Mr. Oslo

Uri Savir may not have won a Nobel Peace Prize, but far more than the three national leaders who did, he is Mr. Oslo. For three long months in 1993, the then director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry sat secretly in the Norwegian capital and hammered out an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization that kindled hopes of an end to a century of belligerence.

Seven years later, despite this autumn’s reversion to violence, he is still convinced that peace is possible – and that the sooner Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat get back to the negotiating table, the better. What they need, he argues, is the courage to make the kinds of compromises Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Arafat made, and to fight for them.

“Peace,” he insists, “is not made out of consensus. What was so great about Rabin, Peres and Arafat was not just the courage to meet and make a compromise, but the courage to withstand internal opposition. For deals that were unpopular, Rabin paid with his life, Peres with his political life, and Arafat took great risks. But ultimately their countries were better off.”

Bill Clinton, he suggests, deserves a Nobel Prize for his persistence in trying to rescue the process. There’s just one more thing the United States president must do: “He has to lock Barak and Arafat in a room and walk out. This odd couple must talk to each other.”

We met in the Knesset, where Savir is now a 47-year-old Center Party legislator. He is plumper these days than the ambitious young diplomat I first knew 20 years ago, but his glasses still twinkle, the ideas still flow like notes for a seminar on how to resolve conflicts. He took time out from vigorously lobbying against a national emergency government with Ariel Sharon – “that would mean the end of the road, for a long time” – to explain why the Oslo process is not dead.

“Both sides,” he said, “will soon discover that at the end of the day violence cannot resolve anything. Even if the Palestinian were to declare a state unilaterally, the issue of borders, the issue of recognition, the issue of refugees, nothing will be resolved except by the peace process. Oslo did two things that are irreversible. It began the end of the Israeli occupation, and it created a sense of interdependence.

“The Palestinians have to understand, as we have to understand, that nation-building and peace go hand-in-hand. Peace is not just something they give to Israel. If Palestine can be born in an agreement of peace, it will be a different Palestine than if it’s born out of hostility.”

What, then, should Barak do to get the process back on track? The prime minister had to reaffirm that Arafat remained a partner, provided he recognized that violence had no part in negotiations, and provided he made a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorism. “Based on these premises,” Savir added, “we have to make every effort not just to renew the peace process, but to conclude it.”

After the two leaders seemed so close at Camp David in July, I asked, what went wrong?

“Camp David was a mistake,” Savir answered. “You cannot resolve 100 years of conflict in two weeks at Camp David. It was too much a make-it or break-it. We avoided a small crisis then and got a bigger crisis later.”

More specifically, he argued that Israel ignored the depth of Palestinian grass-roots disappointment with the fruits of peace. “We’ll have to redefine the priorities. The peace dividends have to go from the bottom up. The people out on the streets are more the have-nots than the haves. Those who have gained from the peace process are the elites. What we are seeing now is also a rebellion against the elites. We have to invest a thousand times more resources in socio-economic programs and peace-building programs.”

The two parties, he added, failed to learn a key lesson of Oslo: that Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate with each other, not the Americans, and they should do so in secret.

“Had Oslo been conducted the way Camp David was conducted, we’d never have achieved our compromises. We need the Americans for safety nets against crises, for a strategic umbrella, for the aid issues and the security issues. But the core diplomacy has to be bilateral and well-prepared, because that is how you build the necessary trust.”

So where do they go from here? Israel, Savir argued, had to learn that “military power hardly counts any more.” The Palestinians had to learn that international support was not enough. They had to convince Israeli public opinion.

“They have an incredible opportunity to achieve an agreement that will not give them all, but will give them a state on most of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with some hold also in Jerusalem, with a serious solution to the refugee problem.

“They have more to lose than us. Therefore, those who create this violence – even if it’s out of frustration, even if it’s out of some justified claims, it doesn’t matter – they’re making a historical mistake.”