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25 years of illusions about Oslo

Most Israelis understand they were duped. Why does the foreign-policy establishment still resist learning from history?

From left: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993. Credit: Vince Musi/The White House.
From left: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993. Credit: Vince Musi/The White House.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). He is also a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for Newsweek, as well as a writer for other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.

When the Trump administration announced that it was ending its funding of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) last week, the protests from the foreign-policy establishment were loud and anguished. As a New York Times op-ed that masqueraded as a news story sought to explain, UNRWA “matters” because the experts say it does.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993. Credit: Vince Musi/The White House.

UNRWA has perpetuated the refugee problem it was established to solve and has become one of the chief obstacles to peace. It has served to keep the 1948 refugees and their descendants in place as a weapon to use against Israel and to give hope to those who wish to destroy it. But uttering these painfully obvious facts and drawing the proper conclusions from them is just something the “experts” about the Middle East don’t do. They don’t because doing so would be to admit that they’ve been wrong about the conflict for a very long time. Coming to grips with this means admitting what amounts to foreign-policy malpractice.

That’s an important point to remember this week as we commemorate a more recent but no less consequential act of folly: the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Oslo process was supposed to serve as a mechanism to end the conflict, and it was celebrated as the answer to the prayers of generations of Israelis who had known nothing but war since the day their state was born.

The celebration on the White House Lawn as President Bill Clinton presided over a historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat set off a period of euphoria among most Israelis and their foreign supporters.

The formula by which Arafat and the terrorists of the Palestine Liberation Organization were to be transformed into the responsible bureaucrats and peacemakers of the Palestinian Authority promised an end to violence and the war that Arabs had been waging on the Jews, as well as their return to their ancient homeland since the early 20th century.

Rabin had a clear idea of what would happen. There would be a border, he liked to say. On the one side would be Israel. On the other would be Arafat and his P.A., which would fight Hamas and any other terrorists and, as Rabin never tired of pointing out, without interference from the Israeli Supreme Court and the human-rights groups that sought to hamper his security services.

But Arafat had no intention of fighting terrorists. He was, in fact, fomenting, planning and paying for terrorism. All he had done was to sign a piece of paper and pocketed extensive Israeli concessions that set the Palestinians on the path to statehood. The foreign-policy experts—both in the United States and Israel—were wrong. But it took years before some of them would admit it, and even then they sought to evade blame for the slaughter that came in Oslo’s wake by claiming that Israel hadn’t been forthcoming enough.

Later, with Clinton again there, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat the independent state he wanted at Camp David in the summer of 2000, the Palestinian answer was still “no.” Arafat answered the offer of peace with a terrorist war of attrition known as the Second Intifada, which cost the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and many more Palestinians.

That conflict literally blew up any remaining hope for peace in the minds of most Israelis. Subsequent refusals of even more generous offers that included almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem brought the same response from Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians can complain about Israeli settlements, but a clear majority of Israelis understand that what they had done in 1993 was to trade land for more terror, not peace. That conclusion was reinforced in 2005 when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza. That set in motion the chain of events that created an independent Palestinian terrorist state ruled by Hamas. These events convinced Israel’s voters, who have elected Oslo skeptic Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister three times in the last decade, not to make the same mistake again.

Yet that is exactly what some on the left, and especially among the experts who have decried Trump’s decision to stop pretending as if the mistakes of the past never happened, want Israel to do. Just as some did 25 years ago, they seize on isolated pro-peace statements from Abbas that are continually contradicted by other statements—in addition to actions such as his continued incitement of hate, and subsidies and pensions for convicted terrorists and their families—that make it clear he has no more interest in actually signing another agreement than Hamas. Just like its Islamist rivals, the P.A. still won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn; to do so would effectively be an admission that the long war on Zionism is over.

But the point of remembering the anniversary of Oslo is not just to think on those failed hopes or the lives lost to terror. It is to understand that thinking seriously about the last 25 years of history requires us to stop regarding the peace process as a kind of religious belief, rather than as a policy that can be proved or, as happened in this case, disproved by objective facts and events.

What is needed now is a willingness to discard the sort of conventional wisdom that led to Oslo in the first place. But while the same tired debates about the need to trade land for peace continue, what both Oslo skeptics and its supporters need to understand is that the arguments for this formula were a lot stronger before September 1993. Two states might someday provide a viable solution to the conflict, but only after the Palestinians finally do what Arafat and now Abbas, as well as Hamas, have continually refused to do: give up their long war against Zionism. Until then, we should mark this anniversary by giving up on the illusions that were paid for in blood and crushed hopes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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