A Very Bad Agreement, but the Only Agreement Possible
A briefing by Joel Singer
March 19, 1997
As the legal advisor to Israel's Foreign Ministry in its negotiations with the Palestinians, Joel Singer is in a unique position to assess current developments in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In a recent lecture at the Middle East Forum, Mr. Singer, an international lawyer now working in Washington, shed light on the controversy over Palestinian compliance and Har Homa, as well as a perspective on the whole of the negotiations.
The negotiations. Mr. Singer began by revealing his feelings, calling the interim agreement "a very bad agreement which created an unstable situation." He then detailed how his involvement in the negotiations began when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called him in May 1993 and asked him to review some preliminary proposals worked out by the Israeli and PLO negotiators. A three-month shuttle between Oslo and Jerusalem then ensued, as Singer helped the two sides come to the agreement signed on the White House lawn.
The U.S. government had no part in the Oslo Accords until Peres handed an advance text to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Singer was present and remembers the shocked look on Christopher's face as he glanced at the document. "His lower jaw dropped, and for the first and last time in my life I saw Warren Christopher smile."
Christopher was unwilling to present the agreement as an American document -- "Secretaries of state are not supposed to lie" he said to Peres and Singer. Instead Israel and the PLO had to draft a mutual recognition agreement between them. For this to occur, Israel insisted that the Palestinians first recognize the State of Israel and accept United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Jerusalem further demanded that the PLO pledge both to abstain from the use of terrorism and to change the Palestinian National Charter. As Singer explained, "we told [the Palestinians] that if they wanted to do business with us in public, they had to undertake these obligations."
The background. Why did "the 100 year dispute" get resolved in Oslo, after so many previous failures? It was not, Mr. Singer insisted, because of a diet of Norwegian salmon. Rather, four inter-related circumstances made the moment ripe for a settlement:
(1) The expulsion of the PLO from Beirut in 1982 meant the exiling of Arafat and other leaders to Tunis, "the Siberia of the Middle East." The PLO learned at that moment that it could not depend on any party to come to its aid.
(2) As Arafat settled into Tunis, a new generation of leaders in the Occupied Territories was emerging -- people like the Hamas organizers and Hanan Ashrawi, Saeb Erekat and Faisal Husseini. As the power base of Hamas and this young guard began to expand, the PLO "was on the verge of becoming obsolete."
(3) Arafat's decision to side with Saddam Husayn in the Kuwait War made him "a persona non grata in the Arab world" and led to the freezing of Palestinian funds in the region's financial institutions.
(4) The intifada made Israelis aware of the price of the continued occupation. "Suddenly it was beginning to cost, and most Israelis got tired of it and wanted to settle the dispute." The election of the Labor Party - "much more flexible than the Likud" -- turned this emotion into policy.
Assessment. Looking at the present situation, Mr. Singer presented a more downbeat assessment than his recollections implied. "We have agreed to this fragile accord not because we liked it -- we meaning the Palestinians and the Israelis. It was a very bad agreement, but the only agreement possible in this situation." The interim period that Oslo has established resembles a cease-fire: "If you know a cease-fire is being negotiated and you have two more days to do whatever you can before it is imposed . . . you use those last two days to improve your position. In this case, instead of two days we have five years."
The lack of total compliance with the accords should thus come as no surprise. However, in Singer's opinion "the Israeli side has not violated the agreement as often as the Palestinian side." Palestinian violations are less common than they were before, and this is attributable in part to their growing experience in the art of governance.
Har Homa. The accords require that neither side change the "status" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, meaning that Israel may not unilaterally annex these areas. It says nothing about settlement activity in the territories. The legal status of these areas -- "autonomy under the supreme authority of the government of Israel" -- is to remain unchanged.
Palestinian claims about the planned building at Har Homa being illegal are misguided -- the agreement "does not apply to Jerusalem at all . . . Jerusalem is outside the scope of the agreement." Mr. Singer did not mince words in explaining the Israeli government's rationale for this construction: "Netanyahu is trying here to prevent himself from making concessions in (Jerusalem) by creating facts on the ground." Additionally, this housing project represents a concession to the right-wing of his governing coalition, concerned amidst growing concessions to the Palestinians that "Netanyahu is more Peres than Peres."
Summary prepared by Seth Lasser, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum and a junior at the University of Pennsylvania.
Related Topics: Joel Singer
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