How 1986 Meetings I Set Up Between Top Israelis and Palestinians Still Offer Hope

Editor’s Note: For more than 30 years, Stephen P. Cohen served as a confidential intermediary between Israeli and Arab leaders including Shimon Peres, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Hafez al-Assad. Over the course of a career that took him to all corners of the Middle East, Cohen arranged and participated in historic breakthroughs between Israel and its neighbors. Foremost among his achievements was a series of meetings held in early 1986 between handpicked representatives of Peres, Rabin and Arafat – the first direct talks between the Israeli and PLO leadership.Last year, to accompany the publication of his memoir, “The Go-Between: Memoir of a Mideast Intermediary,” Cohen prepared an essay on the 1986 meetings. But he was unable to get the essay published before he died on January 25 at the age of 71. The Forward received Cohen’s essay after his death, and due to the story’s historical significance is publishing it posthumously.

Three decades ago, I arranged a series of meetings between Shlomo Gazit, Yossi Ginossar, Saeed Kamal and Hani al-Hassan. Gazit and Ginossar were acting on behalf of Shimon Peres, Israel’s prime minister, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Kamal and al-Hassan were acting on behalf of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. I served as the unofficial intermediary.

Those three meetings in 1986 – on February 21, March 12 and April 3 – were the first-ever direct talks between the Israeli and PLO leadership. The meetings took place 18 months before the outbreak of the first intifada, and nearly seven years before the Oslo peace process.

The meetings produced no lasting agreement, and their scope was officially limited to the sensitive but otherwise side issues of POWs and MIAs. Yet their importance to understanding how Israeli-Palestinian relations have developed is significant, and not only because the three gatherings were a historic first.

Those 1986 meetings took place just four months after the Israeli air force, on the orders of Peres and Rabin, had bombed to rubble Arafat’s desert headquarters outside of Tunis. Those meetings showed that even at the height of hostilities, Israeli and Arabs leaders can find space to allow their trusted representatives to talk directly.

Peres, Rabin and Arafat understood that among their peoples there has always remained a hope, however dim, that someday things might get better. And they understood just as well that getting to that point would eventually require pursuing a relationship between Israelis and Palestinians based on something other than armed struggle.

Three decades later, it is hard to imagine a future between Israelis and Palestinians free of burning confrontation. Yet it is worth recalling that hope for peace was no greater in 1986 than it is today. Eventually, inevitably, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will conclude – as Peres, Rabin and Arafat did in their time – that there is no way of winning, and that finding a way of living under better circumstances is the only realistic goal.

What follows is the story of those 1986 meetings.

On February 27, 1985 I sat down for lunch in Jerusalem with Reuven Chazak. At the time Reuven was No. 2 in the Shin Bet. We talked for a while, and afterward he took me over to the prime minister’s residence and we talked some more.

I had met Reuven just the night before, when he escorted Osama el Baz on a trip through the Negev to Jerusalem for a secret meeting I had arranged at the prime minister’s residence with Shimon Peres. At that point Shimon was several months into his turn as prime minister under the rotation agreement he had made with Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir. Osama was the most trusted foreign policy voice in Egypt, and the purpose of his meeting with Shimon was to find a way forward on the last territorial dispute remaining between Egypt and Israel, a strip of Red Sea coastline near Eilat called Taba.

During my lunch with Reuven, I suggested that a meeting be arranged between representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, as it had become clear by then that meeting directly was the only way to move forward. Reuven said that he would bring it up with his boss, Shin Bet head Avrum Shalom, and that before I went back home to New York later that week I could expect to hear from someone.

The answer I soon got was that somebody would come to see me in New York. At the time I was teaching at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. My office was on 42nd Street, between 5th and 6th. Later that month I received a phone call, and was told that at the same time the next day I should go around the corner to 43rd Street. Once there I would be met by the person who would give me the leadership’s response.

It turned out that the person who came was not Reuven Chazak, but another senior officer in the Shin Bet, Yossi Ginossar. Yossi was at that time responsible for the security of Israeli diplomats in New York, and I believe also in Mexico and Central America. The response he conveyed to me was that I was to go ahead with arranging a meeting with representatives of Yasser Arafat.

In addition to delivering that message, Yossi informed me that he would be one of the Israelis participating with me in the meeting. I did not fully discover why Yossi was chosen until years later, when I came to understand that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres considered him to be the most effective at secret operations.

Initially Peres and Rabin did not inform Yitzhak Shamir about what was happening. When they finally did inform him, Shamir understood that Peres had the authority to go ahead, because it was during his turn as prime minister in the rotation. Shamir did not want anything to do with what we were doing, but he did not make a big argument about it because he did not want anything to disrupt the rotation.

I was told by Yossi to go to see Arafat in Tunis, and arrange a meeting – a direct, face-to-face meeting – in Europe between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. We set a date for that initial planning meeting with Arafat, but shortly before we were supposed to meet, the Israeli air force bombed the PLO’s headquarters outside of Tunis.

Under the circumstances, the Israelis decided to cancel the meeting. They felt it was too risky for me to go back to Tunis to see Arafat right after they had bombed his headquarters. I was very upset and told them they we were losing a great opportunity, but they cancelled it anyway. It took another couple of months before they agreed to reschedule it.

On the appointed day, I arrived in Tunis and was put up in the Hilton. I was quite tired by then because it had been a long day of flying, first to Paris and only from there to Tunis. And I knew that I would be waiting a long time until Saeed Kamal, the PLO’s ambassador to Cairo and my deepest contact among the Palestinians, would bring me to see the chairman. Starting with our earliest encounters, Arafat had had a practice of seeing foreign visitors late at night.

At some point that night Saeed was allowed to take me out to Arafat’s desert headquarters. The effects of the Israeli air force bombing were still readily apparent. Arafat met us in a garage-like concrete structure. Abu Iyad, Abu Jihad and Khalid al-Hassan, the senior-most members of Arafat’s leadership cadre, were also there. Khalid was already sick by that time.

Our meeting finished that night without a conclusive decision to go forward, but we agreed to meet again the following day. Late the next morning I went back out to Arafat’s compound to continue discussing the Palestinians taking part in a direct meeting with Israelis. Both Khalid al-Hassan and his brother Hani – who I had met several times before, including in Beirut shortly before the Israeli invasion, and who would end up being the lead Palestinian representative in the meetings that were subsequently arranged – were supportive of the idea of creating direct contacts between the PLO leadership and Israel. Abu Iyad was more skeptical, and asked me some tough questions.

There was a brief but tense deliberation between Arafat, Abu Iyad, Abu Jihad and Khalid al-Hassan, all of whom were fully aware of the historic decision in front of them. But eventually Arafat gave the go-ahead for what would become the first-ever face-to-face encounter between official representatives of Israel and the PLO.

At that gathering outside Tunis, Arafat also picked who he wanted as his representatives to the Israelis: Hani al-Hassan and Saeed Kamal. Hani, as Arafat’s main political advisor, was clearly the chairman’s lead representative. It was not yet clear what Saeed’s role would be, but he had been my contact in the Palestinian leadership from the earliest days, and I wanted him to be part of whatever process we were embarking on. Arafat and the others there seemed to accept that.

As instructed by Yossi Ginossar, I made clear to Arafat that the talks were to be limited to discussion of POWs and MIAs. We were not to go into broader political issues, at least not in our first meeting. I knew the limited scope of the talks was upsetting to the Palestinians, but Arafat seemed convinced that actually having the meeting was itself the critical thing.

I also informed the Palestinians that the meeting would take place in Paris, as Yossi had instructed. It was clear that Yossi would be in charge of all the logistics. The Shin Bet was insistent on maintaining its own security, because they were not entirely convinced that the Palestinians would pass up such an opportunity to act against senior Israeli security officials. Arafat did not make an issue out of that either, although Abu Iyad strongly objected.

After that second meeting I left Arafat’s headquarters and made my way to Israel. When I arrived I was told that the Israeli representation would be headed by Shlomo Gazit. That pleased me a lot, because Shlomo had been part of the story for quite some time, back to when I came to talk to Rabin, who was then in his first go-around as prime minister, after being in Egypt during the food riots there in 1977.

Shlomo, unlike many other Israelis, did not scoff at the idea that a diaspora Jew could play a significant role in the most important issues affecting Israel’s destiny. He was no longer the head of military intelligence, and in fact had already retired as an active duty officer, but he was still very integrated into the Israeli security system and remained one of the security people Rabin and Peres trusted most.

Once Shlomo was onboard, the parameters of the meeting – the first of its kind – were set. It would be Shlomo Gazit and Yossi Ginossar for the Israelis, and Hani al-Hassan and Saeed Kamal for the Palestinians. We would meet in Paris, just the five of us, on February 21, 1986.

I arrived in Paris on the day before our meeting, as instructed by Yossi, and checked into a three-star hotel.

I was told that I should leave the hotel at a certain time early the next morning. I was to take a cab to a second two- or three-star hotel in Paris, go inside, walk around the lobby, and then go back out onto the street. I was then to take the same cab to a third hotel, and repeat the same procedure.

At the third hotel, Yossi handed me a piece of paper with the address where our meeting would actually take place, and instructed me to open it only after I was with the Palestinians. I then took the same cab to a fourth and last hotel, which is where I picked up Hani and Saeed.

Per Yossi’s instructions, we took the cab to an apartment building that had two or three apartments on each floor. The safe house – which, though Yossi was Shin Bet, was the Mossad’s – was on the second floor.

When I entered the apartment with Hani and Saeed, Yossi and Shlomo were already standing in the room. I introduced the Israelis and the Palestinians to each other, and then we sat down at a small table. I sat at the head. Yossi sat to my right, Shlomo at the other end of the table, Saeed to the left, and between Saeed and Shlomo, Hani sat down.

Though it was left unsaid, it was understood by all that Yossi and Shlomo were acting on Peres’s authorization, and Hani and Saeed on Arafat’s.

Each of them very briefly introduced themselves by their military role in their society. Saeed had never been a military fighter, so he had to introduce himself by his political role. By that time, he was the official ambassador of the PLO in Cairo.

That had a very deep effect on the Israeli perception of him, because once he told them that, it quickly became clear – not immediately, but within the hour – that they considered him to be part of the Egyptian secret service. They assumed that anyone in his role would be working with the Egyptian secret service – which was true – but he never thought of himself as an employee of Egypt. In fact, he resented that perception, because he saw himself as a loyal member of the PLO structure. But Yossi and Shlomo clearly thought that he would have to report everything he was doing to the mukhabarat.

The apartment was not particularly fancy; actually, it was somewhat rundown. But nobody seemed to care about that. The seats were comfortable enough, and they were very eager to talk to each other.

When we started, Shlomo and Yossi made it clear that the discussion was to be limited to the issue of MIAs and POWs. There were at that time two or three Israeli POWs remaining from the 1982 Israeli incursion into Lebanon. The Israelis were not exactly sure what had happened to them, but they had reached the conclusion that they were under the control of Fatah and the PLO.

Hani explained what he knew about the POWs, but said that for any final agreement on their fate, he would have to go back and consult with those responsible for them, which were men under the command of Abu Jihad. So the first discussion, which went on throughout the morning, was all about the MIAs. But Hani showed from the beginning that he wanted to talk about the fundamental issues of the conflict, and every once in a while he would put in a sentence or two about it. It was clear that after we had had the discussion about the POWs, he was intending to have a real discussion of the issues.

Around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, we stopped for lunch. Yossi said we were not going to go out to eat, that he had bought some food and would put it on the table, and everyone could eat what they wanted. This being Paris, Yossi had brought a spread of various cheeses and meats.

I only ate the cheese, because I kept kosher, but the others – all four of them – were quite content to eat both the cheese and the meat. Yossi also brought a bottle of wine, which I enjoyed a lot. I discovered that the two Palestinians had no objection to tasting the wine – this was pre-fundamentalist Palestinians.

By the time we broke for lunch the structure of the two sides had become clear. It was apparent that Shlomo had the authority on the Israeli side, and that Hani had the authority on the Palestinian side. It was also clear that the Israelis had crossed a certain boundary of impoliteness – and maybe beyond impoliteness – when they tried to have a discussion with Hani outside of the presence of Saeed. Hani would not accept that.

At one point Saeed went out to go to the bathroom, and they started to discuss something with Hani, but after a minute or two, even before Saeed came back, Hani said, “We cannot continue until Saeed returns.” So Saeed counted. I was pleased about that, but I knew that the Israelis were not. I believed Saeed was there not only because of his professional assignment, but because he really believed in the idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that it had to be made through direct discussions, not by international mediation.

In the afternoon, Hani explained to the Israelis why an international conference was such a strong preference for the Palestinians. Only the Soviet Union had been backing them all of these years, he said, and they knew that the Israelis would be consulting with the United States. So the Palestinians felt they had to assure the presence – or at least the behind-the-scenes presence – of the Soviets. But Shlomo made it clear that Israel could not accept the Soviet Union on equal footing with the United States in anything they decided to do.

It was the issue of a Soviet presence that ended up impeding the whole process from reaching any fruition in the long run, because Hani could not give up on Soviet participation in an international conference, and the Israelis would not accept it. The Israelis were willing to promise not to inform the Americans until there was agreement between the parties as to what to tell them, but even in those circumstances they were not willing to accept the participation of the Soviet Union on the same footing as the United States.

The other thing we discovered was that the Palestinians did not have with them, when they came to Paris, the detailed information about the status of the Israeli POWs that the Israelis had hoped to bring back home. This aroused a lot of suspicion among the Israelis. But Hani and Saeed said they would be able to get the information by our next encounter – and it was already clear that there was going to be another encounter, though it was not yet said when or where.

The meeting ended late in the afternoon. It was winter in Paris, so it was already dark outside. Before we went our separate ways, it was made clear that I was to write up the complete minutes of the discussion and bring a copy to each of them early the next morning. We did not actually use the word minutes; minutes was too formal a word. There was no one in the room, and there was no one else we were dealing with, although it was clear that Yossi was dealing with Israeli security people who were operating in Paris and were protecting, if not the meeting, then at least the two Israelis.

That evening, Yossi and I went out to dinner in Paris. As usual, he chose a very fine restaurant. Shlomo said he was tired, that he was not going to join us for dinner. He said he was going to start on his way back to Israel as soon as he could, which meant once I gave everyone their copy of the account of the meeting. That dinner was the first time I explained to Yossi why I would not be eating what he ate. I will stick with the fish, I told him, but would be happy to indulge in a good bottle of wine. He chose a very good bottle of wine, and we both enjoyed it a lot.

We talked about logistics, nothing personal. He told me the next meeting would not take place in Paris, but that he would meet me in Paris to tell me about the meeting location and time, and therefore I should tell Hani and Saeed to plan to come to Paris also.

After dinner, I went back to the hotel and started to make up a record of the discussion. Yossi had laid out the ground rule when I first arrived in Paris, which was that I was the only one to keep notes of the discussion, and those were to be not only the only authoritative notes of the discussion, but the only notes of the discussion period. I was to make a copy of the notes for each side, and once they had approved of my notes, they would bring them to their leaders back home. The ground rule meant I was not going to get a copy of the notes, which I was very unhappy about. But I realized, almost from the beginning, that they would not be able to tell whether or not I had a copy of them, because they were not going to be there when I copied it for them.

It was an enormous amount of handwritten notes that I had to take, and my wrist was hurting me after hours of note-taking. It was a very long and arduous job, and I worked until about 3:30 or so in the morning. Then I just collapsed and fell asleep. I had not finished. The next morning, when Yossi called me, I told him I needed more time. He was quite upset with me. He obviously thought it was dangerous to the secrecy of what we were doing if he stayed any longer.

I got out of bed and continued writing. My wrist was in a lot of pain, but I eventually finished. I did not have the time, though, to make another copy by hand. I knew that I would have to get it copied somewhere. I went to the place where I was supposed to meet Yossi – it was a little coffee shop – and I told him that we would have to go somewhere to get copies of what I had done, so we would have one for the Israelis and one for the Palestinians. He was very upset with me. And when he was upset, he did not hide it. He yelled at me hard. I was supposed to do what I had to do, and keep myself out of the picture. The fact that I got exhausted was not in the calculus.

At some point he told me to go somewhere where I could make copies. This was 1986, and there were not copy shops all over the place like there are now. I had to go into a bookstore and ask if I could pay for the use of their copy machine.

I eventually found a bookstore which allowed me to make copies. I made two copies there, and also bought several books, books in French about the history of France’s relationship with the Middle East, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about the French-Algerian war. I then went to the place where I was supposed to meet Yossi. He was still upset with me that it had taken so long. I gave him a copy, and I kept a copy for the Palestinians. I hid the original copy in one of the books I had bought.

Yossi was upset that he did not have the original, but I told him that I had to give the same copy to him and Shlomo as I did to Hani and Saeed. The copies had to be identical; that was the only way I could keep my word that there was no difference between what the Palestinians got and what the Israelis got.

Yossi took his copy, and almost immediately took a taxi to the airport. He was going back. Shlomo was not part of that morning’s drama; he had already left. As I vaguely recall, at that time there were two flights from Paris to Tel Aviv each day. One was Air France, and one was El Al. Shlomo must have taken the earlier one, and Yossi the later one.

After that first Paris meeting, the Israelis wanted me to go back to Tunis, even though they knew that Hani and Saeed were reporting back to Arafat. They wanted me to go to make sure that Arafat had known about the meeting, and to make sure that Arafat collected the information on the POWs necessary for continuing.

It turned out that the person who had the information on the POWs – and who was most eager for the discussions to go forward – was Abu Jihad. Abu Iyad took a similar position to Hani about the importance of the Soviet Union, and it was clear that he had been an important part of the PLO’s relationship with the Soviet Union.

I eventually got word from Yossi that the next meeting would take place on March 12. Just before I flew to Paris, as Yossi had instructed me, he told me that I would be going on to Brussels, where the meeting would actually take place. Yossi did not want me to fly to Brussels, he wanted me to take the train. Exactly why, I am not sure. But he did not want the Palestinians to take the same train as me; he said it would be alright if they flew from Paris to Brussels, but he did not want me to fly.

I slept that night in Paris, I believe at the Hilton, and the next morning I went to Gare du Nord. I took a train to Brussels, a city I had never been in, but which I knew had wonderful chocolate. That was what I was looking most forward to in Belgium.

In Brussels we checked into the Sheraton. At a certain time, they were to meet me in the lobby of the hotel, and then we were going to go to where we would actually have the meeting. I did not know at that point that the room where we were going to meet was also in the Sheraton.

At the first meeting it had been clear that everybody was quite tense, and the introduction to each other had not been very fluent. The mood this time was much more relaxed. But it was only when the Palestinians reported about the POWs and MIAs that some semblance of trust entered the discussion. They gave a decent report, but they had not brought any physical evidence that these people were alive and well. The Israelis were upset about that, but they were happy they got something.

In Brussels there was a much fuller discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting did not deepen to discussion of how to begin solving the many problems at that time in history, but they were sharing somewhat more about the Israeli and Palestinian leadership’s general conception of the conflict.

Several weeks after Brussels, on April 3, we had another meeting in Paris. By that third meeting we were beginning to get much closer to having actual authorized political discussions. The thing I remember about Paris that second time was that we stayed in a hotel not far from Hotel Nikko, the Japanese hotel on the Seine. I remember going to have sushi there.

The meeting on April 3 was held in the same apartment where we had first gathered on February 21. I left that third meeting with a firm belief that we were making real progress. But before I could convene Shlomo, Yossi, Hani and Saeed a fourth time, two terribly unfortunate developments came to pass.

First there was the exposure of the terrible cover-up of the Bus 300 affair. Yossi was not in Israel when the story of the cover-up broke – he was working with me in New York at the time, planning the next steps after our meetings in Paris and Brussels – so I was surprised when he became the center of that scandal. He had not been involved in that terrible day two years before, but because he was responsible for protecting the Shin Bet from criticism of that event, he became a lightning rod for everything that came after.

And then that October, Shimon Peres’s time under the rotation agreement came to an end, and Yitzhak Shamir moved into the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the circumstances, it was easy for Shamir to order an end to our discussions.

It was a great disappointment, because I strongly believed – as did Shlomo, Yossi, Hani and Saeed – that we were on the verge of something, something quite significant. But our efforts were frozen, and from there it went downhill toward the first intifada.

Stephen P. Cohen is the author of “The Go-Between: Memoir of a Mideast Intermediary” (Gefen), from which this essay is adapted. He passed away on January 25.

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