Gilad Halpern
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Ron Pundak, a mensch for all seasons

The late architect of the Oslo Accords continued to believe it's either two states for two people or nothing

In most cases, controversial policies are the brainchild of controversial people. In the field of politics, groundbreaking ideas are often divisive, and the readiness to initiate, promote and defend them later on requires specific personality traits – dogged self-conviction is one of many similar ones – that rarely serve to assuage the already existing contentions.

Ron Pundak, a veteran peace activist and one of the architects of the groundbreaking 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO, was an exception to this rule. Despite his responsibility for one of the most controversial diplomatic measures in Israel’s history, Pundak, who died earlier this month aged 59 after a years-long battle with cancer, was largely spared the torrent of contempt saved for fellow “Oslo criminals.” The reason was that under no circumstance could he be blamed for promoting a hidden agenda – selfish or otherwise; whether they agreed with him or not, all those who heard him speak, privately or publicly, unanimously said that his enthused optimism was genuine, and that he was driven solely by grave concern for the long-term peace and security of Israel.

I had the fortune of being privy to his mesmerizing presence six months ago, when I interviewed him for TLV1 Radio. Our conversation was dedicated to his recently published book Secret Channel: Oslo – The Full Story, in which he chronicled his personal involvement in the peace process from its very outset. It was shortly after TLV1, as well as my show, The Tel Aviv Review, saw the light of day, and we were still struggling to book even lower-profile interviewees than Pundak. But when I hesitantly approached him, he immediately said yes. He came to the studio happily and asked no questions about listenership, ratings and outreach. All he did was wish us luck.

I knew he had been ill for a while, but was nonetheless taken aback when I saw him. He had lost his hair, and looked emaciated and pale. However, his sharp wit was somehow miraculously spared by the encroaching disease and, more importantly, so was his optimism. In a stuffy Tel Aviv basement in October 2013, Ron Pundak sounded not much different from what he probably sounded like on the White House lawn in September 1993.

In our interview Pundak conveyed the drama of conducting the initial stage of talks under a cloak of secrecy when only 10 people in Israel, including Yitzhak Rabin, and nine Palestinians knew of their existence. On his painstaking efforts to build personal relationships with his interlocuters, he said, “You can solve tragedies if you trust the other side.”

Did Oslo fail? Pundak said the agreements were sound and the problem was a question of implementation. In the long view, even the Likud had come around to the basic concept of the accords. We can continue to dream that everything belongs to us, he said, but “it’s either two states for two people or nothing.” 

I asked him about his decision to publish the book now, before the peace process — set in motion in Oslo – had been concluded, either in the pantheon of diplomacy, or the dustbin of history, where it has constantly seemed to be heading for. I suppose I knew the answer; and he, I’m sure, did too.

Click here to listen to the full interview.

About the Author
Gilad Halpern is an Israeli journalist, broadcaster and media historian. He is co-host of the English-language podcast The Tel Aviv Review and founding co-editor of The Tel Aviv Review of Books, an English-language literary journal.