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Oslo 20 Years Later: Lessons Learned?

In my previous post, I noted the upcoming 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords this week. Though the agreement has been a disaster for Israel, I speculated that though these results were eminently predictable—and were by critics of the Labor government that negotiated and signed the accords on the White House Lawn on September 13, 1993—it might have been inevitable that sooner or later Israel would test the intentions of the Palestinians. The question now is whether the Israelis and their American allies are prepared to draw the appropriate conclusions from the experiment.

What happened in the 1990s as the post-Oslo euphoria first receded and was then replaced by the horror of the terror war called the Second Intifada was the gradual realization that Western illusions about Palestinian nationalism were misplaced. Though Arafat signaled at the time that he viewed Oslo as merely a diplomatic ruse intended to help continue the conflict on more advantageous terms rather than a permanent peace, this was something that was largely ignored by those pushing the peace process. Though there is no going back to the pre-Oslo world, as Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive peace talks continues those who are calling for pressure on Israel to make concessions to Arafat’s successor need to wake up and stop making the same mistakes.

First among them is to stop pretending that the Palestinian leadership has embraced the cause of peace. The fact remains that Palestinian nationalism was born in the 20th century as a reaction to Zionism and the effort to reverse the verdict of history on 1948 remains their focus today. Until that changes, Israeli leaders and their American allies must understand that a conclusion to the conflict is not in the cards.

Throughout the 1990s as Oslo unraveled, American diplomats and even some Israeli politicians persisted in ignoring not only Palestinian violations of the accords but the campaign of incitement and hate against the Jewish state that was orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority in their media and the educational system they were given control of by the treaty signed on the White House Lawn. Turning a blind eye toward Arafat’s support for terrorism did not enhance the chances of peace. Doing so merely convinced the Palestinians they would pay no price for their intransigence and set the stage for the war of terrorist attrition that put an end to the illusion of Oslo. Repeating that error today as the incitement continues will only replicate those bloody results.

They must also stop buying into the myth that Israeli settlements remain the obstacle to peace. Both Oslo and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza (not to mention the peace treaty with Egypt) have proved that Israeli governments are prepared to give up territory including the uprooting of longstanding Jewish communities. But doing so merely encouraged the Palestinians to believe that they could oust every settlement, if not the Jewish state itself, if they only hung tough. Rather than negotiate a compromise solution in good faith, they remain trapped in the idea that the Jewish presence on the land is the problem rather than face up to the need to abandon the century-old war on Zionism.

Prior to Oslo, both Americans and some Israeli leaders fundamentally misread Palestinian political culture. The late Yitzhak Rabin thought Arafat would be so eager for a state that he would fight Hamas without the hindrances of concern for human rights and legal niceties that hampered Israeli counter-terrorist strategies. That was a mistake since it not only wrongly attributed a desire for peace to Arafat but also underestimated the hold that a desire for Israel’s destruction had on both the people of the territories and the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Secretary Kerry seems locked in the same misapprehensions about Mahmoud Abbas and the current PA, fueled in no small measures by the same tactic of Palestinians saying one thing about peace to Western diplomats and media and something different to their own people.

So long as American diplomats remain focused on talks with Palestinian leaders who lack the will or the ability to negotiate a permanent end to the conflict rather than on the culture that makes such intransigence inevitable, we are doomed to both a cycle of Palestinian-initiated violence and diplomatic frustration.

If there is a disconnect between the myths about Palestinian intentions on the part of Americans (including many Jews) and the cynicism about the subject on the part of the overwhelming majority of Israelis it is because the latter have been paying attention to events in the last 20 years while the former have clung to their ill-informed illusions. That realistic attitude is a sign of sanity in an Israeli political system that often seems lacking in rationality. But Israelis need to understand something else that has happened since Oslo.

Israel has spent most of the last 20 years continually making concessions to the Palestinians starting with the Oslo empowerment of Arafat and climaxing in the Gaza withdrawal. But it has received scant credit from a world. The irony is that rather than these retreats (as well as a variety of other measures including the release of terrorist murderers such as the one that was extracted from the Netanyahu government in order to give Kerry the negotiations he craved) being rightly interpreted as a sign that Israel wanted peace and was willing to offer generous terms, they were viewed by most of the world as a sign of a guilty conscience. While many Israeli diplomats have believed that arguing for Jewish rights to the West Bank and even Jerusalem was counterproductive, a dispute between a party that only talked of its security rather than its rights is one that is bound to be lost.

This has fed a trend in which Israel’s delegitimization has increased since Oslo rather than diminishing. After Arafat turned down an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, some Israelis thought their negative image would change. They were wrong. Palestinian intransigence, repeated twice more as they rejected even more generous offers in the years that followed, has not harmed their image or strengthened sympathy for Israel.

If that tide is to be stemmed, let alone reversed, it will require Israelis and their friends to stop playing defense about territorial disputes. They must cease merely discussing their desire for peace (genuine though it is) and begin again asserting the justice of their cause.

Should a sea change in Palestinian culture ever occur allowing a new generation of pragmatic leaders to make peace, they will find Israelis willing to deal. But until that happens, both Americans and Israelis would do well to lower their expectations. That is especially true for leaders like Kerry who seemed to have learned nothing from recent history. The euphoria about peace that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords was a trap that led to years of unnecessary bloodshed. In the years that follow this anniversary the test of statecraft in the Middle East will be in avoiding the pattern of self-deception that not only led to Oslo but also worsened its consequences.


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