Intelligence errors usually are associated with military disasters like Pearl Harbor or the 1973 Yom Kippur War, not with diplomacy.
Yet the last decade of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may involve such an error of assessment. Looking back now, 10 years after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, it’s clear that the failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement cannot be attributed to a lack of political will on the Israeli side or the failure of the United States to deal more forcibly with noncompliance.
Rather, it has to do with the more fundamental question of whether the leadership of the PLO really was prepared for reconciliation and peace with Israel.
The overwhelming evidence from statements by the PLO leadership was that it viewed the Oslo process as a tactical necessity to realize its ultimate strategic goal of recovering the entire territory of British Mandatory Palestine — including the area of Israel.
It would be a mistake to assign this intention to PLO leader Yasser Arafat alone. After all, it was the PLO’s top official for Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, who on two separate occasions in 2001 described Oslo as a “Trojan Horse” that served the realization of “the strategic goal — namely, Palestine from the river to the sea.”
Similarly, the leader of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, told The New Yorker that even if Israel withdrew from 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not end. What was needed, he said, was “one state for all the peoples.”
Arafat, who after Oslo became head of the Palestinian Authority, usually was more careful about concealing his true intentions, but they nonetheless could be discerned. Right from 1994, he disclosed his view of Oslo as a temporary Islamic truce. But he generally would speak so forthrightly only in closed-door meetings in places like South Africa or Sweden.
More recently, he frequently sent messengers to Palestinian cities to speak on his behalf.
Thus the official Palestinian daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida on Jan. 30, 2001, carried an address in Arafat’s name by an ideologue affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah movement, Sakher Habash, that asserted: “Experience proves that without the establishment of the democratic state on all the land, peace will not be realized . . . The Jews must get rid of Zionism . . . They must be citizens in the state of the future, the state of Democratic Palestine.”
The big question raised by these recent quotations is: Why did the Israeli and U.S. governments invest so much in the Oslo process if it was so clear that the PLO had no intention of making peace? Didn’t they consult with their intelligence establishments before investing presidential time at the failed Camp David summit of 2000? Where was the Central Intelligence Agency?
To its credit, Israeli military intelligence flatly warned about the security problems emanating from Oslo. The then- intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv in 1998, “I cannot say at any point since it entered the territory in May 1994 that the Palestinian Authority acted decisively against the terrorist operational capability of Hamas, as well as the Islamic Jihad.”
But there were no public warnings about the PLO’s political intentions in the Oslo peace process. Henry Kissinger warned in his seminal work, “Diplomacy”: “What political leaders decide, intelligence services tend to seek to justify.”
Perhaps the U.S. and Israeli intelligence establishments were intimidated by their political echelons.
If there is a lesson from all this, it is that governments must allow their intelligence communities the freedom to express themselves and promote intellectual pluralism if disasters in the Middle East are to be avoided. For diplomatic errors can be even more costly than military blunders — even if they were originally undertaken with the best of intentions.
Dore Gold is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. From 1997-1999, he served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations. He is the author of “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.