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“This was not just to be a meeting between two Israeli academics and a PLO economist,” the authors write. “Abu Mazin (Mahmoud Abbas) later wrote that the key factor in making the PLO pursue this channel was the relationship of Pundak and Hirschfeld through Yossi Beilin, a prominent figure in the Labor party, to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The get-together was arranged by Terje Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist who headed the Institute for Applied Social Sciences. That meeting’s success soon led to more rounds of secret talks between Israel and the PLO hosted by the Norwegians.”
The talks circumvented the U.S., which was what Arafat wanted anyway. (As Martin Indyk describes in his memoir of Clinton Mideast diplomacy, Arafat’s presence posed a continued logistical problem—at times comical—for the American administration since Arafat was an international terrorist.)
The Israelis involved produced glowing reports of Qurei’s constructive participation in the talks. “Without him, Oslo would not have happened,” one of the Israeli negotiators later said.
The talks moved along, and eventually the Clinton administration got involved. Once that happened, however, things quickly spiraled out of control. Arafat muscled his way into a more public role (he was always involved behind the scenes), and eventually hijacked the process, derailing virtually the entire Mideast diplomacy of the Clinton administration. (As the Bush administration prepared to take over, Clinton called Colin Powell and told him: “Don’t let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me.”)
The lesson here is that the American administration can play a productive role in the peace process, but not an overwhelming one. History has shown time and again in the Mideast that negotiations must be done quietly and be free of outside interference. The more public the spectacle, the more it encourages the Palestinians to grandstand, stall, and manipulate.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson Obama has yet to learn. His version of American Mideast diplomacy is the reverse of what has worked, and the photocopy of what has failed. The predictable result is that the Palestinians refuse to come to the negotiating table, and are barreling toward a UN General Assembly publicity stunt that would effectively abrogate the Oslo process and introduce a level of anarchy into an already unstable region.
History suggests the president should reverse course immediately to salvage the process. But this may be a lesson too far.
Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.
* Frontpage thanks our new cartoonist Amir Avni for the graphic representing this article. Amir graduated from Sheridan College with a Bachelor of Animation Degree in 2010 and was awarded a Certificate of Merit by ASIFA-Hollywood in 2009. He is currently finishing his Master’s Degree.
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