Sowing the secret seeds of peace Enemies found agreement under Norwegian guidance ISRAEL-PLO PEACE TALKS

September 05, 1993|By Doug Struck and Dan Fesperman | Doug Struck and Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- It was 2 a.m. in Norway's official guest house in Oslo when Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister and crafty old warhorse of Israeli politics, got the paper he had waited two days to see.

The document just might put an end to the cycle of wars in the Middle East.

Mr. Peres accepted the document with a handshake from Ahmed Ali Suliman Karia, a top official of the Palestine Liberation Organization who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Allah.

The three Palestinians in the room and four other Israelis had been ushered secretly into the guest house through the kitchen. Even at this hour, the sight of a knot of Arabs and Jews entering the same house could draw attention. Disclosure of the meeting between a top Israeli and the PLO would have caused an uproar in both camps and ruined all the work done so far.

That work had involved furtive trips to Norway, where Arabs and Jews met in at least 15 secret rounds of negotiations. It had trafficked briefly with another avenue ofsecret talks in Cairo. It had involved regular briefings of the Americans.

Now, on Aug. 20, all the clandestine meetings were distilled in an agreement that could end Israel's 26-year occupation over 1 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank village of Jericho. And it could start Jews and Arabs in the Middle East down a new path toward peace that seemed hopelessly elusive only a few weeks earlier.

It was a historic moment. Someone ran a video camera as the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators signed the agreement. The document was too sensitive, too politically charged, for Mr. Peres to imprint his own signature.

Officially a "guest of honor," he just watched.

As he watched, it might have occurred to him that he was also rescuing the political career of his political archrival, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the man who once savaged him as a liar and schemer.

For Shimon Peres was not supposed to be the one to come up with a peace agreement.

Mr. Rabin had beaten Mr. Peres soundly in party elections last year, then ousted the right-wing govern-ment with a promise that he could deliver a peace plan within nine months. He made the pledge in June 1992.

Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres were the two old mares of the Labor Party. They were there at the birth of the state in 1948, and had often vied for supremacy of the party and the country. They see-sawed in this battle for position: Each had been party boss, each had been prime minister once before, each viewed the other with suspicion.

Mr. Rabin was compelled to appoint Mr. Peres foreign minister in his new government, but no one expected the rivalry to end. The prime minister affirmed those expectations when he took for himself supervision of the peace negotiations already under way between Israel and the Arab parties.

He relegated his foreign minister to supervision of the "multilateral negotiations" -- seminars and conferences that had not amounted to much and were expected to go nowhere.

To the surprise of many, Mr. Peres took the assignment without protest and plunged into the work.

"He's a politician's politician," said a close associate of Mr. Peres who refused to discuss either of the personalities for attribution. "He believes there's no situation you can't turn to your advantage if you work on it long enough. He looked around, and said, 'OK, if that's what they gave me to do, I'll build on it.' "

Mr. Peres aggressively touted the importance of the multilateral talks, to the smirks of those in the Rabin camp. He hustled to get Israelis and Arabs to meet on a variety of regional issues in academic seminars around the globe.

These contacts were like seeds -- and at least in one small crevice, away from the sun of publicity, away even from the formal field of the multilateral talks, they sprouted.

In the meantime, the direct negotiations that the world was watching so closely had labored and stalled. Mr. Rabin had to admit he had been hopelessly optimistic in his promise of peace within nine months.

Then Shimon Peres quietly offered to save him.

The Oslo channel

The seed that grew actually was planted in June 1992, when a Norwegian researcher and a close confidant of Mr. Peres in the Israeli Parliament sat down for lunch at an Indian restaurant in Tel Aviv. They had been at the same convention and hit it off, sharing an interest in the thorny issues of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The researcher, Terje Rod Larsen, was putting together a project to study living conditions in the territories. The member of Parliament, Yossi Beilin of the Labor Party, knew plenty.

Mr. Beilin introduced Mr. Larsen to another friend, Haifa University history professor Yair Hirschfeld.

Dr. Hirschfeld said Mr. Larsen presented an idea: Why couldn't some Israelis and some members of the PLO, sworn enemies for decades, get together for a friendly chat somewhere on neutral ground?

Because it would be illegal, for one thing, with PLO contacts banned by Israeli law.

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