Historic accord

Published : Jan 23, 2015 12:30 IST

MONDAY, September 13, at 6-14 p.m. in Washington D.C. at the White House, President Bill Clinton escorted Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the nominal head of the state of Palestine, Yasser Arafat, to the podium set up at the south lawn.

It was the mother of all ceremonies, conducted by the Master of Ceremonies, the President of the United States of America. When it comes to razzmatazz in choreographing such gala events, the Americans are a superpower. But beyond the glitz there was a powerful symbolism in the American role. It announced the full weight of the most influential country in the world behind what might be described cautiously, in Winston Churchill’s words, as “the beginning of the beginning”. Israel and the Palestinians have so far not worked out how to make peace but agreed before the world to a truce. They signed a declaration of principles providing for interim self-rule for Palestinians.

After more than 100 years of bitterness and 45 years of war, interspersed with periods of tense peace, the people of Israel recognised the separate identity of the people of Palestine and declared there was space enough on a sliver of land for both peoples. This was at the core of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The 70-minute ceremony was a protocol nightmare but the speechwriters’ moment of a lifetime. At 6-41 p.m. precisely, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres walked across to a 124-year-old antique desk used for the 1979 Israel-Egypt Camp David pact, and signed what is the declaration of principles governing interim Palestinian self-government in the Occupied Territories. Then followed Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the PLO’s negotiator in the Norway talks on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel and the PLO had already initialled the deal in Oslo on August 19, but it had been subject to ifs and buts. September 13 sealed that deal.

Once pens had been put to paper, the moment which everybody in the world remotely connected with these developments had awaited, the next scene followed. At 6-46 p.m., Clinton put his arms gently behind the backs of Rabin and Arafat, both of whom moved towards each other and made a warm handshake. In the words of a television commentator, “There may not have been emotion, just reality.” Two leaders who had until now sworn to confront each other forever were now awkward partners in ensuring their respective survival as leaders and trying to guarantee the safety of the next generation of Jews and Palestinians. It was an emotional moment for onlookers, in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, and doubtless for amateur and professional observers of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Even Clinton could be seen biting his lip: a young man shepherding two men from an older generation to clasp hands and accept him as the guarantor of their courageous action.

Symbolism and platitudes were abundant, carefully crafted to avoid any hint of unpleasantness. There were no flags because, according to Israel, the Palestinians have no flag. No accusations about the past, no wild charges about terrorism. After speeches from Peres, Abu Mazen and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, chief diplomats of the two sponsoring nations, Rabin ascended the podium. “Let me say this to the Palestinians,” he said, “we are destined to live together on the same soil in the same land... we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: ‘Enough of blood and tears, enough.’” Quoting from the scriptures, Rabin added “...there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. Ladies and gentlemen, the time for peace has come.”

Yasser Arafat, speaking in Arabic to the assembled gathering and to millions of Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem and in Nablus, in Gaza and in Tel Aviv, said, “Let me address the people of Israel and their leaders, with whom we are meeting today for the first time, and let me assure them that the difficult decision we reached together was one that required great and exceptional courage. Peace between us is possible and it will happen with mutual determination.”

How did this come to pass? It is a short and extremely fast-paced story, rather like a Jeffrey Archer novel, but a trace more complex and serious. Various accounts have been put out about how Norway, as the secret middleman, brought Israel and the PLO together outside the public framework of the visible and formal talks between the Arabs and the Israelis, called the Madrid process.

Saeed Kamal, the PLO man in Cairo, says that from the very outset it had been decided to keep the Madrid process just alive until a Labour government came to power in Israel. Then, working through Egypt, the PLO told the Israelis they could never hope to bypass it and deal only with the negotiating team of the Palestinians. To cut a long story short, eventually the Israelis relented. In Rabin’s words, “We were convinced that nothing could be done without the PLO’s approval.” The Israelis then suggested that negotiations be conducted in absolute secrecy parallel to the unproductive public drama being enacted at the formal peace talks in Washington.

For eight months over 14 sessions, trusted Palestinians appointed by Arafat and two Israeli academics together with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director-General (Foreign Secretary) Uri Savir and the Norwegians lived and ate together in the same house. During the same time it appeared that the whole process was moving backwards. There was a clear internal challenge to the authority of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Not that anybody had succeeded in dethroning him, but there was all-round questioning of his authoritarian ways of functioning and the management of funds.

The Palestinian negotiators in the Madrid process, Hannan Ashrawi, Dr. Haidar al Shafi and Faisal Husseini, went to the PLO headquarters in Tunis to submit their resignations. Apparently during Warren Christopher’s visit to West Asia, Arafat had given some concessions and ordered the negotiators to disregard existing briefs, ask no questions and do what they were told, accept the conditions specified by Israel, notably that the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem be deferred and not put on the agenda at the 11th round of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, about to commence in Washington D.C.

Then came the bombshell. It was always known that though the PLO had officially been kept out of the peace process to accommodate Israel, in actual fact it was Arafat who was pulling the strings. Israel knew that; the two sponsors, the U.S. and Russia, knew that; and so did the other Arabs. So how on earth could the peace talks be stalled and an agreement emerge like a rabbit out of a hat?

As the world knows by now, this is exactly what happened. A rabbit out of the hat. Unseen and unknown to the world, hidden even from the authorised Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, known only to about 24 people in the world, a couple of Israelis and a couple of PLO members, under authority of their leaders, had been holding negotiations for eight months over 14 sessions. To give some psychological impetus, Arafat’s wife wrote to Rabin’s wife, because, as Suha Arafat put it, “Communication is easier between women. We understand each other better on a number of issues.”

Among radical Islamic elements and Iraq, Iran and Libya, the accord was greeted with the silence and immobility of a hare caught in the glare of headlights. Total shock best describes this. They called it a sell-out. Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani called it treason. Iraq opposed it. As Clinton said, “Every peace has its enemy.”

Surveys showed that most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were overjoyed at the prospect of peace or by and large cautiously accepted the deal. In the last survey, done a day after the Washington signing, more than 60 per cent of Israelis and Palestinians were in favour of it. But they and the dissidents knew one thing: there was no going back. Rabin and Arafat had decided that the momentum must be kept up to upstage the dissenters.

Violence continues in the Occupied Territories, orchestrated mainly by the naysayers. Damascus-based PLO factions and many others have pledged themselves to destroying the deal, and the usual threats of murder have been made by traditional opponents of Arafat.

However, even from within Arafat’s Fatah and the PLO Executive Committee (practically the Cabinet), people have resigned or opposed the declaration of principles, not just because it was worked out undemocratically but because they have some real flaws. “It’s a messy deal,” said one commentator. It has several ambiguities and, from the Palestinian viewpoint, allows Israel to get away with too much, leaving the rest to goodwill. The Israeli Right feels the same way—in reverse. Benjamin Netanyahu, using the well-worn cliches about Arafat being a terrorist, stuck to his arguments about the real intent of the Arabs—to grab Israel in phases. The present deal gives them Gaza and the eastern base of Jericho.

Will the deal succeed? The answer will depend largely on the will of the two sides.

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