Historians and students of the Middle East will certainly
appreciate this comprehensive book by Israel's chief negotiator
with the PLO from 1993 to 1996, with its detailed day-to-day record
of the Oslo negotiations. Uri Savir sees the Oslo peace process as
"a revolutionary development that implies a reversal of historical,
social, and cultural trends within both Israeli and Palestinian
societies." While it might have been long, authoritative and
tedious, Savir's book turns out to be the opposite: readable,
interesting and often highly thought-provoking. As The Economist
wrote, "this is history in the making, well told," which makes it
worthwhile reading for the general reader too.
One reason for this is that though he was appointed by then-foreign
minister Shimon Peres as director-general of the Foreign Ministry
at the age of forty in 1993, Savir is anything but the
stereotypical cautious and obedient professional diplomat. Rather,
he is one of those younger Labor-oriented Israelis who has not been
entrapped by that siege mentality so prevalent on Israel's
political landscape and characterized by people like Labor's Golda
Meir, as well as the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir.
On the contrary, Savir believes that "in responding to change,
society tends to linger in a kind of psychological jet lag as
long-standing perceptions resist the impact of new ideas and
realities. Peacemaking tries to reset perceptional clocks." (Golda
Meir was the personification of this resistance to new realities,
with disastrous consequences.) If one sees the nitty-gritty of
Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian negotiations in the
framework of such broader perspectives, the prosaic details take on
more meaning. So it is not a coincidence that while meticulously
recording the negotiations, with all their ups and downs, on issues
of mutual recognition, security and peace, Savir constantly returns
to his understanding of the long-term significance of Oslo and the
Declaration of Principles (DOP) of September 13, 1993. I found
these parts of the book particularly interesting.
A Matter of Trust
In one of his first exchanges with his negotiating partner and
friend-to-be Abu 'Ala (Ahmad Qrei'), Savir accuses the Palestinians
of having "rejected our existence as a state" and of rallying the
whole Arab world to fight Israel. Abu 'Ala responds that "we have
learned that our rejection of you will not bring us freedom. You
can see that your control of us will not bring you security. We
must live side by side in peace, equality and cooperation."
Savir agrees in principle, stressing the need to build a new trust
between the parties. In his eyes, "the partners to the agreement
were two national movements that, after being locked for a century
in existential conflict, were ready to coexist." And later (1995),
he expresses his hope that "the State of Israel has left the West
Bank towns, but more important, it had emerged from the
international wilderness to which it had been exiled for twenty
years." This hope was then well founded, but today, four years
later, after so much of the trust between the parties has been
undone, it remains to be seen how and, even, if the hope will
become a reality.
An aspect of the book which adds to its readability is that the
author is not afraid to discuss the personalities who played their
various parts on the stage of the negotiating process. As one might
expect, he is almost unswervingly loyal to his mentor Shimon Peres,
"the driving force behind the peace process, the man with the
clearest vision of what peace would be." If Savir was aware that
Peres's grandiose and loudly trumpeted talk of Israel's role in "a
new Middle East" may have been premature, and that the fear of
regional Israeli hegemony alarmed important elements in the Arab
world, he doesn't mention it. Perhaps too much loyalty also has its
disadvantages. Another player in the drama for whom Savir hardly
has an unkind word is his friend Yossi Beilin, also one of the real
initiators of the process.
The personal relations between the main players are important in
any negotiation, including this one. It is interesting and often
moving to see how the formalistic relations between senior
negotiators Savir and Abu 'Ala developed into a real and lasting
friendship. As for Peres and Rabin, Savir tells us that they
started out "in fierce competition and mistrust," and eventually
"began to treat each other with impressive respect."
Rabin "revealed his disdain [for Arafat] even as he shook Arafat's
hand" at the famous White House lawn ceremony in September 1993. As
for Peres, his "meetings with Arafat were not what you would call
pleasant [but] he always distinguished between the chairman's more
peculiar mannerisms and his ability to make [critical] decisions."
Rabin and Peres "never saw in Arafat an example of integrity. Yet
he clearly was perceived as the most important partner... a bridge
to regional peace." Savir sees Arafat, Peres and Rabin as "all
lonely and driven, convinced of the justice of their cause
[increasingly] influenced by the process as it went on."
Savir's narrative frequently includes criticism of the Palestinians
in security matters or, for instance, that Arafat misrepresented
the DOP to his associates as a guarantee of a Palestinian state
according to a fixed timetable. Early in the book Savir notes that
"the more time I spent with my partners, the more I discovered that
we may have known a lot about them, but we understood very little."
But to his credit, the writer also rebuts some Israeli policies.
For example, he sees Rabin's decision not to evacuate the Hebron
settlers as a serious mistake and he voices criticism of Israeli
attitudes to issues like freezing settlement, closure, the
Palestinian National Authority's (PNA) economic problems and the
release of prisoners.
Savir's account of the tragedy of Kufr Qana (when about a hundred
Lebanese civilians in a UN position were killed in April 1996 by
the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] artillery) is highly subjective to
say the least. He notes that the event deeply saddened Peres, and
that the then-prime minister accepted responsibility for the IDF's
actions but "placed the blame for the terrible loss of life
squarely on Hizbollah." Savir was concerned that so little regret
was voiced by the Israeli public, yet he seems aghast that "the
world's outrage was directed at Israel." I find it disconcerting
that in nearly a page of text about Kufr Qana, an Israeli writer
doesn't see fit to utter a word of criticism of his own
Touching the Basics
Very often, the dialogue touches the basics of the conflict. In a
revealing exchange in the early stage of the negotiations, Abu 'Ala
fumes that Israel "won't recognize our national rights. The
settlements are to remain intact... it's nothing but the
continuation of the occupation by other means." Savir responds that
Israel cannot yield on security or "recognize Palestinian national
rights because that means assenting to a state," which belongs to
permanent-settlement negotiations. This is an expression of themes
that recur throughout the book in various forms in Palestinian and
Israeli thinking in the course of 1,010 days of negotiations, and
persist even more strongly today.
As it turned out, in any case these negotiations on permanent
settlement were to be conducted by Ariel Sharon following the May
1996 elections, after which, as Savir puts it, "Binyamin Netanyahu
put together the most right-wing government in Israel's history."
As the author writes at the end of his book, the greatest weakness
of the three-year negotiation effort had been that "its message did
not filter down enough to the people." Note Savir's words in The
Process: "As I write, it is still too soon to tell whether Yigal
Amir succeeded in killing [Rabin and] the peace as well."
On the last page of the book, Abu 'Ala says to Uri Savir that the
alternative to the peace process is dreadful, tragic. "So it is our
duty to the next generation, to our children, to offer a life
different from the one we had known. In that we are partners."
Later, in late October 1998, Savir returns to this concept of a
better future in an article in which he calls the Wye River
Memorandum an "American-Palestinian Peace Treaty." Here, Savir
reflects on Bibi Netanyahu's being "torn between the ideology of a
greater Israel and the recognition of reality and of the need for
coexistence - Oslo." In spite of his doubts, he expresses the hope
that "Bibi will make peace between Israel and its Palestinian
neighbor. Not only the Americans but we, too, deserve this. When
all is said and done, it is our children who live here."