From the very start of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations , and even prior to the official meetings that started on October 30, 1991, the predominant concern for Abu Ammar and for a large number of the Palestinian leadership and Executive Committee members was the issue of the position and the role of the PLO in the negotiations. This was accompanied by fear that the Palestinian delegation may evolve into an alternative leadership – even if none of the members of the delegation was ready to contemplate this idea, for matters are not judged by intentions but by concrete results . So although the delegation was not in this frame of mind, Shamir’s adamant insistence on forming the Palestinian delegation from the Occupied Territories, and on its being a part of a joint delegation with Jordan was an early warning signal to Arafat about Israeli and American intentions.
This was followed by the exclusion of the PLO from all the negotiations and Shamir’s going as far as to ban the delegation from declaring its relationship with the PLO, which transformed the unease into real concern preoccupying the thinking of Arafat and most of the PLO leadership and the leadership of Fatah . The American position in support of Shamir over this issue merely served to inflate these concerns into real fear. Such fears were directly , and somewhat impulsively, reflected in what Arafat said every so often to his colleagues : “The Americans will not forgive us our old stands and specially our position during the Gulf War . In the eyes of the Americans all of you are a terrorist organization , and after the collapse of the Soviets the Americans will concentrate on “combating terrorism “. All they want of Arafat is to be the male bee, to pollinate a single time and to die.” In a conscious and organized process of self-defense Arafat sought to roundly control all stages of the negotiations, from the formation of the delegation to the smallest and most trivial moves and activities.
Even though a follow-up committee existed for the negotiations, he was keen on instructing the delegation in Washington directly. He purposely did this on the telephone, hoping the Americans would be listening in on him so that they would be persuaded that he, Arafat, was the reference for everything, be it important or trivial. One of the preconditions for the Madrid Conference was to separate the delegation, as , far as appearances were concerned, from the PLO. Arafat went out of his way to do the opposite. He first did this before Madrid when he made it clear to all what role the PLO had played in forming the delegation, and in the acceptance of the Letter of Invitation and the American Letter of Assurances. He also did it during the Madrid Conference when he sent a plane to fly the delegation to Tunis and Algeria to meet with him. As for the guidelines that were set for the delegation for each session of negotiations in Washington, they encouraged intransigence before the Israeli negotiator and raising the issue of the re-establishment of relations between the PLO and the US Administration.
From the beginning Arafat and most other Palestinian leaders thought that agreement to the unfair conditions that US Secretary of State James Baker and Israeli Prime Minister Shamir had imposed on the PLO did not mean surrendering to them. The PLO had unwillingly accepted the terms, with the covert determination to modify them in the process. Meanwhile, as he was trying to modify the Madrid conditions and instructing the delegation to take hardline positions in the negotiations, Arafat increasingly spoke in private of the impossibility of arriving at solutions in official negotiations attended by twenty persons, and that secret back channels were indispensable if these negotiations were to advance and succeed. Naturally, he meant secret negotiations with the PLO. He mentioned Vietnam, Algeria and Camp David as examples, and he always made a point of reiterating this idea before the Palestinians who came from Israel, and before all Arab and foreign diplomatic and official parties, in particular those that had good connections and relations with Israel and the US Administration. Besides such inside talk he made public declarations about the Peace of the Brave after Rabin came to power, adding that Israel was in need of a De Gaulle of its own. Such declarations by Arafat about secret channels and the Peace of the Brave were in no way spontaneous , they were deliberate indirect messages directed at Israel indicating readiness on his part to initiate such a channel and to enter secret negotiations. Along this line Arafat encouraged and endorsed all the meetings that were taking place directly or through intermediaries between PLO personalities and cadres from abroad and Israeli thinkers and researchers, regardless how close they may be to the center of decision-making in Israel.
One such series of meetings that Arafat gave more attention to was the series organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, organized by Everett Mendelsohn. This was due to the nature of the issues that were dealt with and the Israeli participants themselves such as Shlomo Gazit, Yossi Alpher, and Zeev Schiff whom Arafat considered to be close to Israeli decision-makers. He knew that security was the predominant concern for Rabin, the military man. He thought that the participation of these former generals in discussions was a sort of feeler sent out to discover where the PLO stood on the question of Israel’s security. Arafat would listen to reports of what was discussed in such meetings and would ask numerous questions about what the Israelis and the Americans had proposed and he would give instructions for forthcoming meetings. Early on Arafat welcomed a proposal by the Academy to organize a visit by some of these Israeli experts to Tunis and was ready to meet with them, but the proposed persons, Schiff and Gazit, hesitated and the project was put off.
When the Labour Party came to power Arafat sent Rabin direct and indirect verbal messages through Said Kanaan, a Palestinian personality from Nablus, Abd al-Wahab Darawsheh and Ahmad Tibi , both Israeli Arabs, and other Palestinians, Arabs and foreigners all to the effect that he was ready for secret negotiations.
As for the negotiations Follow-Up Committee that was headed by Abu Mazin its main concern was how to achieve serious progress in the negotiations through the Palestinian delegation and the ongoing official negotiations in Washington, Abu Mazin and other members of the Committee were not overly concerned with the question of the direct role of the PLO leadership in the negotiations . From their point of view the delegation was the delegation of the PLO, and represented the Palestinian people very well. What was important was to achieve something for the people and the cause, regardless of the Palestinian party or personalities who accomplished the deed. If the results were to come through the delegation that would be fine , and if they were to come by way of the PLO that would also be fine. Such were the convictions of Abu Mazin and the Committee before the initiation of the negotiations on October 30, 1991 and during the days of the Likud , and so they remained in the early days of the Labour Party.
Arafat pressed on the delegation to take hardline positions, meanwhile he strove to prolong the negotiations. He responded positively to all Palestinian stands that contributed to such prolongation whether their advocate was a member of the delegation or of the Executive Committee or of the Palestinian leadership without exposing his true intentions. But there were limits to this game. He was for a hardline position , but not for withdrawal from the negotiations. He was for suspending or delaying sessions, but within certain limits that would be tolerated by the Americans without stirring their anger. This is why he encouraged the obstruction of the first two sessions of the negotiations and he considered those negotiations that were conducted in the corridors of the US State Department as a Palestinian creation and as an expression of extreme Palestinian brilliance in conducting negotiations. Arafat was not at all troubled by Shamir’s intransigence in the negotiations that took place with the Likud, nor from the unnegotiable projects that the chief Israeli negotiator Elyakim Rubinstein would put forth on the table. Arafat did not express such positions but those close to him who understood his underlying and undeclared intentions were aware of what he was really getting at.
As for Abu Mazin and most of the negotiations Follow-up Committee, they were of a different opinion .They regarded the corridor negotiations as a waste of time and as injurious to the Palestinian position in the eyes of most of the other participant parties in the negotiations including the Jordanian party, the partner in the joint delegation, because the American Letter of Invitation stipulated an independent Palestinian track within a joint delegation with no mention of an independent Palestinian delegation. On the question of initiating a back channel or back channels in the negotiations, there were no apparent differences between Arafat and Abu Mazin and the Committee, for both parties were for the idea, but the difference lay in seeking direct channels with the PLO and Arafat personally or a back channel between some members of the Palestinian delegation and decision-making parties in Israel or persons close to them. Abu Mazin often took aside one or another of the members of the Palestinian delegation and proposed the idea to them. The need to interact with members of the Israeli delegation away from the limelight and outside the meeting room was often brought up in the Follow-up Committee, specially in its meetings that took place with the delegation . All members of the Committee , including Yasir Abd Rabbou and Abu Ala, were convinced of the idea and some of them were even enthusiastic about it.
None of the members of the Palestinian delegation had anything against the idea theoretically, but they were all wary of implementation. None of them took the initiative to seriously carry out the idea. More than one put it this way: It is both important and necessary, but highly delicate and grave. Who would guarantee that the person who takes it upon himself will not ultimately be accused of making concessions or of selling out, or even more than that?
When promised by some members of the Committee that if they carried out the idea they would provide them with the needed political and personal cover they would express their scepticism and ask where were the guarantees.
The outcome was that all the direct and indirect messages from Arafat to Shamir went unanswered, and the encouragement from Abu Mazin and the Committee did not bear fruit throughout the negotiations under the Likud.
Arafat’s efforts were not restricted to seeking back channels with the Israelis, but also with the US Administration. He tried to do that through the official delegation, and specially through Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal Husseini who were assigned with the task of relations with the Americans. He tried through the Egyptians, the Moroccans and the Tunisians. He tried through personalities – Palestinians, Arabs, and Americans – that had relations with the US Administration, or with Secretary Baker personally . But all his attempts merely resulted in further assurances to Arafat that the indirect role of the PLO in the negotiations was known to all and acknowledged by all . Along with the assurances came American advice not to be hasty and not to skip stages: “Your role is coming. The more you make progress in the negotiations, the more you save time.”
The US Administration would repeatedly remind us of the causes that led to the suspension of US-Palestinian contacts , and of the conditions that should be fulfilled for the restoration of the dialogue between the US Administration and the PLO. After each American reminder of the conditions for restoring the dialogue, Arafat would say that he had carried out all that was required , then he would wonder about these conditions pretending to have forgotten them. He would sum up by saying that the conditions were clear: “to humiliate Yassir Arafat and to cross him out, and to cross out Arafat means to cross out the PLO and all of you.”
As for the Follow-up Committee headed by Abu Mazin it did not overly concern itself with this issue, and considered the existing relationship and the ongoing dialogue and contacts taking place directly and on an almost daily basis between the delegation and the Administration to be indirect relations with the PLO, and to serve the actual purpose required of such a dialogue. At the time it was clear to the Palestinian leadership in general and to the Follow-up Committee in particular that the US Administration was not considering the resumption of the dialogue with the PLO, at least not with the Likud in power. Such a step would only aggravate matters further between the US and the Israeli government after the tension ensuing from the loan guarantees issue.
By the end of the second quarter of 1992, and after several sessions of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the Likud government, the US Administration, the PLO leadership, and the Palestinian negotiating team had arrived separately at the conclusion that there was no possibility of achieving real progress in the negotiations before the Israeli elections. It was also clear to both the delegation and to the Follow-up Committee that it would be impossible to open up back channels with the Likud before these elections. Any step of this kind would greatly affect Shamir’s reputation and , consecutively, the outcome of the elections.
During the election campaign itself many serious voices inside the Labour Party and Meretz were raised calling for real peace with the Palestinians, and for direct dialogue and negotiations with the PLO. Some Labour candidates , and Meretz as a whole, went even further by advocating the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living alongside the state of Israel. On the question of settlements, some positive indications appeared in the position of the Labour Party on settlements, some members called for a freeze, and Rabin himself made a distinction between political and security settlements.
Such positions stirred some hopes in American and in Palestinian official circles that there might be some change in the Israeli position if the Likud were to lose the elections, and Labour would win and set up a coalition with the Left and the peace forces in Israel. All awaited the outcome of the elections. During this period the US Administration did what it could to support Rabin and to weaken Shamir’s position . It held Shamir responsible for the existing tension in American-Israeli relations, and used the loan guarantees as a means of direct pressure. Meanwhile, the PLO worked for getting as high a number of candidates from the Arab lists and from the Israeli Communist Party as possible win the elections. Abu Mazin was assigned the task of coordination between the three parties: the Communists, the Arab Democratic, and the Progressive to unify their stands and to ensure that they would not undermine each other in the elections. The PLO did all that it could possibly do to help Rabin and Labour, and all that would undermine the chances of Shamir and the Likud candidates.The Palestinian leadership held several meetings at the time to discuss the Israeli elections and controlled all public declarations and statements by Palestinian officials. This was often done in coordination with Peres and a number of Labour and Meretz leaders through contacts conducted by Faisal Husseini, Ahmad Tibi, Said Kanaan and other channels. Husseini himself and Hanan Ashrawi addressed the Israeli public directly in statements calling for a vote for peace and for genuine peace-seekers. Before the elections by a few days Arafat made a media event, possibly synchronized with certain American Administration circles : on June 16 he gathered the Palestinian delegation for a meeting in Amman before a crowd of journalists and cameramen. Jordanian television broadcast the meeting directly on the air. Shamir announced that he would have the delegation members jailed and interrogated, only to retract his threats after a short time. Shamir lost the political battle that followed in Israel over the meeting and the relation of the delegation with the PLO, and most probably Rabin and the left gained as a result.
Election day in Israel was a Palestinian event, equally decisive on the Palestinian side as it was on the Israeli side . I believe it was just as important for the US Administration. Throughout the whole day the Palestinian leadership and the delegation were all busy following the elections , making direct contacts with campaign leaders among Palestinian voters, and updating their information with the latest results coming in from news agencies.
In brief , the Palestinian position saw a Likud victory as a disaster, and a Rabin victory as opening horizons for the future. In the evening the Palestinians stayed up before their televisions following the results directly on the air on Israeli television. When the final results were announced, the Palestinian leadership and the delegation were relieved and some of them went so far as to express their satisfaction with the outcome of the elections.
After the elections Palestinian hopes were raised as to the possibility of achieving quick progress in the negotiations. Arafat’s hopes were raised over the possibility of reconsidering the Madrid formula and the role of the PLO in the negotiations. The Palestinians – both the leadership and the delegation – made no secret of their joy and optimism . It was only after the sixth session of negotiations in Washington, the first to be held with Labour in power, and after press commentaries appeared in Damascus, Beirut and Amman warning of exaggerated optimism, that they reined in their enthusiasm.
Shortly after the new Labour Government was formed optimism changed into disappointment.* The government platform fell short of all the political declarations issued by the Labour Party leaders during the electoral campaign. The new platform endorsed the Madrid formula. It was against negotiating with the PLO, against an independent state, and against a return to the 1967 borders. It was for maintaining the settlements , and for Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. Specifically when it came to settlements in Jerusalem, the new government considered it an internal Israeli matter and declared that it would continue its settlement policy in Jerusalem. In the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip it would complete work on over ten thousand houses under construction, but freeze all new contracts and the implementation of projects approved by the previous Likud government but not initiated on the ground. Rabin talked once again of security settlements. Optimism dwindled away and there were Palestinian calls for boycotting the negotiations and suspending the seventh round till the forthcoming American elections were over. But American pressures were applied and Secretary Baker pre-arranged the session with a schedule that held it in two parts, one before the elections and the other after by a few days.
The American elections held on November 2, 1992 came as a disappointment. The fall of the Likud had revived Palestinian hopes, but the fall of Bush-Baker led to consternation and concern. During the Presidential election campaign the Democrats and Clinton the candidate had expressed unlimited support for Israel. Baker, on the other hand, throughout a year and a half of contacts and negotiations had demonstrated reasonable understanding* of Palestinian conditions and of Palestinian positions. There even was a hint of solidarity in his understanding positions in the face of Shamir’s intransigence.
After the American Presidential elections, the Israeli government no longer seemed to be in much haste in the negotiations. Soon after, on December 17, 1992, Rabin deported over four hundred cadres and members of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movements. His pretext for this move was a military operation in which an Israeli sergeant was kidnapped and killed. The deportation strongly shook whatever convictions were left that some change might be forthcoming in Israeli positions that had been obstructing the negotiations.
Immediately upon hearing of the new deportation order and even before the deportees themselves had reached Lebanese territories, the PLO took up their cause , announced the suspension of the negotiations, and without consulting with the other Arab delegations, instructed the Palestinian delegation to boycott the last day of the eighth session of the negotiations. Arafat called the Palestinian leadership to an open session of meetings to follow up the developments without awaiting the opinion of Hamas. During these meetings Arafat waged a campaign against the assassination of the Israeli sergeant (whose name was Toledano), saying that according to Islam it is not permissible to kill your prisoner, even if he was an Israeli. He said such an act does not reflect a civilized image of the Palestinian freedom fighter and that our brothers in Hamas had carried out a foolish act and the operation was a senseless one. He went into such great lengths in exposing the negative aspects of the operation that some of those present started to exchange whispers and notes . Some notes proposed naming the hall in which the meeting was being held in Martyr Toledano’s name.
Many statements were issued by Palestinian leaders accusing the Labour Party of being no different than the Likud when it came to the Palestinian question, and describing Rabin as Shamir in kid gloves. The number of deportees was so large that it was nearer to an act of transfer that Shamir himself would not have dared during negotiations. During this same meeting Arafat talked at length of national unity. He put forth many questions about Rabin’s motivations for the timing of this step a day before the end of the eighth session of negotiations and right ahead of the meeting scheduled between President Bush and the head of the Palestinian delegation Haidar Abd al-Shafi and Faisal Husseini . Rabin was in need of several months to put his act together. He was not keen on entering into serious negotiations while the US Administration was passing through a transitional period. He wanted to halt the talks till the new President officially took up his tasks. At the end of the meeting Arafat summed up by saying *: “Who knows, it might all turn out for the best. A halt of two to three months in the negotiations might not hurt us. The Bush Administration is on its way out and there is not much that it can do. The important thing is that we have put off the attempts to wipe out the PLO.” There was agreement on calling for a Security Council meeting, for an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the five Arab states (involved in the negotiations), addressing a letter to the Gulf Summit, looking into the possibility of calling for a full Arab meeting, sending envoys to the EC states, calling for an urgent meeting of the Islamic Conference chairmanship, and maintaining contacts with UN Secretary General Butros Ghali and requesting him to send a representative to the region. “As for the deportees, we will not leave the solution of their daily and humanitarian needs to (Ahmad) Jibril, Fathi al-Shikaki and Hizbullah. We will send them whatever equipment and food is necessary for holding out in South Lebanon as long as it takes. I have already ordered for them some sheep, woolens and stoves. And sheep are not cheap in Lebanon, Brothers.” At the end of the meeting Arafat addressed an invitation to Hamas to take part in the meetings of the Palestinian leadership. It was agreed that PLO offices would stay on call, and the leadership would keep its meeting open-ended and the media campaign against the deportations would be escalated.
At this point Hamas and some of the ten opposition factions thought the opportunity was ripe to up-scale the position of the PLO from suspension of the negotiations until the return of the deportees to that of pulling out of the peace process or at least to suspending participation indefinitely. They thought that with Baker gone, the futility of a whole year of negotiations had driven the process to its end. Hamas and the DFLP issued a joint statement calling for national dialogue between the PLO factions and the opposition to the peace process. Thus the way was paved for an enlarged meeting of the Palestinian leadership on December 23, 1992 attended by Hamas leaders Abu Marzouk (head of its politburo), Ibrahim Ghousheh, Muhammad Nazzal, Imad Alami, and Majid Ibrahim. It was the first official meeting of the PLO attended by Hamas.
At the start of the meeting Arafat welcomed the participation of Hamas warmly. He talked at length of his personal friendship with Ibrahim Ghousheh, and their days together as engineering students in Cairo University. Arafat admitted that Ghousheh was a better student than him and justified the fact by his own preoccupation with the national struggle at the time. He also went on in great detail about his former relations (and many of the Fatah leadership) with the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Egypt. He went through all the PLO had done on the Arab and international levels to confront the deportation. The Hamas leadership responded in kind to Arafat’s gestures, saying they had come with open hearts in response to Arafat’s invitation. They offered their thanks for all the PLO leadership had done and pointedly expressed their gratitude to Arafat. This was the opening for four days of meetings, during which a special meeting took place between the Hamas and Fatah leaderships. Hamas put forth its position on the negotiations, on national unity, and on military action. It suggested 1) withdrawal from the negotiations, 2) a unified stand on the deportees issue and on the principle of deportation, 3) reconstruction of the PLO on democratic bases that take into consideration new developments and the emergence of new forces on the Palestinian political scene and the retreat of old ones , 4) on-the-ground coordination to confront the enemy militarily and in the Intifada, 5) a call for a national congress to be attended by all forces and factions. Arafat was not among those who argued against the Hamas proposals during the first two days of discussions. He left that to others of the leadership who were for the peace process and not keen on alliance with Hamas and the rest of the ten factions. While these meetings were taking place reactions from all over the world poured in , including from Israel itself. International and Arab contacts were intensely conducted with Arafat, and the overall input was to Arafat’s ( and the PLO’s) advantage. They all condemned the deportations, holding Rabin responsible for driving the PLO to extremism and to cooperation with Hamas. Many of these contacts asked Arafat to slow down and not to go too far in his alliance with Hamas. As usual Arafat tried to go along with these requests, while asking for a price. He received many and varied promises in return. During this period Rabin issued several statements in which he said his purpose had been to weaken Hamas and strengthen the pro-peace camp. He got a knesset vote lifting the ban on Israeli contacts with the PLO. During the last two days of meetings, the Hamas leaders felt that Arafat and the Palestinian leadership were not thinking of withdrawal from the negotiations and that the purpose of the suspension was to wait for Clinton. They felt that Arafat was trying to exploit their participation in the meetings to consolidate his positions on the international level. On December 25, 1992 an official Hamas spokesman issued a statement in the name of Hamas accusing Yassir Arafat of seeking to remove the deportees from South Lebanon to Holland. Arafat took advantage of this statement to wage a tough attack against Hamas and the ten factions accusing them of giving in to Iranian, Syrian and Jordanian secret services. He accused them of all kinds of shortcomings , including their shortcomings in the armed struggle. Thus the meetings ended without arriving at any serious results and Hamas even refused to have a statement issued about the meetings, so Arafat merely issued a general declaration.
In the following period, the PLO did not return to the Washington negotiations, and linked the return of the delegation to Washington with the return of the deportees and the implementation of resolution 799. During the period of break in the negotiations that lasted from December 1992 until April 1993, the Palestinian side intensified its activities and contacts in order to explain the Palestinian position on freezing the negotiations and the search for an honourable solution to the deportee problem created by Rabin.
The Palestinian leadership also kept up the search for channels of direct contact with the Americans and the Israelis. Probably the direct contacts that took place during the period when the negotiations were stalled, between Faisal Husseini and Shimon Peres and also between Husseini and Ziad Abu Ziad and Avraham Sneh, encouraged this line of thinking. The decision of the Israeli Knesset on January 19 lifting the ban on contacts of Israelis with members of the PLO gave rise to new hopes in the possibility of secret contacts between the PLO and Israel and in the establishment of parallel channels of negotiations.
In all cases, Arafat was keen on absolute secrecy in all these side-contacts that he conducted directly with various Israeli quarters through all kinds of channels. He kept everyone in the dark, to the extent that Abu Mazin and the Follow-up Committee were not informed of the contacts with Faisal Husseini . At this juncture Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi, and Akram Haniyyeh (Arafat’s Advisor for the Occupied Territories) understood Arafat’s position and went along with it all the way. They only informed Abu Mazin about them very late in the day. Such behaviour on the part of Faisal Husseini, Akram Haniyyeh and Hanan Ashrawi had a very negative impact on Abu Mazin and on many members of the Committee, even more so than the strain that had resulted earlier from the contacts conducted through Haniyyeh and Hanan with Arafat, bypassing Abu Mazin and the Committee in getting instructions and in passing on the results of the contacts with the Americans. During some of the negotiation sessions documents, specially the minutes of meetings and contacts with the Americans, were kept secret.
On the whole, Arafat was not responsive to any of the meetings conducted between Husseini and Israeli ministers and officials. Husseini was always surprised when Arafat refused to maintain contacts through these channels, he did not really believe it when he was told that Arafat regarded these meetings as further efforts to bypass him and to create an alternative Palestinian leadership. As far as he was concerned, these meetings always took place with Arafat’s knowledge, and the subject always revolved around the role of the PLO and Arafat in person. Husseini could not conceive of the fact that Arafat regarded the American and Israeli interest in his, i.e. Husseini’s, role as a prelude to eliminating Arafat and replacing him with Husseini as an alternative.
The Palestinians hook onto something
During one such visit to London Abu Ala‘ met with Hanan Ashrawi, where Ashrawi proposed to introduce him to an Israeli researcher named Yair Hirschfield. Hirschfield, a professor at Haifa University, was a Labour Party dove and close to Shimon Peres. He was an economist, and an advocate of Palestinian human rights and of dialogue between Israel and the PLO. Abu Ala‘ accepted and the meeting took place in the presence of the PLO representative in London, Afif Safieh. According to Abu Ala‘ it could have been an ordinary meeting just like many other meetings that took place with Israeli personalities had it not been for Hirschfield’s proposal at the end of the meeting to hold a follow-up meeting in Norway. The issues discussed had been the generalities usually exchanged in such meetings, with each side presenting its position in the rosiest of frames and sharply defending any faults. In the world of diplomacy such exchanges are described as a session of mutual falsities.
Upon his return from London Abu Ala‘ informed both Abu Mazin and Arafat about the meeting with Hirschfield. He underplayed the significance of the meeting so much that Arafat showed no interest in the matter, merely asking about the date of the trip to Norway. Abu Mazin listened carefully to what had taken place and inquired about Hirschfield’s past activities, his positions and current loyalties within the Israeli political scene. He stressed on the secrecy of the matter, insisting that nobody should be informed about it including the members of the Follow-up Committee. He also suggested that Abu Ala‘ take along Hasan Asfour for minute-taking, and perhaps giving a more official dimension to the forthcoming meeting. It might be that the main consideration for Abu Mazin at the time was to indicate to the Israelis that he himself was interested in the matter and in favour of the meeting. It was known that Asfour worked in Abu Mazin’s office, and this fact must be known to the Israelis. Asfour should be introduced to the Israelis in this capacity. Besides all this, I believe that Abu Mazin was also thinking of getting the official minutes regularly, to add them to his collection of historical documents. He dedicated much time to the collection and filing of these documents, and it even took more of his time after the start of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He was continuing an effort that he had started years ago, to record the historical events of the Palestinian revolution since its first days in 1965.
In January 1993, before Abu Ala’s trip to Norway, a Norwegian academic named Terje Larsen came to Tunis. Larsen was the director of FAFO, a Norwegian strategic studies centre, and he was a specialist in refugee affairs. He was also known to be sympathetic to the Palestinians, so was his wife who was the director of the Norwegian foreign minister’s office. In Tunis, Larsen held several bilateral meetings, in which Maher Kurd, an assistant to Abu Ala‘ specialized in economic affairs and working with Samed, took part. Abu Ala‘ arranged a meeting for Larsen with Arafat, during which a long discussion took place on the Palestine question and on the issue of the negotiations. At the time Arafat stressed the importance of having back channels, and that the Washington negotiations had no real prospects if no back channels were opened between the decision-makers on both sides. Arafat went through the history of all the international negotiations. He highlighted the role of the Scandinavians in the arrangement of all such channels. He spoke at length of the role played by Sten Anderson , the Swedish Foreign Minister, in 1988 between the PLO and US Secretary of State George Shultz.
Larsen left Arafat pleased with the endorsement he had been given to play the role of mediator and organizer of secret meetings between Israel and the PLO. Just as the London meetings were kept secret from the Follow-up Committee and the delegation, so was the meeting with Larsen. After the meeting with Larsen both Arafat and Abu Ala‘ got the impression that the matter was serious. Most probably this was not a mere Norwegian initiative but was taking place with an American and Israeli green light. There was no time lost between Larsen’s visit to Tunis and Hirschfield’s proposal to hold the next meeting in Norway.
In the latter part of January Abu Ala*, Maher Kurd and Hasan Asfour left for Oslo. Before leaving a meeting was held in Abu Mazin’s office which only Abu Ala* and Asfour attended. Their discussion revolved around what could be brought up in Norway and how to tackle issues. At the time it was agreed to skip “history” and directly take up “the future,” to discuss the issues that were on the table in the Washington negotiations, to explore what Hirschfield and those with him really wanted, to find out what the position of Israeli officials was from these meetings and how far they were involved in it. It was agreed that the whole visit would be kept secret, and that Kurd would accompany Abu Ala* as an interpreter. The cover story for Asfour’s absence from Abu Mazin’s office would be a trip to Cyprus on business involving family matters. He would leave for Oslo via Cyprus and team up with Abu Ala* in a European airport.
Abu Mazin and Abu Ala* were obliged to go into such details as Asfour’s travel arrangements to make sure of the secrecy of the matter. As for Abu Ala*, he was always on the go to and from European capitals by nature of his work, so his absence from his Samed office would not stir doubts. But Asfour’s trips would catch attention , at least that of his colleagues working with him in the Department of International Relations. They were a small team that knew each other well and all worked together in the same task, that of the support follow-up work for the negotiations. There were no secrets among them for they met every day and exchanged the latest news related to the negotiations.
In Oslo Norwegian officials were waiting for Abu Ala*. As soon as he arrived with Kurd and Asfour they were accompanied to a location some eighty kilometres from the capital were they were hosted in one of the old royal palaces. The Israeli team were staying in another nearby palace. Upon arrival the first meeting took place between the two sides in the quarters of the Palestinian group and in the presence of the Norwegian hosts. On the Israeli side Hirschfield was accompanied by Ron Pendok who was introduced as a personal friend of Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, and as close to Aharon Yariv the director of Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. He was a specialist in strategic studies in the fields of security and economics. The two sides spent two days in talks on the methodology of work. Abu Ala* proposed that they should not spend time on history because that would lead to futile discussions but delve directly into a discussion of Resolution 242, the Interim Authority, the interim stage, the final stage, Jerusalem, and the settlements. The Israeli side agreed to the Palestinian proposal with a readiness that took Abu Ala* somewhat by surprise because the discussions over the agenda had consumed six sessions of the talks in Washington without reaching any agreement.
One day in early February, I received a phone call from Yassir Abd Rabbou, who asked me to drop by his office for a cup of coffee. I said I would pass by in a while, he told me not to be late and that he had some important and pleasant news. I tried to find out what he had in mind but he refused to give any more details on the phone. He said the subject was not one to be talked about on the phone. I wondered what this important secret could be that Yassir could not talk about on the phone. Yassir was known in Palestinian leadership circles as someone who could not keep what information he had secret for long. This often caused him minor embarrassments in the framework of his relations and position in the Palestinian leadership. As a result of his impulsiveness in making statements to the press, he was often the source of what was described as official positions in the media, or the author of inaccurate declarations, and in more than one instance Arafat was obliged to issue denials by “the official Palestinian spokesman”, or clarifications to the effect that these positions only expressed the personal viewpoint of the speaker. As I was about to leave my office, Yassir called a second time and told me to hurry before somebody dropped in. I hastened to the Information Department, thinking the matter must be serious and Yassir is impatient as usual.
Yassir said he would start from the end, then go back to the preludes and details. “The secret negotiations between the PLO and Israel have started,” he said, “A secret channel has been opened with Peres and Yossi Beilin.” He told me also that it was Abu Ala who had initiated the channel, and that the contacts had been made with people who said they had been assigned by Peres and Beilin. Abu Ala had just returned from Norway the day before where the second meeting had taken place, with official Norwegian sponsorship. I enquired about the first meeting and about Rabin’s position on the talks and whether Peres’ behaviour was in the context of the well-known conflict between the two leaders. I also wondered whether the start of a channel with Peres would affect the work of the delegation in Washington, because Rabin had kept Peres out of the bilateral negotiations and linked it directly to him, even though it should have been the task of the Foreign Ministry, as it was under the Likud. Yassir said that he had understood that Rabin was informed about these talks, and that the first meeting had taken place in London during a session of the multilateral meetings, which leads to the next point. The only people who knew about the talks were Arafat, Abu Mazin, Abu Ala, and Hasan Asfour, and under the pretext of secrecy they had kept the secret from Yassir, the Follow-up Committee and , of course, from the Executive Committee and the Fatah Central Committee. The People’s Party also had not been informed. The meeting Yassir was talking about was the second meeting, as for the first meeting that had taken place two months ago he had not been informed about it at the time. Yassir had understood that Abu Ala and Abu Mazin had been against telling him out of fear that the secret might get leaked to the party and to the media. It was Arafat who had insisted on telling Yassir and on his participation in the mini-committee that followed up the matter. Both Abu Mazin and Abu Ala had formally asked that none of the members of the party be informed, at least not until some tangible results had been reached. That was why Yassir wanted the matter to keep the matter secret and not to talk about it to anyone, from the party or otherwise. Abu Mazin and Abu Ala would not inform anyone from the Fatah Central Committee. Asfour represented Abu Mazin and not the People’s Party. Maher Kurd represented Abu Ala and was an employee who worked with him. The mini-committee was particularly keen on not letting Faisal Husseini, or Hanan Ashrawi, or Akram Haniyyah find out about these talks, because if they did they would ruin them. This secret channel would end their role, and the role of the delegation in Washington.
Yassir affirmed that US Secretary of State Christopher knew about the talks, and that he was personally following them up, and that the other person who had been informed was President Clinton. It seems Christopher worked in a manner similar to ours and did not want to inform any of the State Department team because that team wanted to achieve success in handling the official Washington negotiations. But Christopher was not optimistic about what this channel could lead to. Yassir said that he would keep me informed of the developments. He said the impression Abu Ala and Asfour had come back with was that the Israelis were serious in the secret channel negotiations. It seems they had finally reached the conviction that negotiating with the PLO could not be avoided. Abdul Shafi and Faisal Husseini and the others were incapable of concluding agreements. As of that day I decided to record all that would happen. I also took it upon myself grudgingly to play the role required of me. I would reproach Abu Mazin and Abu Ala someday for keeping me away from the team that followed up the back channel, for I believed I had a contribution to make in the special meetings that were held to discuss matters related to the negotiations.