When the Oslo process began in 1993, one benefit its adherents promised was a significant improvement in Israel’s international standing. And initially, it seemed as if that promise would be kept: 37 countries soon established or renewed diplomatic relations with Israel; a peace treaty was signed with Jordan; five other Arab states opened lower-level relations.
But 16 years later, it is clear that this initial boost was illusory. Not only is Israel’s standing no better than it was prior to the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House Lawn in September 1993, it has fallen to an unprecedented low. Efforts to boycott and divest from Israel are gaining strength throughout the West, among groups as diverse as British academics, Canadian labor unions, the Norwegian government’s investment fund, and American churches. Israeli military operations routinely spark huge protests worldwide, often featuring anti-Semitic slogans. References to Israel as an apartheid state have become so commonplace that even a former president of Israel’s closest ally, the United States, had no qualms about using the term in the title of his 2007 book on Israel. European polls repeatedly deem Israel the greatest threat to world peace, greater even than such beacons of tranquility and democracy as Iran and North Korea. Courts in several European countries, including Belgium, Britain, and Spain, have seriously considered indicting Israeli officials for war crimes (though none has actually yet done so). And in October, when the United Nations Human Rights Council overwhelmingly endorsed a report that advocated hauling Israel before the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges, even many of Jerusalem’s supposed allies refused to vote against the measure. In academic and media circles, it has even become acceptable to question Israel’s very right to exist—something never asked about any other state in the world. None of these developments was imaginable back in the days when Israel refused to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization, had yet to withdraw from an inch of “Palestinian” land, and had not evacuated a single settlement.
Yet even today, conventional wisdom, including in Israel, continues to assert that Israel’s international standing depends on its willingness to advance the “peace process.” That invites an obvious question: if so, why has Israel’s reputation fallen so low despite its numerous concessions for peace since 1993?
The answer is unpleasant to contemplate, but the mounting evidence makes it inescapable: Israel’s standing has declined so precipitously not despite Oslo but because of Oslo. It was Israel’s very willingness to make concessions for the sake of peace that has produced its current near-pariah status.
Why should this be so? There are several reasons.
First, Oslo led Israel to sideline its own claim to the West Bank and Gaza, which all Israeli governments (and international Jewish leaders) had stressed to some extent before 1993. Though there had long been a lively debate as to whether Israel ought to hold on to these territories in practice, until 1993 all sides were ready to assert that it had a valid claim to them in principle. The argument in favor of Israel’s right to sovereignty there was simple: these territories are the historic Jewish homeland, the heart of the biblical Jewish kingdom. They were explicitly allotted to the future Jewish state by the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, which was never legally superseded. Although the 1947 UN partition plan allotted part of the land to a putative Arab state—a plan that Palestinians and other Arabs rejected as a matter of principle—it was merely a nonbinding “recommendation” (as its own language stated). Thus once the Arabs rejected it, the measure had no more validity than any other unsigned deal. Nor did any sovereign state ever replace the Mandate on this territory: though Jordan and Egypt conquered the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, in 1948, neither conquest was ever internationally recognized. Legally, therefore, the territories remained stateless lands whose ownership is disputed; over time, the Palestinians simply replaced Egypt and Jordan as the Arab claimants.
None of this precludes an Israeli cession of these areas; countries often waive territorial claims to secure peace agreements. But only if Israel has a valid claim can the act of ceding these lands be a “painful concession” that could arouse sympathy and admiration from the world. If Israel has no claim, it is nothing but a thief. And no one would admire a thief for returning some, but not all, of his stolen property, or for offering to return some, but still not all, of the rest if granted sufficient compensation. Such behavior would be universally condemned. Indeed, if Israel has no claim to this land, even conditioning withdrawal on an end to Palestinian terror becomes harder to justify. If the land is Israel’s, Israel can obviously refuse to cede it unless it receives peace in exchange. But if the land belongs to the Palestinians, many might argue that it should be returned unconditionally.
This latter notion, however, is precisely the picture Israeli discourse has increasingly painted since 1993. Perhaps because pro-Oslo Israelis viewed Israel’s own rights as too self-evident to need restating, they inevitably focused on defending the Oslo accord’s new and domestically controversial claim: that Palestinians, too, have “legitimate and political rights” in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, for instance, Labor party chairman (and later prime minister) Ehud Barak said in a 1998 television interview that had he been a Palestinian, he would have joined a terrorist organization, because “there is legitimacy for a Palestinian to fight.” Such claims were rarely heard from mainstream Israelis prior to 1993: while the moderate Left had always favored ceding territory, it historically framed this as a necessity of peacemaking rather than a matter of Arab rights.
Moreover, as repeated Israeli concessions brought only more Palestinian terror, making them harder to justify in the name of peace, even right-of-center Israeli leaders increasingly justified them in the language of Palestinian rights. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for instance, stunned the Knesset in 2003 by declaring, “I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation—yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation—is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians.”
But if Palestinians have “legitimate rights” to this land, it must belong to them. And if Israel is “occupying” the land, it must not belong to Israel. That, in plain English, is what “rights” and “occupation” mean.
The problem was exacerbated by Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and Ehud Olmert’s election the following year on a platform of unilaterally quitting most of the West Bank. Until then, Israel had deemed evicting settlers from their homes a personal and national tragedy that merited sympathy and compensation. But then two successive Israeli prime ministers declared that for both demographic and security reasons, uprooting settlements was an Israeli interest. A plurality of Israelis even endorsed this view in a national election. And if so, dismantling settlements cannot be a “painful concession” for which Israel deserves to be rewarded.
Granted, much of the world was disposed to accept the Palestinian claim even before Oslo. But as the sage Hillel famously said 2,000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Oslo marked the moment when Israel stopped defending its own claim to the West Bank and Gaza and instead increasingly endorsed the Palestinian claim. And with no competing narrative to challenge it any longer, the view of Israel as a thief, with all its attendant consequences, has gained unprecedented traction.
This alone would be devastating to Israel’s image. But the problem has been compounded by another unanticipated consequence of Oslo: the territorial withdrawals it entailed have resulted not only in more dead Israelis but also in more dead Palestinians. Nothing undermines a country’s image more quickly than pictures of bleeding victims recycled endlessly on television and computer screens. That is precisely why worldwide protests against both the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last January—operations aimed at halting terror launched from territory Israel had evacuated to the last inch—drew far larger crowds than protests against Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank. Death causes more outrage than occupation.
Statistics compiled by B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) clearly reveal the correlation between withdrawals and increased Palestinian fatalities. During the first intifada, from 1987 through 1993, when Israel controlled the territories, Israeli forces killed 1,070 Palestinians. That is only slightly more than the 1,015 killed in a single year (September 2001 to August 2002) of the second intifada, which erupted after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had already left much of Gaza and the West Bank, and less than 30 percent of the 3,713 killed during a six-year period of the second intifada. Indeed, it is fewer than the number killed in just three weeks in the January 2009 Gaza war: the lowest estimate of Palestinian fatalities, which comes from the IDF, is 1,166.
Moreover, Palestinian fatalities in the West Bank, which peaked at 667 in the second intifada’s second year (September 2001 to August 2002), dropped dramatically after Israel reoccupied this territory in Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. They plunged by almost two-thirds in the third year, to 242, then to 199 in the fourth, 105 to 125 in each of the next three, and 52 in the eighth, which ended in September 2008 (B’Tselem has yet to publish statistics for 2009). In Gaza, by contrast, Palestinian fatalities soared after Israel withdrew in August 2005. In fact, the second intifada’s eighth year, which produced the lowest number of West Bank fatalities since the fighting began, produced the highest number of deaths in Gaza—532, almost 100 more than the previous worst year. And the following year was worse yet: the number of Gazans killed during the January 2009 war alone—1,166 (at least)—is seven times the 162 killed in Gaza’s single worst month until then.
This data flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that a continuous IDF presence increases the likelihood of deadly encounters. But when the IDF controls an area, it can usually arrest suspected terrorists rather than kill them. Israel cannot arrest suspects in territory it has ceded to Palestinian control. Thus the only way to fight terror emanating from territory the IDF has quit is by military means—namely, killing the terrorists. And military action inevitably involves collateral civilian casualties as well. That is true even of the most civilian-friendly form of military action, precision aerial bombing. Haaretz reported that by 2007, the IDF had reduced collateral civilian deaths to less than 3 percent of all those killed in Israeli air strikes. Yet, since human beings are imperfect, some mishaps will always occur: faulty intelligence will leave the army unaware of nearby civilians, or pilot error might send a bomb off course. And ground operations are far deadlier: just as the Gaza war was the worst month of the intifada for Gazans, so was Israel’s April 2002 incursion into the West Bank for residents of that territory, with a Palestinian fatality level 50 percent higher than in the second-worst month.
Clearly, withdrawals would not have required military action, with its resultant Palestinian casualties, had the Palestinians not turned every bit of territory they received into a launching pad for terror attacks. But that is exactly what they have done. In the first two and a half years after Oslo, Palestinian terrorists killed more Israelis than they had in the preceding decade. In 2000-04, according to the Shin Bet security service, Israel’s terror-related casualties exceeded those of the preceding 53 years. And between the mid-2005 disengagement from Gaza and the 2009 war, Gazan terrorists fired almost 6,000 rockets and mortars at southern Israel, according to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. Hence, every withdrawal has faced Israel with a stark choice: sit with folded hands while its citizens are attacked, or take military action that will inevitably produce Palestinian casualties and consequent international outrage.
Israeli withdrawals have also had another unintended consequence: they have energized anti-Israel radicals who, despite their small numbers, have contributed greatly to the anti-Israel climate by propelling the boycott and divestment movement. Because groups such as labor unions and churches are generally viewed positively, when a wide variety of such groups throughout the West all start targeting one particular country for boycott and divestment, people without any prior knowledge of the facts might naturally assume that the accused country must indeed be guilty to merit such treatment. What those people fail to realize is that boycotts and divestments are usually approved not by an organization’s full membership but by a handful of activists, which enables a few radicals to hijack the debate. When the British lecturers’ union, NATFHE, approved an academic boycott of Israel at its annual conference in May 2006, for instance, the New York Times noted that only 198 of its 67,000 members actually voted, and of those, a bare majority—106—-voted in favor. Theoretically, these delegates represent the members. In practice, few members choose delegates based on their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; most have more pressing concerns.
And while boycott initiatives are popularly viewed nowadays as a response to Israeli “war crimes,” not only did most such boycotts predate the major military operations of 2006 and 2009, but many were launched during periods when Israel was seemingly moving rapidly toward withdrawal. After Israel removed every last settler and soldier from Gaza in August 2005, for instance, Ehud Olmert ran for prime minister on a platform of doing the same in most of the West Bank. Polls showed him winning the March 2006 election handily, which he did. Hence, until the Second Lebanon War erupted in July 2006, one might have expected the boycotters to rest on their laurels. Instead, this period witnessed an unprecedented spate of high-profile boycott activity, including an article headlined “Boycott Israel” in the prestigious magazine published by the Davos World Economic Forum, a cover story in the Guardian entitled “Israel and Apartheid: A Special Report,” the adoption of a commercial boycott by the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario chapter, and the British academic boycott.
This seemingly counterintuitive behavior has a simple explanation: among anti-Israel radicals, Israel’s increasingly frantic pursuit of peace has aroused not admiration but rather the instincts of a predator scenting blood. Over the past 16 years, even as Palestinian positions have remained unchanged, Israel has repeatedly ditched red lines that enjoyed massive consensus pre-Oslo, including no negotiations with terrorist organizations, no Palestinian state, no concessions on Jerusalem, no negotiations or withdrawals under fire, and no unilateral pullbacks. Worse, these retreats occurred in exchange for ever diminishing returns, and often in response to pressure. This convinced the radicals (and Palestinians as well) that Israel could be pressured into abandoning any red line if the heat was turned high enough. Hence the Ontario boycott, for instance, is explicitly designed to continue until Israel grants a Palestinian “right of return,” thereby requiring Israel to commit demographic suicide.
The retreats from Israel’s previous positions began the minute Oslo was signed. The last Israeli cession of territory—the return of Sinai to Egypt in 1982, and the subsequent handover of the Taba resort seven years later—followed a nine-year cease-fire and a full-fledged peace treaty backed by international guarantees, including a multinational force in Sinai. In contrast, Israel’s 1994 handover of Gaza and Jericho to the PLO came in the wake of six years of terrorist violence (the first intifada) and a mere interim agreement, with no international guarantees. The Palestinians promptly violated their side of the Oslo deal, which was to end terror: in the 30 months after Oslo, as previously noted, Palestinian terrorists killed more Israelis than they had during the entire preceding decade. Yet in 1995-97, due in part to American pressure, Israel transferred six more West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority (PA), in exchange for nothing but renewed Palestinian pledges to end violence. In July 2000, Israel offered the Palestinians some 88 percent of the territories, including most of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians responded by launching the second intifada. But despite this gross violation of Oslo, Israel capitulated to American and international pressure and offered more territory, including the Temple Mount, in Washington in December 2000 and at the Taba talks in January 2001.
Over the next four years, Palestinian terror claimed more Israeli victims than in all the years from 1947 through 2000. Yet international pressure for Israeli concessions continued, and Israel again capitulated: in August 2005, it evacuated 25 settlements—something it had previously conditioned on a full-fledged peace treaty—for no recompense at all. And when the Palestinians responded with daily rocket fire from evacuated Gaza, as well as with a landslide electoral victory for Hamas, Israel responded by electing Olmert, who campaigned on a promise of unilaterally quitting most of the West Bank and evicting some 80,000 settlers (10 times the number removed from Gaza). Finally, when the ongoing barrages from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War combined to kill that plan, Olmert’s response was to sweeten Israel’s final-status offer. He proposed a withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank; territorial swaps to compensate for the remainder; international Muslim control over Jerusalem’s holy sites; and the resettlement of several thousand Palestinian refugees in Israel.
To Israelis, these ever growing concessions with no quid pro quo reflect the depth of their desire for peace. But to their enemies, they signal panic—a conclusion reinforced by verbal declarations like Olmert’s famous 2005 statement to the Israel Policy Forum that Israel “desperately needs” peace because “we are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies.” Or his even more shocking statement to Haaretz in November 2007 that if “the two-state solution collapses?.?.?.?the State of Israel is finished.” If Israelis wrongly believe that their country’s survival depends on reaching a deal, they are clearly vulnerable to being pressured into concessions that really will endanger its survival. Sixteen years of unrequited concessions have convinced anti-Israel radicals that Israel is indeed vulnerable to this kind of pressure. Thus Israel’s very pursuit of peace has spurred its enemies to go for the jugular.
Yet this desperate quest for peace also failed to win Israel points among the general public, because each new initiative raised new hopes of a peace that was in fact never achievable. And it is human nature to be angrier over disappointed hope than over having never hoped at all. What is worse is the very fact that whenever negotiations broke down, it was Israel, rather than the Palestinian side, that came back with a better offer, created the impression that both sides thought peace would be achievable if Israel just gave enough. Thus the lack of peace must be Israel’s fault.
In fact, though, it became clear almost immediately after the Oslo deal was signed that peace was unachievable, because Israel’s initial territorial concessions produced such a sharp rise in terrorist violence. Whether this stemmed from Yasir Arafat’s unwillingness to control terror or his inability to do so was irrelevant: if ceding land for peace instead produced war, there were no grounds for believing that ceding more land, as Oslo required, would produce anything but more war.
Nor did this pattern change after Mahmoud Abbas replaced Arafat in 2004. Even during Abbas’s year in sole control of the PA, before Hamas triumphed in the Palestinian elections in 2006, terror continued. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Palestinians killed 54 Israelis and wounded 484 that year (2005), while nonfatal attacks numbered in the thousands, including 1,059 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza. The rocket attacks are particularly significant, because the IDF left Gaza in August 2005, which meant Abbas could not accuse Israeli forces of impeding his efforts there. Yet not only did he never order his own forces to stop the attacks, he explicitly and repeatedly declared that he never woulddo so. Indeed, he began cracking down on Hamas only in 2007, after the Islamic group’s takeover of Gaza made him realize that it threatened his own power, and has repeatedly offered to reverse this crackdown as part of a proposed reconciliation with Hamas (which Hamas has so far rejected). Again, it makes no difference whether he was genuinely reluctant or merely felt powerless: Israel cannot cede land if that land will become a base for terror attacks against it.
Equally important, however, is that Palestinian negotiating positions preclude any deal. While it was initially plausible to believe that these positions would eventually moderate, a decade and a half with no movement whatsoever has proved otherwise. No Israeli government, for instance, could sign a deal forfeiting all Israeli connection to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, to which Jews have prayed three times a day for millennia. To do so would be cultural and spiritual suicide. But even worse is the Palestinians’ insistence on a “right of return” to Israel for 4.7 million descendants of Palestinian refugees (according to the UN’s almost certainly inflated figure). Added to Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens, these “refugees” would outnumber its 5.6 million Jews and could thereby simply vote the Jewish state out of existence. That would not be cultural and spiritual suicide but actual physical suicide. And how can peace even be seriously negotiated with someone who insists that its price is your disappearance from the map?
Yet rather than stating clearly that peace is not and never will be possible unless the Palestinians end terror and stop insisting that any deal result in the Jewish state’s eradication, Israeli prime ministers never stopped assuring their fellow citizens and the world that a deal was possible. It began with Yitzhak Rabin, who instead of acknowledging that the upsurge in terror proved Oslo a failure began incanting a mantra about fighting terror as if there were no negotiations, and negotiating as if there were no terror. The implication was clear: terror is not an insurmountable obstacle; peace is still achievable.
In his first go-round as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu continued the illusion: he not only campaigned in 1996 on a slogan of bringing “peace with security,” again implying that peace was possible, but he continued negotiating with, and ceding territory to, Arafat. These would have been reasonable moves in the context of a viable peace process, but would be senseless if peace were actually unachievable and territorial concessions only produced more terror. To the uninformed, the obvious conclusion was that peace was achievable—in which case Netanyahu’s visible distaste for both negotiations and concessions would certainly be an impediment.
Similarly, when Palestinians responded to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s July 2000 offer with the second intifada, Barak did not declare peace unachievable; he went to Washington and Taba and offered additional concessions. Again, the implication was that he still thought peace was possible if he offered enough—so if peace remained elusive, the fault must lie with Israel’s stinginess. Then, despite Abbas’s failure even to respond to Olmert’s far-reaching offer of September 2008 (Abbas remained mute for nine months, until long after Olmert had left office—finally telling the Washington Post that the offer was unacceptable), Olmert nevertheless told Haaretz in September 2009 that Abbas was not to blame for the talks’ failure and was still a partner. And today, in his second stint as prime minister, Netanyahu is again paying lip service to the idea that peace is achievable.
American and European leaders are also guilty of endlessly proclaiming that peace is achievable, even though they know better (this knowledge explains why most European leaders are less hostile to Israel than their publics). But they cannot be more Catholic than the pope. As long as Israel’s government maintains this fiction, other world leaders can do no less. And so the world is constantly being told that peace is around the corner only to be constantly disappointed, which inevitably produces frustration and rage. And even worse, Israel’s very efforts to achieve peace—its refusal to acknowledge that peace is unachievable, its habit of responding to every failure with a better offer— has led the world to conclude that Israel is to blame for the endless disappointments.
Reversing the devastating damage Israel’s international standing has suffered since 1993 will be difficult at best. But it will not be possible at all unless Israel and its friends overseas understand that the desperate pursuit of peace is not the solution but the problem. Only then can Israel and its supporters halt the destructive behavior of the past 16 years and start doing what is needed to reverse the decline.
First, Israel and its supporters must reiterate Israel’s own claim to the territories at every opportunity. While many have grown accustomed to disavowing Israel’s right to this land, Israelis of all political stripes were outraged by President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the only justification for the existence of a Jewish state was assumed to be the Holocaust—while the Jews’ historical claim to the land of Israel was thrown down the memory hole. By taking this stand, Obama may have unwittingly provided the impetus for reviving a broad-based assertion of Jewish rights. For instance, on July 17, the left-wing Haaretz’s star columnist Yoel Marcus wrote that Obama’s “disregard of our historical connection to the land of Israel” was “extremely upsetting.” Marcus concluded that “as a leader who aspires to solve the problems of the world through dialogue, we expect him to come to Israel and declare here courageously, before the entire world, that our connection to this land began long before the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Holocaust, and that 4,000 years ago, Jews already stood on the ground where he now stands.” If even a hard-core Oslo supporter such as Marcus can be provoked into reasserting Israel’s claim to the land, then there is hope for reviving such sentiments across the Israeli political spectrum.
Second, Israel must cede no more land until the Palestinians prove they can and will keep it from becoming a base for anti-Israel terror. And if rocket fire from Gaza resumes, Israel will have to consider reoccupying it, as that may be the only alternative to periodic wars that inevitably cause heavy Palestinian casualties. There is not currently much of an appetite for such a course of action within Israel, but that could easily change if the rocket barrages resume, just as Israelis’ initial reluctance to return to the West Bank was swept aside by escalating terror from that territory in the early part of this decade. And while a return to Gaza would certainly cause an initial wave of outrage abroad, so did Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when Israeli troops returned to Palestinian cities in the West Bank following a wave of deadly suicide bombings. Yet that criticism died down fairly quickly, and today Israel hears very few complaints about the IDF’s ongoing total control over the West Bank. What it does hear complaints about, on an almost daily basis, from both world leaders and human-rights activists, is evacuated Gaza—not just Israel’s military operations there but also the blockade, another defensive measure aimed at compensating for the absence of troops. So it seems reasonable to assume that a reoccupation of Gaza would follow the same pattern: initial outrage that would gradually die down as the Palestinian death toll dropped and life in Gaza improved, thanks to the end of the blockade, resumption of trade across the border, and improved employment opportunities.
Third, Israel and its supporters must start telling the truth about the impossibility of peace at present—and about the reasons for the impasse. This is by far the hardest task for those seeking to change the “peace process” culture. And that is true not just for the international arena but for Israeli domestic opinion as well. Most Israelis know perfectly well that peace is not currently possible, and why, but they still think it is essential to speak as if this were not true. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s leadership represents a unique opportunity because, in marked contrast to most Israeli politicians, serving as the national explainer is something at which he excels. Both his speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009—where he outlined his approach to the peace process—and his address to the United Nations General Assembly in October struck a real chord with mainstream Israelis. Netanyahu is capable of explaining, in a way Israelis can readily understand, why his country’s national discourse about peace needs to change. The same principle applies to overseas opinion; in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu was not even a member of the government, but he was still one of the most sought-after, if not the most sought-after, Israeli interviewees by the foreign media. This is a moment in history when someone must finally start telling the world the truth about the situation, and the prime minister is uniquely qualified to do it.
Finally, Israel must stop projecting a sense of panic, through both words and deeds, which merely emboldens its enemies. Israel has not only survived for 61 years despite the absence of peace; it has thrived. Its population has increased more than seven-fold; its per capita income has risen nine-fold; it has maintained a strong democracy in a region where democracy is otherwise unknown. And it can continue surviving and thriving without peace for as long as necessary.
That is, unless its own mistakes destroy it. Right now, that is what is happening: Israel’s growing pariah status poses a far more serious long-term danger to its survival than any extant military threat. Yet because this pariah status is largely due to its own actions, Israel has the power to reverse the trend.?That process must begin with recognizing where the problem truly lies.