Interview with Yossi Beilin, Architect of Oslo Agreement

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JERUSALEM, DEC. 8, 2000 (

Despite the current turmoil in the Mideast, Palestinians and Israelis now have more elements than ever to reach a lasting peace agreement.

This is according to Yossi Beilin, Minister of Justice in Ehud Barak´s government, and one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the peace process between Israel and Palestine.

Beilin, 52, a journalist and Labor member of Parliament, is known to be the architect of the 1993 Oslo Agreement, which opened the way to reciprocal recognition between Israel and Palestine. Just back from a brief visit to Washington, Beilin spoke with the Vatican international agency Fides.

–Q: Mr. Beilin, in the present critical situation (violence, future elections in Israel, lack of leadership in the United States), what has happened to the Oslo process?

–Beilin: Oslo was an interim agreement, which ended on May 4, 1999. To have other accords, such as Wye and Sharm el-Sheik, we should not extend the Oslo Agreement artificially. The most important thing at Oslo was mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, and being ready to give back Gaza and Jericho to Palestine before they elect their authority.

What we need now, and this was said at Oslo, is a permanent agreement; we are already late. However, if it is possible, this agreement should focus on the most important questions already dealt with at Oslo [borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem].

–Q: Attorney General Michel Ben Yair recently published an article in the Haaretz newspaper calling Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and recognize Palestine´s independence in the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem. What is your opinion of this proposal?

–Beilin: If we speak of negotiations, it is a mistake to refer to unilateral actions, a unilateral withdrawal by Israel or a unilateral declaration of the Palestinian state. I would like to see these decisions made within a negotiation. Even at this difficult time of intifada, we have the privilege of having relations, we can speak, meet, negotiate.

It is not like this with the [Lebanon-based] Hezbollah, with which it was impossible to negotiate and so we withdrew from Lebanon, where we had no territorial demands. However, the PLO is another story. First of all, Israel has territorial demands: although we do not want the majority of the area, we do want at least a small part of the territories. Secondly, the main issue we can negotiate, we can come to an agreement. Why should we make a unilateral withdrawal?

–Q: It would seem that dialogue is not making any progress at the moment.

–Beilin: In any case, to act unilaterally would be a mistake. Today, in Israel, we have one of the most moderate governments in years; our requests are justified and not excessive. A bilateral negotiation is the best thing: I think it is possible to negotiate and find a solution. This is the best way out.

–Q: Palestinians are angry and disappointed: Since the Oslo Agreement, the number of Israeli settlers has almost doubled. They feel dialogue has obtained nothing.

–Beilin: I think this attitude is mistaken. First of all, they have obtained international recognition. The fact that the Palestinians, and Arafat in particular, are so welcome in America is for them a huge diplomatic result. For many years in the United States, Arafat was considered the leader of a terrorist group, in no way could he be given head-of-state treatment. Oslo opened the West, the U.S. especially, to the PLO and to Arafat.

It is also true that Oslo opened gates for Israel to Arab countries and this was mutually beneficial. We have been able to go to Tunisia, Morocco, to the Gulf States, and they have been able to go to the United States. Then there is the donor country aspect: billions of dollars invested in the territories. In 1994, Arafat went back to the territories and became the leader of the state, or almost a state, not only a leader in exile.

No one can dismiss all this and say it is not important. I think that what they have built up is something very close to a state, and this never happened before. Months ago we were about to reach an agreement, which would have given them a Palestinian state, with some changes in the 1976 borders, a solution for the refugees, a capital for them.

At Camp David the Palestinians were really very close to the birth of a state. It is sad that they missed this opportunity. Now I hope it is possible to go back to these offers and these prospects. It is time to stop accusing one another and return to the negotiating table.

–Q: Regarding the Israeli settlers?

–Beilin: We did not freeze settlements at Oslo. No new settlements were built; however, settlers were already there and they have children who need schools, more homes so the settlements expand. Once we have an agreement, this will also include the settlers, and a dispute that has torn us apart for many years will be ended.

–Q: Is there any regret on Israel´s part for the way in which the relationship with Palestine has proceeded?

–Beilin: The intifada of the last two months has not made Israelis happy, nor has it helped us to have trust in Palestinians. We agreed that disputes would be settled by negotiations and not with force. Now the Palestinian police have begun using force. Arafat opened the doors of the prisons and set almost all the Hamas free. This does not increase Israel´s confidence in Palestine, and the high number of victims on the Palestinian side did not make them love us more than before.

–Q: And Israel´s violence?

–Beilin: Israel did not get up two months ago and begin to shoot Palestinians. Somehow, even in joint patrols, Palestinians began to shoot Israelis. Now, it is true that they do not have our sophisticated weapons: on the one hand you have boys with slings and pistols, and on the other the most powerful army in the Middle East. It is true we are stronger than the Palestinians; it is not symmetric, but they know this.

I think they also know that if there are more clashes they will pay the highest price. We do not want to continue. If they stop shooting, Israel will too. The question is why do they not stop, even after the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, after the promises made by Arafat? This is a question that seems to have no proper reply.

–Q: What steps must both sides take to stop the violence and start again to build coexistence?

–Beilin: Both sides must implement the Sharm el-Sheik agreement in three steps: 1) diminish the level of violence significantly; 2) implement the article of the fact-finding mission [concerning the violence]; 3) continue negotiations for a peace agreement in the coming weeks. We still have Clinton as the American president. He is interested, ready to invest time, to help both sides, and, as both sides have trust in Clinton, … it would be crazy to continue the present nightmare any longer, when peace is possible.

–Q: Last week you visited President Clinton. What was your impression?

–Beilin: I think Americans are ready to help both of us. I had a lengthy talk with President Clinton. He is ready to continue to help both sides. The Middle East is high on his priority list. This does not mean he must come and stay here for the next two months to help solve our problems, but I do say that the world´s only superpower is ready to invest much for peace in the Middle East. It would be sad if Israel and the PLO were to miss this golden opportunity.

–Q: What in your opinion is causing the delay in making more decisive steps in the peace process?

–Beilin: I am not quite sure what caused this recent violence, in order to see what might end it. However, I do know that many on both sides agree that it would be crazy to continue in this way. We were so near to an agreement, the United States are ready to help. It would be a real shame if we fa
il to make use of this situation to sign a permanent, or at least a partial, agreement in which some problems are definitely solved and others partially.

–Q: Mr. Beilin, you signed the Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See on behalf of the state of Israel in 1993. How has this relationship between the Holy See-Catholic Church and the state of Israel evolved?

–Beilin: The relations with the Holy See are a great success. I think the talks were positive; now we are about to sign financial and other agreements. Thanks to the Holy See, to the Pope and this agreement, the perception of the Jewish-Christian relationship has changed. Certainly the agreement is a political accord between two states, but one cannot ignore the ramifications for the whole Catholic and, indeed, Christian world.

This is something that will never be reversible: We have changed the style of relations after thousands of years. We have an Israeli ambassador to the Vatican and a Vatican ambassador in Israel. I met the Pope two months ago. I can say that this relationship is a good achievement for Israel, and I hope it is also for the Holy See.

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