Negotiated coexistence still the only option

Today marks eight years since the assassination of my father, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Ten years have passed since two leaders – Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat – stood 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 that would lead their people into a new era that would become known as “Oslo.”

Oslo was a historic breakthrough: For the first time, Israelis and Palestinians recognized that bilateral negotiations are the only means to resolve the conflict, and they accepted the notion of coexistence through separation.

Rabin’s decision to choose negotiated coexistence was the motivation behind Oslo. Weakness was not behind it, but strength – 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 limitations.

As soon as the Oslo accord was 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 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 an attempt by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to forge a comprehensive agreement that would embrace all the issues – including the difficult ones noted above – at a second Camp David conference hosted

by former President Bill Clinton, lead to a total breakdown of the diplomatic process and the resumption of violence.

Had Rabin been allowed to carry out the process that he began, would we have witnessed the same breakdown? Would Israelis today suffer from merciless terror, and would Israeli tanks patrol Palestinian streets? We will never know the answer to these questions. But what we do know is that since Rabin’s departure, the concept of Oslo has become complicated and problematic.

We tend to forget that by 1997, Oslo had largely succeeded. With the CIA’s assistance, Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation essentially eliminated terrorism. Between September 1997 and the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in late fall 2000, fewer than 12 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.

As a result, Israel in the period just prior to the 2000 Camp David talks was safer than at any period in its history. And the international community, including the Arab states, was building economic and diplomatic links to the Jewish state. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel because Israel signed the Oslo agreement.

No fewer than 87 world leaders came to Jerusalem to my father’s funeral, including Arab leaders of the Persian Gulf states.

The goal of the assassin – and those who incited him – was to destroy Oslo, and, essentially, they succeeded. At Camp David in fall 2000, Oslo 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 Yasser 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 that have occurred over the past decade in Israeli public opinion vis-a-vis the conflict. Ten years ago, only a small minority of Israelis was in favor of dismantling settlements in any future agreement – today, a majority is in favor. Ten years ago, an even smaller minority was in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state – today it is a majority.

Rabin decided 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 – and he indeed knew the face of the enemy. My father also knew that, despite all the difficulties and obstacles, Israel had no choice but to learn how to work with the enemy toward building a new reality.

Just as that was true in 1993, the same is true today – the only choice is negotiated coexistence with our Palestinian neighbors.

Dalia Rabin-Pelossof is chairwoman of the executive committee of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. Send comments to [email protected]