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The personal diplomacy delusion

Like the false Oslo narrative, tributes to Saeb Erekat from diplomats show that the belief that peace is attainable through building relationships remains a myth.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat prior to Kerry meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, April 7, 2013. Photo by Issam Rimawi/Flash90.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat prior to Kerry meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, April 7, 2013. Photo by Issam Rimawi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There are some ideas that are so seemingly logical and reflective of our best hopes about human nature that it doesn’t matter how often they are proved wrong. One such notion is the belief that negotiators, who are forced by circumstances to recognize each other’s common humanity, can forge peace between implacable enemies. That was the conceit of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, which won the Tony Award for Best Play of 2017. Based on the memoirs of Norwegian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen, the play is a docudrama about the secret talks that led to the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on the White House Lawn in September 1993.

The same concept has also been illustrated by the reaction to the death of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who succumbed to the coronavirus this past week at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. The tributes from Israeli counterparts like former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and especially, the heartfelt op-ed published in Haaretz by a group of former American negotiators, including Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Robert Malley, Aaron David Miller and Dennis Ross, reflect the disconnect between their personal affection for him and the destructive role he played in the peace process.

The relationship they had with him and their ardent faith in the idea of personal diplomacy seems to have been more important to them than the actual role that Erekat played in negotiations. It’s not just that Erekat was a personal obstacle to peace, but that that the Palestinian Authority he tirelessly represented was not only incapable of actually agreeing to a pact that would end the conflict; it has a vested interest in continuing it.

As the great French statesman Prince Talleyrand said of the Bourbon kings of France, that group of American Jewish diplomats, have “learned nothing and they have forgotten nothing.” More to the point, they aren’t the only ones who cling to myths about the peace process.

Those who didn’t get a chance to see Oslo on Broadway will have the chance next spring when an adaptation of the play is scheduled to appear on HBO. The original team of Rogers and director Barlett Sher is involved in the television adaptation, and the cast will include several Israeli actors who appeared in the hit show Fauda. Steven Spielberg is also listed among the executive producers of the project.

For those who saw it in the theater, thanks to brilliant acting and direction, Oslo made the best of dry material, including a tedious rehearsing of the details of the secret talks that were initiated without the knowledge of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly after he took office in 1992. It reflects the belief of Rod-Larsen and his wife, Mona Juul, that all that was needed to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse was for the two peoples to realize that there was a logical diplomatic solution available to them. But that option could only work if both parties set aside their fears and preconceptions about the other side. They believed that throwing negotiators together on their own could lead to the building of personal relationships that would overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

The plan worked. Or at least it did insofar as getting the two sides to sign an agreement. The breakthrough happened when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’s aide Uri Savir was sent to Norway. As Rod-Larsen hoped, Savir bonded with PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie, aka Abu Ala, during the tense discussions and their walks around the secluded Norwegian castle where the talks were held.

Most Israelis cheered when the deal was signed with American sponsorship since the Palestinians promised recognition for the State of Israel, and an end to terrorism and the conflict. But while Rod-Larsen was correct that under the right circumstances and with helpful nudges from a neutral party, a deal could be hashed out, a piece of paper is not the same thing as ending a longstanding conflict. The Israelis were sincere in their belief that peace would, as Peres hoped, create a “New Middle East.” But we also know from both their actions and subsequent revelations that Qurie’s boss Yasser Arafat had a different vision in mind.

Arafat spoke openly in Arabic at the time of his aim to use the accords to continue the war against Israel rather than to work towards a final peace. He never stopped funding and fomenting terror, and used his control of Palestinian schools and media to inculcate new generations in hatred for Israel and the Jews. As soon as Israeli troops began their retreat and the PLO assumed control over most of the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, both Arafat’s Fatah Party and his Hamas rivals began a bloody campaign of terrorism.

Though subsequent Israeli governments, including the one headed by Oslo opponent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999, continued to grant the Palestinians more control over territory, Arafat’s goals never changed. In 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat statehood and control over almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem (terms that Rabin had said were unimaginable even after Oslo), the Palestinians said “no” and launched another even more destructive terror campaign. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and Erekat (who served as an aide to Arafat and then Abbas until the end of his life) would repeat that pattern of rejectionism as the toll of lives lost due to post-Oslo terrorism mounted.

Seen in that light, Oslo, which ends with the triumphant signing on the White House Lawn and ignores the truth about Palestinian intentions and subsequent terrorism, is, for all of its attention to detail, historically illiterate. The theatrical effort to crown Larsen, Juul and the negotiators as heroes of peace is absurd.

The problem is that the American foreign-policy establishment, represented by the group that signed on to that paean to Erekat, hasn’t learned this lesson. The overwhelming majority of Israelis have been sobered up by the Palestinians’ continued support for terror and consistent rejection of peace. Israeli voters have forced Israeli politicians who still cling to faith in Oslo, like Livni, into retirement. Much of the Arab world agrees, as shown by the signing of the Abraham Accords in which Gulf states have normalized relations with Israel because they have grown tired of being held hostage by Palestinian rejectionism and look to Israel as an ally against Iran.

But instead of facing facts, Indyk, Kurtzer, Malley, Miller and Ross cling to their memories of what a nice guy Erekat was. Like the characters in Oslo, they bought whatever Erekat was selling, even if his conduct and that of the organization he represented told a different story. They speak of him sending his children to the “Seeds of Peace” program with Israeli kids but don’t note that his family declined to thank Israel or Hadassah for trying to save his life. Having friendly encounters with Israelis and Americans didn’t alter his or the P.A.’s determination never to give up their war on the Jewish state.

Sadly, those who watch Oslo on HBO won’t be told the complete story. Even sadder is that those who buy into some of the same myths embraced by those paying tribute to Erekat will likely soon be back in power in Washington. As with the willingness of Spielberg and HBO to embrace a misleading narrative, so, too, may the U.S. government return to policies of pressure on Israel and enabling of Palestinian rejectionism that have been repeatedly proved wrong by the events of the last 27 years. Delusions about the power of personal diplomacy are clearly stronger than the facts. And both Israelis and Palestinians may again suffer for it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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