Revelations are emerging from the ping-pong of news developments as revelations in the Israeli media spur publication of reports by American correspondents based in Israel which are in turn picked up by the Israeli media.
At the end of May, according to the Israeli media, there were reportedly talks in London between Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, attorney Yitzhak Molcho [who apparently is Netanyahu’s man in charge of Palestinian “matters”], National Security Advisor Uzi Arad and the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Mike Herzog — and the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell.
One Israeli publication (I think it was Haaretz, but — sorry — I lost the reference!!) reported last week that the U.S. Special Envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell “emphasized that the U.S. does not accept the concept of ‘natural growth’ for the settlements. ‘We did not hear from the Bush administration about any of these so-called understandings with Israel on the settlements – all of which were supposedly oral understandings between different people every time’, said one senior American official. ‘But we’ve never heard a thing about them – they certainly weren’t formal agreements between our governments. The Israelis want us to commit to oral understandings we have never heard about, but at the same time they are not willing to commit to written agreements their government has signed, like the road map and commitment to the two-state solution’. The disagreement over the understandings concerning the settlements produced an embarrassing encounter in London last week during a meeting between Mitchell, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and a number of Netanyahu’s advisers. At the meeting, the Israelis claimed there was a letter between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon stating that the settlement blocs would remain in Israeli hands, so construction is permitted there. Mitchell showed the Israelis that one of the letter’s sections discusses the principle of two states for two peoples. ‘That is also written in the letter – do you agree to that?’ he asked”.
Then, the NY Times correspondent in Jerusalem, Ethan Bronner, reported that “Senior Israeli officials expressed irritation on Wednesday that President Obama had declined to acknowledge what they called clear understandings with the Bush administration that allowed Israel to build West Bank settlement housing within certain guidelines while still publicly claiming to honor a settlement ‘freeze’ … The Israeli officials said that repeated and ongoing discussions with Bush officials starting in late 2002 gave unambiguous permission to build within the boundaries of certain settlement blocs as long as no new land was expropriated, no special economic incentives were offered to move to settlements and no new settlements were built”. The NYTimes reported that an Israeli official who asked for anonymity said that “When Israel signed onto the so-called roadmap for a two-state solution in 2003, which says its government ‘freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)’ … it was after a detailed discussion with Bush officials that laid out those explicit limits. ‘Not everything is written down’, said one of the officials. He and others said that Israel agreed both to the roadmap and to move ahead with the removal of settlements and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 on the understanding that settlement growth could continue”.
The NYTimes checked this with American officials and former officials, and then reported that “a senior official in the Bush administration disagreed, calling the Israeli characterization ‘an overstatement’. ‘There was never an agreement to accept natural growth’, the official said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. ‘There was an effort to explore what natural growth would mean, but we weren’t able to reach agreement on that’. ..
The NYTimes article contineued: “The official said that Bush administration officials were working [n.b., this is a funny choice of tense, and implies that this is continuing, rather than a completed past event] with their Israeli counterparts to clarify several issues, including natural growth, government subsidies to settlers, and the cessation of appropriation of Palestinian land. The United States and Israel never reached an agreement though, either public or private, the official said. The Israeli officials acknowledged that the new American administration had different ideas about the meaning of the term settlement freeze’. Both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said in the past week that the term meant an end to all building, including natural growth. But they complained that Mr. Obama had not granted that the previous understandings existed. Instead, they lamented, Israel stood now accused of having cheated and dissembled in its settlement activity whereas, in fact, it had largely lived within the guidelines to which both governments had agreed. On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel ‘cannot freeze life in the settlements’, calling the American demand ‘unreasonable’. Dov Weissglas, who was a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote an opinion article for Yediot Aharonot, a mass-selling newspaper, on Tuesday in which he laid out the agreements he said had been reached with Bush officials. He said that in May 2003 he and Mr. Sharon met with Elliott Abrams and Stephen Hadley of the National Security Council and came up with the definition of settlement freeze as ‘no new communities were to be built; no Palestinian lands were to be appropriated for settlement purposes; building will not take place beyond the existing community outline; and no “settlement encouraging” budgets were to be allocated’. He said that Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, signed off on that definition later that month and that the two governments also agreed to set up a joint committee to define more fully the meaning of ‘existing community outline’ for existing settlements. President Bush presented Mr. Sharon in April 2004 with a letter stating, ‘In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949’. That, Mr. Weissglas said, was a result of his earlier negotiations with Bush officials acknowledging that certain settlement blocs would remain Israeli and open to continued growth. The Israeli officials said that no Bush official had ever publicly insisted that Israel was obliged to stop all building in the areas it captured in 1967. They said it was important to know that key verbal understandings reached between an Israeli prime minister and an American president would not simply be tossed aside when a new administration came into office”.
Well, but the NYTimes reported in the sentences above that American officials said that they had NOT reached a “verbal understanding”, much less an agreement.
The NYTimes added that “Mr. Abrams, the former Bush official who was part of those negotiations, wrote his own opinion article in The Washington Post and seemed to endorse the Israeli argument. He wrote, ‘For the past five years, Israel’s government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians’. Mr. Abrams acknowledged that even within those guidelines, Israel had not fully complied. He wrote: ‘There has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake’.” This NYTimes report can be read in full here.
At the State Department daily briefing in Washington today, Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley told journalists that “As the President mentioned this morning, George Mitchell will be departing for the region, beginning on Sunday. He first starts with a stop in Oslo, Norway, and then will travel to the region for talks with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian officials. You will probably ask me: What about Syria? That is a possibility, but it’s still being – the arrangements for that are still being worked.
QUESTION: Yeah. You said there was a possibility of Syria, but … did they get their visas?
MR. CROWLEY: They do have their visas.
QUESTION: They do. Okay. Does he, while he is there, have any plans to meet with anyone connected with Hamas or related to Hamas?
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: When the Secretary visited Lebanon, she said Senator Mitchell will visit Lebanon in June. Is there a possibility that they will include Lebanon on this trip?
MR. CROWLEY: That – the Lebanese have an important election coming up on Sunday. I wouldn’t rule out a visit to Beirut, but it’s not currently on the schedule.
NOW, I recall, an article published by the Institute for Palestine Studies in January 2008 [Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 54–65] by a Norwegian historian suggests why documentation in these negotiations is either never established, or goes missing. Yes, it can just disappear — like every single bit of documentation of the “Oslo” back-channel talks, all vanished. And nobody appears to be terribly embarrassed.
Here are some excerpts from the article, POSTSCRIPT TO OSLO: THE MYSTERY OF NORWAY’S MISSING FILES, by Hilde Henriksen Waage, professor of history at the University of Oslo and senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO):
Waage wrote: “Norway’s ‘Oslo achievement’, in the national psyche, is such that any aspersion cast on its role in the process, any assault on the Oslo mystique, generates controversy and hostility. The Oslo myth is well entrenched: A personality-driven explanation of events, the story tells of a small coterie of idealistic and resourceful citizens of tiny Norway who, through perseverance and the ‘Oslo spirit’ they created, succeeded where the superpowers had failed in bringing age-old enemies together to make peace.
“More specifically, the story focuses on four indisputably attractive individuals. First and foremost in the public imagination is Terje Rød-Larsen, the charming, self-confident diplomat-of-action who, as head of the Norwegian research institute FAFO, got the ‘peace ball’ rolling. Next is his elegant wife, Mona Juul, a Middle East specialist at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) who helped create the cozy, homey atmosphere that fostered the breakthrough. State Secretary Jan Egeland, the handsome, results-oriented idealist who welcomed the chance to test the hypothesis of his political science thesis about how small states can create results in international politics unattainable for superpowers, was the third player. Once the process was underway, the trio became a quartet with the addition of Norway’s newly appointed foreign minister, the dynamic Johan Jørgen Holst, whose can-do approach and shrewd mediation overcame eleventh-hour snags to bring the process to its successful conclusion on the White House lawn in Washington, DC.
“The legacy is guarded like a national treasure, to such an extent that the discovery in early 2006 that the ‘Oslo files’ — the documents concerning the back-channel negotiations that launched the accords — had gone missing, with no trace either in the MFA or in the national archives, became a running topic in national newspapers for almost a year.
“In fact, the discovery that the files were missing had actually taken place several years earlier — it just hadn’t hit the press. In 2001, I was commissioned by the Norwegian MFA to conduct a comprehensive study of the Oslo back-channel. In order to carry out the research, I was granted privileged access to all relevant, still-classified files in the ministry’s archives. Given that the MFA had been at the heart of the process — either directly through the involvement of Egeland, Juul, and Holst, or indirectly as the funder of the back-channel talks initially overseen by FAFO’s Rød-Larsen — there seemed no doubt that all the documents I needed would be there.
“But when I set to work at the archives, to my surprise, I found not a single scrap of paper for the entire period from January to September 1993 — precisely the period of the back-channel talks. I alerted the head of the MFA archive, who was astonished and more than a little puzzled. Surely they had been misplaced, perhaps stored in improperly marked boxes. After an exhaustive search by the archive’s staff, who combed through indexes, storage rooms, and shelves looking for misfiled documents, all doubt was removed: There were no files.
“Fleeting suggestions that the back.channel process might have been oral, without written record at the request of the participants, were immediately dismissed, not least because excerpts from the missing documents had already been quoted in memoirs by Israeli participants such as then foreign minister Shimon Peres, then deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin, and to a lesser extent, chief negotiator Uri Savir. A number of these quotes were from letters written by Foreign Minister Holst, who died in January 1994. Given his key role in the later stages of the talks, and in light of his known penchant for writing long memos and detailed analyses, it seemed logical that if his own Oslo writings were not in the MFA archives, they would be found among his private papers. I therefore secured an interview with his widow, Marianne Heiberg, who had accompanied her husband on several of his Oslo missions and even participated in some of the secret meetings. This, too, proved to be a dead end: Heiberg, herself a researcher and a Middle East specialist, had originally planned to write about the peace process herself but had been surprised to find no documents relating to her late husband’s involvement in the Oslo back channel among his private papers.
“Meanwhile, the MFA contacted Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul on my behalf to ask if they had any information or documents to contribute, but the MFA’s requests, as well as my own, went unanswered.
“Through scores of interviews with the key players (Norwegian, Israeli, Palestinian, and American), excerpts from key missing documents published elsewhere, and a good dose of common sense, it was possible to put together a comprehensive picture of the back channel, its pitfalls, and its limitations, focusing on Norway’s role.
“My book caused a considerable stir when it came out in April 2004. I had challenged the prevailing myth by demonstrating that Norway had acted very much as the United States had acted (albeit for different reasons): Norwegian facilitators, anxious to bring the agreement to conclusion, had consistently sided with Israel, shared information with them, and leaned on the Palestinians to give in at crucial moments. In all the controversy around the book — a controversy augmented by the fact that Rød-Larsen and Juul publicly attacked my conclusions — the reference to the missing files in my introduction was overlooked. Though I tried to generate interest in the mystery by mentioning it to a number of people, including journalists, no one followed upon on it, and the issue faded away.
“[Around the end of February 2006] the MFA publicly acknowledged — though without explanation — that none of the relevant documents had ever been filed with the ministry to begin with. At a meeting between the two government institutions, a plan of action for following up on the missing files was formulated and a division of labor decided: The MFA would approach Mona Juul and Jan Egeland, both MFA employees at the time of the backchannel talks in 1993, while Herstad would contact Terje Rød-Larsen and the family of the late Johan Jørgen Holst.
“The attempts to recover the documents did not get very far. On the MFA side, former state secretary Jan Egeland, who in the meantime had become UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York, went through his private papers and sent eight documents to the MFA.
“Although some of these are important and had been missing — particularly the Sarpsborg document [from a footnote: The Sarpsborg document was the first draft of a declaration of principles produced by the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in February 1993; the provisions of the document were substantially changed (in Israel’s favor) in subsequent negotiations]and Holst’s statement to the Parliamentarian Foreign Affairs Committee — none of them belonged to the most crucial phase (May–August 1993), when Egeland’s involvement had been largely eclipsed by the increasingly central role of Holst. Mona Juul, on the other hand, who had accompanied Holst on his various missions and who was in charge of keeping his documents organized, had little to say. By that time Norway’s deputy head of mission to the United Nations in New York, she had already been questioned about the files in early January and affirmed that she had no documents except those that belonged to her. She declined to elaborate. Meanwhile, Herstad’s attempts on behalf of the national archives met with even less success. Holst’s widow, Marianne Heiberg, had died in December 2004, having maintained to the end that she had no idea where her husband’s Oslo papers might be; the Holst family had no further information.
“As for Rød-Larsen, by this time head of the United Nations–affiliated International Peace Academy in New York and simultaneously UN Special Representative for the Implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, he seemed little inclined to share his thoughts. Already confronted with the issue in January 2006, he had insisted that he had only ‘private’ memos and a ‘private’ archive from his engagement in the Oslo negotiations, although both he and his wife noted that FAFO might have the ministry’s missing files. The research institution affirmed, however, that none of the ministry’s files were in its possession.
“The search for the documents reached its ultimate dead end in early May 2006, when Rød-Larsen sent a letter to Herstad on official International Peace Academy stationery making absolutely clear that he had no intention of turning any of the documents in his ‘extensive private archive’ over to the Norwegian state. In his estimation, Norway’s involvement in the Middle East peace process was basically a FAFO initiative, and in his capacity as the organization’s director and the leader of its ‘negotiation project’, he was the one who had liaised between Israelis and Palestinians, arranged the necessary briefings, and coordinated with the MFA. FAFO, he elaborated, had organized the secret negotiations at the request of the Israelis and the Palestinians, who had wanted, among other things, to ‘avoid the reporting and filing routines which civil servants are bound by’. He wrote that he had noted ‘with interest’ statements from ‘some Norwegian historians, officials in the MFA, and the head of the national archives himself’ regarding the missing files, but claimed that none had attempted to contact him directly. This being the case, according to Rød-Larsen, neither the participants in the public debate nor their alleged lack of communication had ‘contributed to the relationship of trust that is a necessary precondition when donating a private archive including memos from sensitive conversations with, among others, still-living politicians and diplomats from many countries’. In consequence, he concluded, ‘I will donate my private archive to an internationally recognized archive abroad’.
“Given the wide consensus, at least in academic circles, on the MFA’s right to the Oslo files, there was considerable surprise when, in early 2007, the MFA suddenly appeared wholeheartedly to embrace Rød-Larsen’s views on the ownership of the documents. This was in sharp contrast to its earlier stance. In March 2006, for example, the MFA had emphasized in its correspondence with Juul and Egeland that they were obliged to return all documents in their possession, including all minutes and private notes, and even specified that the secret, back-channel nature of the talks did not constitute a justification for not returning the documents. But in January of 2007, the MFA’s spokesperson, questioned on the present status of the ministry’s quest to recover the documents, was quoted as saying: ‘Our conclusion is that there are no documents concerning the Oslo process in his [Rød-Larsen’s] possession that are missing from the MFA’s files. Therefore, we consider the case closed’. The MFA spokesperson went on to elaborate that ‘the MFA had a very limited involvement in the secret negotiations. On behalf of Norway, it was mainly Foreign Minister Johan Jørgen Holst and Terje Rød-Larsen from FAFO who were involved’. When asked whether or not Rød-Larsen should be seen as having acted on behalf of Norway, the spokesperson replied, ‘No, he participated on a mission from the foreign minister’. The spokesperson specifically identified Mona Juul as ‘the only one from the MFA’.
“Even leaving aside the rather astonishing implication that the Norwegian foreign minister is not part of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, the MFA’s statement raised eyebrows.
“Why should we bother about missing documents, or care that they are not in government archives? More specifically, what does it matter whether or not the Oslo backchannel files are available for public (or scholarly) scrutiny, especially since the broad outlines of the Oslo story are already known? Whatever the ultimate fate of the Oslo process, there is no question that it constituted, for better or for worse, a turning point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This being the case, it is important for the historical record to know how this process unfolded, and particularly why the Palestinian positions progressively crumbled in the course of the backchannel negotiations. Historians cannot rely on excerpts, which are by definition selective; they must have access to documents in their entirety to reach a full and accurate assessment of what happened and why.
“The importance of the documents can be illustrated by an episode in July 1993, when the entire back-channel enterprise seemed on the brink of collapse as the Palestinians refused to make the compromises and concessions
demanded by Israel. According to Israeli accounts, Holst and the Norwegians were instrumental in getting the talks back on track. Holst took advantage of an official visit to Tunisia to arrange a personal meeting with Arafat that took place at PLO headquarters on 13 July. Prior to the meeting, the Israelis, as was their habit, briefed Holst on what questions to raise with Arafat and what Israeli red lines to convey, and asked him to stop in Israel afterwards to brief them. Holst was accompanied at the Arafat meeting by Rød-Larsen and Juul, but it was he who did the talking on the Norwegian side. Much of the discussion centered on Arafat’s insistence on extraterritorial corridors (what Arafat called ‘kissing points’) between the West Bank and Gaza, with Holst insisting instead on the vague and essentially meaningless formulation ‘safe passage’. A second meeting was arranged a week later, on 20 July, because Israel wanted additional clarification on Arafat’s thinking on this issue (the Palestinian leader would not be pinned down). Other issues were apparently also discussed, and Holst was able to advise the Israelis that if Jericho were not included in the final package as a PLO foothold in the West Bank, Arafat would have a hard time selling the deal.
“All this is known not from documents but from interviews with the participants, written accounts, and excerpts (published in Israeli sources) from letters Holst wrote to Peres directly after the meetings to recount what had transpired. What we learn from Tveit is that Holst also wrote “long and detailed minutes in English” after the meetings. Indeed, Tveit’s book is replete with passing allusions to Holst’s compulsive note-taking throughout the entire four months of his involvement in the process: his aide-memoires before and after meetings; his memoranda on discussions by telephone or in person with various leaders; his exhaustive draft minutes, often written on airplanes as he traveled from one destination to another—not to mention his letters to various key players.
“(From my own research, I can affirm that the MFA archives are overflowing with copies of his copious writings, often in his own hand, on every issue that concerned him throughout his Foreign Ministry career except the secret Oslo talks.) Given Holst’s exceptional thoroughness, the importance of the missing documentation in providing insights into the workings of the Oslo track cannot be overstated. It is also not difficult to imagine how precious Holst’s detailed descriptions of his meetings with Arafat would have been for the Israeli negotiators at the time. As we know from Israeli accounts, Rød-Larsen and Juul personally delivered Holst’s letter to the Israelis a few days after the first meeting. The Tveit book adds the important detail that the couple also delivered his full minutes of the meeting; unable to come to Israel himself, Holst wrote Peres that he was sending Rød-Larsen and Juul as his ‘special envoys’ to brief Peres’s ‘people’ directly. The pair thus met with the entire Israeli team, supplying additional details and being on hand to answer any questions about the nuances of Arafat’s responses, his tone, his body language. The advantage to the Israeli side of such prior knowledge of the adversary’s thinking needs no emphasis.
“Had the missing documents (especially the extensive Holst material whose existence has now been confirmed) been accessible at the time of writing, there seems no doubt that the findings of my report would have shown even more starkly the extent to which the Oslo process was conducted on Israel’s premises, with Norway acting as Israel’s helpful errand boy. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the very prospect of making public blow-by-blow descriptions of the mediation could have some bearing on why the files went missing in the first place. Such considerations may even have played a role in the MFA’s decision to renounce its claim to the files, and explain the ‘news blackout’ on the subject that followed. It seems clear that important interests both inside and outside government are determined to avoid a critical discussion of Norway’s peacemaking and peace-building efforts, on which billions of dollars are spent.
“Given the overwhelming imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Norway probably could not have acted otherwise if it wanted to reach a deal — or even if it wanted to play a role in the process at all. Israel’s red lines were the ones that counted, and if the Palestinians wanted a deal, they would have to accept them, too. Indeed, in third-party mediations between vastly unequal parties by a small state like Norway, the only chance for ‘success’ in reaching an agreement is for the small state ‘facilitator’ (a role that in Norway’s case evolved into that of mediator) to play by the rules of the stronger party, acting on its premises, while using carrots and sticks on the weaker party to persuade or cajole it into making further concessions” …
“Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul were both given drafts of my various manuscripts with requests for help and information, both by me and by the MFA. At the urging of the MFA, they finally agreed to be interviewed by me in August and October 2002, respectively. Rød-Larsen would not allow me to tape the interview but asked to see the manuscript to verify his quotes. I sent him the manuscript as agreed; he did not contact me with comments despite my follow-up inquiries. When my report was declassified by the MFA and made public, however, he attacked me strongly in the media, claiming to have been misquoted and declaring that my findings had not been based on any solid sources”.
from the end of footnote 23.
“In 1999, Rød-Larsen had been appointed the UN secretary-general’s personal representative to the PLO and the PA, and following the siege of Jenin in April 2002, he made a statement [see Quarterly Update in JPS 124] that angered many Israelis. To punish him, the Israeli Right in May 2002 leaked to the press that Rød-Larsen and Juul had each been awarded $100,000 from the Peres Center, of which the Norwegian MFA had from the outset been a major supporter. At the time of the leak, Juul had recently (2001) been appointed Norway’s ambassador to Israel. In an unprecedented move, she was recalled to Oslo by the foreign minister, reprimanded, and forced to return the money, although she continued at her post in Israel until 2004. Rød-Larsen, on the other hand, who was already with the United Nations at the time, said he deserved the money and kept it”.
This article can be read in full here