CAMERA Op-Ed: The Oslo Diaries and Yasser Arafat’s Trunk

On Sept. 13, 1993, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook the hand of the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, on the south lawn of the White House. The handshake between the two men launched the Oslo Accords and provided what several commentators called a “day of hope.”

That day, however, was short-lived. And 25 years later, many Western press outlets and a new film, entitled The Oslo Diaries, still fail to note why. Indeed, the movie—billed as an “original documentary” for HBO—rewrites and misremembers the Oslo process, leaving facts on the cutting room floor.

The distortions are most evident with what the “documentary” decides not to tell viewers. Astonishingly for a movie that purports to provide the history of the “peace process,” U.S. and Israeli offers for a Palestinian state aren’t even mentioned by the filmmakers. Acknowledging that these offers occurred, apparently, would undercut the film’s Israel-blaming narrative.

In 2000 at Camp David, 2001 at Taba and 2008 after the Annapolis Conference, Palestinian leaders rejected, without so much as a counteroffer, offers that would have given them a state with a capital in eastern Jerusalem. The September 2008 offer by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for example, would have given the Palestinians 93.7 percent of the West Bank, with Israeli territory to make up 5.8 percent, and a corridor to Gaza from the West Bank for the other 0.5 percent.

In his 2005 autobiography, President Bill Clinton, whose team was deeply involved in the years of negotiations that followed the south lawn ceremony, called Arafat’s rejection of the 2000 and 2001 offers a “colossal mistake” and “an error of historic proportions.” One has to wonder why a “historical documentary”—which interviewed several U.S. and Israeli negotiators—omitted them.

Indeed, in a Sept. 12, 2018 viewing of the film at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a D.C.-based think tank, Joel Singer, an Israeli negotiator who features prominently in it, told the audience that the movie’s “editing made the collapse of the Oslo process seem like it was all Israel’s fault.” The Oslo Diaries, he said, told some of the truth “but they didn’t tell all of the truth.”

Instead the movie presents the Nov. 4, 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an American-born Israeli, Yigal Amir, as ending the peace process. In a filmed interview, longtime Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiator and PLO apparatchik, Saeb Erekat, even claims that after Rabin’s murder, Arafat said, “they assassinated the peace process in Israel.” Yet, in a March 27, 2009 interview with Al-Jazeera, Erekat hailed both Arafat’s 2000 decision and current PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s 2008 decisions to reject Israeli proposals.

In reality, negotiations continued—along with phased Israeli withdrawals, including from the ancient Jewish city of Hebron. While the so-called “settlers” of that ancient Jewish community serve, along with Benjamin Netanyahu, as the film’s villains, the filmmakers leave out that it was actually under Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister (1996-1999) that the Hebron withdrawal occurred, as stipulated by the 1997 Hebron Agreement.

The movie notes that Rabin was “more pessimistic than ever” before his assassination. It does not, however, explain why: Palestinian anti-Jewish violence had increased post-Oslo, and this occurred despite Arafat’s signed commitment four days before the White House ceremony pledging that the PLO renounced the “use of terrorism and other acts of violence.”

Instead, the “documentary” only briefly alludes to the increase in Palestinian terrorism, and to the extent that it is shown, it is portrayed as emanating purely from Hamas and other “hardline” Palestinian factions.

As the historian and psychiatrist Kenneth Levin, author of The Oslo Syndrome, pointed out in a Sept. 10, 2018 FrontPage Magazine Op-Ed: “On the evening of the White House ceremony, Arafat broadcast a speech on Jordanian television assuring Palestinians, and the Arab world more broadly, that they should understand Oslo in terms of the Palestine National Council’s 1974 decision.” This, Levin noted, was a reference to the so-called “plan of phases,” according to which the PLO “would acquire whatever territory it could by negotiations, then use that land as a base for pursuing Israel’s annihilation.”

Indeed, in a May 10, 1994 speech in South Africa, and in another one on Aug. 21, 1995 at Al-Azhar University, Arafat compared his decision to participate in the Oslo process to deceptions that Prophet Muhammad engaged in against rival tribes; its purpose was for Arafat and the PLO—severely weakened by the fall of chief sponsor the Soviet Union—to rebuild, consolidate, and then resume work towards Israel’s destruction. As he stated in a 1996 speech in Stockholm: “We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion. … We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.”

The Oslo Diaries omits the PLO’s deceptions. Indeed, as the historian Efraim Karsh has noted, PLO official Faisal al-Husseini, who is briefly depicted in the movie, referred to Oslo in a June 24, 2000 interview as a Trojan horse “designed to promote the organization’s strategic goal: ‘Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea’—that is, a Palestine in place of the state of Israel.”

As Karsh wrote in his 2003 book Arafat’s War, Abu Ala—whose “diary” plays a key role in the “documentary” that depicts him sympathetically—said of Oslo: “We did not sign a peace treat with Israel, but interim agreements that had been imposed on us.” At a public rally in Ramallah in 1997, Karsh noted, “Abu Ala demonstratively stepped over the remains of an Israeli flag that had been set on fire.”

The views of other interviewees are similarly glossed over. The filmmakers interview Yossi Beilin, an Israeli aide to then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Yet they fail to press Beilin—an architect of the Accords—on his real motivations; presenting his chief motivation as desiring peace and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, as Doug Feith, a former high-ranking U.S. defense official, has noted: Beilin told him as early as 1981 that he believed Israel should unilaterally withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza irrespective of either negotiations or security ramifications for the Jewish state (“Oslo at 24: A Personal View,” Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Sept. 13, 2018).

In the movie, Arafat is even shown at the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement in military garb, with a patch on his left arm that depicts all of Israel as “Palestine.” But the filmmakers fail to ruminate on this.

Other reports on the Oslo anniversary, by The Washington Post, USA Today, and NPR, among others, also failed to note Palestinian leadership’s rejectionism and duplicity.

Instead, those watching The Oslo Diaries are presented with superficial history and images, such as Arafat’s July 1994 triumphal return to Gaza, a consequence of the Accords. The Palestinian leader is shown leaning out the windows of his motorcade smiling and waving. It is, the film wants viewers to think, a moment imbued with hope and promise. But no mention is made of the destruction that Arafat was bringing with him. As Karsh noted, “Arafat returned with Mamduh Nawfal, mastermind of the 1974 Maalot atrocity in which twenty-seven [Israeli] children were murdered, hidden in the trunk of his car.”

(Note: An abbreviated version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in JNS on Sept. 20, 2018)