The anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords prompted a flurry of commentary that fell into two general categories. The first were the participants and optimists who lament what could have been, admit Oslo was a failure, but still believe the process can be resurrected. The other group is the critics, some of whom have 20-20 hindsight, and others say, “I told you so.” Neither have been very honest.
First, it is essential to acknowledge how badly Israelis want peace. Some might say they are willing to grasp at straws in the hope of success. Few were so naive as to believe that Arafat had become a Zionist. Still, many felt negotiating with him was worth the risk and, for the first time in their lives, imagined a horizon in which their children would not have to serve in the army.
As I’ve written, an incremental approach like the one initially adopted with Egypt was not unreasonable. But Yasser Arafat was a terrorist, critics say; there was no reason to trust him. They ignore that Anwar Sadat was no saint. I recall when I was at Berkeley and found in the Israel Action Committee files flyers calling Sadat “Hitler.” He was demonized, much like Arafat. Still, Israel gave up the bulk of the territory it captured in 1967 and made many compromises for nothing more than Sadat’s promise to keep peace.
A recent article by a retired Israeli general suggested Yitzhak Rabin’s mistake was negotiating with Arafat instead of local Palestinian leaders. “Viable alternatives existed, first and foremost local leaders in the Arab cities in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” He offered no evidence for this contention and devoted the rest of the article to the well-trod critique of Oslo.
This idea was periodically floated. Israel hoped to negotiate with regional councils, but they lacked credibility and authority, and the gambit failed.
Perhaps Oslo’s doom should have been evident almost from day one when Palestinian incitement and terror escalated. I don’t think Rabin was the fool his critics made him out to be; he saw the need to end Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians and felt withdrawal from the territories would accomplish that goal. That was why he largely ignored the Palestinians’ violations of the agreement.
Increased terrorism is probably the biggest reason for criticism of Oslo. The most severe violence, however, did not come in the immediate aftermath of that agreement but following the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000 and Arafat’s instigation of the second intifada. In the five years before Oslo, 144 Israelis were killed. In the five years after, the number was 207. By comparison, 1,054 were murdered between 2001 and 2005. Violence has continued unabated, but fatal attacks declined dramatically thanks to Operation Defensive Shield and the security fence construction.
Yes, terrorism increased, but how many Israelis would prefer to go back to having to provide for all the Palestinians’ needs and keeping troops in the West Bank and Gaza? Israel must take more robust measures to take away Hamas’s capacity to hold part of the country hostage with rocket bombardments. But you don’t hear too many calls for reoccupying Gaza.
Benjamin Netanyahu ran a campaign against Oslo that those on the left still blame for Rabin’s assassination. Yet, he has not repudiated the agreement to this day. After he defeated Shimon Peres and became prime minister in 1996, he pledged to remain faithful to the terms of the deal, shook Arafat’s hand, and agreed to cede additional territory to the Palestinians, all things he said he would never do when attacking Peres and Rabin.
Critics complain about Oslo arming the Palestinian police. They again ignore that Netanyahu signed the Wye Memorandum outlining terms of security cooperation. Why did he trust Arafat, given all he knew and said about him?
The PA hasn’t met its Wye obligations to outlaw and combat terrorist organizations, prevent incitement, or prohibit illegal weapons. However, Israel’s security establishment still views security cooperation as valuable, albeit inadequate. Israel would much prefer that the Palestinians clean up places like Jenin (they recently sent forces in and have helped dismantle the Lion’s Den) so the IDF wouldn’t have to. Israel understands that Abbas is mainly interested in interdicting potential rivals. As in the case of the IDF rooting out Hamas cells in the West Bank, interests sometimes overlap.
Not only has Netanyahu been unwilling to negate Oslo, but he was caught just a few days ago approving the transfer of armored vehicles to the Palestinians after railing for years against Oslo’s provisions for arming their security forces. There are many claims and counterclaims on what the U.S. is or is not providing on his watch, but the reports provoked a crisis in his coalition.
Like politicians who always blame their predecessors from the opposition for any negative things that happen after their election, Netanyahu, who sees himself as Mr. Security, cannot blame Rabin and Oslo for the more than 500 acts of terror thwarted by the Shin Bet since he returned to office. The rate of terror alerts today has not been seen since 2004.
In addition to security and economic cooperation, the two sides reached water agreements, which Israel has maintained for its interests. A year ago, for example, Israel issued a permit for the Palestinian Water Authority to build a pipeline to transport treated wastewater for agricultural use from the El Bireh Treatment Plant near Ramallah to Palestinian farmers in the Jericho Valley.
One of Oslo’s more important positive outcomes, which I only saw referred to in one postmortem, is the peace treaty with Jordan. King Hussein lacked Sadat’s courage to sell out the Palestinians for his interests. He would not have negotiated an agreement if he didn’t think Oslo would appease the Palestinians. Oslo was a double-edged sword for him. Hussein could tell his people he wasn’t abandoning the Palestinians because they would get their independence from Oslo. Simultaneously, he had to be quaking in his royal slippers over the threat that Arafat would get a state from which to resume his effort to seize the Hashemite share of Palestine. Jews are focused on the Palestinians turning West, while Hussein worries about them coming in his direction.
Ehud Barak was vilified when he made too generous an offer, particularly related to Jerusalem, at Camp David and paid for it at the polls. Arafat again proved his true objective by rejecting the chance for a state and starting the second intifada.
The “bulldozer” ended the intifada, but even staunch right-winger Ariel Sharon did not abandon Oslo; he took it a step further and evacuated Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank. There is no shortage of hecklers to point out that terror has escalated from Gaza. But, again, most Israelis believed it raised the possibility of peace and freed Israel from responsibility for the lives of more than a million Palestinians.
Another neglected byproduct of Oslo is the increase in aid to Israel. Yes, the Palestinians got a few hundred million, but Israel received billions. After the Wye Agreement, the U.S. provided $1.2 billion in additional funds to move troops and military installations out of the territories and provide counterterror and strategic weapons. Though not directly related, since Oslo, Israel has received $102 of its $160 billion (68%) in total aid since 1948.
Ehud Olmert was a longtime Likudnik who initially wanted to withdraw from the territories unilaterally. Instead, he continued the Oslo process in 36 fruitless meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, who proved he had no more interest in a two-state solution than Arafat.
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid ignored the Palestinian issue altogether, but now Bibi is back with every opportunity, plus backing from his radical cabinet, to repudiate Oslo. But he has not. Instead, he is returning to the Oslo-based idea of supporting the Palestinians economically.
Oslo also called for the economic development of the West Bank and Gaza. Because of the Hamas coup, Gaza has been isolated, but Israel has contributed to the welfare of Palestinians in Judea & Samaria. Netanyahu’s preferred approach is to improve conditions for Palestinians in the naïve hope this will make them give up their desire for independence.
Oslo did not fulfill the hopes of Israelis, yet it remains on the books. Every prime minister since 1993 has failed. Still, Israel faced then and now the question of how to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Is it within the realm of possibility? Was peace with Egypt or the Abraham Accords?