Finally learning from Oslo and Rabin

With the adjacent anniversaries of the Oslo Accords and of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, not enough has been said about what links these two events. Their common theme is trust, and its fundamental role in peacemaking.

When Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn 25 years ago last month, what really took our breath away was seeing them declare their trust in each other as partners. Unfortunately, the peace process began to unravel just two years later, when a Jewish Israeli extremist killed Rabin in order to kill peace. Immediately, Palestinian extremists did their part with a horrific rain of terrorism. These rejectionists didn’t just kill precious human beings; they killed trust. With two decades of hindsight, it’s safe to say that peace never recovered.

The principles of Oslo were fairly sound: Resolving differences with words, not violence; two states for two peoples; negotiating a complete end of conflict. While there were many failures, there were also successes: Significant Israeli withdrawals and Palestinian self-rule; long periods of security cooperation and relative quiet; and multiple, intensive attempts to resolve core issues.

But, the entire process was half empty. It focused only on drawing maps and borders; moving people and goods; recognizing states, capitals, and rights. For all that the parties and the international community invested in diplomacy, they never invested in peace itself. Leaders signed documents. But, they did nothing to build trust and partnership among their peoples.

Fear and hatred come to us humans all too easily. In war, we dehumanize the enemy, especially when for so many Israeli and Palestinian families, the pain is so personal. Too many have suffered very real, tragic loss. At the same time, most have never truly met a real person on the other side to remind them of their shared humanity.

It should have been no surprise that leaders could not simply flip a switch to command peace from the top down. The peace process was a building without a foundation, and it was easily toppled.

In all the years since, one thing has been fairly consistent. Most Israelis and Palestinians said that they supported the concepts of compromising for peace to reach two states. However, most doubted it would ever happen because (each believed) they lacked a partner on the other side.

It should have been clear from the earliest days that these public opinion polls were a cry for help. People wanted a peace process to work, but they needed to be engaged so that they could believe in it. They wanted to solve their conflict, but they needed real human connections to look past frightening caricatures and believe in each other.

The short-term forecast is not good. Those on both sides who want the entire land for themselves are still hard at work – and sadly, making progress. Countless more people have died since the famous handshake on the White House lawn.

Yet, over the longer term, Israelis and Palestinians can still chart a new course. The next 25 years can be different. Unlike in 1993, today, there are over 100 organizations, united through the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), building cooperation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians. They break down fear and hatred and build up trust by bringing people together every day through joint bilingual schools, soccer programs, business partnerships, medical clinics, and more.

These initiatives have steadily built a community of tens of thousands of people who know their partners firsthand. They are resilient, having survived intifadas, war, political attack, and terrorism. They are impactful, having changed thousands of people’s lives and attitudes. And they are growing despite a very difficult environment.

Most importantly, they soon may have the kind of large-scale, long-term, strategic investment that was entirely lacking 25 years ago. This year, an ALLMEP initiative to create a multinational fund for grassroots peace is taking off. In the last two weeks, Republicans and Democrats came together in both houses of Congress to introduce legislation that would provide $50 million. The British have announced their support, and France and other nations may soon join, too. There is a real chance that this $200 million-per-year initiative will launch in the next 1-2 years.

We can’t sugarcoat it. There are enormous obstacles. Opponents of a two-state deal have grown stronger. And creating reconciliation is hard, long-term work swimming upstream. Amazingly, when violence erupts, some even attack the peacebuilders, rather than attacking the violent extremists. In recent months, those brave enough to still reach across conflict lines have often been called traitors by both sides. Adding insult to injury, last month, the Trump administration perversely decided to cut funding for peacebuilding projects.

Most Israelis and Palestinians want what we all want. They want to raise their families and educate their children. They want good jobs and economic opportunity. They want to be safe from violence. They want respect and dignity. They want a say in their government. They want to live in secure borders. They want a home and a land to call their own.

Oslo was right: Eventually, they can have all these things. But only by working together.

About the Author
Avi Meyerstein is the founder and president of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the coalition of 170 NGOs building people-to-people cooperation and partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.
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