Israel's chief negotiator reveals the dynamics behind the Oslo

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Crescent International

Ramadan 15, 1430 2009-09-05

Book Review

by Crescent International

The Process: 1,100 Days that changed the Middle East by Uri Savir. Pub: Vintage Books, New York, USA, 1999. Pp: 336. Pbk: $15.00.

In May 1993, the PLO and Israel began official negotiations in Oslo. Secrecy was strictly maintained, as US sponsored talks were being held in Washington at the same time, between delegations of Palestinian West Bank and Gaza residents and Israel's Rabin government. For the first time the Israelis were dealing with a Palestinian negotiating team that, although it may not have been popularly elected by Palestinians in the occupied territories, nevertheless broadly represented the victims of Israeli military occupation. Consequently Israel deemed the Washington talks a "charade," and actively sought the Norwegian channel.

On May 14, 1993, official talks began between Israel's foreign ministry director-general Uri Savir and a top PLO advisor to Arafat, Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala). The meeting was the culmination of five years of informal talks between the two parties. The negotiators spent only three months before agreeing on the text of the "Declaration of Principles," the preamble to the final accords. This unprecedented and swift agreement between historical enemies has since ushered in negotiations that have yet to be finalized.

The Process is Savir's account of the mediations that unfolded. The book is divided into three sections, each with three or four chapters. The author chose to write in English, his second language, which indicates the range of his intended audience, apart from the better sales expected. Cleverly written with an eye for his various readerships - Israeli, Palestinian and American - he provides each audience with an individually tailored set of insights into the dynamics of the mediation process.

Israeli supporters of a final peace settlement with the Palestinians will read of the daring stance that Israeli Labor figures, Rabin and Peres, made in order to bring normalcy and rest to a troubled nation. Facing an uprising on embarrassingly occupied territories, strong resistance by Hizbullah in South Lebanon and an ailing economy, Peres is portrayed as a "great visionary" and initiator of the Oslo talks, munificently "obsess[ed] with peace and prosperity in the Middle East." At a session between Peres and Abu Ala, he promises "willingness to encourage international economic assistance to the new Palestinian endeavor." Beloved Israeli dove, Peres is a mythic national father figure intended to reflect the lengths to which Israel is willing to go in support of Palestinian autonomy. In fact, he risks the wrath of Israel's right-wing when he voices his disgust at Israel's docility in the face of 400 Israeli settlers living in Hebron, and boldly accedes to a Palestinian police presence. It is no coincidence that he is this book's hero, as it was he who appointed Savir chief negotiator and later head of the Peres Center for Peace in the Middle East.

A right-wing Israeli will be pleased by grand passages about the negotiating team's tenacious and determined stand against the Palestinians. The Israeli team is shown to have maintained total control of the talks at all times, and never to have compromised on Israeli interests. Although the talks dealt with minor details such as the positioning of a Palestinian soldier on the Allenby Bridge and the title of Arafat, staunch zionists are reassured that Israel's central and resounding aim was securing national security and ending "terrorism." The Israeli team is shown to have unflinchingly been considering Palestinian "political" and not "national" rights. A stickler for detail, Rabin on one occasion held up an agreement with the PLO until the word "accordingly" was replaced by "consequently." Savir devotes passages in defense of Labor wisdom in an effort to counter Netanyahu's claim that Peres "subcontracted" Israel's security to the Palestinians. He maintains that although the Oslo talks were conducted without the knowledge of the entire government, the interim negotiating team was made up of military men who were the most qualified to negotiate and draw up national borders and security zones.

A Palestinian/Arab/Muslim reading the book may focus on the nooks and crannies of the historically unfathomable, emotionally abhorrent dialogue. Two major themes that can be fished out of The Process are the intellectual and emotional levels at which the two groups meet, and the dynamics of the talks. Instructive scenes of the PLO delegation's incompetence and collusion abound, as are moments when Israeli negotiating strategy puts them to shame. Despite the talks being a grossly lop-sided match, with the Palestinians having no leverage and the Israelis enjoying the upper hand, the former are psychologically manipulated by the latter into believing that they are equal, decision making partners, each making gains and accepting yields. Admittedly, for Israel the issue is national security, while for the PLO it is "national pride."

Although Savir fails to reveal the pressures placed on the PLO by Israeli negotiators, he points to Israeli negotiating sophistication as opposed to the Palestinians' sloppiness. For example, one of the Palestinian negotiators is actually weak in English, the language of negotiation, confirming suspicions of Palestinian incompetence. Another is Arafat's frequent rotation of negotiators, with the result that none could develop confidence and momentum in their dealings with the Israelis. The naivete of Abu Ala and cunning of Savir are equally revealed when the former is about to leave the talks in objection to a typical case of Israeli underhandedness, while the latter appeases him by asking whether Palestinians in the refugee camps would rather be ruled by their own people than by the Israeli army.

Perhaps most telling is Savir's emphasis on the role that the current peace process is playing in establishing Israel as a regional economic power in the Middle East. The wisdom of Labor's "vision" is in transforming Israel from an occupying, settler state to a financial safe-haven for encroaching multi-nationals and Gulf businessmen, a prospect that would cleanse Israel's tarnished international reputation and rescue its ailing economy. Although Savir is clearly tempted to come straight out and promote economic benefit in "exchange for land," he cannot compromise Israel's staunch right-wing constituency, which still clings to the fiction of the zionist state as a realization of millennia-long Jewish aspirations.

An American audience will hail this work for its balance and disclosure of the gruelling process of reconciliation. They will admire the other process unfolding throughout the 1,100 days of negotiations, namely the human dialogue that develops between Savir and Abu Ala. Introduced to the author as "enemy number one," Abu Ala and Savir become friends, as do their respective families. Photographs of Abu Ala about to embrace Savir's 20-year-old daughter, and Abu Ala's daughter with Savir's daughter at the latter's wedding, are - we are supposed to believe - images of the human bonds that peace is able to acquire, if only it is given a chance. Their evolving friendship is depicted as a microcosm of a likely future Israeli-Palestinian scenario.

Another 'inspirational' moment is when Abu Ala collapses from exhaustion in Taba and is taken to hospital by orders of Peres, who himself accompanies him in the ambulance, holding his hand and encouraging him to hold on, that both sides need him. Such touchy-feely scenes are intended to convince the incredulous reader that if the two parties would just give each other a chance, all the problems in the Middle East would be resolved and peace would triumphantly reign. The only thing stopping this utopian process is fundamentalist terrorism.

Savir plainly states that the "forces of destruction" in Tehran - acting through Hizbullah, Hamas and Jihad - can only be stopped if key regional players, such as Syria, join the peace process. In Arafat, Israel has found a partner in fighting fundamentalism and extremism, the true enemies of peace. Repeated generalizations about destructive Islamic forces emanating from Iran, the source of all global conflicts, echo for American readers all-familiar calls for further isolation of Iran.

The Process is not polemical politics but a statesman's confessional. Its value lies in its disclosure of current intra-Israeli dialogue regarding the wisdom of the Oslo peace agreement. Written while Netanyahu's Likud government was stalling the interim talks, the book is intended as a vindication of the Oslo agreement, in whose defense Savir maintains the talks should continue, in spite of "terrorist" activity. In this light, The Process serves to reveal Israel's weakness and vulnerability vis-a-vis the Oslo agreement.

Students of international studies and diplomacy, the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also find this book useful for its portrayal of the dynamics of international negotiations. Its chronological, day-to-day account dispels the aura of statesmen and diplomats, while demonstrating the arbitrary nature of some of the most profound decisions affecting regional politics.

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