September 13, 2017 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 134

The Story Behind The Handshake

September 13, 2017 | By Yigal Carmon*
Palestinians | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 134

On the 24th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, we post an article published in 1994 by MEMRI President and Founder Yigal Carmon in the U.S.-based magazine Commentary. The article reveals the untold story behind the accords.[1]

The agreement reached [in August 1993] in Oslo between Israel and the PLO, and then signed (with some modifications) on the White House lawn a month later [on September 13, 1993], was negotiated in the deepest secrecy. So far the story behind it has been told only selectively and only by participants or supporters who see it as a triumphant historical breakthrough. But a very different picture emerges when that story is told more fully, which is what I propose to do here now.


Oslo was by no means the first place in which PLO officials had met with Israelis. From the 1970's on, symposia, conferences, and "dialogues," open as well as clandestine, were held in cities throughout the world under various organizational, semiofficial, and even UN auspices, usually with the host countries' participation. As time went on, the Israeli participants became bolder, notwithstanding the Israeli law which prohibited direct unauthorized contact with members of the PLO. (This law was repealed shortly after the Labor party came to power in 1992.)

The Scandinavian countries had always seemed particularly eager to play the role of host in encounters between the PLO, an organization whose cause they had consistently espoused, and Israeli "peace activists" or dovish American Jews. It was in Stockholm that a group of such Americans, including Rita Hauser and Menachem Rosensaft, met with Yasir Arafat in 1988, clearing a path to the dialogue with the PLO that was begun in the last days of the Reagan administration.

That dialogue was suspended when Arafat refused to condemn a May 1990 terrorist attack on a beach near Tel Aviv by one of the mainstream PLO factions. Washington was particularly miffed when it discovered that the group had intended to attack not only Israelis, but also the American embassy. However, Arafat’s refusal to dissociate himself from Abu Abbas, the group's leader, did not have the same effect on the Israeli "peace camp" as it did on the U.S. government. Israeli doves continued to meet with the PLO throughout the world, with at least one major colloquy made into an hour-long program that was widely distributed by PBS.

Among the various hosts of these meetings, a think tank called FAFO (the Norwegian acronym for Institute for Applied Social Science) was outstanding in its dedication and zeal. Early in the summer of 1992, its executive director, Terje Rod Larsen, sought out Yossi Beilin, then head of the Israeli research institute ECF (Economic Cooperation Foundation), and a protégé and very close confidant of Shimon Peres, one of the main leaders of the Labor party. Larsen told Beilin that the Palestinians were tired of the intifada and ready to reach an agreement. If the coming election brought Labor to power, the opportunity should not be missed. Beilin responded by putting Larsen in touch with a friend, Professor Yair Hirschfeld of Haifa University, a fan of the late Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who was famous for his Pollyannish notions about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Following the Labor victory in 1992, Yitzhak Rabin became Prime Minister, Shimon Peres became Foreign Minister, and Peres appointed Beilin as his deputy. Larsen—whose wife was administrative assistant to the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Johan Jorgen Holst, while Holst’s own wife was the FAFO chair—now offered the services of the Norwegian government to Beilin. Holst himself was known to be "possessed" by the idea of making peace between Israel and the PLO. There could be no cozier arrangement.

Beilin could not officially participate in direct contacts with PLO representatives—they were still illegal—but he assured Larsen that Hirschfeld and a former student of his, Ron Pundak, an Israeli academic with a Danish background, could do the job. At the time, says Beilin, he considered the encounter no more than an intellectual exercise.

Nor did the PLO take the Hirschfeld-Pundak pair too seriously—not until its spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, whose home they used to visit, realized how close they were to Shimon Peres's new deputy and closest confidant. At that point, Ashrawi arranged for them to see the PLO's "Finance Minister" Abu Ala in London, and it was there that the idea of drafting a proposal for an Israel-PLO agreement was formed. Hirschfeld suggested that meetings continue in Oslo, and the PLO people concurred.

Pundak and Hirschfeld kept stressing to their PLO counterparts that the Israeli government might disavow them at any moment. But this only served to convince the Palestinians that their Israeli interlocutors were indeed representing the government. In fact, however, virtually no one in Israel knew of the talks. Hirschfeld and Pundak’s only contact at the time was with Beilin, and it is not quite clear at what stage Beilin reported their dealings to Peres.

What is certain is that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was entirely unaware of these developments, at least until December 1992, when the Oslo negotiators came up with a document which was, according to Beilin, essentially identical to the Declaration of Principles of August 1993. It called for an almost complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, to be followed shortly thereafter by the extension of Palestinian self-rule to the entire West Bank.


In that same month, December 1992, Rabin and Chief of Staff Lt.-General Ehud Barak decided on the expulsion to Lebanon of 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad agitators. The expulsion, which was provoked by some particularly bold and successful strikes by these militant fundamentalist organizations against Israeli army and police, did not have the desired effect. The outpouring of sympathy for the deportees by the world media and the pressure on Israel to allow them to return (to which Rabin soon succumbed) encouraged not only Hamas but also the PLO (including Fatah, Arafat’s own faction) to continue their terrorist activities.

By the end of March, Rabin found himself in a critical position. Fifteen months had passed since his election to the premiership, and though he had pledged to achieve an autonomy agreement with the Palestinians within six to nine months, there had been no progress in the peace process. The talks with the Arab delegations in Washington—begun by his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir in the wake of the Madrid conference of October 1991—had been suspended; increased terrorist strikes had made "black March" 1993 one of the worst months in Israel's history; the Hamas deportees were becoming folk heroes; and his popularity in the polls was at an all-time low.

It was at this juncture that Rabin was finally informed about the Oslo negotiations. Instead of calling them off, he instructed that they be continued. Technically, this instruction was a violation of the country’s law, which prohibited official contacts with the PLO except with cabinet approval. No such approval was given. The government ministers were not even aware of the negotiations.

At the end of April, Rabin decided to test the authority and clout of the PLO’s interlocutors in Oslo by demanding of them that official PLO representatives not participate in the multilateral talks on refugees scheduled to be held (purely coincidentally) in Oslo. When his demand was promptly met, he was impressed. Why this should have been his reaction is puzzling. Obviously, a direct appeal from the Israeli Prime Minister was a more important sign of recognition to the PLO than the presence of its official representatives at the multilateral negotiations. Nevertheless, Rabin felt that the move proved he was dealing with the PLO’s top echelon.

The Israeli and international media greeted the PLO concession with surprise, especially when the Palestinian representatives came out of the multilateral meeting beaming, and Abu Ala, although not a participant, announced to the TV cameras that it had been a great success. The reason for this elation was not only the recognition afforded the PLO by Rabin, but the fact that for the first time a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official—Director General Uri Savir—had become involved in the secret talks.

These talks now proceeded with Rabin’s full acquiescence. From now on, they would be headed by Savir, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations (he had served as Consul General in New York) who knew little about the PLO, and Yoel Singer, an Israeli member of a prominent Washington law firm who would later become the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser. The secrecy was complete. In addition to the negotiators themselves, only Avi Gil, Peres’s administrative assistant, and Shlomo Gur, Beilin's assistant, were privy to all developments. To ensure confidentiality, they handled typing, airline tickets, and other administrative details without benefit of secretaries. That nothing leaked to the press was extraordinary, particularly in light of the repeated PLO announcements that meetings at a high level were taking place. The world, accustomed to PLO prevarications and exaggerations, accepted the Israeli denials.

As Beilin recalls it, at the time they all still believed that the purpose of the negotiations was to draft a proposal that would be signed by the official delegations to the peace talks in Washington, which on the Palestinian side, of course, did not formally include the PLO. The Israelis thought they were getting a behind-the-scenes PLO endorsement, nothing more. Indeed, on August 15, only five days before the Declaration of Principles was initialed in Oslo, Rabin said at a government meeting that he hoped "Israeli elements" (a euphemism for "peace-camp" ministers and other dovish politicians) would not undermine Washington’s policy of dissociation from the PLO.

On August 20, at the Norwegian government’s guest house, Holst and a few Norwegian colleagues hosted Peres, Gil, Savir, Singer, Hirschfeld, and Pundak, who were joined by Abu Ala and his assistants, for the signing ceremony. The Israelis were there for one of the most momentous diplomatic moves in the history of their country without having consulted a single military authority, a single intelligence officer, or a single expert on Arab affairs. To be sure, Rabin himself had gone over every word (though only later would he realize, as he would admit publicly, that the document had left “hundreds” of issues untouched; later still, he would declare that "the legal formulations of Oslo are rubbish" and that "what will be decisive are the facts on the ground").

Toasts were made by Savir, Abu Ala, and Holst. Peres, in Oslo on an official visit, had sneaked out of his hotel for the ceremony, but he was still reluctant to take an active part in signing an agreement with the PLO. Savir and Singer initialed for Israel, Abu Ala and an assistant for the PLO. Hirschfeld was asked to add his signature, as a tribute to his contribution. As fortune would have it, on that day nine Israeli soldiers were killed on the Lebanese border.


Rabin’s approval of an agreement with "PLO-Tunis," as he had always referred to the organization’s government-in-exile, amazed many. But Rabin, while he originally doubted that such an agreement would ever be reached, had also always deemed contacts with the PLO useful. Even in the days when he served as Minister of Defense in the national-unity government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he would advise Shamir: Let the local Palestinian leadership run to Tunis (an illegal act) as much as they want. They think they are putting one over on us, but in truth we are using them to get PLO approval for the agreement we must reach with the inhabitants of the territories. Without such approval, nothing will move. This way we can secure PLO sponsorship without having to accept the PLO’s official presence or its participation in implementing the agreement.

But the PLO knew better. This would soon become clear when Rabin now applied much the same principle to the Oslo talks, explicitly announcing that "the test of the agreement is in its being signed by the delegations to the peace talks in Washington"—that is, not by the PLO. In a speech to the members of his government coalition he explained the tactic in detail:

For a long time I believed that the Palestinian inhabitants of the territories would achieve their own ability [to negotiate]. But after more than a year of negotiations I reached the conclusion that they could not. . . . That is why the talks [in Oslo] were with Palestinians who are not necessarily residents of the territories. But the signing of the agreement will be between the delegations [to the peace talks in Washington].

Beilin, too, affirmed the separation between the Palestinian delegation in Washington and the PLO. Asked how Israel could sign such a declaration before the PLO abolished the clauses in its charter calling for Israel's destruction, Beilin answered: "The delegation [in Washington] is not the PLO, so the question is irrelevant." (This was in stark contrast to the Labor party’s old accusation that the Shamir government had opened the door to PLO participation by negotiating with a delegation which is "PLO except for its name.")

The original intention, then, in Beilin's words, "was to put the agreement on the table in Washington without exposing the fact that it had been negotiated with the PLO in Oslo." But at this point the story broke, possibly leaked by the Norwegians, who were approaching a parliamentary election. (Holst's party won.) Then, to the Israelis' surprise, the head of the Palestinian delegation in Washington, Haidar Abdel Shafi, clearly acting in coordination with the PLO, refused to sign the document. Let those who cooked this up sign it, he said.

Queried on an Israeli television program about what would happen to the agreement if Shafi refused to sign it, Beilin replied, "Pay no attention to him. We'll find someone who will sign it." But since no one in the Palestinian delegation would dare sign the document without the PLO's permission, there was only PLO-Tunis to do so. This elementary point seems to have eluded Rabin.

He was, it also seems, unaware that, on the eve of the Madrid conference, Faisal Husseini (the unofficial head of the Palestinian delegation who—being a resident of Jerusalem—was disqualified as an official negotiator by the Shamir government) informed the then-Secretary of State, James Baker, that if an agreement were reached, only the PLO would sign it, not the delegation. (Husseini himself apparently leaked this information to the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv.)

So now Rabin had in hand a document which would not be signed by the only people he wanted to sign it: the representatives (albeit unelected) of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the territories. He had to decide whether to let this "historic moment" dissipate or to enter into an agreement with PLO-Tunis, an organization which considered itself, and was considered by most of the world, the government-in-exile of the state of Palestine.

Rabin, clearly feeling he had reached the point of no return, chose to sign. At this stage, to go back to his original policy would have meant that, having violated his vow not to deal with PLO-Tunis, he had emerged with nothing to show for it. This would have been a political disaster for him in Israel, and it was a price he was obviously not ready to pay.

To make final recognition of the PLO more palatable, however, he insisted on three minimal conditions, which even the most extreme Israeli doves had always said should precede negotiations with the PLO: Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist; the renunciation of terrorism by the PLO; and the cancellation of the clauses in the PLO charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

Only then did feverish negotiations begin, and during the next ten days they seemed to produce results. Israel and the PLO would officially recognize each other, Arafat would commit himself to changing the charter, and the PLO would both renounce and denounce terrorism. Ironically, had Shafi been willing to sign, nothing of this would have made its way into the agreement. Yet even so, the PLO, which had already achieved what it wanted most—namely, Israeli recognition—did not give Israel all it demanded.


Thus, Israel demanded that the PLO charter be declared "invalid." The PLO agreed only to a declaration that the offensive clauses "are now inoperative, and no longer valid." The difference was subtle, but enough to turn a determined repudiation into something that could be and, among Palestinians, would be read as a mere observation.

Israel also demanded cessation of "the armed struggle"—the standard PLO euphemism for terrorist activities, hallowed as a sacred means to a sacred end. The PLO adamantly and successfully refused. It also flatly rejected the Israeli demand to declare an end to the uprising, which the PLO calls "the blessed intifada." (A senior PLO source told the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz that the Israelis had not even asked for an end to the intifada, only to its more violent manifestations.)

Peres insisted that the letters of mutual recognition to be exchanged by Arafat and Rabin include a pledge by Arafat to appeal to the Palestinian people to refrain from terrorism. But Peres was persuaded that it would be unseemly for Arafat to address his people through an agreement with Israel. Instead, the promise to make such an appeal was included in a letter to the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jorgen Holst (who was to die four months later).

Arafat's letter of recognition to Rabin also contained a pledge to punish members of the PLO who might disobey the order to suspend terrorist activity. This was demanded not by the Israelis, but by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who felt he needed it to get the ban on the PLO repealed in Congress. (A curious last-minute attempt to acquire American sponsorship for the agreement was made by Peres during a quick trip to the U.S. But Christopher politely rejected the Israeli appeal. "The Norwegians are the sponsors," he asserted to the press.)

Once the PLO executive committee approved the Declaration of Principles, it was to be signed by Peres and the PLO’s Abu Mazen at the State Department in Washington. But the PLO saw here an opportunity to get Arafat to the White House. The Clinton administration, hungry for a foreign-policy success, pounced on the idea with gusto. Rather than allow Peres to lead the Israeli delegation, it proposed to invite Rabin. At first Rabin said that he would not go. But when Christopher called him (at 6 A.M. on a Sabbath morning), he immediately changed his mind. This enabled Arafat—still officially a wanted terrorist in the U.S.—to appear in Washington as a head of government. Arafat must have been unprepared for the alacrity with which the U.S. accepted the idea. His plane, donated by Saddam Hussein and still boasting the Iraqi colors, had to be hurriedly repainted with Algerian colors, since Iraqi planes were banned in the U.S.

At six o'clock in the morning of September 13, Ahmed Tibi—an Israeli Arab gynecologist who is Arafat’s political adviser (a breathtaking case of dual loyalty)—was awakened by a call from his boss. "I haven’t slept all night," said Arafat, according to Tibi. "If the PLO [instead of the official Washington delegation] is not named as the representative of the Palestinian side in the agreement, I won’t sign it.”

Hearing of Arafat’s ultimatum, Peres at first threatened to leave Washington. But within minutes, says Tibi, "a compromise was found": Abu Mazen would write "PLO" on the document where the words "Palestinian delegation" appeared. In Tibi's account, when Arafat heard that Peres had accepted this "compromise"—in fact, an Israeli capitulation—he was incredulous. "Are you sure they agree?" he asked Tibi. "The man [Peres] is standing next to me," responded Tibi. "So I send two kisses on your head," answered Arafat, and Tibi rushed to dress for the ceremony.

The Israelis were promised that Arafat would not wear a military uniform or carry a gun to the ceremony. He had boarded the plane in Tunis in a uniform, carrying a gun, but at the White House he appeared without the gun. The military uniform remained. The Israelis called it a green suit.

The upshot was that, desperate by now for anything that would seem like a success, Rabin had become an easy mark. Simply by causing the negotiations to bog down and denying Israel a partner who could sign an agreement, Arafat got Rabin to break cherished taboos and cross hallowed red lines. He also got Rabin to accept promises that would be forgotten almost as soon as they were made.

For example, disappointed by the PLO’s refusal to declare an end to the "armed struggle" and the intifada, Israeli officials rationalized it as Arafat’s need to "save face"; the commitments to Holst, they maintained, meant in effect a total end to violence. Yet in numerous PLO messages to the territories, culminating in a January call to Gaza activists, Arafat would vow that the intifada would "continue and continue and continue." And indeed, following the agreement there was to be no slackening either of intifada activities or of terrorism.

Again, in his letter to Holst, Arafat promised that he would make his appeal against violence as soon as the Declaration of Principles was officially signed. Not unreasonably, the Norwegians, Americans, and Israelis all expected him to do this in his speech at the signing ceremony on the White House lawn. Waiting for the magic words to be uttered any moment, Ehud Ya’ari, the Israel Television commentator who covered the proceedings, used every break in Arafat’s speech to announce, "Now he will denounce terrorism . . . now he will say it . . . now he simply has to say it. . . ." Only after the last paragraph did Ya’ari give up: "He is not saying it," he reported, crushed.

Nor would Arafat set a date for implementing the changes in the PLO charter to which he had committed himself. Nor did it seem likely that the necessary two-thirds majority could be found in the PLO "parliament," the Palestine National Council (PNC), to ratify such alterations. And in any case, Arafat himself would go on to declare that he had no intention of asking for a change in the charter. As his colleague Ziad Abu Zayyad would put it: "Asking us to abolish parts of the charter is like us asking you to abolish the Bible."


Arafat was followed by the media A throughout the day of the signing. What they did not report was that he made a broadcast to the Palestinian people through Jordanian television on that very day. In it, he mentioned neither a halt to terrorism nor peace or coexistence with Israel. Instead, he described the agreement as the first step "in the 1974 plan"—known by all Arabs as the "plan of stages" for the destruction of Israel.

He did not need to spell it out, for he could be confident that his audience would understand the implications: that the foothold the agreement had just given him would now open the way in short order to an independent Palestinian state in Gaza, Judea, and Samaria with Jerusalem as its capital; and that this would make it easier to continue the struggle for the "right of return" of between one and two million Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel, which they still regarded as their homeland.

Yet no Israeli government, not even the most leftist or the most dovish, would be able to accept such an outcome. Nor (despite the provision in the agreement of an interim period of autonomy) did the PLO have any intention of waiting for full sovereignty or settling for anything less. Therefore, the likelihood was that the deal would fall apart at an earlier stage, dashing the unrealistic expectations it had recklessly raised on both sides, bringing bitter and angry disappointment to Israelis and Palestinians alike, and leading not to peace but to a full-scale and very bloody showdown.


* Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI.


[1] Commentary (U.S.), March 1, 1994.

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