DevMode
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.

The Players

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."

Disconcerting

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 country.

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."

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