To bring a knife to a gunfight [definition]: “to enter into a confrontation … without being adequately equipped or prepared.” — Phrases.com

One of the most perplexing conundrums in Israeli politics is the lingering longevity of the political “left.” Decades from today, future historians will be at a loss to understand the processes that shaped the seminal political developments in Israel.

Despite being totally vindicated in its opposition to its political adversaries’ calamitous policy prescriptions, the “right” has long allowed them to survive as a viable force, vying for power despite being proven demonstrably, dramatically and disastrously wrong.

In Israel, of course, the great political divide between “left” and “right” is not so much along traditional socioeconomic differences on matters of taxation, social welfare and the role of government, but along the line of dissension over the approach to national security—particularly over the Palestinian issue.

In this regard, the terms “left” and “right” are somewhat misleading misnomers. Indeed, the real—and most significant division in the Israeli political system—is between doves, who advocate a policy of territorial withdrawal and political appeasement, and hawks, who oppose it.

However, because of the long-ingrained semantics, I will adhere to the usual usage and refer to the political factions that enthusiastically endorse Palestinian statehood as being on the “left,” and to those that oppose Palestinian statehood (or accept it only with great reluctance as a result of perceived constraints), as being on the “right.”

Transforming virtue into vice (and vice versa)

A major—arguably, the major—point of inflection in the history of the Zionist endeavor was the advent of the Oslo Accords, concocted in the latter half of 1993. It represents a far-reaching metamorphosis in the underlying ethical foundation of the Zionist narrative, a point after which nothing that succeeded it was remotely similar to that which preceded it.

It was a metamorphosis that converted what were once hallowed virtues into heinous vices. Suddenly, steadfast devotion to the land and to its settlement by Jews, once considered the primal essence of Zionism, were now branded odious manifestations of territorial avarice. Likewise, military prowess, once considered a source of pride and an instrument for the preservation of liberty, mutated not only into a malevolent means of oppression, but also into an ominous precursor of the imminent onset of fascism.

The reverse was also true.

What once was an egregious vice became an esteemed virtue. Thus, the pursuit of Palestinian statehood transitioned from being borderline sedition to being an essential requirement for enlightenment and the sine qua non for access and acceptance into “polite circles.”

Likewise, an abhorrent arch-terrorist miraculously morphed from being a brutal, blood-soaked butcher into a sought-after statesman and an internationally lauded peace laureate. No less grotesque was the astounding transformation of the murderous organization, which he led, from a thuggish terrorist gang, with which contacts were prohibited—indeed, punishable—by Israeli law, into a prospective peace partner, indispensable for the preservation of Zionism.

Pro-Oslo jubilation vs. anti-Oslo trepidation

The conclusion of the Oslo Accords created a severe ideo-political rift that split Israeli society into jubilant Oslowian proponents and perturbed anti-Oslowian opponents.

The proponents on the dovish “left” promised sweeping benefits—an El Dorado-like “New Middle East,” a thriving, stable, borderless entity, modeled on the European Union, stretching from Casablanca in the West to Kuwait in East, bringing with it a new era of pan-regional peace and prosperity for all.

By contrast, the opponents on the hawkish-“right” warned of grave perils and of the bloodshed that would result from arming what, months previously, was deemed a heinous terror organization. Their warnings of “Don’t give them guns” were ignored (indeed, spurned) by the devoted (read “doctrinaire”) Oslophiles, precipitating much of the predicted gory and gruesome consequences that followed.

Today, almost a quarter-century later, the jury is no longer out. The results are in.

Rather than reduce terror attacks against Israel, Oslo heralded an unprecedented increase in them. In the five years after the accords, more Israeli were killed by Palestinian-Arab terrorists than in the 15 years that preceded them. It ushered in a period in which every bus ride, every outing to a shopping mall, every visit to a cafe or a meal at a restaurant was a nerve-racking venture that could, and at times did, end in tragedy.

The economy: Another ‘left’-wing myth bites the dust

But security was not the only field in which recalcitrant realities refuted the rosy predictions promoted by the proponents of the Oslowian illusion. Another field in which Oslowian forecasts failed to fulfill their promise was economics.

This is true both in terms of Palestinian economic decline (because of Oslo’s failure) and Israeli economic success (despite Oslo’s failure).

Thus, in a 2019 article, Dr. Mohammed Samhouri, formerly a senior economic adviser in the Palestinian Authority, and a senior research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, writes: “At no time since its creation in May 1994 has the Palestinian Authority been on the verge of financial collapse and its economy so fragile as it is today, twenty-five years after its establishment.”

Accordingly, despite almost universal international endorsement and huge financial aid, all the Palestinian Arabs have managed to establish after three post-Oslo decades is a corrupt kleptocracy in Judea and Samaria and a tyrannical theocracy in Gaza, with a minuscule private sector and a bloated public one, and dysfunctional governance in both.

In Gaza, the situation is particularly dismal, where much of the dwindling natural water supply is undrinkable; streets are awash with untreated sewage that pollutes the beaches and flows directly into the sea, and incessant power outages reduce supply to a few hours a day.

All of this makes short shrift of the pretentious pronouncement by Shimon Peres, the cardinal patron of the Oslo concept, and longtime toast-of-the-town in bon-ton “left”-wing circles, that: “A day will come when Gaza will be the Middle East’s Singapore.”

Economic success despite the political failure 

One of the most frequent talking points of the pro-Oslo advocates was the claim that a peaceable resolution of the conflict with Palestinian Arabs would not only bring, but was an indispensable precondition for, Israeli economic success.

However, the fractious figures and disobedient data tell a different tale.

After all, despite the lack of any agreed resolution with the Palestinian Arabs and four major post-Oslo military operations against them (not counting the 2006 Second Lebanon War), Israel’s GDP per capita has risen rapidly since 1993—trebling itself from around $14,500 to $43,500, with the country acceding in 2010  to the prestigious OECD group of economically developed countries.

Indeed, today, Israel’s GDP per capita well exceeds that of the E.U. average and tops that of countries such as France, the United Kingdom and Japan—something unthinkable a few decades ago.

The same is true for the time immediately prior, and subsequent, to the Accords, where, the pre-Oslo growth rate was perceptibly higher than the post-Oslo ones!

As the accompanying diagram shows, average economic growth in the three years that immediately preceded Oslo (1990-92) was higher (6.6 percent) than the average in the three years (1994-96) that immediately succeeded it (6.1 percent). Moreover, in the wake of Oslo II (1995), growth plummeted (due to post-Oslo-violence, initiated by the Palestinian-Arab terror groups in the 1990s).

Moreover, in the period from 1996 to the end of the decade, the average growth rate had halved to 3.4 percent. Post-Oslo growth (1994-99) was lower (4.9 percent) than the average for the decade as a whole, which was 5.1 percent.

Thus, again contrary to urban legend, Oslo proved to be an impediment, not an accelerant, for the economy.

Debunking diplomatic fiction

Furthermore, the Oslo Accords were portrayed as a masterstroke of international statesmanship and as an extraordinary diplomatic coup. 

This, of course, is a gross distortion of the diplomatic record. For, while it is true that there was a brief spurt of benign enthusiasm displayed towards Israel immediately following the accords, it was largely confined to pomp and ceremony, and soon receded, with several countries, such as Oman and Morocco, severing relations only a few years later.

Indeed, contrary to prevailing myth, one would be hard-pressed to find any state of substantial international standing that set up diplomatic relations with Israel after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords in September 1993—and, as mentioned—any of those that might have been of some significance, rapidly revoked them.

By contrast, in the pre-Oslo period, there were resounding diplomatic triumphs. For example, China, India and the USSR (later Russia), which together comprise almost 40 percent of humanity, and had long avoided diplomatic ties with Israel, opened embassies roughly two years prior to Oslo. Similarly, South Korea approved the reopening of its embassy, which closed in 1978, as early as November 1991. Japan has maintained diplomatic ties with Israel since the 1950s—as had Turkey and Iran!

Conversely, the vast majority of nations that established official contacts with Israel in the wake of the Oslo initiative were hardly of crucial importance to its international stature—with all due respect to exotic locations such as Andorra, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Burundi, Cape Verde, Croatia, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mauritania, Montenegro, Namibia, Nauru, Rwanda, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Vanuatu and Zimbabwe, which make up the overwhelming bulk of the post-Oslo additions to countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel, and which Oslophiles brandished with such misplaced pride and passion.

Bringing a knife to a gunfight

Despite the miserable fiasco of the flagship political enterprise of the Israeli political “left”—its abject failure to deliver anything remotely close to its envisioned benefits on any front—security, economy or diplomacy—the Israeli “right” has inexplicably been unable to uproot it from the ongoing political debate, both domestically and abroad. Indeed, although it has been definitively disproven as practical policy—its underlying rationale has not been totally discredited and certainly not discarded in the national and international discourse.

Indeed, notwithstanding the devastating consequences for both Jews and Arabs of the endeavor to pursue the “left’s” land-for-peace policy with the Palestinian Arabs, the “right” has not succeeded in delegitimizing, or even shown any real sign of trying to delegitimize, the concept of conceding land for peace and its corollary: Palestinian statehood. It has shown little appetite to publicly undermine the Palestinian narrative, which is the fuel that drives the call of a Palestinian state, and expose the mendacious myths with which it is fabricated and on which it is founded.

Likewise, it has shown little stomach for inflicting public ridicule, scorn and shame on those who were responsible for the Oslo debacle, and has done little to deny them positions of influence in academia and the media, as the “left” did so effectively and unscrupulously to their ideo-political adversaries.

À la guerre comme à la guerre

Although it has ostensibly been in power for much of the post-Oslowian era, it seems that the “right” has not internalized the exigencies of political warfare.

Time and time again, it has refrained from “going for the jugular” and has let its rivals determine the limits of legitimacy in political competition—of what is done and what is not.

Thus, it has been hopelessly remiss in allocating adequate resources to promote and promulgate its own political credo and to expose the fatal folly and falsehoods on which their increasingly unprincipled adversaries on the “left” base their perilous and pernicious political dogma.

The “right” has constantly shied away from compelling the “left” to shoulder responsibility for the dreadful cost it has wrought on the nation and to pay the political price for the reckless, mindless gamble it took with the national security of the country and the personal safety of its citizens—for death and destruction, for the trauma and the tragedy, for the grief and the graves it has visited on so many.

It is thus small wonder that despite the abysmal performance of its political adversaries, the “right” has been unable to form a ruling coalition after three rounds of inconclusive elections—in the last of which the “left” almost gained power by stooping to the once unthinkable—joining into a political union with anti-Zionist, dominantly Arab parties, who openly oppose the Jewish character of the state and support it most vehement foes.

The time has come

No less grave is that the “right’s” reticence and timidity has prevented Israel from being able to take full advantage of the most amenable, pro-Israel U.S. administration—and to drive home irrevocable measures regarding control of Judea and Samaria.

The time for a change of pace is here. The time has come for the “right” to extend the scope, to expand the scale and enhance the substance of the measures it is willing to undertake against the “left.”

The time for bringing knives to gunfights must come to an end.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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