Academic who initiated the secret channel that led to the Rabin-Arafat handshake 20 years ago succumbs to cancer
Ron Pundak, one of the main architects of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, passed away Friday at the age of 59 after a battle with cancer.
From 2001-2012, Pundak directed the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. He then chaired the Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella organization of 60 nonprofits.
In 1991, Pundak, a native of Tel Aviv, graduated from the University of London with a PhD in Middle Eastern political history and returned to Israel, where he started working for the Haaretz newspaper. A short while later, he reconnected with his old friend Yair Hirschfeld, who at the time served as a non-paid adviser to Labor MK Yossi Beilin. In what was a period of relative optimism, inspired by the Madrid Peace Conference, Hirschfeld reactivated contacts with certain local Palestinian leaders that he had established in the 1970s and 1980s. Hirschfeld had good relations with senior Palestinian figures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi, Ziad Abu Zayad and Sari Nusseibeh.
After the June 1992 elections, when Yitzhak Rabin emerged as prime minister, Peres entered the Foreign Ministry and Beilin became his deputy. Rabin promised to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians within six to nine months. But Pundak, 38 at the time, and Hirschfeld felt things were not moving fast enough.
So Pundak and Hirschfeld — two private individuals — started meeting with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, trying to feel out if a peace agreement was possible. A few weeks after the first such meeting, Hirschfeld, who was skeptical about the chances to reach a breakthrough, turned to Pundak and said that what they were doing would perhaps one day become a historical footnote. Certainly nothing more.
“I told him, ‘Yair, you’re wrong,’ ” Pundak recalled in an interview with The Times of Israel in September 2013. “What we have in our hands is something big. There is a chance that this will become something huge.”
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