The image is indelible: The prime minister of Israel’s wan smile; the repentant terrorist leader’s shaky extended hand; the gloating American president’s look of successful accomplishment. The photograph from September 1993 conveys all the promise of a great future for the Middle East and none of its hidden dangers.
Perhaps it was to be expected after 45 years of war. Yet within weeks of this handshake on the White House lawn, the dangers of the Oslo Accords should have been readily apparent.
While predictably denounced by the nascent Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, who pledged to scuttle the Accords and kill its signatories, Yasser Arafat himself only two weeks later revealed in Arabic to a rapt Muslim audience in Johannesburg that the Accords were nothing more than a ploy in the well known “Phased Plan” to destroy the Jewish state. In the following two years, before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat would in fact make many such statements – of course only in Arabic to Muslim audiences – while Israel and the West glided blissfully on in the unassailable belief that Yasser Arafat was nothing less than the next Mahatma Gandhi.
But evidence of Palestinian recidivism soon arrived in deadly force in the Israeli heartland. Terror attacks, claimed by Hamas (but latterly discovered to have PLO backing), occurred repeatedly in 1994 and 1995, yet the Israeli government still insisted in ceding more territory to Arafat in the agreement known as Oslo II. Then in the spring of 1996 terror befell Israeli cities with unmitigated fury.
Throughout the world, barely a week passed without front page news depicting eviscerated Israeli corpses, hollowed-out buses, shattered cafes, and torched dining halls. The mood in Israel shifted. Following the assassination of Rabin, his replacement Shimon Peres should have been a shoe-in to win the 1996 national election. But in May of that year he was trounced by the untested right winger, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The downward slide of the Oslo Accords – with the record of failed Palestinian compliance matched only by increasing eagerness of Israeli political leaders to offer further concessions – reached its nadir in the summer of 2000 when the newly installed Israeli prime-minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat 97% of the West Bank, including sovereignty over certain hotly contested sections of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was an offer that a man who had fought for exactly such an outcome over 35 years of terrorist activity could hardly be imagined to refuse. But refuse it he did – and not only refused it but soon after launched a long-planned four year insurrection that would eventually consume thousands of Palestinian and Israeli lives.
How to account for this tragedy, a misstep by a nation which had so warily plotted its course through five wars with its neighbors and at such a high level of sacrifice?
A great deal of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Israeli left who had pushed an agenda so swaddled in guilt and remorse that it came to resemble self-flagellation. Convinced that the elusive peace agreement with its Palestinian neighbors was due wholly to Israeli intransigence and an unnecessary occupation of Palestinian lands, the Labor Government, urged on by the media, academics, and a high-brow Tel Aviv elite, committed itself to a course of diplomacy which would brook no opposition.
In the mid 1990s, in fact, any questioning of Oslo was decried as treason, and those pointing out continuing incitement to violence by Palestinian leaders, media, and educational institutions were vilified as not sound in mind. The blinkered response to Palestinian criminality was exposed when two Israeli reservists were horrifically butchered by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah in October 2000 and a quiescent Israeli media could not summon the indignation to truly condemn the atrocity.
Another cause of the failure was the misreading and misunderstanding of Palestinian national aspirations. Israelis came to believe that the Palestinian people were no different than themselves in their quest for peace and prosperity. But this was far from reality. Palestinian nationalism had never centered on the idea of an independent Palestinian state the way the early Zionists had dreamed of the creation of Israel – but primarily on the removal of another state. Indeed, the Palestinian National Charter, unamended to this day, calls explicitly for the liquidation of the State of Israel. This attitude is reflected in the propaganda still issued by the Palestinian Authority, whose official maps do not even recognize the existence of a State of Israel.
Arafat did nothing to encourage the establishment of an independent judiciary or any other free institution. Nor did he give much thought to fostering free enterprise or the growth of a Palestinian middle class but instead obstructed all attempts to build joint industrial parks and free trade zones. The Palestinian Authority itself developed into one of the world’s most notorious kleptocracies, with hundreds of millions of dollars creamed off annual budgets and its leaders asserting personal monopolies over all aspects of the Palestinian economy.
Yet even more significant than any of this was the failure of Israeli leaders and a broad swathe of its citizenry to appreciate Arab cultural regression and the fundamental Arab mistrust of Western norms. The willingness of the Jews to make concessions for peace was never accepted on the Arab street for its magnanimity but viewed rather as weakness. Peace movements and rallies, such an earnest feature of Israeli life in the 1990s, never found a corresponding mirror in Palestinian cities or any other Arab city – quite the opposite.
Every effort to appease Arab demands – including Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, the scuttling of Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005, and a continuous flow of peace proposals by the Sharon and Olmert governments in the early years of this century – were met by either attacks from Hezbollah in the north, rocket fire by Hamas in the south ,or indifference from Egypt, who turned a blind eye to rampant arms smuggling across its Sinai border.
The entire Oslo experience is one ripe for examination as a study not just in failed diplomacy but also in self-delusion. That self-delusion did not and does not belong to the Israelis alone but also to many Western leaders who stood resolutely, contrary to all prevailing evidence, behind Arafat and his unchanged agenda. Ultimately, the Accords’ failure should bring into clearer focus the manifold difficulties the West can expect to encounter in its continuing attempts to deal with a turbulent and treacherous Arab world.
The Oslo@ 20 conference, which will take place in Los Angeles this weekend, should begin a long overdue reflection on Western aims and objectives in the Arab world and the cautiousness with which leaders of all Western countries should approach the ideal of peace and prosperity in a region where different peoples ascribe those words very different meanings.
Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and the organizer of the international conference Oslo@20: Costs and Consequences of the Peace Process to be held in Los Angeles on Sunday, September 29.