In September 1993, I was visiting Israel when news of the Oslo talks broke. I knew the decision to recognize the PLO would be controversial, but I hoped that American Jews would adhere to the tradition of supporting Israel’s democratically elected government on issues related to security. Unfortunately, that convention had been broken earlier by the Labor Party and its allies during Menachem Begin’s time and, rather than revert to tradition, the critics from the right adopted a similar approach of encouraging American Jews to oppose Israel’s government. Many of those now caterwauling about American Jews protesting judicial reform can blame themselves for having no qualms about interfering in Israeli politics during the Oslo period.
There’s a lot of revisionist history about Oslo.
Many people warned from the start that it was a Trojan Horse; Palestinians had no interest in peace and saw negotiations for a state as the first stage towards their goal of liberating all “Palestine.”
Yitzhak Rabin knew the Palestinian agenda as well as anyone. Oslo was a calculated risk. After 26 years of being vilified by the world for controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians, Rabin adopted an incremental approach that had been successful with Egypt. Even after signing the peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, there was never any guarantee he would fulfill its terms. He was tested, however, years before Camp David when Israel agreed to disengage from part of the Sinai Desert it captured in 1973. Israelis were reassured by the fact that Egypt kept the peace. In 1977, Sadat broke the psychological barrier that made it difficult for Israelis to believe he was sincere by coming to Jerusalem. People remember him speaking to the Knesset but not the substance of what was an uncompromising speech.
Naively, many people believed PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel represented a similar breakthrough.
Though a man more knowledgeable about Israeli security than almost any other has been reviled for Oslo, I’ve always contended that Rabin was motivated less by a gullible belief that Arafat was interested in peace than a desire to save Israel from the burden of governing every aspect of Palestinians’ lives. That was coupled with the demographic dilemma of annexation, which would force Israel to choose between denying Palestinians the right to vote and ceasing to be a democracy or absorbing them and changing the Jewish character of the nation. That is why he essentially withdrew unilaterally from territory despite Palestinian violations of the agreements.
The dilemma is the main reason that all the right-wing prime ministers—from Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu—have talked about Greater Israel, and none have annexed the territories. Just two years ago, Netanyahu promised to apply Israeli sovereignty to the communities in Judea and Samaria without annexing the West Bank but reneged to secure the Abraham Accords.
Also, despite their vitriol against concessions, two of those right-wingers ceded more territory.
‘Jewish blood on his hands’
In his otherwise well-researched critique of the Oslo process and what followed, historian Efraim Karsh skipped over Netanyahu’s tenure during that period (Karsh also criticizes Rabin and Ehud Barak for negotiating with Syria and ignores Netanyahu’s talks). After the opposition leader incited opposition to Oslo and vowed never to shake Arafat’s hand, newly elected Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged to respect the terms of the agreement he found so dangerous during his campaign, and, only three months into his term and less than a year after Rabin’s assassination, grasped the hand of the man with “Jewish blood on his hands.” Netanyahu, who spoke at a rally where the crowd chanted “Rabin is a traitor,” now heard some Likud Party activists call him a traitor, prompting him to threaten to fire any cabinet minister who didn’t accept his decision to talk to the Palestinians.
Karsh and other critics ignore that it was Netanyahu who made concessions on the holiest place in the territories: Hebron. Furthermore, Netanyahu complained that the Labor government had given up 27% of Judea and Samaria, but he agreed to cede more territory. At the 1998 Wye River talks, Netanyahu pledged to withdraw from another 13%, and he negotiated even as terrorism continued. He also acknowledged the Palestinians would ultimately control 40% of the West Bank.
Twenty-two years later, Netanyahu would call the Trump peace plan, which would have created a Palestinian state (something Rabin specifically ruled out) in 70% of the West Bank, a “historic breakthrough.”
Critics of Oslo talk approvingly about how 98% of the Palestinians are now governed by their leaders but ignore that without the agreements Israel would still be responsible for all of them.
Netanyahu’s concessions alienated supporters on the right, and the lack of greater progress in talks angered the left. This, combined with the rising death toll in Lebanon, where Israeli troops remained deployed, contributed to him being crushed by Ehud Barak 56% to 44% in the 1999 election.
Barak abandoned the incremental Oslo approach and tried to resolve the conflict in one step at Camp David in 2000. He called Arafat’s bluff by offering him a state in 97% of the West Bank and all of Gaza with East Jerusalem as a capital.
When Arafat rejected the deal, it should have proved the Palestinians had no interest in peace with Israel under any circumstances. Alas, the world—led by the U.S. State Department—has chosen to ignore reality and maintain the fiction that Israel can satisfy Palestinian demands without committing suicide.
Israeli voters were not fooled, and Ariel Sharon defeated Barak in a landslide in 2001.
Despite being regarded as the father of the settlements, Ariel Sharon also understood the demographic dilemma. Like Rabin, he had impeccable security credentials but has been similarly castigated for the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. He recognized that, unlike Judea and Samaria, Gaza was an albatross for Israel with little Jewish historical significance. Governing more than 1 million additional Palestinians would exacerbate the demographic quandary, and therefore, Gaza could never be annexed. Israel had a greater capacity to deter terrorism controlling Gaza but also would be responsible for the Palestinians’ well-being and the attendant international opprobrium. This was a test of the land for peace formula, and the Palestinians again failed. The consequence has been incessant terror and barrages of rockets; nevertheless, you don’t hear Netanyahu calling for its reoccupation.
Was Oslo a mistake?
Not if you believe Israel must explore every opportunity for peace.
The problem is that whenever Israel makes concessions, the Palestinians use them as a new baseline to demand more. Meanwhile, terror against Israelis and their own people (to ensure they don’t contemplate a change of leadership that might want peace) has been unremitting. The Palestinian leadership remains committed to the goal of liberating all of “Palestine” (the PLO) and a jihad against the Jews (Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad).
Though still technically in effect, the Palestinians have violated their obligations almost from the day Oslo was signed. The cost has included 1,674 Israeli lives.
Sadly, the global desperation to make the Palestinian issue disappear has blinded the world to the reality that Palestinian leaders are not interested in coexisting with Israel.