Beilin-Husseini Dialogue: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Photo by Jane Scherr
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Both of you have described the processes by which your nationalist commitment, in essence, evolved. But at the point before the Oslo accords were reached, a kind of mutual intellectual dynamic began. Could you tell us a little about how, as a political process, intellectuals and policy makers from the Israeli side began communicating with Palestinians on the other side?
The process is a long one and it is not a very organized process. It happened that people would say to me, "Why don't you meet with the Palestinian doctor in the bar?" And I would meet with him in a restaurant in East Jerusalem, or things like that. It was, in many cases, by accident. For me there was never any kind of a barrier or an impediment to meet with the Palestinians. And I did it since the early eighties, if not even before that, through some of my colleagues had better contacts than myself in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank, mainly Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, who is a very close friend and colleague of mine and who very involved with the Palestinians.
That was the beginning and then it was institutionalized much more. Both of us (Faisel Al Husseini and I) had many meetings and we also had meetings with Mr. Shimon Peres when he was in opposition and when he was in power. And we developed a kind of very interesting and important dialog about concrete measures, things which happened in Jerusalem and things like that. And of course it is very different when you're doing it from a position of opposition and when you're doing it, as I did it, as a Secretary of the Cabinet, and than as a Director-General of the Foreign Ministry and Deputy Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs.
But the story of Oslo itself was intended to be the channel between the two of us, that was the original idea. Mr. Terje Rod Larsen, a Norwegian, came to us with the idea of a back channel -- he came to both of us, he came to Faisal Husseini and he talked to me about it. He asked me separately whether I would like to have such a channel with Faisal Husseini when we come back to power, because it was several months before the elections and the atmosphere there was conducive to our victory. I said that I had known Mr. Faisal Husseini for many years -- that was in '92 and I had known him then for a dozen-odd years -- but that maybe it would be worthwhile to have a kind of institutionalized channel once we are in power. We met again, the three of us: Terje Rod Larsen, Faisal Husseini, and myself in East Jerusalem on the eve of the elections of '92 and we agreed to continue it later.
Then I became the Deputy Foreign Minister and of course it was a little bit different than being just a member of the opposition. I intended to tell my minister, Mr. Peres, that I was offered a kind of a back channel with Mr. Husseini in Norway. And here it was a very, very strange story, because when I came to him (Mr. Peres) with this request of confirming such a channel, he was the one who began the discussion. He said to me, "You know that I wanted to meet with Faisal Husseini, but the Prime Minister, Mr. Rabin, said that it is too early now, we just won the elections. We are going to have a channel in Washington; you should not meet with him right now." Now that was a kind of a thunderstorm, first of all because there were meetings between Mr. Peres and Mr. Husseini. Many informal meetings. [But] when we come to power, we cannot talk to Faisal Husseini? But he told me that, and the truth was that he was astonished. And the truth was also that Rabin, in the beginning, wanted to continue everything as it was under Shamir, to legitimize the process. He wanted to intensify, to accelerate it, but not to change the format of the negotiations. And that is why I think he did not want Mr. Peres to meet with Mr. Husseini in Jerusalem.
Now, when Mr. Peres told me that, I could not come to him and say, "I want to meet with Mr. Husseini in Norway." So something happened. I could not even tell Mr. Husseini what happened. He was quite astonished because he knows me, I never let him down, and somehow I had disappeared. And I couldn't tell that to the Norwegians either because it was very embarrassing. So eventually it was delayed and on toward the end of the year we told the Norwegians that if they wanted to have a back channel it could not be with me but with Professor Hirschfeld and Professor Ron Pundak, a colleague.
Then Hanan Ashrawi, who was also one of the group with which we had met in previous years, told Mr. Hirschfeld that if he wants to have an interlocutor who is a PLO person (and it was Mr. Husseini who all the years urged us to talk directly to the PLO, when the law changed and it was possible to talk to the PLO), she suggested to talk to somebody by the name of Abu Allah. We had not heard about him, but since that was her recommendation he went to London. And in London he met with Abu Allah for the first time and then he came to me. I was then in London too. And he told me that he has a meeting. So I suggested to them to have it in Norway and to establish the Oslo process there without me, and then it happened also that it was also without Husseini. And the truth is that the whole story is a result of the fact that for whatever reason, it was the late Mr. Rabin who prevented Mr. Peres from [meeting with] Mr. Husseini after the victory in the elections.
So what you're both describing is that a sensibility, a feeling, an intellectual desire to cross the boundaries that were dividing your two peoples, was percolating in the civil societies of both sides? And that, in a way, the government followed and then came on board?
I can say that there were people inside the Palestinian leadership who are for such contacts and for our pushing the peace process forward, as well as people out of the leadership. But it was not easy for both sides. There was this initiative of Washington, which was more under effect of the media than the effect of politics. And we were discussing these matters also between us, the Palestinians, even though it was forbidden officially to meet their leadership, but I was making that from time to time. And I remember when this subject had been broached, to have a new channel. I found that this was very important. I know from the history also that in Algeria, in Vietnam, in other places, secret negotiations were bringing an agreement. So it was clear for us that we were in need of people to work [on the peace process] far from the media, far from the daily interests of the people.
So I supported the idea. And when Mr. Hirschfeld came to me and asked me, "Who is Abu Allah? Do you know this person Abu Allah? Is he good?" I said, "Yes, he is good, call him." And they went on and then I didn't hear anything about it until we had the Oslo agreement.
So I believe that if you asked me when the Palestinian people, when we as intellectuals, as leaders, started to think about peace, maybe even the Palestinians themselves became ready for such a matter, I can say, between the period of 1982 until the Intifada. In this period, the Palestinian people started to feel proud of themselves. This fight in Lebanon, our ability to stand in front of the Israeli Army for ninety days, or eighty days, it was, for the Palestinians, something to be very proud of because someone who is defeated cannot go on negotiating if he is also defeated on the inside. Now the Palestinians started to feel that we have the ability to stand in front of the Israelis. This matter was strengthened by the Intifada and by proving for all the world that the Palestinian people can stand and can challenge the Israeli army, not only in field as army against army, but also as a people against an army. This made it easier for us to start having direct negotiations with the Israelis, searching for a solution. And this actually started before Madrid and before Oslo. But Madrid was the framework for these feelings, and Oslo was a result of Madrid. Without Madrid we would not have been able to reach Oslo.
Next page: Significance of the Oslo Process
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