‘Oslo Diaries’ screens in Tenafly
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‘Oslo Diaries’ screens in Tenafly

Remembering the secret Israeli-Palestinian talks and what came afterwards

President Bill Clinton presides at the White House lawn ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo Agreement by Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on September 13, 1993.
President Bill Clinton presides at the White House lawn ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo Agreement by Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on September 13, 1993.

Gidi Grinstein will introduce the “Oslo Diaries” at the IAC Cinematec at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Sunday night (see box), but really, his starring role would be in the sequel.

The “Oslo Diaries” is a 2018 documentary about the Oslo negotiations, the back-channel peace talks that led to the signing of the declaration of principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. (That declaration is known as the Oslo A Agreement.)

Mr. Grinstein heads the Reut Group, a think tank devoted to 21st century Zionism, focusing on Israel-diaspora relations and on fighting the delegitimization of Israel and the BDS movement. In 1993, he was a captain in the Israeli navy. But when he returned to civilian life in 1995, Mr. Grinstein started working in what seemed to him the most exciting place in Israel: the Economic Cooperation Foundation. Behind its nondescript name, the ECF had been at the center of Israel’s back-channel negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordan, and even Egypt. These negotiations, which the ECF’s founders, Dr. Yossi Beilin, Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, and the late Dr. Ron Pundik, began three years earlier, are the center of the story the movie tells through interviews and re-enactments.

After the Oslo A Agreement was signed, the foundation continued to play a leading role in its implementation and Mr. Grinstein came on board to coordinate that effort. Four years later, in 1999, he became the secretary of the official Israeli delegation for the negotiations with the PLO, including at the renowned Camp David Summit of July 2000 and the Taba talks.

“I found myself a central player in the dramatic period of history-making,” he said. “I was the youngest and most junior member of the team, but practically I was like a quarterback. Almost everything went through my laptop.”

The terms of Israel’s economic relations with the new Palestinian Authority were set by an agreement signed in May 1994, called the Paris Protocol, which was one of 11 official agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians during that period. But it was the ECF that led the implementation.

“Our goal was to effectuate the agreement,” Mr. Grinstein said. “We established 11 working groups across different areas of economic relations, like taxation, banking, and industrial cooperation. We had teams of Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian experts working together to build and strengthen economic relations in these different areas.” The discussions “covered anything from connecting the banking systems, to suggesting tax arrangements to the governments, to bringing together industrialists to develop industrial zones where Israelis and Palestinians could build joint ventures.”

Gidi Grinstein

As of late 1996, Mr. Grinstein coordinated the ECF’s efforts to prepare for the negotiations on a permanent status agreement, which was supposed to be achieved by May 1999.

Those preparations involved dozens of experts in many working groups. “We identified all the key issues outstanding between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “These included such questions as Palestinian statehood, Palestinian refugees, security, water rights, economic relations, and the status of Jerusalem.

“For each of these areas we created a team of top experts, former government officials, generals, ambassadors, leading people from academia. Each team worked to define Israeli interests and suggest future negotiating positions. The teams also engaged with Jordanian, Palestinian, and Egyptian counterparts in order to have a better sense of the so-called Zone of Possible Agreement.”

When the official actual negotiations began in July 1999, Mr. Grinstein was recruited to work within the prime minister’s office, on the condition that he bring this entire body of work that had been created over the previous three years with him. His official title was secretary and coordinator of the Israeli delegation for the negotiations with the PLO. He oversaw both official and unofficial, back-channel negotiations that were, in many respects, the continuation of the secret negotiations that began the Oslo process and are the subject of “The Oslo Diaries.”

Fairly soon, it became clear that failure was a real possibility. “As of April 2000, we began to anticipate that the Palestinians were not interested in a comprehensive permanent status agreement that resolved all of the outstanding issues and brought an end to the conflict, which was the agreement we wanted to sign,” Mr. Grinstein said. This assessment was based on intelligence reports and the discussions themselves. “The spring of 2000, following the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the collapse of the negotiations with Syria, turned to be a period of stagnation in the negotiations with the Palestinians,” he added.

In July 2000, President Bill Clinton summoned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David for a summit modeled after a similar summit in 1979, when Israel and Egypt hammered out their historic peace treaty. Mr. Grinstein was one of 11 Israelis who made up the delegation.

But this time, Israel and the Palestinians failed to reach an agreement.

“In many ways, the outcome of Camp David and the negotiations that followed were not a surprise,” he said. “While Chairman Arafat was not interested in an agreement, there were also very powerful forces within the Palestinian leadership that were pushing very hard to seize that opportunity for their people and secure an agreement with Israel.”

In December 2000, as a last-ditch effort, Mr. Clinton offered the parties a set of principles for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now known as the Clinton Ideas. The Israeli team recorded them on Mr. Grinstein’s laptop. Within a couple of weeks, Israel accepted those principles with reservations. The Palestinians rejected them. With the Second Intifada underway since September and Mr. Clinton’s presidency drawing to an end, the peace process also ended. Meanwhile, key aspects of the Oslo Agreements remain in effect today.

In hindsight, was the Oslo process a mistake?

Mr. Grinstein says that it was not.

“The structure of Oslo process, based on an interim period of five years of capacity-building toward a ‘permanent status,’ was based on the agreement signed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Likud in 1979,” he said. “It is a general agreement in Israeli politics today — left, center, and even among the right wing — that Israel cannot and should not control the Palestinians. Most right-wing parties today do not call for the reinstitution of Israeli control over the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank through the so-called civil administration. So in this respect, Oslo must have been right.

“However, the fundamental logic of Oslo anticipated that the interim period between 1994 and 1999 would become a period of confidence-building, which would bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to the ability to sign a final agreement. That logic was disproved.

“The most important creation of Oslo is the Palestinian Authority, which has basically assumed responsibility for the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. Its continued existence has been supported by all governments since 1994, mostly by Likud-led ones, and is clearly a national security interest. A disbanding of the Palestinian Authority would be a major economic, diplomatic, and security setback for the State of Israel.

“Israel’s taking full responsibility for the Palestinian population in the West Bank would be a bigger challenge than for the United States assuming responsibility for the population of Mexico.”


What: IAC Cinematec featuring “The Oslo Diaries” and guest speaker Gidi Grinstein

Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

When: Sunday, February 24, 7 p.m.

How much: $14 in advance, $12 for JCC members. $17 at the door.

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