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Giving Peace A Chance

Times Staff Writer

“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s gravelly voice filled with emotion as he recited on the White House lawn from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

“A time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace.”

In the Middle East, after more than a hundred years of conflict between Arabs and Jews, “The time for peace has come,” Rabin said.

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Rarely in the history of the strife-torn Middle East has there been such hope, and it has come with amazing speed, stunning the people of the region and confounding those who had seen the Arab-Israeli conflict as unending.

The vision is one of a Middle East where the threat of war is no longer the constant of politics, where conflicts no longer spill beyond the region to endanger international stability, where economies produce for their people to prosper, not to finance armies and weapons.

The vision is one of normal lives, a chance to grow up, to get an education, to build a career and to raise a family without the fear that all could be at risk without notice.

And it is a vision not just for Israelis and Palestinians but for the region as a whole, for the intractable Palestinian-Israeli dispute has been at the core of the Middle East conflict.

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Although Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stressed the difficulties in resolving a conflict that has defied peacemaking efforts for nearly 50 years, there was a mutual resolve, itself historic, to “give peace a real chance,” Arafat said.

To others, however, these are false hopes, and they view the accord on Palestinian self-government signed on Monday not as a promise of peace but as an invitation to the greatest war the region has ever seen. The men who drafted it, the opponents say, will go down in history as traitors to their people and dangerous fools.

But for Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the time had come, as Rabin declared, to risk peace. “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: ‘Enough of blood and tears. Enough!”’

Turning that conviction, felt by Palestinians and Israelis alike, into the complex agreement signed in Washington was itself a dramatic demonstration of the two sides’ commitment to peace. On its way to the South Lawn of the White House, their journey wound from the deserts of the Middle East through the forests of Norway.

Part 1: THE OSLO CONNECTION

“To find solutions we had to break away.”

*

Dinner was over, it was past 11 and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, visiting Oslo on a trip through Scandinavia, indicated that he wanted a final word with his host, Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst, before he retired for the night.

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As other members of the Israeli delegation went to their rooms in the Foreign Ministry’s Park Street guest house and their Norwegian counterparts left for home, Peres and Holst began quietly, almost on tiptoes, rearranging the furniture in the main hall.

What then unfolded in the early hours of Friday, Aug. 20, put the Middle East on a dramatic new course.

Holst and Peres, who had celebrated his 70th birthday that evening, set up three tables with chairs and put a few other chairs off to the side. The Norwegian foreign minister laid a gold pen on each table. Five Israeli officials, who had been working in another building, came in with their Norwegian colleagues. Champagne was brought in and opened.

The small group was then joined by Ahmed Suleiman Khoury, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s financial organization, and three other senior PLO officials, arriving one at a time so they would not attract attention.

After short but emotional speeches, the Israeli and PLO representatives initialed a complex set of documents on Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

“We had been waiting to take this step toward peace for generations,” Peres said later. “This was the first time, after a century of hostility and bloodshed, we and the Palestinians had signed an agreement. . . . One could see the outline of peace in the Middle East.”

A Fateful Step

Uri Savir, 40, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who helped negotiate the documents and initialed them on behalf of Israel, said: “There was the weight of taking a very, very fateful step, but also the joy in anticipating the peace we believe that it will bring our peoples. For me, historic and dramatic don’t begin to describe that moment.”

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But secret does describe what came to be called the Oslo Channel.

Over eight months, Israeli and PLO representatives had held a series of 18 clandestine meetings, 14 of them in the Norwegian capital, to negotiate the Declaration of Principles laying the foundation for Palestinian autonomy, starting with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho and leading to what the PLO hopes will be independence.

Originally, the Oslo talks were intended to be a “back channel,” one of several that Israel and the PLO were using to explore ideas outside the formal Washington negotiations, to pass “confidence-building” messages between their leaders and simply to get to know one another.

“We would take an idea, play with it, try it out on each other, develop it,” an Israeli participant recounted. “But everything was ‘off the table’ and not official. If something did work, we agreed that we would take it to Washington and make it formal and official. We had to do that--we (Israelis) were supposed to be negotiating with residents of the territories, not with the PLO, although we knew this had always been a fiction.”

Under elaborate security precautions, the negotiating teams met mostly at the Borregaard estate, a 19th-Century wooden mansion 60 miles east of Oslo, posing as a group of professors writing a book; there were other meetings at Holst’s home in the Oslo suburb of Smestad, on the 32nd floor of the steel-and-glass Oslo Plaza Hotel in the center of the capital, in a farmhouse north of the city with the farmer and his wife as hosts and at Oslo’s Fornebu Airport.

Many Players

The Norwegians were active throughout the discussions, which increased in intensity in May and grew in frequency over the summer. Holst and his wife, Marianne Heiberg, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Applied Social Science, were active mediators; Terje Rod Larsen, the institute’s director general, and his wife, Mona Juul, a department chief at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and Jan Egeland, secretary of state at the Foreign Ministry, were also deeply involved.

“Our role has been important as a facilitator,” Egeland said last week. “We achieved something others failed to achieve--to conduct secret negotiations for the better part of a year and to create trust and bridge the enormous gap of information and attitudes. Often, despite all those rounds of talks in Washington, they did not really know what the other side’s real position was. And they had enormous images of the other as enemy.”

The Norwegians kept the atmosphere informal and friendly with home-cooked meals, snacks of fresh salmon and walks in the woods when negotiations bogged down; even Holst’s 4-year-old son, Edvard, was involved, charming PLO leader Yasser Arafat during a visit to Tunis, Tunisia--site of PLO headquarters--and enticing the negotiators onto the living room floor to play with him during breaks in the talks at the Holst home.

“When a problem would arise, my husband would take either the Israelis or the Palestinians to the garden,” said Heiberg. “When they would return, things would usually work out.”

On both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides, knowledge of the Oslo Channel was tightly restricted. In Jerusalem, only Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres, Peres’ deputy Yossi Beilin, Savir and, toward the end, about 10 others knew; in Tunis, Arafat kept his team to only a handful. Both sides deliberately excluded their delegations to the Washington talks from the small “need-to-know” circles. Elaborate telephone codes were used, with Rabin and Arafat called the “grandfathers,” Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, his PLO counterpart, known as the “fathers” and people at Beilin’s level referred to as “sons.”

“The success in achieving the Declaration of Principles resulted mostly from the fact that there was no media coverage, and thus we had freedom to negotiate without our positions hardening through exposure,” Yoel Singer, 45, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser and a key negotiator, said last week. “As much as a mutual commitment to fresh thinking and flexibility, this secrecy was essential to our success.”

The secrecy, however, led to a major crisis on the Palestinian side, and it has since fueled opposition to the agreement as well as suspicion that there are undisclosed concessions in it.

A Turning Point

The Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks objected to the “Gaza-Jericho first” approach as too much of a concession--though they knew it was an Arafat idea--and balked at presenting it to Secretary of State Warren Christopher during a scheduled visit to Jerusalem at the beginning of August.

“There is something happening that you don’t know about, that you don’t understand,” Arafat screamed on the phone to Faisal Husseini, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team. “Please do what I ask! I beg you, I beseech you, do not mess this up!”

Husseini and two other delegates threatened to quit in an angry showdown with Arafat a week later in Tunis. They were soothed with a promise, which turned out to be false, that they would help plan all the PLO’s negotiating moves.

But, in what proved to be a turning point, the confrontation led Israel and the PLO to move the negotiations almost entirely into the Oslo Channel--and to accelerate them, as they saw that agreement on the Declaration of Principles and “Gaza-Jericho first” was close but feared that what had been agreed to might slip away.

“Arafat had wanted to move ‘Gaza-Jericho’ into the full negotiations when they resumed in Washington,” a West Bank Palestinian who was with the PLO chairman during a visit to Amman recounted. “He didn’t say why he thought so, but he was certain Israel would accept it and would agree on the DOP (Declaration of Principles). What he did not want was a lot of back talk from the delegation, telling him to be tougher when he was trying to find a compromise.”

But the delegation, uninformed about developments in the Oslo Channel, did not know that the PLO and the Israelis had largely agreed on the concepts and needed now to negotiate the language. Even Arafat’s major concession, postponing discussion of Jerusalem’s status for two years, had been broached in Oslo two months earlier.

“We strongly suspected Arafat was pushing us to negotiate directly with the PLO in Oslo by stonewalling in Washington,” an Israeli delegate to the Washington talks said. “The Palestinian delegation, on orders from Tunis, was rejecting things we had expected them to accept. . . . Rabin felt very frustrated.”

To a senior U.S. official deeply involved in the Washington talks, the Oslo Channel had one major advantage--the ability actually to negotiate, to reach compromises and to make decisions, because of the level of PLO representation and Arafat’s personal involvement. All of the ideas eventually included in the Declaration of Principles signed Monday were also discussed in the Washington talks or with U.S. mediators, he said.

But this only added to the anger over the agreement, and it has not dissipated. The chief Israeli delegate to the Palestinian talks, Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, refused to go to Washington for the next round of formal negotiations. The chief Palestinian delegate, Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, said he had not negotiated the agreement and would not sign it. And Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO’s longtime de facto foreign minister, walked out of the PLO leadership meetings Arafat called last week to approve the accord.

“The point of the Oslo Channel, and all the back channels, was to break away from the formulas,” Nissim Zvilli, the secretary general of the Labor Party and a Peres confidant, commented last week. “We had one way of thinking, the Palestinians another and the Americans something entirely different than either of us. . . .

“The framework (of the Washington negotiations) was too rigid, the talks themselves became too sterile, the Americans were too legalistic and they were always thinking in straight lines. The negotiations themselves were becoming a problem. To find solutions, we had to break away. That’s what we did in Oslo.”

Part 2: ISRAEL’S ROAD TO OSLO

“The prospects for success. . .seemed remote.”

*

Far from dramatic in its origins, the Oslo Channel grew out of a suggestion from Larsen to Beilin, then an opposition member of the Israeli Parliament, during a conference in Tel Aviv in April, 1992. Larsen said that his Norwegian institute could introduce Israelis to some “interesting” Palestinians. “Interesting,” Beilin knew, was a euphemism for “Palestine Liberation Organization,” because Israeli law at that time prohibited direct contacts the PLO.

Beilin, 45, busy with the June parliamentary election and then appointed deputy foreign minister after his Labor Party won, handed the contact to two members of an informal Labor group pursuing contacts with Palestinians. One was Yair Hirschfeld, 49, a balding, bearded, Vienna-born political scientist at Haifa University, and the other was Ron Pundak, a journalist turned historian who teaches at Tel Aviv University, where Beilin had also taught.

Last September, Larsen brought Norway’s Egeland to Israel and pressed Beilin and Hirschfeld again to use Norway as a channel to the Palestinians; Oslo had good contacts with the PLO through work in the Palestinian refugee camps and through the global organization the Socialist International.

Beilin agreed to try. If the attempt failed, nothing was lost, he reasoned; if exposed, it would be seen as just another peacenik professor talking with the PLO. “I didn’t calculate the prospects for success--they seemed remote,” he said.

With the help of Larsen and Hanan Ashrawi, an old friend who had become the spokeswoman of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks, Hirschfeld met Khoury, known in the PLO as Abu Alaa, for breakfast at the Gallery Lounge of the St. James Hotel in central London on Dec. 4, a very rainy Friday.

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A native of Abu Dis on Jerusalem’s outskirts, Khoury, 56. An economist and former banker, he has managed the PLO’s extensive investments in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the United States; recently, he has been overseeing the Palestinians’ long-term development plans for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the bitter divisions of Palestinian politics, Khoury is known as intensely loyal to Arafat and in turn is trusted by the PLO leader to an extent that some of his closest political advisers are not.

Hirschfeld was pleased to meet Khoury (Abu Alaa), he said later, because he had read papers that the Palestinian had written on a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on regional economic development and on a Middle East where old enmities could be transformed into cooperation, much as had happened in postwar Europe.

“For us, Abu Alaa defined moderation, reasonableness, approachability and, best of all, imagination,” said Pundak, who attended a second meeting in mid-January. “His views came very close to ours, particularly to Peres’.”

With Beilin’s blessing, the Oslo meetings then began on Jan. 20, but expectations were not high: This was one of more than a dozen such ventures.

Contacts were also under way in Cairo, in Morocco, through American Jewish groups, through Israeli intelligence and at academic and foreign policy seminars on the Middle East.

Hirschfeld himself was arranging meetings in Jerusalem between Faisal Husseini, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, and Peres, the Israeli foreign minister.

“We never dreamed that this would be the single negotiation from which something would be produced,” Boaz Carni, 40, the manager of a kibbutz factory and a member of the Hirschfeld-Pundak group, said. “What characterized our activities was persistence. What gave the whole thing weight was the knowledge that we were tied to Beilin and Peres.”

The PLO had sought direct talks with the Israeli leadership for years. Even before the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Jerusalem in November, 1977, senior PLO officials were meeting with prominent Israelis--Labor Party members of Parliament, retired generals, newspaper editors, university professors and others--but a 1986 law prohibited such meetings.

“The PLO said from the beginning it wanted negotiations directly with the Israelis,” said Jamil Hillal, a leader of the pro-Arafat faction of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine that supports the agreement. “After Labor came to power, it was suggested by the PLO. At some juncture, there was contact, and it slowly gathered momentum. The PLO is the party that was trying very hard to establish direct contacts. It was the PLO that spent the energy and effort to get these talks going.”

But the PLO wanted more than just contacts--it wanted true negotiations. “Warm, fuzzy-wuzzy meetings we had,” said Sari Nusseibeh, deputy head of the Palestinian negotiating team for the Washington talks. “What we needed were negotiations that led somewhere. To our intense disappointment, we got still more stalling from Labor.”

When Rabin took office with his center-left Cabinet in July, 1992, Arafat had welcomed him with a call to make the “peace of the brave,” to negotiate directly with the PLO and resolve the Palestinian problem. Arafat boldly suggested a face-to-face meeting.

Rabin harrumphed loudly when Shulamit Aloni, then his education minister, urged him during a Cabinet debate to respond positively; over the year, however, a majority emerged in the Cabinet favoring such direct talks.

“Rabin was committed to finding a solution to the Palestinian problem,” Aloni said, recalling the prime minister’s crotchety reply, “but not with the PLO and certainly not with Arafat. He told me, ‘Stick to your knitting.’ He would negotiate, all right, but with the Palestinians of the (occupied) territories. In the end, however, he saw he was wrong, did negotiate with the PLO and succeeded.”

Israel had been talking with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip for nearly a year in the broader context of Arab-Israeli negotiations in Washington. Those talks, begun in Madrid in October, 1991, had gone nowhere--and were not intended to. Outgoing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said candidly as he left office that he had planned to stall the negotiations for a decade while Israel populated the West Bank with half a million settlers.

Pledged to take “a more intensive, more flexible approach,” the Rabin government explored a variety of ideas through the autumn that would give autonomy to the 1.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while putting off the vexatious issue of a Palestinian state.

A New Urgency

Israeli motivations were complex but clear: Through the course of the intifada, the rebellion that broke out against Israeli rule in December, 1987, the Palestinians had effectively thwarted plans by the Likud Party to absorb the West Bank into Israel and had made the occupation too costly to continue. Resolution of the Palestinian problem, moreover, was the condition for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and that had assumed new urgency with Islamic fundamentalism threatening to sweep the region.

Rabin argued hard during the election that, if Israel was to remain both Jewish and democratic, it had to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And after winning election on a platform advocating “territory for peace,” he had promised there would be a preliminary agreement with the Palestinians in early 1993.

But, to the frustration of both the Palestinians and Labor’s supporters, the negotiations moved slowly.

“The doves came to power and said, ‘We’re studying things, we’re looking at things, we can’t break the Madrid formula,’ ” a PLO official in Tunis said, mocking Israel’s insistence on talking only with Palestinians from the occupied territories, although that delegation negotiated at the behest of the PLO.

“The PLO leadership came to believe that the best idea was a secret channel where it could meet directly with Israelis to discuss things. The Madrid formula had too many restrictions. . . . We had to break out of it.”

Another PLO official complained: “The rules of the game in Washington didn’t give results. The atmosphere needed more discussions that could go deep. In Washington, the Israelis presented something, the Palestinians presented something and the Americans presented something, and it was pell-mell. Nobody understood anybody, and it ended in a debate.”

From the outset, the Oslo talks were different. Not only were they deep, discursive and non-polemical, but both sides were actively using them to try out ideas. They also continued during the lengthy break that followed Israel’s expulsion of 415 suspected Islamic militants to southern Lebanon and the closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a series of terrorist attacks.

“One beauty of secret talks is that you don’t have to posture,” an Israeli participant said. “They were unhappy about our security actions. We were unhappy about the terrorism. But we could restrict our comments to the difficulties we faced as a result of problems on the ground.”

The ‘Leopard Spot’ Plan

In February, the Israelis brought an updated version of “Gaza first,” a plan devised by Beilin and Hirschfeld in 1990 for turning over the Gaza Strip to its residents. Khoury, on orders from Arafat, said there would have to be a West Bank element, and the Palestinians came up in March with the “leopard spot” plan, which had Israelis pulling out of population centers in the West Bank. When the “leopard spots” proved too unwieldy a proposal, Arafat himself then suggested adding just Jericho to Gaza.

Beilin, who oversaw the Oslo talks from Jerusalem, took the developments to Peres, who was pleased but regarded other back channels, particularly those through Cairo, as more promising and who was working on the resumption of the Washington negotiations. According to Foreign Ministry sources, Peres did not seriously study the Oslo Channel papers for several weeks.

For the Israelis, there was a real question of whether Khoury was speaking for Arafat and the PLO leadership. “When they would come away from the telephone to Tunis, it was clear they were speaking to Arafat himself,” Pundak recalled. “With that, things began to change.”

Part 3: THE PLO’S ROAD TO OSLO

“Arafat was in a real funk. Everybody was beating on him.”

*

Yasser Arafat and the PLO as a whole were in a deep political and financial crisis. Their long-fought struggle appeared no closer to success, and their movement was in danger of disintegration. Over the previous four years, they had moderated their militancy--recognizing Israel’s existence, forswearing terrorism as a tactic, entering through West Bank and Gaza proxies the talks with Israel--but with little result.

At the same time, the organization was close to bankruptcy. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries had cut it off because of Arafat’s support of Iraq in its 1990 seizure of Kuwait. Palestinians who used to work in the Gulf had lost their jobs and were no longer paying their PLO taxes. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, physicians, teachers and community organizers on the PLO payroll no longer were getting salaries.

And pressure was building on Arafat from the other Arabs--the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Gulf states, the Syrians--to do a deal with the Israelis, though what kind of deal no one would tell him.

Bitterness Remained

Arafat, now 64, was listening more and more to the PLO’s moderates--in actuality hardheaded realists who were urging him to conclude an early deal with the Rabin government while its “territory-for-peace” mandate was intact and then to build on it. In addition to Khoury, there was Mahmoud Abbas, a longtime advocate of dialogue with Israelis, and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, leader of the pro-peace faction of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

But Arafat was bitter that promises made to him--money from Saudi Arabia, easing of Israel’s crackdown on the occupied territories, resumption by the United States of its dialogue with the PLO--were not being kept. Within the rivalry-ridden circles of Palestinian politics, even some moderates were rumored to be plotting against him.

“The old man was in a real funk,” a West Bank Palestinian who sees Arafat frequently recalled. “Everybody was beating on him--the hard-liners, the Islamists, the so-called moderates, the Americans and their pals the Saudis and Egyptians, just everybody.”

Then came a rare summons in mid-April from Syrian President Hafez Assad, the Arab leader who as much as any other has sought to reconfigure the Middle East by regaining the Golan Heights from Israel, assuring Syrian dominance in the region and securing his own place in history.

Foreign ministers and negotiators from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the Palestinians were meeting in the Syrian seaside resort of Latakia. An icy wind swept off the Mediterranean Sea onto the presidential palace where Assad had spent a holiday weekend, desperately trying to get the Washington talks going again. An agreement with Israel on the Golan Heights was so close, Assad sensed, that he did what for months had been unthinkable--he called Arafat.

The PLO leader had been begging for an audience with Assad since their last meeting 11 months before, but there was still bad blood between the two leaders over Arafat’s support for Assad’s archfoe, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Although he did not trust Arafat, Assad deeply believed that any settlement with Israel had to be comprehensive--Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians had to sign together or hang alone.

At the core of Assad’s conviction was the fate of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981 by radical Islamic fundamentalists from his own army after signing the Camp David accords with Israel and winning back the Sinai. In each of the rare interviews Assad had given during the past year, he said that any Arab leader who went it alone in making peace with Israel “would meet the same fate as Sadat.”

“Assad firmly believes he needs a Palestinian cover for any agreement on the Golan,” a senior diplomat observed in Damascus last spring. “And he is determined to get the Golan before he dies. There’s no other way. He needs Arafat now.”

On April 19, Assad and Arafat met for more than five hours. Assad did most of the talking, according to sources familiar with the late-night discussion, stressing again and again the need for a united Arab stand against Israel--and a united settlement that would bring peace. Whatever it took, Assad told Arafat, he needed the Palestinians to return to the negotiations in Washington.

Land Was the Key

Only by thrusting itself headlong into the peace process could the PLO hope to regain the ground it was fast losing to the fundamentalists, Assad told Arafat. Hold out for a unified settlement that will ensure not just pieces of land in exchange for peace but a peace plan that will return all the land the Arabs have lost in war and return it at once, he advised, emphasizing that with land comes power.

(The PLO leader, ironically, gave the same advice to Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim leader, who was wondering whether to accept the now-aborted Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Are they offering you any land?” Arafat asked. Told by Izetbegovic that they were, but that it was too little, Arafat replied: “Take it! Take it! Accept!” Izetbegovic did not--and Arafat saw the results.)

The Latakia conference did produce a breakthrough. The Arab ministers decided to return to Washington and resume negotiations with Israel despite the nearly 400 Palestinians who remained in tents on a south Lebanon hillside after being deported by Rabin in December as Islamic militants.

And Arafat came away more resolved to pursue peace with Israel. Working with a small cell of advisers to avoid leaks, Arafat told Khoury to probe Israeli flexibility on the Declaration of Principles, what was now his “Gaza-Jericho” proposal and Jerusalem’s suggestion of “early empowerment,” under which Palestinians would assume immediate administrative responsibility for education, health, welfare, economic development and municipal services.

The group included Abbas, known in the PLO as Abu Maazen, a member of the PLO Executive Committee; Abed-Rabbo, director of the PLO information department as well as leader of the pro-Arafat faction of the Democratic Front; Hassan Asfour, an aide to Abbas; Mamdouh Nufal, a member of the steering committee overseeing the Washington talks, and Nabil Shaath, a political adviser.

“The effort was not for a separate peace, though that is the way it seems to some Arabs now, but to move ahead much, much faster, using the secret channels to reach agreements that would then be brought to the table in Washington,” Palestinian negotiator Sari Nusseibeh said. “Other Arabs should understand that, yes, we were acting in our interests, but also in theirs in trying to resolve the central issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict--the Palestinian problem.”

Part 4: BEYOND GAZA AND JERICHO

“Suddenly it seemed we could do more.”

*

In early April, just before the Passover holiday, Shimon Peres told Yitzhak Rabin that one set of Israel’s many contacts with the PLO appeared to be moving ahead, and he briefed the prime minister on the developments in Oslo.

At the Foreign Ministry, there was anxiety about Rabin’s reaction among the “Blazer Boys,” as Peres’ closest aides are known because of their preference for dark blue jackets.

The prime minister had guarded the bilateral negotiations jealously, allowing Peres to pursue only the multilateral talks that resulted from the 1991 Madrid conference. The 71-year-old Rabin, who had only slightly relaxed his “no, never” view of the PLO and Arafat, might close the Oslo Channel as unauthorized, some thought.

Rabin instead told Peres to upgrade Israel’s representation--and to include Singer, the lawyer who had helped draft most Arab-Israeli agreements in the past 20 years and who had worked for Rabin in the Defense Ministry for five years.

“Yoel’s a colonel in the reserves, and Rabin trusts him,” a Rabin aide explained. “When you have been a general as long as Rabin, you only trust other soldiers.”

Keeping Rabin’s support was a major concern for the Israeli negotiators. “We held dozens of interim discussions on how to achieve his agreement,” Boaz Carni recounted. “In the end, he became convinced that this was serious. He approved all the meetings, formal and informal. He followed every change, checked every comma.”

Rabin may also have thought that the Oslo talks might come to nought themselves, according to those who know him well, but that they could speed the slow-moving negotiations in Washington.

The Norwegians probed seriously now to be able to ensure each side of the sincerity of the other. They also briefed senior U.S. officials in Washington more fully than before, and Abbas filled in Russian officials in Moscow.

Barred by policy from contacts with the PLO and convinced that no progress could be made without American mediation, the State Department never fully understood the significance of the Oslo discussions, according to U.S. officials.

The Pace Picked Up

“The Americans were so certain that Rabin would not negotiate with the PLO that they took it as just another ‘contact group,’ ” an Israeli official said, still savoring Christopher’s surprise when Peres flew out to California a week after the agreement was initialed to fill him in. “They were surprised, actually dumbfounded, by the agreement.”

Christopher was so startled by Peres’ call, asking to meet him to report “important developments” in the peace talks, that he checked with Rabin to make sure that the contact was “authorized,” reflecting the State Department’s suspicion that Peres was conducting negotiations behind Rabin’s back and was seeking to enlist U.S. support. Rabin assured Christopher that Peres was acting with his knowledge and blessing.

The pace of negotiations had picked up through May and June. On the table were various drafts of the Declaration of Principles, agreements that would implement “Gaza-Jericho first” and further protocols that would give the Palestinians control of most West Bank governmental functions.

The Palestinian-Israeli talks in Washington, however, stalled, and the tenth round of negotiations ended in a discouraging stalemate. The progress in Oslo was not being translated into the official negotiations. Israeli officials suspected that Arafat was trying to force them into direct talks by refusing to allow the delegation, made up of West Bank and Gaza residents, to agree to what had already been worked out in Oslo.

On June 9 in Oslo, the PLO representatives conveyed a major Arafat concession--postponing all discussion of Jerusalem’s status until negotiations on the final settlement. But the delegation’s instructions remained not to yield on this point.

In Oslo, “Gaza-Jericho” was already fact in June, but the delegation got its instructions to introduce it as a new proposal only in late August, when the 11th round of talks began in Washington.

In Oslo, the PLO representatives were deep into the details of the takeover of governmental services under “early empowerment,” the election of a Palestinian council and other issues while the official delegations were still struggling with alternative drafts of the Declaration of Principles.

Rabin and Peres, puzzled by the PLO tactics, began to double-check. Israeli Health Minister Chaim Ramon, a leading Cabinet dove, talked with Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian physician with Israeli citizenship and close ties to Arafat. Environment Minister Yossi Sarid went to Cairo to meet Shaath, the PLO political adviser. And, according to PLO sources, Peres met at least twice with Abbas.

“The feedback was all positive,” Hirschfeld, also a member of an informal Labor Party group, said, “but the signals were still quite mixed. . . . Even at this point, we saw our role as pathfinders, not end-result negotiators.”

Confusion continued to mount among Israelis as Arafat’s coalition of moderates within the PLO appeared to fragment. Criticism increased of his leadership--his autocratic style, the mismanagementof the organization’s assets, the concessions he was thought to be making to Israel. Arafat began to speak of resigning from the leadership of Fatah, the main element in the PLO.

Then, three key members of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks, angry over the concessions Arafat offered to Israel during the Jerusalem visit of Secretary of State Warren Christopher in early August, plunged the PLO into an internal crisis by resigning and then being persuaded to stay after a nearly a week of heated debate in Tunis.

“We had two very different but quite worrying sets of questions,” an Israeli participant said. “The first was what precisely was on the table, and we had to check it all. The second was whether Arafat could carry this off; we had placed our bets on his ability to deliver.”

There was also a sharp debate among Israeli policy-makers on a third issue--whether dealing with Arafat might not save him as he and the PLO might be collapsing.

“Our salvaging the PLO today is like the United States propping up the Soviet Union and communism after winning the Cold War,” a Rabin adviser said, entering a strong personal dissent.

Rabin, meanwhile, was pursuing another line of negotiations--with Syria. During his visit to the region in the first week of August, Christopher had become a personal channel between the Israeli prime minister and President Assad, and the initial back-and-forth was far more promising than any negotiations in the past year. But Rabin’s Labor Party advisers warned that he would probably have difficulty in selling Israelis one deal with the Palestinians and another with Syria, both involving difficult retreats.

His decision was to try to bring the Palestinian agreement to a conclusion first and to pursue the Syrian negotiations as circumstances allowed. “The Palestinian problem is the central issue,” Rabin explained later. “Solve that, and everything else will be settled within a few months, maybe a few weeks.”

The Israelis moved swiftly into a diplomatic endgame in Oslo. Hirschfeld worked through the night of Aug. 16, preparing the final draft of the “Gaza-Jericho” agreement. In the morning, he took it to Peres, who then took it to Rabin. The Israeli negotiators flew to Oslo and worked out the final questions with the Palestinians before the initialing.

An agreement on mutual recognition would help sell the “Gaza-Jericho” accord, the Palestinians told the Israelis; it would be evidence of the new era that the agreement would proclaim. The Israelis warned that their conditions would necessarily be tough.

Small delegations from both sides plunged back into negotiations at a feverish pace, again with Norwegian mediation, finally coming to terms in an all-night session at Paris’ luxurious Bristol Hotel.

“No one believed we were so close,” the Labor Party’s Nissim Zvilli recounted. “We thought it would be much slower, step by step, and that the Palestinian delegation would sign in Washington.

“Suddenly, it seemed we could do more, and we kept on going. We had momentum. The PLO said, ‘Recognize us.’ We said, ‘Change your (national) charter, abandon terrorism and acknowledge Israel’s right to existence and security.’ They said, ‘OK.’ . . . So, who knows where this will lead us?”

Times staff writers Kim Murphy in Tunis, Norman Kempster in Washington, Mark Fineman in Damascus, special correspondent Marilyn Raschka in Beirut, and researchers Dianna Cahn and Emily Hauser in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

A Backdoor to Peace

Here are some of the key players in the secret negotiations that took place in Norway, which led to the historic PLO-Israeli pact.

Name: Yasser Arafat

Background: Palestine Liberation Organization chief since 1969. Faced with defections, he needed a political victory.

Role: Looking for a bold initiative, he pursued secret negotiations with Israel.

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Name: Uri Savir

Background: Israeli Foreign Ministry’s 40-year-old director general.

Role: When it was decided last April to raise the Norway talks to an official level, Savir was chosen to represent the Israeli government.

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Name: Yitzhak Rabin

Background: Elected Israeli prime minister in June, 1992, promising to achieve an accord on Palestinian self-rule.

Role: Endorsed secret talks in Norway. Worked in tandem with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

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Name: Ahmed Suleiman Khoury (a.k.a. Abu Alaa)

Background: Senior PLO official in charge of finances; member of Arafat’s Fatah group.

Role: Helped negotiate draft agreement. In it, he introduced idea of linking Gaza Strip and Jericho.

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Name: Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Maazen)

Background: PLO’s director of international affairs. Holds degree in Zionist history.

Role: Seen as architect of PLO’s peace plan. Acted as lead strategist for PLO in the secret talks.

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Name: Yair Hirschfeld

Background: Professor of Middle East history at Haifa University. Friend of Yossi Beilin’s.

Role: Served as key go-between before actual talks got under way. Then served as Israel’s point man in the talks.

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Name: Shimon Peres

Background: Former Israeli prime minister and defense minister; currently foreign minister.

Role: Attended secret meeting in Norway in August. Helped bring about draft agreement initialed on Aug. 20.

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Name: Yasser Abed-Rabbo

Background: PLO information chief. Top Arafat adviser.

Role: From beginning knew about--and supported--secret talks. One of only four men in Arafat’s inner circle.

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Name: Terje Rod Larsen

Background: Head of a Norwegian institute that researched conditions in the occupied territories.

Role: First suggested Norway as channel for secret talks. Later arranged meeting where the offer became fact.

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Name: Yossi Beilin

Background: Israeli deputy foreign minister. Had long called for direct Israeli-PLO talks.

Role: Helped direct the start of the secret negotiations, first using Hirschfeld as his point man.

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Name: Johan Jorgen Holst

Background: Norway’s foreign minister. Close friend of Larsen.

Role: His home outside Oslo became the base for the talks. Played a crucial role in bringing the two sides together.

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Name: Nabil Shaath

Background: PLO’s top man in Cairo. Supervised Palestinian delegation to Washington peace talks.

Role: At key stage, organized some secret Israeli-PLO meetings in Cairo to keep lines of communication open.


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