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The Oslo Accords’ unintended consequences

The cobras have been released and the blowback is lethal.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton and PLO head Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords, Sept. 13, 1993. Photo by Vince Musi/The White House.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton and PLO head Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords, Sept. 13, 1993. Photo by Vince Musi/The White House.
Yechiel M. Leiter
Yechiel M. Leiter
Dr. Yechiel M. Leiter is director-general of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has served in senior government positions in education, finance, and transportation. He received his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Haifa. His post-doctorate study of John Locke and the Hebrew Bible was published by Cambridge University Press.

Shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed, Yasser Arafat made his intentions clear. He said that the agreements were nothing more than a “Hudabiyah,” a temporary arrangement intended to effectuate Israel’s ultimate demise. The Arabic term refers to a 10-year truce that the prophet Muhammed signed with the Quraysh tribe that controlled Mecca, which, when it became militarily opportune, he breached soon afterward. What the Quraysh were to Mecca, the Jews are to Palestine. Oslo was made to be breached.

Eight years later, during the second intifada, the incessant Palestinian terror attacks that killed hundreds and maimed thousands of Israelis did not persuade Israel’s political leadership to change course. This despite growing skepticism among the Israeli public that the entire process was seriously flawed.

The architects of the Oslo process held steadfast to the notion that if Arafat and his PLO had not in fact already changed, the peace process would soon leave them no choice but to make their anticipated change manifest. Shimon Peres brushed off Arafat’s repeated comments as mere reflections of his need to adjust to a new reality and to appease his domestic constituency, and top diplomat Yossi Beilin asserted that they were nothing more than “silly words.” The requirements of governance and the international recognition of their governing body would force the Palestinian leadership to both formally and functionally abandon terrorism in all its manifestations.

But 30 years after the accords were signed and the promises to abandon the legacy of terror made, the Palestinian Authority continues to advocate for terrorism, to support it in Palestinian society, the media, the schools and in an official governmental budget line that actually pays terrorists and their families. The unambiguous and unapologetic policy of the P.A. is to pay for the slaying of Israelis.

P.A. chief Mahmoud Abbas might not actually be dispatching terror cells to murder people, but he is responsible for the hate indoctrination, incitement and incentivization that make them do just that, and when they do so, he and his cohorts are not just congratulatory, they pay them. It is an official policy of money for murder. 

Assuming the alternative to be worse, Israeli governments, including those that opposed Oslo and warned of the diplomatic ruse from the start, have consistently avoided holding the P.A. accountable. Assuming that accountability might include the collapse of the P.A., and that its collapse necessarily means the return of the IDF to the task of municipal management of Palestinian Arab population centers, all egregious P.A. violations of the agreements they signed have been formally criticized but functionally ignored.

Aside from the morally reprehensible position of tolerating broadscale incitement to murder—for many, reason enough to abandon such a laissez-faire attitude toward agreement violations—this has led to several unintended consequences. Each consequence is significant enough to warrant a change of policy, but cumulatively, they leave Israel with no choice but to immediately and effectively move to a consistent and unambiguous policy of conditionality and accountability.

The ‘Cobra effect’ and ‘blowback’

The “law of unintended consequences” is a concept in political, economic and sociological theory that dates back at least to John Locke in the 17th century. The “law” refers to an outcome or outcomes of a purposeful action that is/are unforeseen or unanticipated. The unintended outcome is often driven by a “perverse incentive,” which produces results contrary to the intentions of its designers. Perhaps the best example of a perverse incentive is the “cobra effect.”

During the British rule of India, New Delhi was infested with cobras. When British officials offered a bounty on cobra skins in the hope that financial incentives would help enlist the public in the effort to eradicate the snakes, the problem got much worse. The cobra population increased as people began to breed cobras in pursuit of compensation. When the British caught on and terminated the program, the now worthless cobras were set free, creating greater danger to the public than before. German economist Horst Siebert dubbed this form of unintended consequence the “Cobra effect.”

The CIA uses a different term to describe the unintended consequences of their operations: “blowback.” The covert operation supporting the Afghan Mujahideen dubbed “Operation Cyclone,” was intended to overthrow the communist regime that had taken hold of Afghanistan. It was a Cold War strategy to stop the spread of communism, but it resulted in the destabilization of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. These consequences, hardly on the CIA’s radar screen, were wholly unintended and unforeseen.

Would the CIA have continued with “Operation Cyclone” had they anticipated the blowback? The rise of Al-Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks and the wars and mayhem that ensued? It is fair to say “no.”

And it is fair to ask the same question and provide the same answer regarding Oslo. Would the designers of the Oslo Accords have proceeded with the legitimization of the PLO and its empowerment through the establishment of the P.A. if they had known what the consequences would be? 

Oslo’s unintended consequences

“Nothing has just one consequence,” wrote evolutionary epistemologist Jeremy Sherman. “Consequences fan out in all directions over time. Life is like playing piano with oven mitts on. You go to hit one key and others get hit in the process.”

The architects of Oslo wore oven mitts and tried to play one key. The consequences have fanned out in all directions and they are dire. The oven mitts now have to come off.

Consecutive governments, intelligence assessments and defense planners focused on one potential consequence of a policy of P.A. accountability—the breakup of the PA. In that context, it could be argued whether or not that consequence was something to contend with simply on moral grounds. But in the meantime, several unintended consequences have materialized which are far more serious and threatening than the potential disintegration of the P.A.

Put another way, the cobras have been released and the blowback is lethal. They appear in the form of hate indoctrination and incitement, “pay-for-slay,” promotion of worldwide antisemitism, delegitimization of Israel, illegal construction in Area C, ignoring Palestinian commitments under the Oslo agreements, the radicalization of Israeli Arabs and institutional corruption that harms the Palestinian people.

Continuing down this path would be a mistake. It will serve no one. Israel can and must find a way to take off the mitts as it plays the political piano.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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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