Lessons of Oslo after Twenty Years
Twenty years ago today, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the initial Oslo agreements in a ceremony on the White House lawn that captured the world's attention and seemed to many the start of genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Later that day, on Jordanian television, Arafat explained to his Palestinian constituency and the broader Arab world that they should understand Oslo in the context of the Palestinian National Council's 1974 decision. This was a reference to the so-called Plan of Phases, according to which the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) would acquire whatever territory it could by negotiations, then use that land as a base for pursuing Israel's annihilation.
Unlike the White House ceremony, Arafat's broadcast garnered little attention, even in Israel. Israelis, including the government and major media, similarly ignored Arafat's frequent repetition of his "Plan of Phases" view of Oslo.
Other graphic evidence of hostile Palestinian intent likewise prompted little attention. Arafat and those around him praised terrorists targeting Israelis and declared Israel to be the Palestinians' permanent enemy. Palestinian schools taught children that the Jews have no legitimate claim to any part of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, that they are alien usurpers, and that it is the duty of all Palestinians to dedicate themselves to expunging the Zionist state. Mosques and media under Palestinian control conveyed the same message.
Like the incitement, the unprecedented level of anti-Israel terror that followed upon Arafat's arrival in Gaza, in July, 1994, was dramatically downplayed by the Israeli government and media. In the subsequent fifteen months, ninety people were killed in terror attacks. Yet at the end of those fifteen months Israel signed the Oslo II agreements and handed Arafat additional territorial concessions. Israeli government spokespeople and media insisted that the terror was the work of Hamas and other Islamist groups and exonerated Arafat and his associates, even as the latter were praising Hamas and the terrorists and even as the Israeli government knew of Arafat's collusion in the terror.
Why did the Israeli government, with the backing of the nation's elites, including its media elite, enter into the Oslo agreements despite Arafat and the PLO's continued dedication to Israel's destruction? Why did it then pursue additional accords even as its Palestinian "peace partners" not only failed to carry out their commitments under earlier agreements but actually increased their incitement and involvement in anti-Israel terror?
Ari Shavit, a senior columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and long an Oslo enthusiast, wrote in 1997, "In the early '90's... we, the enlightened Israelis, were injected with a messianic craze... All of a sudden, we believed that... the end of the old Middle East was near... the end of wars, the end of the conflict... We fooled ourselves with illusions. We were bedazzled into committing a collective act of messianic drunkenness."
While Shavit's observations offer a vivid description of the Oslo phenomenon, they do not provide an explanation. That lies in the psychology of chronically besieged populations. Almost invariably, elements of those populations, particularly among their elites, will embrace the indictments of the besiegers, however bigoted or outrageous, in the hope that by doing so and "reforming" to assuage their besiegers they will win relief.
Israel had been under siege for its entire national existence. Even the peace treaty with Egypt was a cold peace that entailed virtually no implementation of the approximately two dozen stipulations on normalization of relations. The Egyptian military continued to train for war with Israel and Egyptian government media spewed anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda.
Israelis faced not only ongoing siege but the reality that they had no capacity to end it. Peace, if and when it comes, will do so on the Arabs' timetable. The Arabs will determine when a Jewish state will be accepted as legitimate within a sea of Arab Muslim states, and they are very far from indicating any movement in that direction. Moreover, Israel's actions have little impact on Arab calculations in this vein, which are primarily shaped by internal Arab issues.
At present the Arab world is dominated by what a Tunisian liberal writer characterized as the "twin fascisms" of Islamism and pan-Arabism. This translates not only into besiegement of Israel but of every religious and ethnic minority within the Arab world, whether it be, for example, Christians in Egypt and in other Arab nations or Muslim but non-Arab populations such as the Kurds of Syria, the Muslim blacks of Darfur, or the Berbers of Algeria.
Israel can be alert to opportunities to forge agreements that are short of genuine peace and that entail an inherent fragility but provide some at least temporary improvement of conditions without exposing the nation to significant greater risks -- such as its agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Beyond this, Israel can, at most, deter its enemies from attacking the nation and, when deterrence fails, beat its enemies back. But it cannot force genuine peace upon its neighbors -- neither by strength of arms nor by appeasement.
The siege, and Israel's inability to end it, do, of course, have a negative impact on the life of the nation. Many Israelis, as is common in such circumstances, have found the situation intolerable and deluded themselves with fantasies of control. In the context of Oslo, these fantasies entailed primarily wishful belief that sufficient Israeli concessions could not help but win peace.
The increased terror that followed on the initial Oslo accords, while not swaying the government from its course, did have some impact on the Israeli population. Still, approximately fifty percent continued to support Oslo. This changed only when, at Camp David in 2000, Arafat rejected every proposal by the Israelis and by President Clinton, offered no counter-proposals, and instead left the meetings and launched a terror war that in the ensuing few years cost some 1,000 Israeli lives and left thousands more maimed. Only then did substantial numbers of Israelis abandon their Oslo delusions. Among the remaining true believers, still more changed their views when Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by a significant increase in Palestinian attacks, including the firing of Kassam rockets, from Gaza into pre-1967 Israel. The assault from Gaza, of course, saw a dramatic further escalation after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007.
Arafat never had any intention of signing an "end of conflict" agreement, which both the Israelis and Americans saw as central to the Camp David negotiations. In the wake of leaving Camp David, Arafat sought to win the world's de facto recognition of "Palestine" in all the land beyond the pre-1967 armistice lines and to continue to pursue the goal of Israel's annihilation. He may well have won such recognition from European states had the Clinton Administration not vigorously stood against it. He also sought to have his terror war trigger the placement of international troops in the territories, providing a shield behind which he could continue to wage his assault on Israel. This, too, failed to materialize.
Has Arafat lieutenant Mahmoud Abbas's accession to the Palestinian presidency made any difference? Unlike Arafat, Abbas has not directly promoted terror. While not opposing it in principle, he believes it to be counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. But, unfortunately for both Israelis and Palestinians, he has otherwise largely followed Arafat's game plan. He has refused to recognize Israel's legitimacy, is determined not to sign an "end of conflict" agreement no matter what concessions Israel offers, and is committed to pursuing Israel's dissolution. The media, schools and mosques under his control continue to praise terrorists as heroes to be emulated, with Abbas personally joining in this praise. They continue to convey the message of Israel's illegitimacy, of all the land between the river and the sea properly belonging to the Palestinians, of the necessity of pursuing Israel's annihilation.
Abbas, like Arafat, has sought to win maximal concessions from Israel without compromising his ultimate agenda. He has striven to do so by having the United States apply pressure to Israel. He has also sought recognition of a Palestinian state outside of any agreement with Israel and has enjoyed some success in this, particularly at the United Nations but also in Europe and elsewhere. He also aspires to the insertion of international forces in the territories, which in effect would provide him with a state as well as a base from which to pursue additional steps in an unending war against Israel's existence.
The currently resumed negotiations, choreographed and overseen by Secretary of State Kerry under President Obama's instructions, promise no departure from this Palestinian strategy. On the contrary, according to media reports, Israel is being pressed to accede to an agreement based on the indefensible pre-1967 lines with minor, "mutually agreed upon," land swaps, is also being pushed to accept the insertion of international forces in the territories, and is being threatened with increased isolation if it fails to provide sufficient concessions or if the talks falter. In contrast, despite Kerry's referring at times to an "end of conflict" agreement, he and the Obama administration have been essentially silent on Abbas's incessant anti-Israel incitement and refusal to prepare Palestinians for an accord that would acknowledge Israel's legitimacy.
Few in Israel believe an accord is possible under present circumstances. The majority might be wrong in the sense that, with American pressure, a piece of paper may be signed built largely, like Oslo, on tangible concessions coming only from Israel. Such a paper, again like Oslo, would leave Israel more vulnerable and genuine peace an even more distant dream.
Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege.