פרופ' שלמה בן עמי
פרופ' שלמה בן עמיצילום: קרן חואן מארס

For many years, the Israeli left pegged the Oslo Accords as the basis for the solution of anArab Palestinian state to be established in Judea and Samaria. Barely a voice was ever heard from the left saying otherwise. However, many who believed in this approach have recently changed their position, especially in light of the Abraham Accords, which showed that normalization with Arab countries does not require a prior agreement with the Palestinian Arabs.

One of those who has been looking on for years at the large disparity between the Oslo dream and its manifestation – and in his case, with sadness – is Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami. He is a historian and diplomat who served as Foreign Minister, among other positions, in the short-lived Ehud Barak government and later backed the far-left Meretz party. Even more significantly, he participated in the Camp David talks in which Barak agreed to an Arab Palestinian state on some 97% of Judea and Samaria – to which Yasser Arafat did not agree.

Thirty years later, he estimates that nothing at all is left of the Oslo Accords – as he explained in his book published last year, "Prophets without Honor: The 2000 Camp David Summit and the End of the Two-State Solution."

A frequent lecturer on Israeli-Palestinian relations, Ben-Ami agreed to grant an interview to the Besheva weekly. By way of introduction, he said: "The Oslo Accords had two objectives. One was a permanent solution between us and the Palestinians, which, of course, was not achieved – and in fact, we are now perhaps further than ever from an implementation of the two-state solution. The second goal was to form some type of Palestinian entity with which we could talk and have some stability; this was achieved only partially."

He added that the Palestinian Authority, which was formed as a result of Oslo, "is largely a handicapped entity – due to factors that include the culture of the Palestinian nationalist movement, the fragility of the situation, the Israeli occupation, the deep divide that exists [in Palestinian society], and of course its culture of corruption."

Q. Some blame the failure of Oslo on the Israeli politicians involved, primarily Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Do you agree?

A. No, nor do I agree that "Israeli evil" is at fault. The problem is much deeper than that. There is no denying that the Palestinians are an uprooted and divided people*, a nation that never had a leadership with a vision for statehood. The idea of a Palestinian state is alien and foreign to the Palestinian national movement. Unlike the Zionist movement, which saw a state as the end goal of the process, the [Arabs in the Land of Israel] do not see a state as the end of the process. Instead, their movement simply wanted only a return of what [they felt] was stolen from them, namely lands and refugees. It's true that in 1988, Arafat made a declaration in Algeria about Palestinian independence, but with Arafat, you could never tell what he really meant. I spent many hours with him, and not one word of his could be taken at face value. I really don't know what he actually wanted, and I don't think anyone did."

The failure of Oslo "is not a question of blame. It's a very complex issue that involves not only the players in the negotiations but also the circumstances. Some say that Barak didn't offer enough – [but in fact] he offered 97% of the territory, more land outside [Judea and Samaria] to complete it to 100%, a de-facto division of Jerusalem, total Palestinian control of the Temple Mount – so how can he be blamed for not offering enough? … Then Olmert came and offered even more, things that no one ever dreamt of."

Q. There have been claims that if Rabin had not been assassinated, Oslo could have succeeded. What's your opinion?

A. "I don't think so. If Rabin had lived to lead the negotiations, he would have gotten to the same point that we reached. The maximum that Rabin was willing to give did not meet the minimum that the Palestinians demanded."

Ben-Ami often reiterated in the interview that it was never clear what exactly the Palestinians really wanted: "Even when Israeli leaders agreed to make great concessions on their behalf, Arafat and his negotiators never agreed to anything. They never agreed to the interim agreement… I remember I said to Arafat, 'Let's take care of the burning issues and push off the issue of Jerusalem for two years.' He said: 'Not even two hours!' The entire idea of Oslo was that it was predicated on what Henry Kissinger called 'constructive vagueness,' in that it stated that issues such as a state, Jerusalem, and refugees should be discussed, but without setting any [objective or framework]. Anyone who came afterward to try to negotiate these points found himself in a minefield."

Q. What types of "mines" were these?

A. "Those who came to negotiate the permanent solution meant to discuss the problems of 1967 [i.e., the issues resulting from the Six Day War in 1967], but we found ourselves discussing the issues of 1948. In addition, I can't guarantee that Arafat even read the Oslo Accords. All he wanted was to be allowed back into the territories, and for this goal, he was willing to sign on Oslo. Even in his car on his way to Gaza, he brought with him a terrorist about whom Rabin expressly said would not be allowed in."

"Oslo was Arafat's ticket back into the Land of Israel. He was the founder of the nationalist Palestinian movement, and this was his great historic role. He detached the PLO from the grasp of the Arab states' leaders and made it an autonomous movement. The most important event that happened after the PLO's establishment [in 1964] was the first intifada [which began in late 1987] – and he wasn't around to lead it! He desperately wanted to return to the territories so that he could supplant the local Arab leadership that he hated."

On the other hand, Ben-Ami continued, "You could never make a concrete offer to Arafat because he was never clear about what he wanted. So then you give another bit and another bit so that maybe it would appease [him]. But Arafat didn't want to make any decisions that would give up any of his movement's nationalist principles, nor did he want to do anything that would cause an internal war. So therefore, it's very hard to say that if Barak or Rabin would have done something differently, the results would have been different."

Q. Could it be that the very approach of holding direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians for the purpose of a final solution was wrong?

Ben-Ami agrees with that premise and says that the Jordanians should have been included: "I was a member of the Israeli delegation at the Madrid Conference of 1991 when I served as Israel's Ambassador to Spain. The Palestinians were represented by a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation – and this, in my opinion, was the main strategic problem of Oslo, in that it side-stepped the Jordanians and went straight to the Palestinian nationalist movement. Kissinger has said that Israel would never be able to meet all the PLO's demands, and that's why he tried to advance the dialogue via the Jordanian-Palestinian channel. He admitted that he made a mistake during the post-Yom Kippur War talks when he did not agree to give King Hussein a foothold in the West Bank [of the Jordan River]."

When talking with the Palestinians about Judea and Samaria, Ben-Ami said, "There is no constellation in which Israel can meet their demands. The nationalist Israeli Zionist movement, when led by the left, and all the more so when led by the right, simply cannot meet these demands, which have always been simply too much."

Even the Arab countries are not interested in a Palestinian state, Ben-Ami says: "Jordan never wanted a state, but caved into the dictates of the Arab League. Egypt, too, never wanted a state; its president, Anwar Sadat, is quoted as having told Menachem Begin in Camp David that Jordan must be involved in the Palestinian solution. Carter agreed, and even Donald Trump asked King Abdullah to get involved – but he refused."

The Right was Right!

Ben-Ami acknowledges that the nationalist camp was more correct in its analysis of future peace prospects than the left: "The concept we always worked with was that if we solve the Palestinian problem, we'll have peace with the Arab world. This is what the left-wing camp – of which I am a part, intellectually – always thought. But the right felt differently. I talked with [late Likud party prime minister] Yitzchak Shamir, who told me that we must first make peace with the Arab countries, and then the Palestinians will follow along – and he was right. The left-wing mocked him, but the right was right, and the paradigm was, in fact, changed [with the Abraham Accords]."

"We can actually say that if we come to an agreement with Saudi Arabia*, the Israeli-Arab conflict will have ended before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

It was actually Menachem Begin, according to Ben-Ami, who first detoured the Palestinian issue by making peace with Egypt while simply mentioning the Palestinian issue in the agreement. "This made way for a different type of solution to the Palestinian issue than that which the left-wing always strove for, without success."

Q. Will an agreement with Saudi Arabia require Israeli concessions on the Palestinian front?

A. "Most certainly. I don't think the Saudis will demand a Palestinian state, but very likely they will speak of an Israeli construction freeze [in Judea and Samaria] and more… But I don't think that Netanyahu wants a Saudi diplomatic process that will bring down his own government."

Ben-Ami added that even if a centrist-right government is formed, in which Benny Ganz's party replaces the parties of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, "will such a government be able to talk about a Palestinian state in [all the land liberated by Israel in] 1967? That won't happen. This solution is no longer on the table – not because it's bad, but primarily because it has been proven that it is simply unattainable, and today even more so than before."