On September 13, 1993 many, if not most, people seemed to think the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East had been resolved. When Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn as President Bill Clinton looked on beaming, the event engendered a feeling of euphoria in Israel as well as in the United States among supporters of the Jewish state. But when the 20th anniversary of that event is marked later this week, the occasion will be one that will be largely devoted to recriminations rather than celebrations.
To say that those expectations of peace and the creation of–as Shimon Peres, the principle architect of Israel’s policy, articulated it–a “new Middle East” were disappointed is to understate the matter. Israelis clearly thought they were, as the left had long advocated, trading land for peace. But what followed, as the Palestine Liberation Organization was brought in from exile and given autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, was nothing that resembled peace. Though much effort has been expended in trying to blame the Jewish state for not living up to all of its promises, the main problem with what Oslo’s architects created is the same today as it was then: one side—the Israelis—saw the accord as a formula for a solution for ending the conflict, the other—the Palestinians—viewed it as merely one phase in their long war to extinguish the Jewish state. The Palestinian culture of violence and hatred of Israel has only been strengthened by Oslo, not diminished. There is little reason to believe Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas or his Hamas rivals have any intention of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
The current round of talks going on between Israel and the Palestinian Authority differ from those that led to the 1993 extravaganza principally in that the dispute is now one between two internationally recognized parties rather than between a sovereign nation and a terrorist movement. Even more important, rather than Israel’s international standing having been strengthened by its decision to recognize the national rights of the Palestinians and to empower their foes on the ground, it has been weakened immeasurably by Oslo and the various peace agreements that followed.
However, while we may debate what course both the United States and Israel should follow now and in the future, I think it’s pointless to spend much time pondering whether the Jewish state’s Oslo blunder might have been averted. Though the illusions fostered by those who pursued the accords were exposed by subsequent Palestinian actions as fundamentally mistaken—a fact reflected in the virtual collapse of Israel’s political left—there is no going back. Israel is stuck with the world that Peres and his allies created.
Of course, it is very easy to put forward a historical scenario by which Oslo would not have occurred. Had Israel’s right-wing parties won just one more Knesset seat in the 1992 elections that put Labor and its leader Yitzhak Rabin in control of the country, the result would have been a stalemate. Indeed, had negotiations for the three largest parties to the right of Likud to join forces succeeded, Yitzhak Shamir might have been narrowly reelected since the combined vote of the trio would have given their erstwhile coalition a majority. But since they went to the polls solo, the result (under the rules of Israel’s convoluted proportional electoral system) led to many of those votes being wasted. What would have followed would probably have been another few years of American pressure on Israel to negotiate with the PLO and Arafat but the old terrorist would not have been allowed to place his forces on Israel’s doorstep in the West Bank and Gaza.
Nevertheless, such speculation is futile because sooner or later Israel’s left would have won an election. In retrospect, their arguments that Israel had to take a chance and make concessions to the Palestinians in the hope of achieving peace seem reasonable today. That is especially true when their positions are compared to those who still seek to pressure Israel to accommodate the PA today after 20 years of broken Palestinian promises and terrorism. Though it should be conceded that the right’s dream of the settlement enterprise guaranteeing the extension of the Jewish state’s sovereignty throughout all of the West Bank was equally mistaken, few Israelis now believe the Palestinian goal is peace.
But it is equally true that Israel is powerless to restore the pre-Oslo world in which it had complete control over all of the territories. Nor is there much enthusiasm in Israel about reversing Ariel Sharon’s equally disastrous retreat from Gaza. Just as important, neither the international community nor the United States would tolerate any such action on Israel’s part.
Israel wound up trading land for terror and delegitimization rather than peace. That was eminently predictable, and many on the right did just that. But the march of folly that led to Oslo has about it the air of inevitability. It is cold comfort to Israelis, who now face a heavily-armed terrorist-ruled enclave in Gaza and the possibility that the even more strategically important West Bank could become a safe haven for Fatah and Hamas terrorists should the U.S.-sponsored talks succeed, to say that all this had to be tried in order to prove that more concessions on the part of the Jewish state would be foolish. Everything in history is evitable as what happens is the product of the choices individuals and nations make. But it is difficult to imagine any scenario under which these past 20 years could have passed without some sort of Oslo-style experiment on Israel’s part if only to test the intentions of the Palestinians. The question now is whether both Israelis and their American friends are willing to be honest about the result of that experiment.
Though there is no going back from the world of Oslo, both Israel and the United States can learn from their mistakes. In my next post, I’ll write about how the lessons of Oslo should be applied to future diplomatic endeavors.