Three decades ago, Israel and the PLO signed the first of the Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority and ceded control of great swaths of Judea and Samaria to the latter.
Prominent Israeli intellectuals gathered in Jerusalem this week to “view critically the past 30 years of the deeply problematic relationship between the P.A. leadership and the State of Israel, starting from the foundations of that relationship at the Oslo Accords.”
The conference included generals, politicians, journalists and specialists in Islamic culture. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF) and the Middle East Forum (MEF) hosted the affair.
“To understand the Oslo Accords, you must understand the psychological realities of the early ’90s,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hakohen, a researcher at the Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA Center) at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said in his opening remarks. “The period was characterized by the fall of the Soviet Union, hopes for the rise of the European Union, and the assertion of total U.S. military dominance in the Gulf War; the end of history was upon us.”
Dan Diker, president of JCPA, told JNS, “The Oslo Accords were a utopian vision that expanded the long-expected universal peace to the place where it all began: the Holy Land. The working assumption of Oslo was that peace, and tranquillity, and the Messiah would come to Israel via the PLO, Israel’s archenemy for over three decades, and a lot of things were justified in that pursuit.”
But the peace process was built on shaky foundations. Speakers throughout the conference underscored the divisions within both the Israeli public and the Israeli government as Oslo was being brought forward.
“I was on the White House lawn as Oslo was being signed and you could physically feel the political conflict between [Foreign Minister] Shimon Peres’s people and [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabins’s people,” said Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior fellow and director for national security and Middle East affairs at JCPA.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Effi Eitam, a former Cabinet minister, said, “From the very beginning, there was division even among the proponents of Oslo. There was no stable unified movement in favor of the deal.
“Oslo was built upon division and subversion; it was more about the divisions within the Jewish nation than about peace with the PLO,” Eitam continued.
There were doubts from the start about Oslo leading to its stated goal of “a new Middle East.”
Yair Hirschfeld, a key architect of the Oslo Accords and currently director general of the Tel Aviv-based Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), told the conference, “I did not expect that the violence and the aggression would stop immediately but I had hope that the gradual process would lead to a stable peace.
MK and former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said that in the days following the signing of the Oslo I agreement in 1993, he became so certain that there would be an uptick in violence that he applied for a gun license.
Many of the speakers shared their experiences of trying to show the shortcomings of Oslo as it was being implemented and the willful blindness they encountered as a result.
Caroline B. Glick, JNS senior contributing editor, told the conference, “People were unwilling to listen. I personally made lists of all the violations by the Palestinians of the Oslo Accords, and whenever I presented them the reaction was frustrated anger. People did not want to hear these things because they were ‘opposing peace.'”
Nitzan Chen, director of Israel’s Government Press Office, who covered the Oslo Accords for Channel 1, also shared his experience of media bias during the early ’90s.
“Certain stories were considered more important than others. Anything that supported the accords was brought to the front, while stories that showed problems in the peace deal were pushed off into unimportant time slots. There were some bad stories about violations of the deal, of recordings of [PLO chief Yasser] Arafat mocking peace, of Arafat openly breaking the agreement,” Chen said.
“The media then was not pluralistic. There was one idea of what type of stories should be covered,” he added.
A lack of understanding of Islam and of Arab culture lay at the root of the Oslo Accords, experts said.
“Arafat was openly laughing at us; there are recordings of him and no one reacted,” Harold Rhode, an American specialist on Islam, said at the conference. “It was clear that what Arafat meant was not true peace as we think of it in Israel but only a temporary peace that is only allowed in Islam in cases of weakness [on the part of the Muslim forces].”
Speakers throughout the conference slammed the assumption that if the Oslo Accords did not bear fruit as expected, Israel could simply back out of them.
“Rabin took a gamble; he thought it was reversible and this was obviously wrong. You cannot go back on a deal like this, because if you back out you look weak and petty, you look like a loser,” Glick said.
Many speakers also addressed the long-term consequences of the diplomatic effort.
“These accords have caused enormous damage to Israel’s national security, both domestically and internationally, in a completely predictable way,” Diker told JNS. “Over 2,000 Israelis have been killed since then, our enemies have been legitimized and strengthened internationally, and we have little to show for it.”
Glick told the conference, “The root of the problem is our spirit. When we are unclear about who is our enemy and who is our friend it leads to confusion. When we say that the PLO, that murders, are our friends it weakens our spirit, and that is the long-term legacy of Oslo.”
As the mirage of imminent peace with the Palestinians begins to roll back from the eyes of the Israeli public, new frameworks are emerging as possible replacements.
“I think the Abraham Accords and broader peace with the Arab world are currently more promising as a future than peace with the Palestinians,” Diker told JNS in an interview. “Currently, the status quo is our best bet as we break boundaries and grow to the scope of a regional power. Only when we have stability and strength at that level will we be able to address the questions of Oslo effectively.”