September 26, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 526

The Oslo Accords – How The Israeli Intelligence Community Failed

September 26, 2023 | By Ze'ev B. Begin and Yigal Carmon*
Palestinians | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 526

The failures of the Israeli intelligence community in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and of the American intelligence community on September 11, 2001 have been widely discussed. But there was another failure on the part of the Israeli intelligence community that merits attention: For over two years after the Oslo Accords signed on September 13, 1993, its experts failed to detect he threat posed by the Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The political climate that prevailed in Israel during the early 1990s had a negative effect on the assessment of the situation by the Israeli intelligence community, and there is a general lesson to be learned from these events. This article will first discuss the key failures of Israel's intelligence community during these years, and then it will assess the role played in these failures by the contemporary political climate in Israel.

The signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993.

PLO leader Yasser Arafat's intentions were clear from the beginning. In Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1993, he signed the Declaration of Principles, known as the Oslo I Accord, while wearing a military uniform (he had also insisted on wearing his pistol but had to give up on this), and while the ceremony was still taking place, he had a Jordanian TV channel air a recorded speech of his in which he explained that the Accord is just a phase in the PLO's Phased Plan of 1974, which was a mild version of the PLO's Charter: "Oh, my beloved, do not forget that the Palestinian National Council passed the resolution in 1974 […]  This is the moment of return, the moment we raise our flag on the first plot of liberated Palestinian land… This is an important, critical, and basic phase. Long live Palestine – free and Arab!"

In Cairo on May 4, 1994, Arafat signed with Israel the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, which transferred control of Gaza and Jericho to the PLO. Six days later, in a speech in a mosque in Johannesburg, he explained: "I consider this agreement to be nothing more than the one signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the tribe of Quraysh." This agreement was signed by Muhammad in 628 A.D. at a time when he was militarily weak, but after he became strong, he violated it and killed the members of the Quraysh tribe. In 1993, being politically weak, Arafat made a written commitment that "the PLO abandons the use of terrorism and other violent activities," but later, like the Prophet, he violated his commitment.

The inciteful rhetoric of Arafat and the PLO leadership that followed the signing of the Accords proved that they were sticking to the original goals of the PLO (as defined in its charter) and to the use of terrorism against Israel – indirectly through Hamas, or sometimes even directly. For example, on January 1, 1995, the 30th anniversary of the PLO's Fatah faction, Arafat said in Gaza: "We all seek the path of martyrdom, and in the name of the martyrs who are still alive, I say to the martyrs who have already given their lives: Our pledge remains, and we remain loyal to this pledge, to continue the revolution." This theme was echoed by Arafat on several occasions, so that Hamas top official in Gaza Mahmoud Al-Zahhar once addressed him admirably: "Mr. President, as you say in all your speeches, we all seek the path of martyrdom."

In August 1995, the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate issued an analysis of Arafat's speeches since the signing of the Oslo Accords two years earlier. The top-secret document was titled "Arafat's Expressions Before Palestinian Audiences – Significance," and it said: "The term 'jihad', in its broad meaning, refers to the dedication of resources and special efforts - various means of struggle, political, economic, psychological, and so on - towards a certain goal, without the intention of violent war. It is reasonable, based on the context of his statements, that this is indeed Arafat's intention, but it is clear that he is aware of the dual meaning of these expressions." The intelligence experts concluded: "An examination of the characteristics of his activities and expressions, public and non-public, does not support the assumption that Arafat is not committed to the [Oslo] Accords and to the peace process with Israel." A month after this reassuring message was issued the Israeli government took the next step in implementing the Oslo Accords and decided to hand over the Arab cities in the West Bank to the PLO.

When it signed the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government assumed that the PLO would effectively combat Hamas and prevent terror attacks against Israelis. Nevertheless, a month before the PLO's entry to Gaza and Jericho, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned in a Knesset speech on April 18, 1994: "I wish to clarify that any arrangement or de-facto agreement made by the PLO with Hamas regarding the continuation of Hamas terrorism will prevent any agreement [with Israel], as well as its implementation." This was in fact a directive to the intelligence community to constantly examine whether such an arrangement existed between the PLO and Hamas, since the fate of the Accords now rested on this issue.

The ominous signs were clear early on, as soon as the PLO entered Gaza and Jericho. The May 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement stated: "Except for the Palestinian Police referred to in this Article and the Israeli military forces, no other armed forces shall be established or operate in the Gaza Strip or the Jericho Area." Yet, a few days later, the commander of the PLO's security forces in Jericho Jibril Rajoub declared: "The Cairo Agreement does not meet the minimum demands of our people. If there are those who oppose the agreement, they are free to escalate the armed struggle. With regard to the nationally-possessed weapons – that is, the weapons that are held by the national factions and that are being aimed against the occupation – we sanctify them, and we reconcile with them out of national responsibility."

In a similar vein, in January 1995, after a Hamas terror attack in Beit Lid that left 22 Israelis dead, the leader of the PLO's Tanzim militant faction Marwan Barghouti told NBC News: "Our commitment to stop the armed struggle is binding only in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. In the other areas, this is a legitimate right." Arafat, for his part, did not reprimand Hamas for the attack – rather, he took the practical approach of criticizing Hamas for praising the perpetrators, since this led Israel to take measures against the Gaza Strip. He exclaimed: "But their bodies were crushed to pieces! Why did you reveal their names?" A month later, he said in a speech that "Hamas is legitimate opposition."

In accordance with this outlook, in July 1995 the PLO leadership submitted to Hamas a draft agreement (which was published in the Al-Nahar daily in October of that year) with a modest request for the "cessation of military operations in or from [Palestinian Authority] areas" – but not from other areas – "or any declaration of such operations." In December 1995, after two days of deliberations in Cairo, the PLO and Hamas published a joint statement by which Hamas's leadership accepted this principle: "It is not a goal of Hamas to embarrass the [Palestinian] Authority." In a press conference on December 29, 1995, the head of the PLO delegation Salim Za'anun described the agreement and stated: "We are not protectors of Israel."

Yet, Israel's intelligence services refused to recognize the fact that indeed, there was, in Prime Minister Rabin's words, a "de-facto agreement made by the PLO with Hamas regarding the continuation of Hamas terrorism." In the January 1996 meetings of the Knesset's Foreign and Security Affairs Committee, a representative of Israel's General Security Service ("Shin Bet") stated that this was "a matter of interpretation," and a Military Intelligence Directorate representative carefully explained: "From the PLO-Hamas talks in Cairo, it can be understood that Hamas will not carry out terror attacks, but it is also possible to interpret the statement differently." Arafat, however, was pretty clear on the matter. In March 1996, after a series of terror attacks in Israeli cities in which dozens of Israelis were killed, he said at a press conference in Gaza: "It is true that we reached an agreement [with Hamas]. There was a dialogue in Cairo, and this had been acceptable to the Israeli government."

It was only in March of 1996 that a senior Military Intelligence Directorate officer admitted during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign and Security Affairs Committee: "The understanding reached in December of 1995 in Cairo by the PLO and Hamas delegations perhaps has not become an official agreement, but in practice it has served as the basis for the behavior of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority since." He added: "A close examination of the behavior of Arafat and his people clearly reveals that this is not a policy that began in recent months. This is an outlook that has guided him since he entered the area in May of 1994." Better late than never.

The intelligence agencies' misinterpretation of the PLO's goals would be understandable if these goals were concealed, but this was not at all the case. Israel's intelligence analysts persisted in misinterpreting the PLO's strategy and tactics for more than two years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, while the PLO leadership made its intentions known daily in speech and in deed. This severe professional failure requires explanation, since these analysts were diligent and knowledgeable officers and had been educated in universities by renowned experts in Middle East affairs.

In an attempt to understand the source of this failure, we turn to events that took place five years before the Oslo Accords, when some academics had detected signs of moderation in the positions vis-à-vis Israel of the PLO. A key indicator was the PLO's "Declaration of Independence" of November 1988, which contained this convoluted statement: "Despite the historic injustice done to the Arab and Palestinian people, which has resulted in their dispersion and the denial of their right to self-determination, following [United Nations] General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 which split Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, this resolution nonetheless provides the conditions for international legitimacy that promises the right of the Arabs and Palestinians to sovereignty and national independence." Some experts interpreted this vague statement to be the PLO's recognition of the United Nations' 1947 Partition Plan of Palestine, and they attributed great significance to the fact that the statement mentioned the Jewish state in this context.

One month later, at a press conference in Geneva, Arafat declared that "it is the right of all parties to the conflict in the Middle East to exist in peace and security – including Palestine and Israel," and he added that he renounces terrorism. For the experts, this was strong evidence that the PLO was becoming more moderate. However, these gestures in fact did not signal moderation, but rather pragmatism, and the very next day Arafat's statements were rewarded with the beginning of direct negotiations ("substantive dialogue") in Tunisia between the U.S. and the PLO.

But Israel's intelligence community appears to have confounded the term "pragmatic" with "moderate." For instance, in a 2002 interview a former senior intelligence official said (italics added): "We said that Arafat represents the pragmatic camp among the Palestinians, in contrast to Hamas, but that he would support Hamas when his interests overlap with theirs… We always emphasized [that]… as long as [Arafat] is advancing his goals, moderates such as [Muhammad] Dahlan, [Jibril] Rajoub, and [Marwan] Barghouti will have the upper hand." (Melman, Haaretz, August 16, 2002). It should be noted that since 2004 Barghouti has been serving five life sentences plus 40 years in Israeli prison for his involvement in terror attacks against Israelis. As for Dahlan and Rajoub, they have never proven that they are moderates.

At the time, the majority of the Israeli public were in favor of the peace offered by the Oslo Accords, and Israel's intelligence analysts were not immune to the spirit of the times. Already in ancient times, Julius Caesar noted that "men are quick to believe that which they wish to be true" thereby removing certain defense mechanisms, such as an objective analysis of reality. The public discourse about the speeches by Arafat and other top PLO officials was limited, since raising doubts about Arafat's true intentions was considered to be undermining the great ideal of peace that was supposedly being realized.

Indeed, the misinterpretation of Arafat's actions and their significance was reinforced socially. Those who publicly raised the issue of the PLO leadership's incitement against Israel were accused of being motivated only by their political disposition. In addition, a false symmetry emerged in the eyes of the Israeli public between the Israeli side and the Palestinian side: The Israeli opponents of Oslo were considered opponents of peace, and the Israeli government a pursuer of peace; therefore, since Hamas was an opponent of peace, it must be that the PLO was also a pursuer of peace, like the Israeli government.

For a long time, the Israeli public went so far as to explain the PLO's radical behavior and affiliation with terrorism with the truistic slogan "Peace is made with enemies," and this served as an excuse for the fact that the PLO leadership had been constantly breaching its agreements with Israel. Pursuant to this logic, as evidence was piling up that Arafat and his group were grossly violating the Accords, the Israeli public was willing to accept the bizarre explanation that these violations were in fact necessary for the sake of peace: Israel signed an agreement with Arafat; in order to implement the agreement Arafat must politically survive among his people; to survive, he must violate the agreements. In other words, the agreement between Israel and the PLO could only be implemented by being violated.

At the time, this did not seem so crazy. For example, MK Nissim Zvilli, a member of the Knesset's Foreign and Security Affairs Committee, explained in an interview in 2002: "I remember delivering speeches in France and explaining that one must understand Arafat's doublespeak. This had been our thesis, and it was proven to be baseless. Arafat meant every word he said, and we were naïve and thought that he did this in order to overcome the opposition to the Accords within his public." (Melman, Ha'aretz, July 26, 2002)

Yaakov Amidror, who headed the Research Division of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate in the years that immediately followed the signing of the Oslo Accords, proposed a partial explanation for the intelligence community's professional failure. He explained in 2003: "The claims that we as intelligence experts ignored some of Arafat's open statements made immediately after [the] Oslo [Accord] and during its implementation are to a large extent valid. We searched for evidence beyond the open material, and in retrospect, it turned out that this open material that we had read and recognized had simply been the plain truth." (Yediot Aharonot, March 2003) But why did the analysts ignore this "open material"? The answer is simple: It so bluntly contradicted the hope that peace was at the doorstep that it was dismissed without serious consideration, and the severity of the statements was ignored as "words for domestic consumption."

It is important for intelligence agencies to recognize that this failure took place due to the social and political atmosphere of the time. This is particularly important in today's era of social networks in which public opinion can be swayed rather easily. The pro-peace "spirit of the time" dominated the universities, the press, the political arena, and retired high-echelon officers and civil service officials. In some circles, it even prevailed in day-to-day conversations between friends. It was difficult to speak out against it, and this had its effect on the small group of analysts within Israel's intelligence community that were dealing with this subject matter. Their personal views affected their professional interpretation unconsciously, and perhaps some of them also feared of undermining a historic governmental move. Such professional failures ought to be taught and studied at intelligence schools.

* Dr. Ze'ev B. Begin is a former Israeli minister and member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee (1988-99). Yigal Carmon, MEMRI President and Founder, served as advisor for countering terrorism to Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin between June 1988 and March 1993. This article is based on an op-ed by the authors published in Ha'aretz in Hebrew on September 8, 2023. 

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