Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo Accord, died Friday at the age of 59.
In 1993, Pundak, an expert on Middle East history, was working under Yossi Beilin, who was then the Israeli deputy foreign minister. At the time, Israel was holding formal negotiations in Washington with a Palestinian team, but the talks were heading nowhere and the promise of the Rabin government seemed to be fading away.
Along with Yair Hirschfeld, Pundak initiated a secret back channel between Israeli and PLO officials (contact with PLO members was still illegal when Rabin took office), first in London and then in Oslo. When the sides began to make progress, he informed Beilin, and later, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was brought in the loop. Peres eventually informed Rabin of the talks and the prime minister gave his blessing. The first Oslo Accord was signed on the White House lawn by Peres and then-chief Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas in late 1993.
In 1995, Pundak took part in negotiations that led to the Beilin-Abu Mazen paper (full document, PDF), which outlined a future Palestinian state on 1967 borders, with agreed-upon land swaps. Prime Minister Rabin was murdered several days after the completion of the paper and never got to endorse it. Peres and Barak later rejected it, missing the greatest opportunity to have an official Israeli commitment to the two-state solution.
In later years Pundak was a member of several peace forums and think tanks. He took part in the informal negotiations which led to the Geneva Initiative.
In an interview to “Just Vision” several years back, Pundak spoke about what went wrong in Oslo. His analysis is rather unique, putting an emphasis on political and strategic problems on the Israeli side that existed despite the Rabin-Peres government’s full commitment to the process. One can almost sense regret in the interview, especially when Pundak speaks of how stingy the Israeli side was during the later stages of the negotiations:
I think both sides entered into the implementation period not in good faith– both sides. Both because the trust was not built and because there was an effort to put things off until the second round of dialogue. But having said this, I don’t think this is enough to make the situation deteriorate as quickly and as terribly as it did. And here I think that we, the Israelis, committed too many mistakes on the way. I believe all the mistakes were rooted in the fact that the day after Oslo, meaning from the 14th of September 1993, Israel itself wasn’t clear where it wanted to go in its relations with the Palestinians; it wasn’t clear whether Israel was at all ready to commit itself to a real fair solution, based on the only ingredients a real, fair solution should contain: an independent, viable, Palestinian sovereign state, side by side with Israel, on equal footing, based more or less on the ’67 borders. I think that until the last days of negotiation in Camp David, still, Israel didn’t accept this formula.
I don’t say that Israel didn’t want peace; on the contrary, I think Israel wanted peace as much and probably more that the Palestinians– I’m speaking about the leadership. But I think the Palestinians were more ready for the compromised solution and were in full comprehension of what it takes to make it happen and we were not. Because of this, we allowed many terrible things to happen on the ground, such as enlarging and building more settlements, confiscating land, sending the wrong message to the Palestinians regarding what the final status would entail.
We were stingy on the issue of prisoners, the economy, and almost everything– not because we wanted to sabotage the process, but because from our point of view, all this might have led to a Palestinian state, which we did not dare to say out-loud– for example, partition of Jerusalem, which is a must for any agreement.24 If we continue to say during negotiations that Jerusalem will always be under Israeli control, we are pushing aside Palestinian legitimate activities and sending the wrong message in regards to what we want to have. So to sum it up in a nut-shell, I think we screwed it up.
All this without describing one inch of the legitimate criticism I have of the Palestinians: that they were slow, that they were terrible in not fighting terrorism seriously, that they were double talking and that Arafat is a terrible manager and doesn’t really care about his own people, etc. And that his methods of negotiations were childish. But I say in spite of all my criticism against the Palestinians, and I have kilometers of criticism, still in the big picture, I think we screwed it up.
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