Oslo and Beyond: An Interview with Colonel Daniel Reisner
Head of the International Law Branch of the IDF Legal Division
How were you involved in the Oslo negotiations?
- My official position is head of the international law branch of the IDF legal division. Iíve been in this position for over seven years, and working in the department for 17 years. My first involvement in the peace process happened just after the Madrid conference in 1991, and became intense in 1994. Since 1996, Iíve been the lead advisor to the government in all of the negotiations with the Palestinians.
What in your view led to the breakdown of Oslo?
- The Oslo framework was as follows. Israel and the Palestinians said, ďLetís try to come up with a plan, test it for five years, and hopefully afterwards both sides will have enough confidence by the end that they will agree to some kind of serious compromise with one another.Ē Both Palestinians and Israelis believed that the end of the five years would bring about a Palestinian state, with Israel having returned to its pre-1967 borders.
The years from 1993 to 1999 were devoted to discussions, and as planned we didnít touch upon the big issues until 1999. When we came to the negotiating table, however, both sides came with a slightly different background from those they had in 1993. Both sides came with much more distrust. That may seem strange, since in 1994 there was no history of open talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet the two sides that met from 1999 onwards were much more cynical. Both had strong claims that the other had violated the agreement. For Israel, it was the fact that suicide attacks had continued during those years despite the Palestiniansí pledge to stop them.
What struck me about the Camp David negotiations is that we werenít talking out of the same book. Israel thought that the focus of the negotiations would be on the question of territory, including the settlements, borders, and Jerusalem. The other questions on the table were security and refugees. We thought that these issues were difficult but solvable, and we went in prepared to make concessions.
From the Palestinian perspective, though, other issues were more difficult. Consider security. In my eyes at least, this was one of the least problematic questions. Israel realized that there were three levels of security threats: terrorism, a possible war on the Eastern front, and regional threats like Iran and Iraq. We went in feeling strongly that an agreement with the Palestinians could not diminish our security. We therefore demanded that they do everything in their power to protect us against terrorism. We also stipulated that they could not have a standing army, because a Palestinian state could potentially become a hostile neighboring country. Finally, we asked for the right to build bases on Palestinian territory and to pass through that territory for military purposes if necessary, namely in the case of a large-scale war. We expected, of course, that the Palestinians would say yes to these things, because in our view they were not very difficult and were reasonable concessions to make in exchange for sovereignty.
Yet the Palestinians responded by saying: ďWe also have security concerns, and our main security concern is you. So we need the capability to be able to defend ourselves against you.Ē
Second, they said, ďWe appreciate that you may need to fight a war on the eastern front, but if we allowed you to travel through our territory, we would be considered collaborators, and no Arab country has or will ever sign an agreement that allows that. Therefore, you may not have bases on Palestinian soil and you may not travel through our state in wartime.Ē
In other words, the more we discussed these issues, the more unbridgeable our differences seemed.
The other element of the failure of the Accords was Palestinian leadership and its perception of Israel. Palestinian leadership is basically Arafat. Thus the only way we could have reached an agreement is if Arafat concluded he had no other choice but to negotiate with us. But he did have another choice: violence. Time after time, Israel has made concessions in response to force, and Arafat was fully aware of this. In other words, Israel has a weak belly; we canít stand up to too much conflict. So itís not surprising that when we arrived at Camp David, Arafat didnít feel that he had been put into a corner with no exit. He still had the use of force at his disposal. He didnít feel it was either this agreement or nothing, and so he didnít choose the agreement.
The negotiations failed because of four factors, then: the lack of trust, a history of noncompliance, huge substantive differences on the issues, and the fact that Arafat simply wasnít ready to make a deal. Just one of these factors alone would have been enough to ruin the process.
Was one side more willing to compromise than the other at Camp David?
- There is no doubt that the Palestinians were in no mood for concessions. Take the issue of Jerusalem. There are three main points of contention here: the eastern part, the old city, and the Temple Mount. Concerning the Temple Mount, Clinton thought he had figured out that Israelís real interests were underground, and not on the mountaintop itself.1 He therefore suggested that Palestinians control the area above ground and that Israel control what is underground. Yet the Palestinians said they wanted all or nothing, and that the entire area had to be theirs.
Concerning the old city, too, there were suggestions to split sovereignty in half, giving two quarters to each. Yet again, the Palestinians said no, insisting that all quarters be under Palestinian control.
In all of the negotiations I participated in, Israel always came up with concrete proposals, including numbers and concessions, while the Palestinians insisted on gaining all or nothing. The reason for this is two-fold. First, they did not have a mandate from Arafat. Second, and more importantly, a hard-line negotiator who doesnít budge will gain more in negotiations against an opponent who likes to give in and compromise. Israel was always suggesting, and never received suggestions back. Even when the Palestinians made miniscule movements, you could see they were just going through the motions. They realized that an uncompromising strategy would gain them more in the end, because Israel was ready to do far more to achieve a final agreement.
The Palestinians have a response to this criticism, of course. They say that the very existence of the state of Israel is a significant compromise. In other words, in their minds, theyíve already done all the compromising theyíll ever need to do.
Do you still think that the end of the conflict will be reached through negotiations?
- I think that while we can never know what life will bring, the best possible outcome will be from negotiations. This is because only negotiations can maximize interests. When two sides meet and hold a discussion about what they each really want, the interests of both sides will be optimized. The random decisions of one side or the other cannot accomplish this.
At this juncture, though, a negotiated outcome seems far away. We are still figuring out who our partners are. There clearly needs to be a change in Palestinian leadership for future negotiations to take place.
What about Palestinian claims that Israel reneged on Oslo?
- This begins to sound like a domestic dispute: Each one claims that the other started it. We argue that we couldnít fulfill our end of the agreement because of Palestinian terrorism. Palestinians claim that we merely wanted an excuse not to fulfill our end of the agreement, because we didnít want to fill it in the first place.
But what were the Palestinians expected to do? We gave them power, territory, authority, moneyówe transferred everything to them. All they were supposed to do in return was to administer the Palestinian population and to fight terrorism. The first they did do, though not terribly well, but that wasnít of great concern to us. What was of great concern to us was terrorism, and they didnít do anything to fight against it. In fact, we realized that not only were they not fighting it, they were actually cultivating terrorist organizations themselves.
Remember that we did carry out two of the three proposed redeployments from West Bank. Each time we did this, though, Palestinian terrorism increased. As a result, we did not carry out the third. We couldnít possibly have filled this end of the agreement until the Palestinians filled theirs by stopping the violence.
What would it take for negotiations to succeed in the future?
- Israel must have a partner who sees the big picture and is willing to compromise for the ultimate goal of peace. If peace with Israel is viewed as just one step in a process through which they will achieve bigger goals, then negotiations are obviously pointless. The next generation of leaders must seek to end the conflict, and must be willing to make concessions to do so.
How do you explain the extreme scarcity of Israel supporters in the international arena?
- I would say that Israelís lack of popularity stems from two factors. First, we are losing the media war. Itís easy to take the side of the underdog, and to most people the Palestinians appear to be the underdog. But the story here is in fact very complex, too complex for average people to understand without time and patience. Most people base their positions on sound bites. Take the example of the settlements, one of the weapons often used against Israel. It takes a long time to explain Israeli settlements to the uninitiatedówhat they mean and what the forces behind them are. But to say simply that Israel is building settlements in occupied territories makes for a good sound bite. Short stories and strong pictures make a better impact in the media. Our side takes longer to explain and demands more depth. Itís very difficult to do this on camera and very few people have the patience to listen.
Second, while there is a current trend to blame everything on anti-Semitism, I think one must differentiate between countries and people, and that countries arenít anti-Semitic, theyíre just self-interested. They base their politics not on whatís right but on their interests and whom they want to support. Yet who would really want to support Israel? Most countries see us as a troublemaker, and they think life would be easier without us.
Given this assessment, are you worried about the increasing power of multi-national institutions and their impact on Israel?
- First of all, while itís true that more power is moving to multi-national organizations, the major superpowers like the United States and China are still unwilling to give up their sovereignty, and this presents a major limitation to their growth.
Yet while the UN is not as powerful it could be, it has still done a good deal of harm to Israel. Multi-national organizations reflect the interests of the countries that have power in them. Arab states have a great deal of power in the UN. Itís therefore no surprise that there are so many anti-Israel resolutions passed.
In short, because Israel is so small, and with few friends, itís obvious that the more the political arena is put in an international perspective, the worse our situation will be.
The International Criminal Court, for example, has the potential to become a focus for Israel-bashing, as the UN has been. Most people donít want to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within confines of the court, but one could easily see it moving in that direction.
So I would say that the sooner we manage to solve our conflict, the better our life in the international arena will be, and the better our life in general will be. But Iím sorry to say that I canít foresee that happening in the near future.