Dalia Rabin-Pelossof Speaks on Oslo Ten Years Later
Yitzhak Rabin's daughter examines the Rabin legacy in today's Middle East.
Published: Thursday, September 18, 2003
[Following are remarks by Dalia Rabin-Pelossof at a private dinner September 16 at the Beverly Hills home of Ronald W. Burkle. Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff is the daughter of former Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995. Dalia Rabin-Pelossof is chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center. She was a member of the fifteenth Knesset, Israel's governing body, June 1999 to February 2003. While in the Knesset she served as Deputy Minister of Defense. She holds an L.L.B. and is an attorney by profession. The dinner was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.]
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This week marks ten years since two leaders -- Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat -- stood with then-American President Bill Clinton on the south lawn of the White House and shook hands. The handshake symbolized an earth-shattering shift in the relations between the antagonists of the 100 year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, and, despite the fanfare and a sense of history-in-the-making, it took place hesitantly, with mutual doubts and fears. Yet, despite the distrust and uncertainty, the leaders of both nations decided to embark on a new path, a path that would lead their peoples into a new era -- an era that would become known as "Oslo," just as the process itself became known by the name of the Norwegian capital where secret bilateral negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis lead to the signing of the accords on the White House lawn.
Oslo was an historic breakthrough: for the first time, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to recognize that bilateral negotiations are the only means to resolve the conflict, and they accepted the notion of coexistence through separation.
Two weeks before he was assassinated in 1995, Yitzhak Rabin told former secretary of state Henry Kissinger that Israel had entered the Oslo peace process because it had no choice. Or rather, it had three options regarding Gaza and the West Bank, but only one was a valid choice. The three choices were integration, that is, a move which would change the demographic basis of the State of Israel, creating a bi-national, or non-Jewish state; an Arab "Bantustan" solution, which would create an apartheid-like existence that would destroy the moral basis of the state; or negotiated coexistence.
Yitzhak Rabin chose negotiated coexistence, continuing a path that began at Camp David in 1978, when Menachem Begin became the first Israeli leader to recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, and continued at the Madrid conference in 1991, when Yitzhak Shamir began a process of negotiations with Palestinians who were thinly-veiled representatives of the PLO. Rabin saw the Oslo Accords as a natural continuation of the process that began at Camp David and continued at Madrid. Indeed, he insisted that the terminology used in the draft of the Oslo Accords be the same terminology used in the Camp David Accords.
Rabin's decision to choose negotiated coexistence was the motivation behind Oslo. Weakness was not behind it -- rather might, combined with the profound understanding of its limitations. My father was not lead or mislead, not duped nor manipulated. He knew exactly what he was getting into, what the price was and what he was receiving in return, the risks and shortcomings, the alternatives and the limitatons.
As soon as the Oslo Accords were signed there was criticism from left and right. The Israeli right saw the accords as surrender and capitulation. The Israeli left saw them as too vague -- they avoided the most difficult issues, namely Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the right of return, and the issue of a Palestinian state and final borders.
Rabin believed that approaching these explosive issues at such an early stage would kill the process, and that, instead, it would be wise to move forward through a series of interim agreements, progressing cautiously and carefully, until enough trust would be built to allow the two sides to deal with the emotional and existential issues of Jerusalem, refugees and final borders.
Indeed, five years after my father's assassination, we saw that an attempt by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to forge a comprehensive agreement that would embrace all of the issues -- including the difficult ones I just mentioned -- at a second Camp David conference hosted by President Clinton, led to a total breakdown of the diplomatic process and to the resumption of violence.
Had Yitzhak Rabin been allowed to carry out the process that he began, would we have witnessed the same breakdown? Would Israelis today be suffering from merciless terror, and would Israeli tanks be patrolling Palestinian streets? We will never know the answer to these questions. But what we do know is that since his departure, the concept of Oslo has become complicated and problematic. In Israel today, it stimulates more antagonism than identification. In Israel of 2003 there is a near consensus that the Oslo Accords were a mistake and that they are to blame for the difficult situation Israel now finds herself in. But those who blame the Oslo process for the violence and the blood-letting conveniently forget that the process itself was stopped in its tracks by three bullets fired by a messianic assassin whose goal indeed was to put an end to the process.
In Israel we tend to measure the success of Oslo by the number of victims of Palestinian terror. But we tend to forget that by 1997 Oslo had largely succeeded. With the assistance of the CIA, Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation essentially eliminated terrorism. Between September 1997 and the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in the late fall of 2000, less than a dozen Israelis were killed in suicide attacks. This was not because Hamas and Islamic Jihad did not try to launch attacks; it is because the Palestinian Authority thwarted those attacks. Even then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally telephoned Yasser Arafat ("his partner" as he called him) to thank him for his antiterror efforts.
As a result, Israel, in the period just prior to the Camp David talks of 2000, was safer than at any period in its history. Tourism was at an all-time high. The economy was bursting with foreign investment. And the international community, including the Arab states, was building economic and diplomatic links to the Jewish state.
Most important of all, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel because Israel signed the Oslo agreement. King Hussein made it clear he would sign a peace treaty only after Israel reached an agreement with the Palestinians.
Perhaps the most visible demonstration of Oslo's success goes back to my father's assassination. No less than 87 world leaders came to Jerusalem to his funeral, including Arab leaders of the Gulf States. Not since President Kennedy's funeral in Washington thirty-two years earlier had there been such a gathering.
The goal of the assassin -- and those who incited him -- was to destroy Oslo, and essentially, they succeeded. During the fall of 2000, at Camp David, Oslo had collapsed. It collapsed because the leaders gathered there chose to ignore my father's warnings and attempted to solve the explosive issues of Jerusalem, the right of return and borders. It collapsed because Israel continued to enlarge the settlements and build new ones, leading the Palestinians to believe that the negotiations were not in good faith. But, above all, it failed because Yassir Arafat resorted to violence.
But Oslo was not only a technical agreement between two political and military entities; it was an agreement of reconciliation between two peoples. And its success should also be measured in the changes which have occurred over the past decade in Israeli public opinion vis-à-vis the conflict. Ten years ago, a small minority of Israelis were in favor of dismantling settlements in any future agreement -- today, a majority are in favor. Ten years ago, an even smaller minority was in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state -- today a majority is in favor. Even a sizable majority of Likud voters is now willing for territorial compromise. And, almost unbelievably, almost half of Israeli voters are willing to consider some kind of arrangement of compromise on Jerusalem. This, too, is the legacy of Oslo.
Most importantly, Oslo represented a mind-shattering change of tactics between two enemies. The hesitant handshake on the White House lawn represented an acceptance that the conflict can only be resolved by negotiation and compromise. Until that moment, the goal for both sides was to vanquish the enemy. From that moment on, the goal became to learn to live with the enemy side-by-side, in honor and in peace. That goal remains elusive and, at times, seemingly unapproachable. But it still exists -- in the rhetoric of the leaders of both sides and in the public opinion polls of both communities. This is perhaps the most important component of the legacy of Oslo: the realization that one side will not emerge the victor and the other the vanquished, but rather that the destinies of both nations are mutually dependent.
And with this knowledge Yitzhak Rabin decided that it was time to give peace a chance, and to take the risks needed to fulfill the obligation to make it a reality. His goal was not to unmask the face of the enemy, but to change the face of the enemy. Ladies and gentleman -- let me assure you -- Yitzhak Rabin KNEW the face of the enemy. And he also knew that, despite all the difficulties and obstacles, Israel had no choice but to learn how to work with the enemy towards building a new reality.
Yet, despite the psychological and sociological changes brought on by the Oslo Accords in terms of how Palestinians and Israelis perceive one another, we find ourselves in a new spiral of violence, with seemingly no end in sight. While willingness to compromise is greater than it has ever been in the past, the everyday reality is one of frustration and despair. However, ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to remind you that history does repeat itself, and that windows of opportunity will present themselves. The question is: will we know to recognize the window of opportunity and exploit it to our advantage? We also know from history that we cannot allow ourselves to accept the status quo. Every stone must be overturned in our search for a solution. When we accepted the status quo and simply waited, as we did after 1967, the situation will explode, as it did in the form of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The same was true of the first Intifada. As American President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: "Devise a plan and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something."
However, today, after three years of bloodshed, there is little trust between the two sides and bilateral negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis is almost impossible. Thus, the active intervention and involvement of the American government is necessary to jump-start the process. Without it, tensions will escalate and the situation will deteriorate.
The choice is still the same, and there is only one option: negotiated coexistence. In just seven years' time -- in 2010 -- there will be a majority of Arabs living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The option of integration does not exist, unless we want to forgo the Jewish character of the state; the status quo -- ruling over millions of Palestinians against their will -- is not an option, unless we want to become an apartheid state. Just as was true in 1993, the same is true today -- the only choice is negotiated coexistence with our Palestinian neighbors.
Most people today remember Yitzhak Rabin as the Peace Maker. Oslo has become the most dominant component of his legacy. Yet, let us not forget that he was a military man most of his adult life. He was the commander of the forces that liberated Jerusalem in 1948. He was the chief-of-staff who lead the Israel Defense Forces to its greatest victory in 1967. And it was during his second term as prime minister that Israel enjoyed great economic growth -- indeed the greatest in its history. Indeed, the three years of his second term were no less than a revolution socially and economically.
His vision was to create a secure, democratic and prosperous Israel, living at peace with its neighbors.
My work at the Yitzhak Rabin Center -- Israel's official memorial for my father -- is based on perpetuating his vision and preserving his legacy. We are working to strengthen Israel's democracy, to create an awareness of the implications of the assassination and its impact on our society and to instill my father's values -- peace, change of national priorities, and excellence in leadership, democratic values and education.
The Rabin Center is also focusing on leadership training. We have established a group of leaders who will examine what is necessary for national leadership in our country.
Despite the immense challenges, I remain committed to my father's vision of creating a secure, democratic, and prosperous Israel, living at peace with its neighbors. This is the essence of his legacy and I intend to do all within my power to bring it to fruition -- for the alternative is unthinkable.