Nadav Tamir

The Oslo Accords: A heroic vision unfulfilled

As we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, it is crucial to take a step back and view this historic initiative through a lens that transcends mere criticism and cynicism. The critical analysis that portrays the accords as a failure is misguided. History will evaluate the accords otherwise.

In the wake of the recent release of cabinet meeting protocols that laid bare the inner workings of this pivotal agreement, we must recognize the Oslo Accords as what they are: an enduring testament to the dedication, creativity, and leadership of individuals like Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and their negotiating team. As someone who worked alongside Peres when he was the foreign minister, the president, and upon his return to the Peres Center for Peace, I am still in awe of what was able to be achieved in Oslo.

Those quick to brand the accords as a failure overlook the unyielding commitment of Peres, a man who wore many hats, including the architect of the Israeli defense industry under Ben Gurion, defense minister, foreign minister, prime minister. Alongside Rabin, a military strategist with an illustrious career, both were neither impulsive nor naive. Their generation, the architects of Israel’s very existence, understood the essence of calculated and tactical risk-taking for the sake of long-term strategic objectives.

Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, faced similar dilemmas when five Arab armies loomed on the horizon following the Declaration of Independence. He knew that Zionism had transformed the Jewish people from mere observers of history to active participants. This shift meant taking control of their destiny instead of relying on the goodwill of others.

Menachem Begin’s response to Anwar Sadat’s proposal, Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal, and Ehud Barak’s Lebanon pullout all exemplify this Israeli tradition of decisive leadership. Each decision was fraught with risks, but they were guided by a belief that calculated risks were necessary for securing Israel’s long-term interests.

Peres, during his tenure, underwent a transformation. He transitioned from prioritizing security to embracing diplomacy when he recognized Israel’s newfound strength and the changing geopolitical landscape. He saw that diplomacy and peace were more conducive to Israel’s security and prosperity than unending military engagements.

In the grand scheme of history, the Six Day War, initially celebrated as a triumph, has led to 56 years of Israeli rule over another people — a situation that undermines the principles of Zionism. Conversely, the Yom Kippur War, a national trauma at the time, ultimately led to a peace treaty with Egypt, altering Israel’s strategic position and paving the way for subsequent peace agreements.

While the Oslo Accords were never fully realized, they averted a dire existential threat — an escalating bi-national catastrophe. Their incomplete implementation due to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and waves of terror attacks that weakened the Israeli peace camp. Nonetheless, no Israeli government has considered their outright cancellation.

The Oslo Accords brought about the Palestinian Authority, reducing Israel’s direct civic control over Palestinians. They secured Palestinian recognition of Israel within pre-1967 borders, even though Palestinian statehood remains unrecognized. Throughout the Oslo years, Palestinians cooperated with Israeli security forces to combat terrorism, despite Israel’s expansion of settlements and dimming diplomatic prospects.

Yet, this “zero-sum” conception falls short of addressing Israel’s strategic need to end its occupation of another people. To preserve its Jewish and democratic character, Israel must achieve the strategic goal of two states — a goal that can only be attained by fully implementing the Oslo Accords.

Despite their partial realization, the Oslo Accords yielded significant accomplishments, such as the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the peace treaty with Jordan, bolstering Israel’s strategic depth and security. However, critical mistakes were made, including the failure to agree on final status at the outset and the continuation of settlement construction.

Another critical oversight was the absence of a regional dimension in negotiations, which is vital for addressing key issues like Jerusalem, refugees, and security. The Arab Initiative, a Saudi proposal, provides a regional framework for a solution, and recent developments, such as the Abraham Accords and ongoing negotiations with Saudi Arabia, offer hope for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Peace must extend beyond leaders and permeate societies. Shimon Peres recognized this, leading to the creation of the Peres Center for Peace, an organization that promotes cooperation between Arabs and Jews and fosters a shared life in the absence of a formal agreement.

The Oslo Accords, a testament to courageous leadership and visionary thinking, were unfortunately hindered by those opposed to peace. Rabin’s meticulous approach to security, coupled with Peres’ ability to seize opportunities, demonstrated a remarkable synergy between former political rivals – a synergy that proved itself during the Entebbe airport rescue operation.

The foundation laid by the Oslo Accords will bear fruit, as Israel’s only viable path toward fulfilling the Zionist vision lies in a two-state solution. It has become increasingly evident to many in the Israeli public that continuing the occupation threatens our future, and genuine freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians is essential. The recent pro-democracy protests have awakened this realization among many in the liberal camp who were once in denial.

Without a solution, and given the demographic balance between Jews and Palestinians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, Israel cannot simultaneously be a democracy and a national home for the Jewish people. The Oslo path offers a way to avoid this fate, and as time passes, it becomes even more essential for Israel to return to this path.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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