Kenneth Jacobson

Oslo’s Contribution to Israeli-Arab Normalization

This coming week we observe two significant anniversaries of agreements that Israel has reached with its Arab neighbors. The two have a very different history, one being in the center of partisan political controversy in Israel, the other widely acclaimed as an important step forward.

I am referring to the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords on September 13 and the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords on September 15.

Heralded as a historic breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Oslo Accords were controversial from the start, particularly after a wave of suicide bombings hit Israel for several years after the signing. The right accused the weakness and concessions by the Israeli leadership to the Palestinians in the Accords as opening the way to terrorism. All these years later, following the Second Intifada and then the breakdown of negotiations with the Palestinians, critics of Oslo see it as a destructive exercise.

On the other hand, its supporters talk about the breakthrough that occurred, getting the Palestinians to acknowledge Israel and at least to talk about a possible solution for both sides. Indeed, they make the case that if there ever is to be a two-state solution, it will be premised on the agreement reached between Israelis and Palestinians at Oslo. From their point of view, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a right-wing extremist played a key role in undermining Oslo’s potential to have true impact.

Whatever one’s views on Oslo, what is clear is that it generated new openness toward Israel in the Arab world and elsewhere internationally.

On the other hand, three years after the signing of the normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, there is widespread acknowledgement of the importance of the breakthrough. This is true even among individuals on the left who, particularly now, are unwilling to give Netanyahu credit for just about anything — and also despite the fact that the Accords did not in any way address the Palestinian issue, the core of the conflict.

It is worth noting that the Accords are presented as a victory for those who argued against a widespread assumption that the Arab states would never normalize relations with Israel until the Jewish state significantly addressed the Palestinian issue. That is a fair conclusion. But one must also remember that the Gulf states were not willing to sign the agreement until the then-Netanyahu government was ready to commit not to annex any part of the West Bank, an idea that was then floating vigorously around Israeli government circles. And for those who think the Abraham Accords prove that normalization negates the Palestinian issue, the current conversations about a Saudi deal seem to be undermining that idea. Indeed, reports of strong Saudi insistence on progress on the Palestinian front seems to be a major obstacle for the anti-Palestinian wing of the current Israeli government.

So two different stories of different eras and different agreements. Having said that, a case can be made that Oslo, with all its shortcomings, enabled the Abraham Accords to happen years later. Oslo, as noted, undercut the idea that had circulated for decades in the Arab world that Israel simply was out to destroy and negate the Palestinians, that they were simply another example of Western invaders to the Middle East trying to dominate the locals. Now there was evidence that Israel truly wanted to live with their Palestinian neighbors and one could imagine a future of Jews and Palestinians living in peace. Of course, Oslo did not suddenly transform Arab hostility toward the Jewish State, just as Sadat’s courageous peace with Egypt in 1979 did not lead to immediate change. But a path forward was created. The first to come down that path was King Hussein of Jordan who signed a peace agreement in 1995.

After that, there was little progress as the Second Intifada, terrorism and the breakdown of negotiations ensued. But the vision of peace that made Oslo so inspiring and promising remained pertinent and may very well have one of the factors that eventually led the Gulf States to make their historic moves.

One can at least speculate that if Oslo had never occurred, the Abraham Accords would not have transpired.

As we mark these two events, it is also relevant to note that the historic nature of Arab countries now normalizing relations with Israel – and routinely doing all kinds of things with the Jewish state that would have been deemed anathema before – has had a huge impact on many of the enemies of Israel in a somewhat surprising way. Rather than causing them to rethink their hostile views, many of them have doubled down and exacerbated their condemnation so recently highlighted in Libya. It is as if they don’t know what to make of this transformation by the Arabs, longtime the leaders in opposition to Israel. In a panic over this change, they are stepping up their game.

And so as we reach these two anniversaries, one a milestone, the two narratives will undoubtedly persist. Let us surely all celebrate the road that normalization is leading us and emphasize what hope it offers going forward. And for those who still think Oslo was an important moment as well in Israel’s history, take some satisfaction in thinking that the Abraham Accords might have never happened if not for Oslo.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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