Israel does not know the way out of Oslo

The accords were a disastrous mistake, but no one has any better ideas.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, undated. Credt: Palestinian Authority via Abed Al Rahim Al Khatib/Flash90.
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, undated. Credt: Palestinian Authority via Abed Al Rahim Al Khatib/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

It is always difficult to know precisely what to think when one stares into the maw of an absolute and unmitigated disaster, especially when it is the result of the best of intentions. Such has been the case with those who advocated for the 2003 Iraq War and for the architects of the recent lamentable withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Israelis, such a reality is presented this week by the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords.

Three decades after the agreement between Israel and the PLO was signed with great pomp on the White House lawn and two decades after the Palestinians demolished it in a war of atrocity, no one quite knows what to do with the Oslo Accords. On one thing, however, there is near universal agreement: They were a disastrous mistake. More or less all the commentary I have read in recent weeks has been along those lines.

The verdict of the critics is impossible to reject. It has been clear for some time that PLO leader Yasser Arafat never had the slightest intention of honoring his solemn pledge to renounce terrorism. He was a sincere and convinced racist who believed that it was his duty and destiny to annihilate the Jewish state. He was a liar of genius and an expert at manipulating others, especially naive Westerners, into believing otherwise. Yet he never deviated from his ultimate goal for a single moment.

When it became clear that he could not cripple Israel by diplomatic and political means, he turned to a horrendous campaign of war crimes that killed more than 1,000 Israelis. The fruit of Arafat’s deceptions survives to this day, as the entity the accords created and handed to Arafat—the Palestinian Authority—remains a thorn in Israel’s side, sustained only because the alternatives are probably worse.

This makes it impossible not to conclude that out of a misguided hope that it could end its conflict with the Palestinians through dangerous concessions, Israel seriously compromised its security and condemned itself to 30 years of wars large and small. Some measure of peace has come, but only with various Arab and Muslim states on Israel’s periphery that have normalized relations not because of messianic visions of a “new Middle East” but due to pragmatic economic, political and security considerations. The idealists fell at Oslo, and the realists triumphed with the Abraham Accords.

Nonetheless, we must deal fairly with the architects of Oslo. They were not criminals, traitors or self-hating Jews. They loathed the occupation of Judea and Samaria, and the moral compromises it inherently involved. The First Intifada convinced them that they were ruling despotically over another people who had the same right to independence and self-determination as the Jews. They believed quite sincerely that Israel’s future and the stability of the entire region depended on peace with the Palestinians, which would be impossible without the PLO. They thought, in other words, that they were doing the right thing.

In a moral sense, perhaps they were. In a practical and strategic sense, however, they were doing not just the wrong thing but the disastrous thing. They did not or chose not to know that the PLO’s ideology did not allow for the existence of a Jewish state in any form on any borders, that Arafat was a mass murderer who had always used the most barbaric violence to get his way, and that handing over governance of regions essential to Israel’s security to a terrorist group was, to say the least, unlikely to end well.

But the architects of Oslo paid for their mistake. Arafat never became a shahid (“martyr”) himself, but he proved to be a diplomatic suicide bomber, and he took the architects of Oslo with him. Their careers and reputations in tatters, every one of them retreated from public life and their primary vehicle—the Labor Party—is now moribund.

Nonetheless, the rationale behind Oslo remains at least somewhat potent because, put simply, no one has any better ideas. It is possible to see everything that was wrong with Oslo but impossible to see an alternative. Nor have the critiques I have recently read presented one.

The only thing I have heard that even vaguely resembles an alternative is “manage the problem.” This raises the question, however, of what we are supposed to do when the problem becomes unmanageable. At that point, the intimations become vague and perhaps best left unsaid, but they are not particularly realistic.

The critics of Oslo were and are right. History has proven at least that much. But it is also clear that merely damning Oslo is not enough, because that leaves us nowhere. We do not know our way out of Oslo. This is the dilemma we now face.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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