Oslo Accords Reminiscences
The Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement
In 1993, I was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to fly to Oslo to meet with a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) team that had previously held discussions there with a small Israeli team regarding autonomy arrangements for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The draft document the parties had developed to that point had numerous shortcomings, and I was asked by Rabin and Peres to convert the document into an actionable peace agreement, later known as the Oslo Agreement. As a part of that process, I developed the idea of a “Mutual Recognition Agreement” to be entered between Israel and the PLO prior to the execution of the Oslo Agreement. I spent the next three months attempting to convince Peres, Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat – who were all initially in agreement only in their shared rejection of the mutual recognition idea – to accept it, drafting and negotiating with the PLO the Mutual Recognition Agreement, which I styled as an exchange of letters between Arafat and Rabin. This process is the topic of an article I published earlier this month in the International Negotiation Journal. The article can be read by double-clicking on this link: “The Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement.”
The Mutual Recognition Agreement was a massive leap forward in Israeli-Palestinian relations – to that point, both sides had refused to recognize any legitimacy on the other side. Israel considered the PLO a mere terrorist organization and refused to accept the Palestinians as a people. The PLO considered Jews as only a religion, not a people, and Israel an artificial entity that – per the PLO charter – must be destroyed and replaced with a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the optimism inspired by the signing of the Oslo Agreement is gone; the Oslo process is in a deep freeze (at best). Sadly, we can see the results of this breakdown: the senseless violence that has again erupted between Hamas and Israel just weeks ago, and the continued sclerotic divide – and deadly rivalry – between the PLO in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Still, the Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement continues to stand and will undoubtedly be central to any future diplomatic process. It is, therefore, important to reveal how the Mutual Recognition Agreement came about – a story that has never been fully told.
Many know the story of the secret discussions between Israel and the PLO that took place in Norway in 1993 which led to the Oslo Agreement. Some remember that, at that time, official discussions were also taking place in Washington between an Israeli delegation and, because of Israeli insistence not to talk with the PLO, a non-PLO, Palestinian delegation. Only a handful people know, however, that when the Oslo talks started in secret in 1993, the intention of both sides was solely to utilize these contacts as a fully confidential and temporary backchannel, meant only to address hurdles that the official Washington negotiators were not able to resolve, and to feed the official “front-channel” negotiators with solutions agreed to in secret in Norway and approved by decision-makers on both sides. After that, the backchannel was supposed to disappear, and the negotiators would not disclose their role. With any luck, the maneuver would lead to progress in Washington. If the Oslo process failed, the contacts were presumably deniable.
In the International Negotiation Journal article, I tell the story of how, after I was briefed on the secret Israel-PLO discussions, I didn’t believe Israel would be able to maintain the secrecy of the contacts with the PLO in Oslo and concluded that, in light of what was happening in Oslo, it was in Israel’s interest to present a series of demands to the PLO – such as a PLO commitment to revise its charter by deleting its provisions calling for the destruction of Israel; a commitment to stop terrorist attacks against Israel; recognizing Israel’s right to exist; and a commitment to put an end to the Intifada (which was still going on in 1993).
As I then explained to Peres and Rabin, “If the PLO accepted these commitments, meaning that the PLO is willing to demonstrate to Israel that it is no longer a terrorist organization, Israel will, in return, recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and agree to negotiate with it. Then, and only then, Israel can sign the Oslo Agreement with the PLO.”
Additionally, but no less important, I thought that recognition by Israel of the PLO would mean Israeli recognition of the existence of a Palestinian people and their right to determine who would represent it – regardless of whether Israel liked those representatives. For dozens of years, Israel had tried to dictate to the Palestinians who their representatives were, despite the Palestinians and the entire Arab world telling Israel that the PLO was the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinians. First, for two decades Israel attempted to resolve the fate of the West Bank in discussions with Jordan, until Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank. Israel also entered the 1978 Camp David Accords with Egypt, in which Egypt agreed to negotiate, on behalf of the Palestinians, a framework for autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. Throughout the years, Israel also attempted to identify non-PLO, West Bank and Gaza Palestinian leaders with whom it could negotiate an agreement. All of these attempts failed. And even when the Madrid formula of a joint Jordanian–non-PLO-Palestinian delegation succeeded in launching discussions, the PLO, in fact, controlled the Palestinian delegates that were talking with the Israeli delegates in Washington and the discussions were going nowhere substantively. Under the right circumstances, I concluded, recognizing the PLO as the body with the most legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians could be the much needed gamechanger.
Though Rabin and Peres did not initially approve my mutual recognition idea, Rabin authorized me to float it to the PLO as my own personal idea. I did, only to be met with a prompt rejection from Arafat. As elaborated in the article, I then got the impression that Peres’s primary concern about my mutual recognition idea was that presenting the proposed additional demands – which would be prerequisites for Israeli recognition – to the PLO at such a sensitive juncture in the negotiations would establish too high a hurdle for the PLO, potentially leading to the collapse of the entire Oslo process.
As for Rabin, when I presented the mutual recognition idea to him, he did not overrule it; rather, he only said: “It’s too early.” I interpreted his response to mean that he did not object to the idea in principle and I, therefore, assumed that he simply did not want to overburden the Israeli public with more fundamental changes than it could deal with: the new reality that would come with the implementation of the Oslo Agreement AND recognizing the PLO as a legitimate interlocutor with Israel – all at once.
Arafat’s objection to mutual recognition, I believed, was driven by a concern that he might not be able to deliver on some of the obligations I wanted him to undertake – such as stopping the Intifada, which had started at the Palestinian grassroots level and outside of PLO control. He was also undoubtedly concerned about potential attacks by his opponents (Hamas most directly) accusing him of betraying long-standing Palestinian narratives, such as accepting Israel’s right to exist and modifying the Palestinian Charter by deleting the objective of destroying Israel.
Nonetheless, for a three- month period from June 1993, as soon as I came on board to assist with the Oslo negotiations, through September 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was concluded, I relentlessly attempted to convince Rabin, Peres and Arafat to withdraw their opposition to the mutual recognition concept.
Arafat was the first to change his mind about mutual recognition. One day, a month and a half after I first floated the idea to the PLO, Arafat’s representatives raised a demand to govern Gaza after the Israeli redeployment from that area, I reminded them about my personal suggestion for a Mutual Recognition Agreement, which Arafat had rejected, adding that they must choose between two paths: either we sign an agreement without mutual recognition, in which case the PLO would have no role in implementing the agreement in Gaza or in the West Bank, or the PLO could accept the idea of mutual recognition, in which case Israel could give the PLO a role in running the areas from which Israel would redeploy its forces. It was illogical for Israel to cede territory to an organization which refused to recognize Israel’s existence and legitimacy, calling for Israel to be destroyed.
At that moment, the penny dropped for the PLO representatives in Oslo. From then on, the idea of a Mutual Recognition Agreement became the only option for the PLO. Indeed, at the next meeting – which took place in late July 1993 – the chief PLO negotiator in Oslo, Ahmed Qurie (known as Abu Ala), reported that the PLO leadership was interested in a Mutual Recognition Agreement.
A short time later, Rabin too concluded that the Mutual Recognition Agreement was also essential for Israel. This change of heart occurred in August 1993, during one of our internal preparatory meetings attended by Rabin, Peres, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and myself. At that meeting, Rabin asked where in the Oslo Agreement was a Palestinian undertaking to stop the use of terrorism outside the West Bank and Gaza. I responded that the Oslo Agreement, as the draft was then written, was limited to establishing autonomy arrangements within these areas. It was neither applicable outside these areas, nor binding on the PLO. I reminded Rabin that I had proposed that we negotiate a second agreement with the PLO – a Mutual Recognition Agreement – where the PLO would undertake, among other things, a commitment to renounce terrorism everywhere. Rabin then finally realized that that second agreement actually was advantageous to Israel.
The third decision-maker, Peres, was the hardest to convince. Even after the draft Oslo Agreement was completed and initialed, and after Rabin had approved a draft Mutual Recognition Agreement I had prepared (in the form of an exchange of letters between Rabin and Arafat), Peres remained hesitant about the concept. Once the Oslo Agreement had been agreed to in Oslo and Rabin had approved the draft Mutual Recognition Agreement, he called U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, with Peres and myself listening, and told him that an important development had occurred in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli track and requested to send Peres and me to the United States to brief him.
The next day, Peres and I arrived at the meeting accompanied by Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst and his Norwegian colleagues, husband and wife Terje Rod Larsen and Mona Yuul, who helped the Israeli and Palestinian teams reach the Oslo Agreement. Christopher was accompanied by his Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross. After I briefed Christopher and Ross on the draft Oslo Agreement, which both stunned and exhilarated them, the moment of truth arrived for the Israel-PLO mutual recognition concept. Peres asked Christopher whether the U.S. would agree to present the draft Oslo Agreement as a U.S. proposal to the two parties and host the signing ceremony in Washington (in which the agreement would be signed by Israel and the formal, non-PLO delegation).
After consulting with President Bill Clinton on the phone, Christopher responded that the U.S. would be happy to host the signing ceremony in Washington but added that the U.S. cannot present the draft Oslo Agreement as a U.S. proposal. As Christopher explained, “We didn’t draft this agreement and we cannot say otherwise.” At that point, Peres finally also understood that an Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement was the only feasible option to proceed. Peres gave me the green light to immediately fly to Oslo, present the draft Mutual Recognition Agreement to the PLO, and begin formal discussions to achieve Israel-PLO mutual recognition. Those discussions needed to be quickly concluded before the date set for the Oslo Agreement signing ceremony in Washington – September 13, 1993 – less than two weeks from the day I was dispatched from Washington to Oslo.
The International Negotiation Journal article provides the background on the Mutual Recognition Agreement, a blow-by-blow description of how it was negotiated, the drafts exchanged, and the positions of the parties regarding its various provisions. The article also presents a scorecard for the Mutual Recognition Agreement, summarizing its successes and failures.
Most important, the article reveals the history-changing impact of Clinton and Christopher’s decision. If they agreed to present the draft Oslo Agreement as a U.S. proposal, there would have been no Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition Agreement. The Oslo Agreement would have been signed by one of the senior non-PLO representatives in the Palestinian delegation to the Washington discussions, instead of Arafat, and there would have been no Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn. Further, Arafat and the PLO leadership would not have relocated from their headquarters in Tunis to the West Bank and Gaza, and would not have led the Palestinian autonomous bodies there, likely hardening the institutional divide and rivalry between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and the PLO in Tunis. But Clinton and Christopher refused, and history took the course it has taken. How things would have developed differently is anyone’s guess.