Oslo Accords architect Rod Larsen: Historic agreement began with chance encounter in Cairo

Mina Aldroubi

The National  /  September 11, 2023

Terje Rod Larsen tells The National the protocols had a ‘ripple’ effect in the region 30 years after signing.

Yasser Arafat’s uncanny resemblance to his brother, Fathi, and a chance encounter in Cairo with the Oslo Accords architect were the starting points that brought Palestinians and Israelis to the table for the first time.

In the late 1980s, Terje Rod Larsen, known as the man who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get the two sides to engage in talks, met Fathi by chance in the Egyptian capital and the pursuit of peace began.

Fast forward several years, the Oslo Accords were signed on September 13, 1993, setting the foundation on which peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are based.

“Oslo gave long term ripple effects throughout the region in a very positive way,” Rod Larsen told The National during a visit to Abu Dhabi.

While the deal envisioned an independent Palestinian state, that has yet to be implemented.

The deal was unveiled on the White House lawn with a handshake between Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat.

The Accords culminated in mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which Israel long-designated as a terrorist group, and the first formal agreements in a phased effort to resolve the century-old conflict.

The Oslo Accords “solidified the defence for a Palestinian cause”, Rod Larsen said. Without the deal, the PLO would still be considered as a terror entity, he added.

“Peace negotiations between Jordan and Israel started in earnest on the day of the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created a peace that has lasted three decades,” Rod Larsen said.

Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon ended in 2000, which also had an impact on the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Rod Larsen said.

Without the Oslo agreement “Israel’s military withdrawal from Lebanon and ending of the occupation in 2000 could not have happened”, he said.

And the “subsequent Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon couldn’t have happened without the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon”.

Fate with Fathi Arafat

Rod Larsen was accompanying his wife, Mona Juul, a career diplomat, in 1988, as she was posted to the Norwegian embassy in Cairo.

“I went with Mona and then at a reception, I suddenly saw a guy who I was sure was Yasser Arafat, I thought, so I walked over to him. But he was in a suit and tie.”

Arafat was always in a military uniform.

“He started laughing and said ‘No, I’m actually his brother, Fathi Arafat’. After that meeting we became very close friends and spent a lot of time together,” Rod Larsen said, ahead of the 30th anniversary of the deal.

The Norwegian diplomat, who is a sociologist by training, was at the time of meeting Fathi the head of Norway’s Fafo Institute, which specializes in living conditions.

Fathi, a doctor and founder of the Palestinian Red Crescent, convinced him to undertake a socioeconomic survey of Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Rod Larsen managed to get the necessary approvals from the Israelis before the study, which led him to visit Palestine for the first time.

“[My wife and I] were very touched by seeing the fights between very young Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth, especially with them throwing stones and the Israelis with their full uniform and machine guns,” he said.

Putting the ‘past behind’

The negotiations between Israel and the PLO began in secret in Oslo, Norway, in 1993.

“First, we had to go through a pre-negotiation process, where the parties had to get to know each other and establish an understanding that both sides are in good faith,” he said.

Rod Larsen set the negotiating sessions in an isolated mansion outside of Oslo, away from the attention of the outside world.

Neither side wanted to publicly acknowledge their presence at the talks for fear of generating controversy. Neither side wanted anyone to know that contact was established, sending a signal of acceptance.

He said confidence-building measures were vital, so representatives of the warring sides had to meet, live and eat together in the same complex, to get to know each other and establish some kind of trust.

The Israelis had sent two academics and the Palestinians had Ahmed Qurei who became the lead negotiator for the PLO.

“They agreed that they should put the past behind them. So there should be no quarrel about who was first on the land, and all that stuff,” Rod Larsen said.

Moving on to the next step, the meetings were set up so that both sides had face-to-face interaction without his presence.

He was asked to join the meetings but he told both sides that “this is your problem and you two have to resolve it. I’m not a part of the problem. I’m here to facilitate”, he said.

“Trust was developed, and the concept of declaration of principles – which is the form of dialogue – and then they started drafting [the agreement],” Rod Larsen said.

When an agreement was reached he called Arafat to congratulate him. Arafat had the whole PLO leadership by his side, and Rod Larsen heard noises in the background.

He asked Arafat to clarify what it was, and Arafat said: “They are all crying”.

Two- state solution

The Norwegian diplomat believes the end of the conflict relies on a two-state solution.

Rod Larsen said a one-state solution would be the best option, but impossible to implement. “What should we call that state? I mean, Israel, Palestine, and that is impossible to resolve.”

No Israeli government would accept this, he said, adding the demography shows that Palestinians would be a majority if a one-state solution were established.

“It’s a nice dream. But it’s not possible to realize. So, this is why I believe that the only way of putting an end to this conflict is through the establishment of two states.”

Many have told Rod Larsen that a Palestinian state should have been established immediately in 1994, but he believes that it was a “utopian view.”

“A peace agreement is a compromise, and a compromise is about give and take,” he said, adding that implementing a deal is much harder than having signatures on paper.

Rod Larsen was questioned on why the Israeli settlement freeze was not included in the Oslo Accords.

It was “on the original draft and Rabin told his negotiators that he was not against it, but it would have been impossible to get the Knesset’s – the Israeli Parliament – approval,” he said.

“So the parties took it out, and this was one of the compromises,” he said.

‘Toolbox’ needed to negotiate deals

Rod Larsen’s tactics during negotiations is knowing how to use a “toolbox” when getting parties to a conflict to talk.

“You have to make a very careful study on what tools to use. Sometimes you need a screwdriver. Sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes you need some other tools.”

The pre-negotiations that took place in Oslo were successful because “we studied very carefully what to use, there was a very small delegation, totally secret, to establish trust and the idea of what kind of an agreement it could be.”

“So my advice to negotiators is to study very carefully what the conflict is and what kind of tools you need to use.”

In recent years, US interest in resolving the conflict has waned.

The most serious move – one that infuriated many – was former President Donald Trump’s decision, breaking decades of US policy, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there.

In 2018, Trump said his administration had a peace proposal in the works, and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of America’s closest ally had “taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table”.

Since then, Washington has attempted to mediated different kinds of agreements between Israel and other Arab states.

A deal known as the [so-called] Abraham Accords was reached in August 2020, which led to the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco signing documents to establish ties with Israel in September of that year.

Sudan later joined the Accords. For its part, Israel agreed to temporarily halt plans to annex about 30 per cent of the West Bank.

The Accords is a “major achievement, opening up roads to broader peace agreements for the region”.

Among the achievements ”was that it stopped the Israeli plan of annexing the West Bank. Without it that would never have happened”, he said.

“I’m a great supporter of the Accords,” he said.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is focused on promoting equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians and encouraging more nations to seek normalization with Israel.

It has maintained support for a two-state solution and denounced moves that could threaten this outcome, such as planned expansions of West Bank settlements and any moves from both sides that encouraged violence.

Washington’s efforts

The most recent development is centred around Washington’s efforts to establish ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel in a “grand bargain” that includes support for the Palestinians.

It has been reported that Washington and Riyadh have joined forces to bid for a far-reaching diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East.

“What the US is working on now with Saudi Arabia, the grand bargain, is maybe the only way of resolving the issues (between the Palestinians and Israelis),” Rod Larsen said.

It will be a “tall order”, he added, but there are serious efforts to make it happen.

The so-called “grand bargain“ is based on security guarantees between Washington and Riyadh and the normalization of Saudi-Israeli diplomatic ties, in addition to addressing the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The details of the potential deal are still under wraps, but Rod Larsen believes the discussion of a deal would not be possible without the Abraham Accords.

“The dialogue now ongoing between Saudi Arabia and the US would not have been possible without it. And so, the Abraham Accords has solidified the defence of the Palestinian cause,” he said.

Rod Larsen believes that Washington alone has the power to make the right deal happen between the two sides.

“The Americans are the only ones who have the necessary tools and the bargaining chip,” he said.

Washington is the only entity which has “the tools to lift these building blocks” to create a path for peaceful coexistence between the two sides, Rod Larsen said.

Mina Aldroubi – journalist, Abu Dhabi