Former minister Yossi Beilin: Oslo Peace Process was not a failure

After a quarter century with no final-status agreement, no Palestinian state and thousands dead, Yossi Beilin does not believe the Oslo diplomatic process that he initiated was a failure, and he still believes he will see Israeli-Palestinian peace in his lifetime.

Perhaps that is because of how the 70-year-old retired politician defines failure and success. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post near his Tel Aviv home, he reflects on both, while looking back at the past and ahead to the future.

Be the first to know –

“Failure is the story of our lives,” he says. “Usually we fail. Success is seldom. [Famed industrialist] Stef Wertheimer says experience is a list of your failures.

He failed so many times and is considered a big success.

You learn to live with it. One of the reasons Israel became the Start-up Nation was the government decided to stop building the Lavi fighter jet. It was the biggest project in Israel, and one day, we stopped it.

Some 5,000 engineers and technicians were fired and built small companies and startups.”

UNDERSTANDING HOW Beilin sees his start-up that is considered his biggest success – Birthright Israel – is essential to grasping what he currently thinks of Oslo.

JPOST VIDEOS THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU:

“Oslo and Birthright are two very different things whose common denominators are that they changed the reality and they reflect my interest in Jewish continuity,” he says. “I don’t see a future if we don’t partition the land and if we lose Israel’s basic connection with world Jewry, especially American Jewry.”

Beilin says his two signature projects went in opposite directions.

“What happened to Birthright is it was very controversial at the beginning and it became such a consensus that people don’t remember how controversial it was,” he says. “And Oslo was a consensus at the beginning, and in a very short time became very divisive. It seemed illogical to me never to talk to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] even if they change their policy, no matter what they do. And it seemed obvious to me that the way to bring Jewish youngsters to Israel was to give them free tickets.”

Despite being the ultimate advocate for peace with the Palestinians, Beilin is just as upset as right-wingers with the activists who have recently come on Birthright and switched with great fanfare to the Palestinian side.

“People who come and run away are stealing the tickets,” he says. “If they don’t want to come, don’t come. They can go after the program to the territories but leaving during it is like poking in the eye. It’s all orchestrated, and there is no pretext. The Palestinians are relevant, but I intended to just tell Israel’s side. If France invites students, it doesn’t show them Germany.”

Beilin stresses that the point of Birthright was not to make its participants Israeli government spokesmen or ambassadors, but just to have a meeting point with other young Jews in Israel, which is why he says, “the bus is more important than Masada.”

He is also glad Israeli soldiers who accompany the program have learned about American Jews and that thousands of participants moved to Israel. Even after new Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog found out he had to apologize for calling intermarriage a plague, Beilin still speaks his mind.

“Marriage within the Jewish people is very positive,” he says. “If my kids would come to me with non-Jewish spouses, I wouldn’t sit shiva. But I think I’m allowed to be sad if people in my family marry out. I would then do everything possible to reach out to the spouse. The world is different now. On one hand, I don’t like to see a rabbi and priest at a wedding, but on the other, it’s better than just a priest. There is nothing more important to me than my Jewish life. I am first a Jew and then an Israeli. Israel is a platform for Jewish continuity.”

THAT BRINGS us back to Oslo, which Beilin sees as the other ultimate platform for Jewish continuity, and also brings us back to success and failure.

“Birthright became the biggest project in the Jewish world, now that it has lasted 18 years,” he says. “That makes me worry it might be too successful, which could lead to complacency. We might have to reinvent it. What was right 20 years ago may not be right now. You can’t just be happy with something successful, because success is a dangerous thing.”

Beilin believes in retrospect that Oslo was absolutely right. He blames what did not go well on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister Menachem Begin and right-wing extremists on the Israeli side.

“It’s very difficult to call Oslo a failure,” he says. “The failure is that Oslo was not implemented. The most important reason was Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and after a few months of Shimon Peres, another prime minister was elected who was against Oslo.

Due to polls, he said he would carry it out, but do it his way.”

Netanyahu’s way, as he has explained since his successful run for prime minister against Peres in 1996 was “if they give, they will get.” That policy, Beilin says, wrongly conditioned progress in the diplomatic process on the Palestinians fulfilling criteria as judged by Netanyahu.

“I am not exonerating the Palestinians, but in my view, the and switched with great fanfare to the Palestinian side.

“People who come and run away are stealing the tickets,” he says. “If they don’t want to come, don’t come. They can go after the program to the territories but leaving during it is like poking in the eye. It’s all orchestrated, and there is no pretext. The Palestinians are relevant, but I intended to just tell Israel’s side. If France invites students, it doesn’t show them Germany.”

Beilin stresses that the point of Birthright was not to make its participants Israeli government spokesmen or ambassadors, but just to have a meeting point with other young Jews in Israel, which is why he says, “the bus is more important than Masada.”

He is also glad Israeli soldiers who accompany the program have learned about American Jews and that thousands of participants moved to Israel. Even after new Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog found out he had to apologize for calling intermarriage a plague, Beilin still speaks his mind.

“Marriage within the Jewish people is very positive,” he says. “If my kids would come to me with non-Jewish spouses, I wouldn’t sit shiva. But I think I’m allowed to be sad if people in my family marry out. I would then do everything possible to reach out to the spouse. The world is different now. On one hand, I don’t like to see a rabbi and priest at a wedding, but on the other, it’s better than just a priest. There is nothing more important to me than my Jewish life. I am first a Jew and then an Israeli. Israel is a platform for Jewish continuity.”

THAT BRINGS us back to Oslo, which Beilin sees as the other ultimate platform for Jewish continuity, and also brings us back to success and failure.

“Birthright became the biggest project in the Jewish world, now that it has lasted 18 years,” he says. “That makes me worry it might be too successful, which could lead to complacency. We might have to reinvent it. What was right 20 years ago may not be right now. You can’t just be happy with something successful, because success is a dangerous thing.”

Beilin believes in retrospect that Oslo was absolutely right. He blames what did not go well on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister Menachem Begin and right-wing extremists on the Israeli side.

“It’s very difficult to call Oslo a failure,” he says. “The failure is that Oslo was not implemented. The most important reason was Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and after a few months of Shimon Peres, another prime minister was elected who was against Oslo.

Due to polls, he said he would carry it out, but do it his way.”

Netanyahu’s way, as he has explained since his successful run for prime minister against Peres in 1996 was “if they give, they will get.” That policy, Beilin says, wrongly conditioned progress in the diplomatic process on the Palestinians fulfilling criteria as judged by Netanyahu.

“I am not exonerating the Palestinians, but in my view, the Israeli side was the biggest obstacle,” he says. “The first mass killing was done by Baruch Goldstein [of Palestinians in Hebron] in February 1994, before buses blew up in Afula and Hadera. What Goldstein did is something we didn’t foresee. We were afraid the Palestinians would do something like that. We didn’t calculate enough the Jewish opposition to the agreement. Maybe the big support in the beginning blinded us.”

Beilin also did not foresee Rabin’s assassination, and he says Rabin did not, either. What Rabin intended in the peace process is also up to interpretation.

“Rabin spoke about there being less than a Palestinian state,” Beilin says. “I think he meant a demilitarized state. He also said only a crazy man would withdraw from the Golan and then he was the crazy man willing to do it. It’s not right to do Rashi [rabbinical interpretation] on him.”

After an October 1995 speech at the Knesset about how he saw the Oslo process heading, which turned out to be Rabin’s final address to the parliament, Beilin asked the prime minister’s wife, Leah, what he meant and what his vision was. He recalls not understanding, because Rabin was heckled so much and kept on responding to his hecklers instead of explaining his point of view.

“Leah laughed and said you are asking me this question?” Beilin recalls. “Yitzhak was the most pragmatic person. Two weeks was vision for him. He went through the motions. He supported various plans. He was totally against the PLO. I did not trick him. I only knew our effort couldn’t be brought to him until the first draft was agreed with the Palestinian leadership.”

But Beilin cannot deny that he negotiated with the outlawed PLO behind Rabin’s back and then presented him a fait accompli.

“Who doesn’t change their mind?” Beilin says “Even [previous prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir went to the [1991] Madrid peace conference, and without Madrid there wouldn’t have been Oslo. Look at how views have changed over time about homosexuality and toward women, for instance. Norms have changed and that’s fine.”

HOW CAN Menachem Begin be to blame, if he died in 1992 before Rabin came to power? Because the peace agreement he signed with Egypt in 1979 called for an interim agreement with the Palestinians that would last for five years ahead of a final-status deal.

That idea was subsequently part of the framework that emerged from the Madrid conference and then in the Oslo Accords.

“The five-year idea was a curse we inherited from Begin,” Beilin says. “Begin agreed to an interim solution in Camp David, even though he opposed it, because he didn’t think it would work. He thought the sides would talk, not agree, and the status quo would prevail. I begged Rabin to seek a permanent deal. But he said if he went Begin’s way, it would be easier to get support. Rabin also said if you seek a permanent agreement and fail, you can’t seek an interim accord, but after an interim accord you can seek a permanent deal. The main point is we should have gone for the permanent agreement.”

Asked if he has any blame for the Palestinians, whose terror attacks turned Israelis against the Oslo Accords, he says “of course I’m disappointed with them. But I need a border, because I am worried about my side, not them, and I would be worried about us even if they were the worst people in the world, and they’re not.”

Beilin says he severed his ties with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas when he fired Salam Fayyad from his post as prime minister five years ago. He said that despite statements by the Palestinian leader that have been condemned by the Israeli Left, he still believes Abbas can be a peace partner and is committed to non-violence.

“He has made many mistakes, but he still says security coordination with Israel is sacred, and I don’t believe we have a better partner than him,” Beilin says. “I still need his signature for an agreement.”

That signature is very important to Beilin – even more than the actual implementation of a final-status diplomatic accord.

“Of course we would like to see an agreement implemented,” he says. “But just signing is historic because it would trigger the Arab initiative that would result in full normalization of ties with most of the Arab world.

It would send embassies to divided Jerusalem. The world would change its attitude to Israel. I have reason to believe serious groups in Palestine realize not implementing it would be a mistake, so there are serious chances it would be implemented.”

Beilin downplayed the fact that Netanyahu is currently being welcomed around the world despite there being no peace agreement and no diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians taking place.

“The situation now is a deception,” he says. “The Arab world is like a concubine, not a legal wife. There are secret intelligence s, and they go to Arab states. People like disguises. I am happy we have s, but those s were open before Oslo. The world legitimizing a border between us and the Palestinians is what really matters, and we don’t have that.”

The reason Beilin believes an agreement is essential as soon as possible is because according to numbers from the IDF, “not from leftist demographers,” he insists, there are 6.5 million Jews and 6.5 million nonJews west of the Jordan River and he wants Israel to remain a Jewish, democratic state.

WHEN ASKED what he supports if a deal cannot currently be reached with the Palestinians, Beilin gives two different options.

“If there is no partner, it must be done unilaterally,” he says. “We don’t have any other choice. We can’t put our destiny in the hands of the Palestinians. Our first priority must be achieving a border.”

Beilin downplays the problem of Palestinian refugees that has been in the news recently thanks to a change in US policy on the issue.

“The Palestinians know we can’t take beyond a symbolic amount of refugees and Israelis know we can’t keep Palestinians in refugee camps,” he says. “The Palestinians had agreed to being demilitarized. They have said they can’t compete with Israel in planes and tanks and they know that if they have an army, they will be run by generals, so that was not a problem either. The biggest threat to reaching an agreement is the large numbers living in settlements.”

The second idea Beilin raises is two states that would also be part of a confederation – not with Jordan or Egypt but with each other. He says such an idea can prevent jihadist groups from taking over a demilitarized Palestinian state.

He does not want a joint parliament or rotating president, but there would be cooperation on zoning, infrastructure, and security. He believes a confederation could allow settlers beyond blocs to remain under a Palestinian state and that it could also solve the refugee issue, because there can be Palestinian citizens who live in Israel.

“I see a confederation as enabling the two-state solution,” he explains. “There could be two separate independent states under an umbrella. On security, we would agree to a division of labor. We won’t go in every night into their territories to search for people, but the Palestinians would coordinate with us. This will ensure it won’t be sexy for the ISISes of the world to try to control these areas. The idea is still premature.”

Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content.