September 13th marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accord in the White House. But my connection to the Accord goes back a month earlier to August 20, 1993. On that day, it was announced publicly that after months of secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway, an Agreement on a Declaration of Principles was initialed between representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). As I recount in my memoirs, I had a prior appointment to meet Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that afternoon and to my surprise, despite the important news story, he kept the appointment.
With just the two of us sitting in his office, Rabin expressed concerns about the good faith of the Palestinians and the intentions of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whom he considered a terrorist. He was so anxious about Arafat that I found myself reassuring him about the abilities of his negotiating team to reach an agreement that left appropriate outs if the other side failed to perform.
That same caution and distrust were present on that beautiful and exciting day when we all gathered on the White House lawn to witness the signing of the Agreement, when Rabin, appearing almost physically pushed by President Clinton, shook the hand of his enemy Yasser Arafat. But it was Rabin’s heartfelt speech that explained that as hard as it was for him to shake that hand, it was harder to tell parents of Israeli soldiers that their sons and daughters had died fighting Arabs. “Enough of blood and tears,” he said, “We are today giving peace a chance and saying enough.”
However, Rabin was motivated by more than the desire to put an end to the pain of war and bloodshed alone. A deep strategic thinker, Rabin had concluded that Israel’s interests required that it make peace with its neighboring nations – Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians – in order to be in a position to face the nation that he recognized was Israel’s major threat – Iran.
Very sadly, for Israel and the world, Rabin was assassinated before he could carry out his plans. Since then, we’ve witnessed the failure of the Camp David effort; the violence of the second Palestinian intifada of 2000; the strengthening of Hezbollah after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon; and the rise of Hamas in Gaza.
It is always difficult to deal with the “what if’s” of history but there are two that I think are relevant to any appraisal of the implications of the Oslo Accord:
First, of course, is what would have happened had the extremist Israeli nationalists not murdered Rabin. I believe that there was a far better chance that the peace process would have followed on the foundation set by Oslo. As I noted, Rabin had a clear strategic program that included making a deal with the Palestinians. At the same time, he was highly respected by the Israeli public as one of the first-generation founders of the state, as a warrior and as a strategist so he had the confidence of the public behind him. Very importantly, Arafat also respected him and thus, more than any other Israeli leader, he might have brought the parties together. Of course, the extremist religious nationalists knew all that. That’s why they killed him!
The second “what if” poses the question what if there had been no Oslo Agreement. To answer that question requires understanding the changes brought about by Oslo. Before Oslo there were two armed camps: The PLO terrorist organization seeking to inflict pain on Israel and Israeli interests, and Israel, constantly on guard against attacks. It is difficult to imagine in those circumstances that Israel would have been able to pull out of Lebanon and rid itself of the burdens of Gaza. It is equally hard to imagine how Israel would have been able to absorb the nearly one million Russian and other refugees and still grow economically if it had to allocate so much funding and effort to maintain an ever engaged military to face PLO attacks. The relatively quiet West Bank under the governance of the Palestinian National Authority – which resulted from the Oslo process – has allowed Israel to develop economically and not get caught up in retaliatory killings that would mar its position in the world politically and economically.
Above all else, the Oslo process told the Arab world, and the rest of the world’s nations, that Israel and the Palestinians were capable of making a deal. From that point on, it was left for the parties to agree on the elements of the final deal; it was no longer in question whether a deal was possible. Oslo changed everything. And, in fact, the talks the U.S. is currently mediating today, which offer hope of resolving the elements that the Oslo Accords left open, are the direct legacy of the process Rabin started.