May/June 1999

Peres' Jerusalem Letter

The Jerusalem Letter
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs
During the three weeks between the initialling of the Oslo accord between the PLO and the Israeli negotiations on 19 August 1993, and the signing of the DOP in Washington D.C. on 13 September 1993, three letters were to have been exchanged between the two sides through the late Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Johann Juergen Holst, forming an integral part of the peace agreement. Yet only two letters were signed and exchanged, the third being delayed by Israel.

Without the exchange of these letters, the DOP most probably would not have been signed.1 All three letters were dated 9 September 1993, four days prior to the signing of the DOP. Two letters were signed during the shuttle mission of Holst between Jerusalem and the PLO headquarters in Tunis. The third letter, which originally carried the same date as the other two of 9 September, was only signed and exchanged after the signing of the DOP.

In Tunis, Chairman Arafat signed the first letter on the evening of 9 September 1993, in the presence of both the Palestinian negotiating team in Oslo and the Norwegian team accompanying Holst. The letter was addressed to Rabin, and, for the first time began "Dear Mr. Prime Minister". In the letter, Chairman Arafat committed himself (PNC) as soon as possible, in order to amend and/or cancel those articles in the Charter of the PLO that are against the existence of the state of Israel. Chairman Arafat also committed himself to ask the Palestinian people to resort to political means in salving the problems with Israel.

Minister Holst flew to Israel the following day and handed the letter over to Rabin and Peres. Following that, Rabin signed the second letter, dated also 9 September 1993, but actually signed on 10 September. During the signing ceremony in Jerusalem, Rabin was flanked by Holst and Peres. In that letter addressed to Chairman Arafat, Rabin, in the name of the government of Israel, declared his recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The letter was addressed to Chairman Arafat and started also with "Dear Mr. Chairman". The letter was delivered to Chairman Arafat directly by Minister Holst.

The date and place of the signing of the third letter, which has become known as the Jerusalem Letter, since Chairman Arafat referred to it as such in Johannesburg, is more problematic. The letter was also originally dated 9 September 1993 and signed by Peres. Thus, it was supposed to have been exchanged with the other two letters. Unlike the other two, however, the letter was addressed to "Dear Minister Holst", who was to convey its contents to its real destination, Chairman Arafat. The letter was supposed to remain secret because it carried certain Israeli commitments on the issue of Jerusalem. Yet the letter was not delivered in due time before or immediately following the signing of the DOP in Washington on 13 September 1993.

The matter was not abandoned by the PLO. Farouq Qaddoumi, head of the Political Department of the PLO met Minister Holst on 29 September 1993 at the UN in New York, where both were attending the General Assembly.2 Qaddoumi remained Holst that the letter on Jerusalem "which was supposed to form on integral part of the letters exchanged with Israel," had not yet been signed by Peres and delivered to the PLO, as agreed upon in Oslo.

Qaddoumi put this position in a latter to Holst summing up their discussion in New York3. Qaddoumi warned that "Israel has failed to sign and deliver the letter about Jerusalem" and this "makes the agreement incomplete".

Yet at the meeting in New York, Qaddoumi, had delivered a draft of the said letter to an astonished Holst, who promised to work on the issue with the Israel side. Later, Holst had the letter delivered to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the architect of the Oslo talks and the DOP.

In this letter, Peres confirmed the importance of the well-being of the Palestinians and of their institutions in East Jerusalem. The letter reads as follows:4

Dear Minister Holst,

I wish to confirm that the Palestinian institutions of East Jerusalem and the interests and well-being of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are of great importance and will be preserved.

Therefore, all the Palestinian institutions of East Jerusalem, including the economic, social, educational, and cultural, and the holy Christian and Muslim places, are

performing an essential task for the Palestinian population.

Needless to say, we will not hamper their activity; on the contrary, he fulfillment of this important mission is to be encouraged.


Shimon Peres

Foreign Minister of Israel

This letter evoked controversy between the PLO and Israel on the one hand, and within Israel itself on the other. The Israeli media and the opposition (Likud) demanded the government to attest as to whether such a letter existed or not.

The controversy was evoked by the statement that Chairman Arafat made at the Islamic Mosque in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, he told the audience:5

"And, for this I was insisting before signing [the Cairo Agreement] to have a letter from them, from the Israeli[s] that Jerusalem is one of the items which has to be under discussion ... And in this letter, ... I insist to mention, and they had written it, and I have this letter, I didn't declare. I didn't publish till now. In this letter, we are responsible for all the Christian and the Muslim and the Islamic holy sacred places.'

In short, Chairman Arafat made a "secret" letter public, which he was not supposed to do according to the Israeli point of view.

Then later in his statement, Chairman Arafat said that the "scene" he made in Cairo during the signing ceremony was because of Jerusalem. Arafat said further that he needed to made that "scene" because he did not think he could trust Rabin's promises on Jerusalem. Arafat wanted the promise to be confirmed by the two co-sponsors, the USA and Russia, with Egypt as the witness, He said:

"I don't want only from Rabin this promise, No. I want this promise from the co-sponsors, Christopher and Kozyrev, and the witness President Mubarak."

The debate in Israel following the airing of Arafat's statement on Israel Radio on 17 May 1994 was immediate. In the press briefing following his meeting with Christopher, Rabin denied the existence of such a letter, and denied that he or "any other Israeli",6 gave any promises on Jerusalem following the signing of the Cairo Agreement on 4 May 1994. He conceded that he had written a letter on 8 May, four days after the signing ceremony in Cairo, and that he had made it available to the Knesset. Rabin, however, did not say whether he addressed it to Arafat or to anyone else.

In this reply, Rabin said:

"If the matter involves a letter following the Cairo accord, then that letter was written by me on May 8 and was submitted to the Knesset. It contains no reference to Jerusalem. There was no letter from me or from any other Israeli, following the Cairo accord, that deals with Jerusalem. Furthermore, the DOP agreement that was signed in Washington on September 13, 1993, says that issues connected with a permanent settlement - and the DOP offers examples of such issues, including the status of Jerusalem - could be brought up during the negotiations over a permanent settlement."7

Rabin even instructed one of his closest associates, Police Minister Moshe Shahal, to deny the existence of such a letter in the Knesset, only to apologise for him later when the letter was made public for making the denial.8

Peres, himself, who signed the original letter also denied its existence, claiming there was no basis for Arafat's claim. In a similar press briefing, following his meeting with Christopher, he said about Arafat's statement:9

"And what he has said about the letter, to the best of my knowledge and understanding there is no basis for that ... We're going to verify the exact things that had been said and we'd react accordingly."

The PLO did not leave the Rabin-Peres denials without response. Farouq Qaddoumi wrote a letter to Christopher, dated 30 May 1994, rebutting these denials.10 Qaddmentioned in his letter that he was sending the clarifications to Christopher because Rabin's statement was made in Christopher's presence. Qaddoumi then quoted the text of Rabin's statement to the press mentioned above, followed by the whole text of the letter, sent by Peres to Holst, citing the date of the letter as 9 September 1993. Qaddoumi then wrote,

"This letter is an integral part of the commitments by the government of Israel. Israel has failed to comply with this commitment which is most important and sensitive."

Qaddoumi went on to enumerate the measures of restrictions and isolation that Israel had imposed on the Palestinians of East Jerusalem "contrary to the spirit and letter of the above" letter. These measures included the claims which Israel maintains on Jerusalem, the Israeli "Basic Law" on Jerusalem, which has been declared "null and void" by the international community, the expropriation of Palestinian land, expansion and construction of more Jewish housing projects in and around Jerusalem, the threats by the Israeli Prime Minister to close down Palestinian institutions, such as the PECDAR (Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction) in Jerusalem, the arming of Israeli worshippers in Jericho, the armed settlers in Gaza and the failure of the Israeli forces to confine settlers to their settlements.

Qaddoumi reminded Christopher that Jerusalem would be among the issues deferred for the time being to be discussed "not later than the beginning of the third year" (following the DOP), and that the aim of such negotiations would be to lead to a "permanent status on the basis of the implementation of UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338"; that the report of the U.S. Department of State to Congress designates East Jerusalem as part of the Occupied Territories; and finally that the DOP recognises the rights of the Palestinians residing in Jerusalem to participate in the elections for the "Council" of the "Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority (PISGA)". Thus, Qaddoumi concluded that it is

"a matter of right that the PLO affirms its position on Jerusalem and will maintain this position until a 'permanent status' is negotiated and agreed upon by the parties to the DOP".

Qaddoumi ended with the following call to Christopher:

"It is necessary that the co-sponsors11 of the peace process should prevail upon Israel to comply with its commitments in order to ensure the smooth implementation of the DOP in its entirety, as well as the initial stage as agreed in Cairo on May 4, 1994."

The argument over the Holst letter arose for the following reasons:

First and foremost was the issue of Jerusalem, held by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to be the centrepiece of their political life, culture and existence. Each party was trying to improve its position on the struggle for the city in the lead up to the negotiations on final status issues.

Arafat disclosed the existence of the secret letter, about which everyone else was kept in the dark. Yet without this letter, the DOP most probably would not have been initialed in Oslo. Hence the three letters mentioned earlier have to be taken together as part of the agreement. These letters were necessary to save the peace process and the Oslo talks from failure.

Arafat confused the issue when he said that he insisted on having the letter on Jerusalem before signing the Cairo Agreement on 4 May 1994. This caused confusion on the venue as well as on the date of the letter. In Johannesburg Arafat said he was

"Insisting before signing [the Cairo Agreement] to have a letter from them that Jerusalem is one of the issues which has to be under discussion".

Yet this request is not that problematic because Arafat and Qaddoumi, as well as Rabin and Peres, mentioned in various statements that Jerusalem is one of the issues deferred until the final status negotiations that should start not later than the beginning of the third year. This is also inscribed in the DOP.

Arafat also made a direct link between his public refusal to sign the Cairo Agreement and the issues of Jerusalem. Yet, the real reason Arafat did not sign was because the agreement which he had reached with Rabin the previous night on the size of the Jericho area to come under the PNA, was not shown in the text or appended maps of the final agreement.

Arafat used this episode to underline the fragility of the negotiations between the PLO and Israel, in which promises made by the Israelis are habitually broken. In causing a 'scene' in Cairo, Arafat was attempting to underline this point to the two co-sponsors of the peace process and Egypt, and to gain their support in inducing Israel to stick to its agreements.

Arafat's statement shows further that there is no agreement on the actual date of the Holst letter, adding more confusion as to which letter is being referred to. Arafat complicated the problem by making a direct link between the letter on Jerusalem and the Cairo Agreement signed on 4 May 1994. Yet the letter was dated 9 September 1993, before the signing of the DOP. In fact, the letter was signed and sent at the latest one month later, through Holst. Israel published the text of the letter with the date of 11 October 1993, after the signing of the DOP.12 Qaddoumi differed with both the Chairman's linkage to the Cairo Agreement and with the Israeli version, and put the date as 9 September 1993 in his letter to Christopher mentioned above, even though it was he who reminded Holst on 29 September that the PLO had not yet received the letter from Peres. This means that the Peres letter, which originally carried the date of 9 September, was sent some time between 29 September13 and 11 October 1993.

Faced with this leak, Israeli officials went into a series of justifications to show that Arafat was not telling the truth. First, they claimed that the letter was addressed to Holst and not to Arafat.14 While this is true, this does not detract from the fact that there is a letter on Jerusalem, and that

letter was intended to reach Arafat as part of the Israeli commitment to the DOP. Second, Israeli officials pointed out that the letter was not signed until after the DOP. Again, this might be true. However, the Israelis never made clear when the letter was actually signed. Rabin and Peres used the Chairman's linkage to the Cairo Agreement to deny that either of them, or "any Israeli" as Rabin claimed, had signed a letter on Jerusalem following the signing of the Cairo Agreement. However, the letter exists, having been sent after the DOP.

The domestic campaign against the Israeli government intensified. The opposition accused the government of a cover-up and questioned its credibility.15 Benny Begin, a Likud member of Knesset and son of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, accused the Rabin Government of "stupidity", saying that the letter "severely impairs Israel's sovereignty over its capital",16 meaning Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon, a Likud member of the Knesset and former Minister of Defence (during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982) termed the letter "madness" and accused the government of lying and of "confirm(ing) and confer(ing) legitimacy on Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem".17

Peres attempted to control the damage caused to his credibility and that of the government, and tried to minimise the importance of the dispute over the letter by claiming that the "dispute over the letter was a matter of interpretation."18 He also denied that the government had lied when it said that it had published all documents pertaining to the DOP because "a letter is not a document".19 Israeli officials blamed each other for the issue. Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confided to the Jerusalem Post that the letter was written "with the premier's authorisation",20 Others said that the Oslo talks leading to the initialing of the DOP would have "collapsed" if Israel did not send the letter.21 This position is correct, as the promise of the letter was the sine qua non for the initialing of the Oslo Agreement, leading to the signing of the DOP on 13 September 1993. Finally, once Peres was forcedto admit the existence of this letter, he justified his position by saying that when the letter was secret "it had strength, but once it was revealed, it became weak".22 When queried further about whether he had any other regrets, he said that he regretted only that "it became public".23

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