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By Irwin Abrams
Published in THE NOBEL PRIZE ANNUAL for 1994 as "The Nobel Prize in Peace," (International Merchandising Corporation, New York): pp. 59-69.
The award to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel and Chairman Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization for "their efforts to create peace in the Middle East" was one of the most controversial of all Nobel peace prizes. Immediately after it was announced on October 14, one of the five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee resigned, denouncing such recognition for the "terrorist" Arafat. Such a step was unprecedented. Dissension in the Committee had become public in 1973 at the time of the unpopular prize for Henry A. Kissinger and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho, but the two members who opposed this choice would not have resigned had not the committee chair of that time told the press that the decision was unanimous.
Misgivings about Arafat were widely expressed in the press, although there was some approval for honoring "a converted terrorist." Jewish extremists came to Oslo from the United States to demonstrate against the award, not only condemning Arafat but any such peace with the Palestinians. In mirror image, Palestinian extremists in the Middle East castigated Arafat for making peace with Israel, and fanatics committed acts of terrorism against Israelis in order to heighten distrust between the two peoples and undermine the agreements. Such actions did succeed in reducing popular support in Israel for the peace policy of Rabin and Pares, whose political opponents accused them of selling out Israel for a Nobel medal.
In the days before the award ceremony in Oslo a newspaper headline declared, "PEACE HANGS BY A THREAD." According to the Declaration of Principles, signed in Washington in September 1993, Israeli soldiers were to withdraw from population centers in the West Bank so that the Palestinians could proceed with free elections. With the continued threat of attacks on Israelis from Palestinian terrorists, however, Rabin was unwilling to deprive Jewish settlers of military protection. He insisted that Arafat restrain the Palestinian extremists before the elections could take place.
Violence has been part of the scene in the region for many decades. Violent conflicts between Palestinian inhabitants and Jewish immigrants broke out during the British mandate in the 1920s. Jewish extremists used methods of terror in the effort to drive out the British, and four months after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 they murdered Count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish U.N. mediator, because he worked for compromise and conciliation with the Arabs.
After the unsuccessful effort of the Arab states to crush newborn Israel, war followed after war, Israel's victories resulting in a large Palestinian population under its rule. Unable to count upon the Arab states, the leaders of the movement for a Palestine homeland turned to terrorist methods and announced their aim as the destruction of Israel. Violence was met with violence as the Israeli military force in the occupied territories stepped up its repressive measures, while the conservative Israeli government intensified the effort to colonize the Palestinian lands with Jewish settlements. These policies only produced a widespread grassroots uprising, the intifada, the most serious threat to Israeli rule in the territories.
The conflict seemed intractable. The conservative Israeli government of Menachem Begin, once a terrorist himself, did make peace with Egypt after President Anwar El Sadat took the first step with a dramatic airplane trip to Jerusalem, but Begin only made unkept promises for more autonomy for the Palestinians. Both among the Palestinians and the Israelis, however, there were moderates who realized that mutual violence was a deadend street and who worked for reconciliation.
Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestinians, made the first advance when, for a variety of reasons, he agreed to recognize the existence of Israel and to abandon the methods of terrorism. This move strengthened the conviction of many Israelis that efforts for peace with the Palestinians should be undertaken. In June 1992 Rabin of the Labor Party was elected to lead a coalition government, committed to carry on the peace process.
Peacemaking in the Middle East has its risks. One of the reasons why Sadat was assassinated in 1981 was for making peace with Israel. In 1978, when Begin came to Oslo to receive his share of the peace prize granted to him and Sadat, the Norwegian government took no chances and shifted the award ceremony to the Akershus castle-fortress, where he could be well guarded.
In 1994 the ceremony was not moved from the spacious city hall, where more than a thousand spectators could be accommodated, but extraordinary measures were taken there and throughout the city to ensure that the laureates would come to no harm. Almost 800 police officers and other security forces patrolled all sensitive areas, and metal detectors were set up at strategic points. Special care was taken when on the Jewish Sabbath Rabin and Peres walked through the streets to their hotel both from the synagogue and from their audience with King Harald. One newspaper cartoon showed the security forces even giving the dove of peace careful scrutiny.
The need for such security was but another illustration of the vulnerability of the peace agreements. Some critics of the prize declared that it was premature, that the Committee should have waited until the Declaration of Principles had properly taken hold and been implemented. However, Committee Chairman Francis Sejersted in his presentation speech emphasized that what the three laureates had done was a courageous effort "to break out of the vicious circle of hatred and violence and to point out a path to reconciliation." And, he noted, "developments have taken a new turning."
"The situation is still full of tension," Sejersted admitted, "marked by violence, killings, and insecurity, and stability is still far to seek. Nevertheless, our laureates have not only shown that the road to reconciliation can be found, but also very bravely taken several steps down that road. It is in admiration of that effort, and in the hope that the process they have started will continue, that they are today being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."
The Committee's decision to give recognition to the Middle East peace agreement had been expected. Not only had the Committee given a similar award in 1993 to the leaders who were resolving conflict in South Africa, but this time Norway had had a principle role in bringing the two parties together. It was Norwegian scholars working in the West Bank who drew Israelis and Palestinians into unofficial conversations, and when higher echelons became involved, it was the Norwegian foreign minister who made available the informal settings in his country where the negotiators could meet in secret and be exposed to the special brand of Norwegian hospitality.
What was not expected was that the Committee would share the prize between three recipients. This is permitted by the statutes and has often been done with the science prizes, but the Norwegian Committee had never divided the peace prize among more than two. We can imagine a discussion in which committee members tried to decide which Israeli should be paired with Arafat. Should it be Peres, better known and liked in Norway, who as foreign minister had taken a more active part in the negotiations? Or Prime Minister Rabin, who, after all, would be a more appropriate partner for the leader of the other side? Finally, they would have realized that only tradition stood in the way of resolving the dilemma and named them both.
The acceptance of their Nobel prizes was the second memorable ceremony in which the three laureates participated. More significant was the well staged ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993 when Peres and the PLO official Abu Mazen had signed the Declaration of Principles. The crowning moment had been the historic handshake between an eager Arafat and a reluctant Rabin.
There was drama as well in the great auditorium of the Oslo city hall, when they stood side by side holding their medals and diplomas, the grizzled guerrilla chieftain turned statesman in his characteristic checkered kaffiyeh and his two traditional adversaries, Rabin, the former general, the practical man, and Peres, the politician with a vision. Rabin had made no secret of his dislike of Arafat, but, as he said, it is your enemy with whom you make peace, even your bitterest enemy. In a different arena Rabin and Peres themselves had long been rivals for leadership of the Labor Party.
The honored trio had come a long way to these public moments of recognition. Rabin was the only one born in what was then Palestine. His parents were immigrants from Russia, his father by way of the United States. Peres had come as a child with his parents from White Russia. Arafat was born of Palestinian parents in Cairo. He was only four when his mother died, and he spent the next four years with her family in Jerusalem, a period when the Palestinians were revolting against British rule. Arafat talks little about his early life, but one of his earliest memories is of the violent scene when British soldiers broke into his uncle's house after midnight, beat members of the family and smashed the furniture.
Arafat spent his growing up years back in Cairo, where before he was seventeen he was smuggling arms to Palestine to be used against the British and the Jews. At nineteen he interrupted his engineering studies at the university in Cairo to fight against the Jews in Palestine. The establishment of the state of Israel and the defeat of the Arab powers left him in such despair that he applied for a visa to study in the United States.
Recovering his spirits and retaining his dream of an independent Palestinian homeland, Arafat became the leader of the Palestinian students at the university. After graduation he went to Kuwait, where he ran a very successful contracting firm, spending all his spare time in political activities, to which he contributed most of his profits. In 1958 he and his friends founded AlFatah, an underground network of secret cells, which was to become the most powerful of the groups composing the PLO. At the end of 1964 Arafat left Kuwait and his engineering career to become a fulltime revolutionary, organizing raids from Jordan into Israel.
After the 1967 war, in which Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were conquered by the Israelis, Arafat was in and out of the occupied territories in many disguises, unsuccessfully organizing for an uprising. His base was Jordan, where Fatah emerged from the underground and in 1969 took over the PLO, which, with Arafat as chairman, was no longer to be a puppet organization of the Arab states wanting to keep the Palestinians quiet, but an independent nationalist organization.
The rest of Arafat's story is well known, how he developed the PLO into a state within a state in Jordan with its own military forces until King Hussein drove them out; how he attempted to build a similar organization in Lebanon, only to be driven out this time by Israel, and having to move PLO headquarters far away to Tunis. Arafat not only kept the organization alive, but he was a survivor himself, escaping death in an airplane crash and recovering from a serious stroke.
Arafat also survived any efforts of Israeli intelligence agencies to have him assassinated, the fate of several of his PLO colleagues. While his life was one of constant travel, interpreting the Palestinian cause in country after country, he managed to keep his movements as secret as he did any details about his private life. Even his marriage to Suha Tawil was kept secret for some fifteen months until her family told the press in 1992. The Nobel weekend was one of the first times when she accompanied her husband to such a public occasion. Suha, half his age, impressed everyone by her intelligence and beauty. The announcement that she is to have a baby was greeted with the hope that this new life could symbolize an auspicious future for the peace agreement.
Arafat is the first to deliver his acceptance speech, following alphabetical order. "Ever since I was entrusted by my people with the task of the hectic search for our lost home," he begins, speaking in an Arabic that suffers in translation, he has been confident that "the long path of pain" would finally end in "the blessed return and freedom." He accepts the prize for his people and will "carry it to our children who are promised freedom, safety and security in a homeland that is not threatened by an occupier from the outside or an abuser from within."
He looks forward to mutual respect and cooperation with the Israelis, speaking of how the peace permits the Arab consciousness to express "its deep understanding of the European Jewish tragedy" and the Jewish consciousness to understand the suffering of the Palestinians, a suffering that deserves to hear "its free echo from within the tortured Jewish soul. No one is better able to understand torture than the tortured."
Arafat recognizes that the prize is meant to encourage, not just to reward, and he asks for an acceleration of the peace process, for early military withdrawal and speeding up the elections, declaring that "denial of the legitimate rights would only generate feelings of injustice, keep the ember burning under ashes . . . . ready to explode at any time."
He refers to the unresolved issues of the Jewish settlements and of Jerusalem, "the city that holds the sacred spiritual shelter for Muslims, Christians and Jews." Also urgent is the need to release Palestinian detainees and prisoners, which could break "the psychological barriers still in the hearts." He asks as well for the money promised from donor countries to restore the Palestinian economy and rebuild the infrastructure.
Peres begins his acceptance speech recalling the small Jewish town in White Russia where he was born as only a way station, since his dream was always to live in the Jewish homeland. Nothing is left of the Jewish town now, he says. Were it not for his family's eventual voyage to the port of Jaffa, he would probably have perished in the flames with his relatives.
In the new land he went to school in an agricultural youth village. Barbed wire separated its green fields "from the bleakness of the enmity all around. In the morning, we would go out to the fields with scythes on our backs to harvest the crop. In the evening, we went out with rifles on our shoulders to defend the village. On Sabbaths we go out to visit our Arab neighbors. On Sabbaths we would talk with them of peace, though the rest of the week we traded rifle fire across the darkness."
From the youth village Peres went to a kibbutz in Lower Galilee, where "we had no houses, no electricity, no running water. But we had magnificent views and a lofty dream: to build a new, egalitarian society that would ennoble each of its members." The part that came true, he says, "created a new landscape. The part that did not come true resides in our hearts."
Peres then tells of his two decades in the government ministry of defense, working closely with David BenGurion, "the greatest Jew of our time." We won the wars, which were forced on us, Peres says, but we did not win the greatest victory of all: "release from the need to win victories." Today, he insists, war is no longer a choice, "dialogue is the only option for our world."
He still has dreams, for the Jewish people and for the Middle East. The small nation, "repeatedly persecuted, banished and downtrodden," has risen up again; "setting out anew on its national adventure . . . reaching toward new heights of distinction and excellence. The message of the Jewish people to mankind is that faith and moral vision can triumph over all adversity." His greatest hope for the future is "that our children, like our forefathers, will not make do with the transient and the sham, but will continue to plow the historical Jewish furrow in the field of the human spirit," that Israel can be a source of inspiration to the world.
The dream of Peres for the Middle East is for "a great sustained regional revival" without wars and enemies, with competition, not domination, "a Middle East which will serve as a spiritual and cultural point for the whole world." He dreams of a regional market economy, nations striving for economic equality and encouraging cultural pluralism, living standards raised, university education open to all young people.
Rabin, like Peres, begins his acceptance speech personally, more personally in fact than has been his custom. At the tender age of sixteen, he says, when his dream was to be a water engineer, "I was handed a a rifle." He is referring to the summer of 1938 when he worked on a kibbutz where the youngsters were taught how to use guns and hand grenades. After graduating in 1940 from an agricultural school for working class children, Rabin followed the principal's advice that, instead of becoming a farmer like the other boys, he should apply to the University of California to study hydraulic engineering.
The application was even submitted, but while waiting for a reply, the young man had another offer. In 1941 the British were permitting the Jews to form a special unit to help them in a military operation against Syria and Lebanon. One of the commanding officers interviewed Rabin and recruited him. The officer was Moshe Dayan, destined to become a famous Israeli military leader. Rabin's decision led to his own distinguished military career, which included service as senior officer on the Egyptian front in the 1948 war and his most crowning achievement, the organization of victory as chief of staff in the six-day war of 1967.
After a term as ambassador to the United States, Rabin entered politics and became Labor prime minister, 19741977. He was minister of defense in a National Unity government when the intifada began in 1987, when he was reported to have told the Israeli soldiers to beat the Palestinians, to "break their bones." But the failure of such measures apparently convinced Rabin that Israel must make peace with the PLO, and before the Palestinians turned to more extremist groups. Successfully campaigning on a peace platform in 1992, as prime minister of a coalition government, Rabin approved the secret negotiations which the Norwegians helped start.
Now, in accepting the peace prize, Rabin, the second general to receive the award, speaks, as did General George C. Marshall in 1953, of military cemeteries and how their monuments stand in testimony to the cost of human lives in war. Rabin tells of the hundreds of such cemeteries he sees from the window of his plane when flying over the Middle East: "From thousands of feet above them, the countless tombstones are silent. But the sound of their outcry has carried from the Middle East throughout the world for decades." He pays tribute to the fallen, both "loved ones and foes."
Rabin shares with his audience his experience as a military commander in giving the orders that will send thousands of young people to their deaths. He vividly describes "the moment just after taking the decision to mount an action: the hush as senior officers or cabinet ministers slowly rise from their seats; the sight of their receding backs; the sound of the closing door; and the silence in which I remain alone. That is the moment you grasp that as a result of the decision just made, people will be going to their deaths. People from my nation, people from other nations. And they still don't know it." What he shall remember most of all his memories, to his last day, are the silences, "the heavy silence" of the moment after the decision is made, and "the terrifying silence" of the moment before the orders must be given.
He speaks of the hopes of the peoples entrusted to their presidents and prime ministers "Terrible as it is to say, their lives are in our hands." Different as the cultures of their countries might be, these leaders must hearken to the universal message: "Take good heed of the sanctity of life."
"There is only one means of sanctifying human lives," the former general declares. "The one radical solution is peace."
The present process of building peace is "difficult, complex, trying. Mistakes could topple the whole structure and bring disaster down upon us. And so we are determined to do the job well despite the toll of murderous terrorism, despite fanatic and scheming enemies." And, Rabin insists, "We will prevail."
As the members of the audience left the city hall and walked through the police lines, they passed the Jewish protesters, who chanted, "Shame!" and held up pictures of victims of Palestinian terrorists. But violence begets violence, and had Palestinian protesters been there, they could have held up similar placards.
Later that evening a crowd of about two thousand celebrating the peace agreement marched in a torchlight procession to the hotel where the laureates greeted them from the balcony. A prominent Norwegian diplomat, one of the secret negotiators, addressed them: "The Gordian knot presented by the situation in the Middle East has been broken once and for all. This focal point of war after war will never be the same. Extremists who do not want peace in this region are in the streets of Oslo this evening. Let us show them and the whole world that we believe Israelis and Palestinians can live together as good neighbors."
Is their optimism justified? The three laureates receiving the cheers of the crowd stood on the balcony behind a protective glass barrier. Chairman Sejersted had commended the courage of the laureates, declaring that they "had staked their political lives" on the success of their effort. Perhaps not only their political lives. With good reason Arafat always calls the Oslo accords "the peace of the brave."
That very night, after the evening banquet, the final event of the day, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators went back to the table to continue their labors, and they tried again on the next day to settle the outstanding differences over the military withdrawal, the settlements and the arrangements for the Palestinian elections. But even the famed "spirit of Oslo" did not help them succeed. And in the following days fanatics on both sides kept up their efforts to undermine the peace.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee was fully aware of the fragility of the peace agreement reached by the three laureates. It is quite possible that the masses of the two peoples may not fully embrace the Declaration of Principles, that the complexities of its implementation may be beyond the best efforts of the negotiators. Nevertheless, in recognizing the magnitude of the achievement thus far and in strengthening the determination of the laureates to make the peace prevail, the Committee has played its own part as peacemaker.