On Feb. 7, I attended a public lecture by Dr. Yair Hirschfeld at New York University. He is an initiator of the 1990s peace process, through the back channel begun in Oslo in 1992, and a co-founder with Yossi Beilin (in 1990) of the Economic Cooperation Foundation—“a non-profit, non-governmental track II think tank, whose objectives are to build, maintain and support Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab cooperation in the political, economic, and civil society spheres in support of creating a sustainable Permanent Status based on a two-state solution.”
He spoke from personal experience and most candidly of the opportunities opened by, and of the obvious failures of, Oslo. For example, he provided more detail than I could get directly from Yossi Beilin (the former head of Meretz) on his framework agreement with Mahmoud Abbas delivered to Yitzhak Rabin on Oct 31, 2005. According to Hirschfeld, partially on the basis of these discussions, Rabin had decided to move more rapidly toward the final-status negotiations than he had previously committed to.
Tragically, Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4. Hirschfeld regards Shimon Peres as a very good prime minister from 1984 until ’86, but agrees with me that he made stupendous blunders as Rabin’s successor for half a year until defeated narrowly by Netanyahu in 1996. (E.g., Peres unwisely provoked a wave of terror by disturbing a peaceful time with the Shin Bet’s killing of “the engineer,” a Hamas terrorist.) And Peres did not follow-up on Beilin’s trailblazing work with Abbas.
The speaker also agreed with someone from the audience on how an unfortunate result of Oslo was to allow a dramatic growth in the West Bank settler population. He said that this was not anticipated by him and his colleagues.
Yet Dr. Hirschfeld shares the perhaps surprising perspective of another veteran Israeli peace advocate, our own Hillel Schenker, the co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, that Pres. Obama unwisely overreached in demanding of Israel a total freeze on settlement construction. Hirschfeld described this as demanding more than Israel’s political system could bear at the time, given its more right-wing alignment after the 2009 elections, and demanding more than the Palestinian negotiators had even insisted upon previously. This, on the pragmatic grounds of why create what would become an obstacle to talks on precisely the kind of issue that needs to be decided in the negotiations?
There was a somewhat quirky quality to his talk. For example, when I questioned him about the analysis of the Olmert-Abbas negotiations written by Bernard Avishai in The NY Times Magazine, he praised Olmert as a serious advocate for peace but also denigrated him and the article by saying that the writer is inaccurate on how close he came to a peace agreement. For one thing, he says that Olmert is notorious for stating different versions of what he offered (I’ve also heard this from Avshalom Vilan, a former Meretz MK, who likewise respects Olmert). Hirschfeld adds that Abbas refused to sign onto a statement detailing what they had actually agreed upon.
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