Yossi Beilin Interview (2003): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Searching for Peace in the Middle East: Conversation with Yossi Beilin, Former Minister of Justice, Israel; November 3, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

Page 1 of 3

The Oslo Accords

Yossi, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

You believe that every conflict has a solution. What makes resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict so difficult?

The emotions, the history, the long time which it has taken. It's the longest international conflict since World War II. It's difficult to solve the conflicts, but it is not impossible. I think there are universal traits and aspects of all these conflicts, and I think that all of them have bridgeable solutions. The only question is whether you are ready to take the challenge, to pay the price, to compromise in order to get more. This, I believe, is the challenge for all the peacemakers in the world.

The peace process really took off at the beginning of the last decade with the Oslo Accords. Why did they fail?

They failed mainly because it was such a challenge for the extremists on both sides. They had the upper hand. They took it very seriously. They fought against the process as much as they could, while the moderate people were just happy. They did not fight. They did not demonstrate. They were happy that their governments took such bold decisions, and didn't feel that they had the need to fight for their own governments, which already had taken the decisions. This was a grave mistake of the coalition of sanity in the Middle East, which gave into the coalition of insanity. We are all now paying the price for this victory, which I hope is a very provisional one.

The people on both sides who didn't want a solution undertook actions that increased the probability that there would not be a solution. On the Israeli side, it was the continuation of the building of settlements. Talk about that and explain the power of that movement, even when Labour governments were in power.

Actually, the idea of Ehud Barak as the Labour prime minister was to have on board the rightist parties, including the Religious National Party, until the crossroads, which would be conducive to a permanent solution. The idea was a very interesting one: to have a broad coalition, to get together to the point of a decision, and then to have a referendum when you don't need your political coalition [anymore], but your constituency. And if you win that referendum, then you can implement the permanent agreement.

In order to have the more rightist and more hawkish forces on board, the price that he was ready to pay was to enable them to build more housing units in the existing settlements. Barak's idea was that once we have an agreement, we will have a new border, and those settlements which will be beyond this border will be evacuated. So if there are some more housing units, it will not change the world. But in the meantime, it will assure his coalition.

I must say that it was a mistake. It was our mistake, because since even our moderate government continued the settlement process, it was seen by many Palestinians as if we were not too serious about the peace process itself. And part of their frustration, justified or unjustified, was the fact that they saw new buildings in the settlements even with the government under Barak, with Peres, with Yossi Sarid from the Meretz Party, [Roby] Natanzon and Shlomo Ben Ami from the Labour Party, and myself.

Isn't it the case that pursuing such a strategy, on the one hand, was almost naïve, because you were creating facts on the ground, and on the other hand, you were touching the emotions of people on the Israeli side who have an almost fundamentalist view about Eretz Yisarel?

Yes, I must admit that it was a very problematic decision. Of course, it stemmed from the fact that we did not have a coalition of the left. Barak won the direct election for the prime minister and got a very big majority. But in order to have a coalition of the more dovish parties, you needed, also, an addition from the other side of the political map. The price was too expensive.

You're a political scientist. Some critics say that all of this won't be fixed until Israel changes its political system, so that the governing coalitions are not as dependent on minority parties, some of whom are a very supportive of the settlements.

I'm not sure that by technical decision you will change the ideology. Even if the political system imposes a reshuffle, you may have bigger parties, but they themselves would be coalitions. Then the leadership will have to be attentive to the internal coalition, as it is now attentive to the external coalition. So I am not one of those who believe that the systems are changing everything. Of course, they have ramifications, they have an impact on ideology. But the ideology is there, and what we have to tackle is the substance of the matter, not only the style.

Is there a contradiction at the core of Zionism? On the one hand, secular, committed to Western values, to democracy; but on the other hand, a component that is faced toward the religion and emphasizes the Jewish people's connection to the land as it is written in the Bible.

I don't think that Zionism as a movement, which was created in the nineteenth century, is connected to religion. But under the Zionist umbrella there are different movements, and one of them is a religious one. The other one is secular, and there are liberals, and there are socialists, and all of them under one umbrella. The umbrella is saying something which is very simple: that the Jewish people, like many other peoples, like all the other peoples, deserve the right to self-determination and a state, as long as it doesn't take the rights of the others. This is the original idea. The idea is that there will be one state in the world whereby there will be a Jewish majority. A Jewish majority will enable the state to absorb any Jew who is asking for a rescue. This is the original idea.

Now, of course, there are religious Zionists. There are non-religious Zionists. And there is, also, a distortion of Zionism. In my view, Zionism is the most liberal national movement in the world. From the beginning [of Zionism], if you read the writings of Herzl and others who established the movement, how they viewed, more than a hundred years ago (it was actually a hundred years ago that Herzl died) the Arabs who lived in Palestine -- the cooperation which they envisioned there between Jews and Arabs -- you see that they did not intend to hurt them or to harm them. Maybe in their own naïve way, they believed that if Jews came to this land, they would be the best neighbors of the Arabs, and that together there will be an economic cooperation, and both of them would flourish and develop. Regretfully, this is not exactly the picture that we see today.

A few years back you visited the campus with Faisal Husseini,* and you both were on my program. At that time, there was a sense that things could go wrong, but there was more hope. Let's now look at the Palestinians side. What was the failure on the Palestinian side with regard to the Oslo Accords and their failure to be implemented?

What happened on their side was that the extreme forces did not give up. They fought. It was difficult, impossible (or maybe it was possible, and it was not done) to fight against them. The biggest mistake was the intifada of September, 2000. When you think about it retroactively, there was a government in Israel that was ready for a historic compromise with the Palestinians -- two states, a viable Palestinian state, a division of Jerusalem, a solution for the refugees. I'm not saying that the Palestinians had to accept whatever we offered them. They had the right to negotiate, to reject, to accept. But the fact that they turned to violence was the biggest blow to this agreement, because even moderate Israelis who supported the Oslo process said, "How can we work with these people if they turn to violence?"

The fact that Palestinian police, the Palestinian officials, were part of the violent movement against Israel, not as a result of an Israeli decision to do something wrong to the Palestinians, but in the midst of negotiations with them, was something which was very difficult for people on the Israeli side to understand. What they did was that they initiated a wave of violence as a result of the weakness of the dominant secular party, the Fatah, in the Palestinian streets, vis-à-vis the religious extremists, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They tried to compete with the extremists on their turf. Rather than to continue to negotiate with us, they thought that they could win the Hamas by violence, but by violence against us; and they lost. After three years of the intifada, the Fatah movement is even weaker than three years ago. Even by their own criteria, I'm sure that they failed. That was the biggest mistake on the Palestinian side.

The use of the suicide bomber, and as you just said, it's clear that there was a competition among Palestinian factions to, in essence, abuse their own people using the suicide bombers as a tool. Couldn't the moderates see that they would lose control of such a process, or did they think they could achieve victory among the other factions?

According to my analysis, the moderate people believed that they could control the intifada as a kind of a public resistance movement for two or three weeks. They lost control because it is difficult for moderate people to control violence, to initiate violence and then to believe that they can control it. When you open such a bottle, the demons are out. It is very, very difficult to put them back there. The mere fact that they thought it would be possible to control violence was stupidity.

Now, in this downward spiral, it must be the case that the decision about the settlements was one problem. But the implementation of that decision on the Israeli side must have aggravated the problems in the sense that you build roads to the settlements, the security requirements and so on. What it looks like you're getting, then, is an action and a reaction on both sides. The Israelis see the suicide bombers and can't make head or tail out of its meaning from a partner that wants to have a peace process. On the Palestinian side, there is an incapacity to understand the process of implementing the settlements.

It is very, very difficult to compare, because one may criticize the settlements as one wishes, and you will not find somebody who would criticize the settlements more than myself -- I think that even building one brick on the West Bank in Gaza since '67 was a huge mistake -- but to compare this project with suicide bombing, with killing of innocent people, is very problematic. It is true that on both sides, we cannot understand the two phenomena, which doesn't mean that they are the same.

Next page: The Geneva Accords

*See the Beilin and Husseini interview, "A Dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process," (1998)
Back to the interview text.

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California