25 Years Later, a Peek Behind the Scenes of the Oslo Accords

Written by Anis Modi on . Posted in Community News

On Dec. 11, one local Jewish day school marked the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords with a public discussion between two individuals directly involved in the historic event. At this year’s Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital (MILTON) in Washington, D.C., former Israeli negotiator Joel Singer and Norwegian diplomat Terje Rod-Larsen talked about the characters and dynamics behind the Oslo Accords in a discussion moderated by Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy.

Bringing Both Sides to the Table

“I realized that when leaders went on television in Washington, D.C., they were talking to their own constituencies. When they spoke privately, they were saying the opposite of what they were saying in public," said Rod-Larsen, who was then conducting research in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Rod-Larsen established communication channels between the Israelis and Palestinians, but before Israel sent an official delegation, Israeli academics Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld were dispatched to gauge the prospects for negotiations. That way, “if anyone found out, we could say it was just an academic exercise,” Singer said. Only after this initial probe returned positive findings were Singer and others sent to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Larsen spoke about the importance of building a relationship between the two mutually suspicious sides. “[The Israeli and Palestinian delegations] ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, like two families living together in the same house,” he said. “You had to build trust so they see there’s good faith.”

A Different Approach: Norwegian Mediation vs. American Negotiation

One of the things that set Oslo apart was how the Norwegian mediation differed from American attempts at remedying the conflict, the speakers said.

“There’s a difference between a mediator and negotiator," Rod-Larsen said. “We basically told them it was their problem, [they] have to solve it.”

The Norwegians acted as facilitators, whereas the U.S. had tried to actively participate in previous discussions. “The U.S. wasn’t just present in the room, but also writing documents and controlling the draft that began to emerge,” said Singer. “The parties were allowed to say what they wanted, and then the U.S. delegates decided whether to accept it or not.”

“The problem is that if you don’t come up with the solutions, you don’t feel like you own it, and then you don’t feel like implementing it,” Rod-Larsen said.

The Impact of Oslo

Following their conversation, Rod-
Larsen and Singer faced a number of challenging questions from the audience.

“What if Oslo hadn’t happened?” asked Milton seventh-grade student Gabriella Kurtzer-Ellenbogen.

Singer said he could not predict the future, but that he felt that in 1993, all of the “colors of the Rubik’s cube” were aligned to “make the impossible possible.”

Rod-Larsen’s response was much sharper.

“If not for Oslo, the Palestinian Authority would not have existed, and Israel would’ve had to have full occupation with all of the consequences that go with that,” he said. “So Israel would’ve been in a much worse situation. Peace with Jordan probably wouldn’t have happened, nor would have the Lebanon withdrawal.”

The next questioner asked Singer about the status of Jerusalem, and whether Rabin was ready to split up the city that was brought back together under his command during the Six-Day War in 1967.

“We didn’t deal with permanent status issues like Jerusalem or the right of return,” Singer replied. “These were deferred until the end of the process, and weren’t even discussed internally.”

While others who participated in the process have written and discussed their position since, Singer lamented that we will not get a chance to know more about Rabin’s thinking at the time.

“People don’t know he was in the center, the driving force behind Oslo,” he said. “Everyone else wrote books about it, but he didn’t get to.”

Both Rod-Larsen and Singer praised the character of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, emphasizing the centrality of his political will, character, and vision to the prospects of peace.

“Rabin was the chief of staff that led Israel to its greatest wins, so when this guy tells you ‘Listen, this is what we have to do’ then you trust that he knows what he’s talking about,” said Singer.

By Anis Modi

 Anis Modi is a staff writer for Kol HaBirah.