditionally hostile to the withdrawal of the Israelis from the occupied territories and the birth of the PA. In the elections in May 1996, with 50.4% of the votes, Netanyahu defeats Simon Peres and destroys everything created in Oslo.
With the political defeat of Peres, an era closes, history turns a new page, just as the Oslo negotiators. Joel Singer moved to the United States, where he works as a legal advisor for one of the largest companies in Washington; Uri Savir left politics to manage an organization which fosters the commitment to peace involving young people; Abua Ala was Prime Minister of the PA and took part in peace negotiations until 2008. He and Uri Savir are still friends.
At Camp David in July 2000, it is clear that the agreement between the Israelis led by the new Prime Minister, Ehud Barak (who defeated Netanyahu in 1999), and the Palestinians, on Jerusalem, the return of the Palestinian refugees and the defining of the borders, is not possible. The second Intifada explodes.
From the collapse of the peace process in 1996 up to today, more than 16,000 people, both Israelis and Palestinians, have lost their lives. The Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, (beyond the ‘green line’, in open violation of the spirit and letter of the Accord) have increased from 115,000 in 1993 to382,000 in 2017 (figures from the Israeli National Statistics Institute). Hamas’ control over Gaza and the increase in the nationalist right in Israel have further aggravated the situation.
Shimon Peres died on 28 September 2016. THE OSLO DIARIES show his last interview.
“Do you think there will ever be peace between Israel and Palestine?”
“There is no alternative to peace.” (Shimon Peres)