It happened, as far as I can reconstruct it from memory, in January 1994. At the time, I was the correspondent in Israel of the New York weekly Forward and had an assistant, Abby Wisse.
One day Abby called me with an odd story. She had gotten a telephone call from an American Jew who refused to give his name. He would only say that he lived in a settlement in the territories and had an astounding document to show her. It had been given to him by a friend who worked in the Foreign Ministry and it contained the secret plan for the implementation of the Oslo Agreement, which had been signed several months previously a plan that revealed the Rabin government's true intentions. These were, contrary to everything that was being said publicly, to establish a Palestinian state, withdraw to the 1967 borders, evacuate all the settlements, and return all of east Jerusalem to Arab rule. It was all in the document, which the anonymous caller wanted us to publish in order to bare the shocking truth.
Quite sensibly, Abby asked him why he was coming to the Forward with it. Why not The New York Times or some other big-time newspaper?
"I've tried The Times," the caller told her. He had gone to other prominent dailies too. None of them would touch the story, because, since he could not divulge his Foreign Ministry source, there was no way for them to corroborate it. The Forward was a last resort.
That much honesty appealed to me. I told Abby to arrange for the two of us to meet the man in a hotel in Jerusalem. The rules we agreed on were simple. He would bring us a copy of the document and we would read it in his presence and ask him anything about it that we wanted, except for his name or his friend's. After that we could do what we wished, but we were not to contact him again.
Real cloak-and-dagger! We even rented a hotel room to avoid having to sit in a lobby. At the appointed time the caller showed up. He was a young man of about 30 with a skullcap and an earnest demeanor. Without many words, he handed us the document. It was lengthy and labeled "top secret" and it was just what he had said it was: a detailed plan for surrendering everything gained in the 1967 war in return for peace with a PLO state. Where in the Foreign Ministry, I asked, did it come from?
It came, the young man said, from the desk of a very high official. This high official, however, did not know it had been taken from him. The young man's friend had purloined it and photographed it clandestinely. He had done so because he was worried sick by its contents and felt duty-bound to leak them. Not wishing to put himself at risk, he had asked the young man to contact the press for him.
"But this is literally unbelievable," I said. "No government of Israel could do the things that this document speaks of doing. No government could get away with it. The public would never let it."
In 1994 that seemed self-evident.
The young man stuck to his guns. Unbelievable or not, the document was authentic.
Could he prove it to us?
No, he said, he couldn't. We would just have to take his word for it. Or not take it. He had done what he could. Now the decision was up to us.
And with that he vanished into the night.
Abby and I stayed in the room to talk it over. The young man had made a good impression; he was obviously sincere and had answered our questions frankly, confessing his ignorance of things he didn't know, such as the high official's identity. I didn't believe he was trying to deceive us. Yet the document was unbelievable. Perhaps he had been deceived himself, used as a tool by a right-wing manipulation in the campaign against Oslo. We consulted with the Forward's editors in New York and it was decided to run the story as an anecdotal one, telling it as it happened without making any claims for its truth.
It was published in that form. I don't recall there being any reaction to it. The Forward didn't have many readers, and those who read it must have felt, as Abby and I did, that there was something fishy about it.
Today, I have no doubt that the document we were shown that night was authentic. I don't mean that it was indeed the secret plan of the Rabin government or even of its foreign minister, who at the time was Shimon Peres. Most likely it was a position paper prepared with his close aides by someone high up in the ministry with his own views of what course the Oslo process should take a paper that had fallen into the hands of the friend of our anonymous caller.
That's my guess. And it's my guess, too, that the "very high official" was Yossi Beilin, then Peres' deputy.
Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership have often been blamed by their Palestinian critics for the fact that, knowing in 1993 that a clear majority of Israelis was against Palestinian statehood, against a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, against an evacuation of the settlements, and against a re-division of Jerusalem, they nevertheless agreed to a "peace process" that did not promise them any of these things.
But if someone high up in the Foreign Ministry was whispering to them all along, "Don't worry, it will take a bit of time, Israeli public opinion needs to be molded, but in the end you'll get it all, just trust me," their behavior seems more rational as does their anger when the years went by with no sign of this coming to pass.
Beilin hasn't changed. It's we who have. What was unbelievable in 1994 has become all too believable now. He was right about us. We're public opinion and we've been molded. Like clay in the potter's hands.