Twenty years ago, I sat on the White House lawn, watching with bewilderment the
historic signing of the Oslo Accords by Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and Shimon
Peres, who was the real architect of Oslo.
While I had negotiated the
accords in the four months prior to this event, I could hardly believe my eyes,
seeing the handshakes among Yitzhak Rabin, Peres and Yasser Arafat. Former
enemies, who fought each other fiercely in a life-or-death battle, a “to be or
not to be” national struggle, were creating a partnership that could one day
lead to peace. Next to me sat a very dapper gentleman with big dark sunglasses.
He turned to me and said: “I know who you are, congratulations from me and my
country; I am Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to
Indeed, Oslo opened to us the road to the Arab
It proved a long and difficult road, filled with high points, such
as the peace treaty with Jordan, and low points such as the continuation of
Many placed difficult roadblocks and land mines in
this path. Roadblocks of poor implementation of the agreement by its
signatories; we had our share by continuing settlement activity and suffocating
the Palestinian economy, and the Palestinians had theirs by not acting
sufficiently on the prevention of terror. The actual land mines were placed by
the religious fanatics on both sides, who opposed and fought violently any
possibility of reconciliation through vicious terror, intimidation and the
assassination of Rabin.
And yet that moment in Washington became the
point of no return for the creation of a two-state solution; since Oslo the
prospects of a Greater Israel and a Greater Palestine, from the Mediterranean
Sea to the Jordan River, are dead, to the anger and grief of Hamas and Gush
Emunim. A binational state would have sacrificed our identity as a Jewish,
democratic state and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Both
sides began to understand that they were ultimately mutually dependent for their
well-being, economy, identity and security. This is also the basis for the
current negotiations that Binyamin Netanyahu and Abu Mazen have relaunched in
continuation of the existing (Oslo) agreements.
In this, Oslo was a
historic watershed, brought about by a changed mind-set, which also led to
tangible results. As to the change of heart and mind in Israel, it was
recognition by its leadership that we are now strong enough to make peace and to
compromise for it.
Throughout history, the Jewish people had great faith,
but also a great sense of vulnerability and being constantly victimized. Israel,
with its new military, economic and social strength, did not free itself from
this sense of anxiety and weakness. Rabin and Peres, two of our founding
fathers, understood the strength we acquired and that it permitted us a new
sense of self-confidence. Oslo was indeed the effort to translate the newly
acquired power into a new relationship with the region and the world.
history of the world’s relations with Jews is filled with prejudice, persecution
and tragedy. That, for many, was the raison d’être for the re-birth of Israel,
to gain strength in order to defend ourselves and to normalize the relationship
with the non-Jewish world.
The change in mind-set came to us long after
the change in our strength. Golda Meir still believed that “the whole world is
against us” and that “there is no Palestinian people.” Israel, rather than
becoming a strong bridge to the world, became a strong, institutionalized
Oslo was in many ways the transformation of this mind-set. It
became a strategic effort to translate our force in order to make peace,
strengthen our regional posture and improve our image and be placed within the
family of nations.
The Palestinians, contrary to our propaganda, were
never an existential threat to Israel. They were and are too weak. Menachem
Begin compared Arafat to Hitler.
The Palestinian leader, as we found out
first-hand, was a tormented, insecure, half-statesman,
Yet he signified to the world an unresolved problem that
resulted from the establishment of Israel and its nonrecognition by the Arab
The only danger emanating from the Palestinians is that the Arab
states and the international community do not accept that the Palestinian plight
will remain unsolved. The solution to our conflict with the Palestinians would
therefore only add to our strength and, with time, to our security.
important, Oslo was a dramatic change of the Israeli mind-set regarding the
future of the West Bank.
Ideologically, the Israeli Left and Right were
split on the definition of these territories – between “liberated lands” and
“occupied territories.” This ideological rift was settled in Oslo in favor of
the perception of the Left. The bold decision by Rabin and Peres had a very
strong moral basis perceiving the occupation of another people as immoral and
corrupting to our society.
They actually believed that right is might and
not the other way around.
Oslo was therefore an understanding that, by
gradually resolving this conflict, the Palestinians would turn from an occupied
people to our next-door neighbors.
We are not used to coexisting with
neighbors or to cooperating with them; a neighborly relation creates common
interests, cooperation and mutual dependence.
This also demands a very
profound transformation of our mind-set. Paradoxically, in the Oslo process, the
IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) understood this need best; and
people like (former IDF chief of staff) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and (former head of
the Shin Bet and Israel Navy commander) Ami Ayalon found a common language of
cooperation with their former enemies in battle.
The strategic thinking
of Rabin and Peres was that the real danger to Israel came from the periphery of
the region, mainly Iran, that we had to create a coalition of moderates with
Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, and that this would be impossible without the
Palestinians – they were our key to the Arab world. This stood in contradiction
to the generally paranoiac view of the Arab world, so prevalent in our country.
Many of us still see the Arab world as unfit for peace, although the upholding
of our peace treaty with Egypt in spite of the Egyptian turmoil is an indication
to the contrary.
Israel, with the Oslo process, also regained its
respected place in the family of nations, as our willingness to trade
territories for peace was in harmony with the international consensus, from both
a political and a value point of view.
Due to Oslo, Israel broke out of
the ghetto in which we were secluded since the Lebanon War and the intifada.
More important, we began to get out of the ghetto in our own mind-set. For
years, we thrived on seclusion if not xenophobia, not understanding that no
country can prosper in isolation. The handshake at the White House was also a
handshake with the world, which respected our decision for peace, and we
understood the importance of good international relations.
process also had many tangible benefits, aside from many disappointments. The
accords were better than their implementation, especially when an anti-Oslo
prime minister came to power in 1996 to implement an agreement he objected to
Permanent status promised to the Palestinians by 1999 was
delayed and actually was out of the question. Settlements were back in fashion
and on the map. Arafat, who aspired to an agreement, was a poor nationbuilder,
not outlawing all armed factions and terrorists.
David Ben-Gurion he was
not; neither is Binyamin Netanyahu. Despite all of this, between 1993 and 1996,
Israel gained important assets from the process: • The peace treaty with Jordan
– immediately upon our return from the Washington signing, Shimon Peres met with
King Hussein in Amman. He heard from the king that, given the Oslo breakthrough,
peace with Jordan would now be possible, and indeed it was signed in July
• Our strategically all-important peace with Egypt was rescued;
ambassadors returned to Cairo and Tel Aviv, and Hosni Mubarak became a good
partner to our security concerns in relation to terror, as expressed in the 1996
Sharm e-Sheikh Conference.
• Israel’s regional position changed
fundamentally for the first time since independence. We opened diplomatic
missions in, among others, Amman, Rabat, Tunis and Doha. We began to trade with
most Arab countries, mainly in the Gulf. In 1994 the Casablanca Conference
convened, bringing together Arab, Israeli and international political and
business leaders to explore economic cooperation and joint projects. The Middle
East–North Africa economic conference, another Peres brainchild, continued to
take place in Amman, Doha and Cairo until 1997.
• In parallel, we
witnessed a dramatic turn of relations with the international community,
including the strengthening of our strategic security relations with the United
States; economic ties were enhanced with the European Union, Japan, China,
India, etc., which led to greater investments and many more tourists.
The government’s change of policy led to a new order of priorities – moving out
of settlements and into education, high technology, the periphery and the Arab
sector. We witnessed a 9 percent economic growth.
Peace and economic
opportunity went hand-in-hand.
Israelis thrived on these peace dividends,
but were weary from the price, not understanding that peace is a prolonged
process. Security, including an end to terror, and improved relations with the
Palestinians and the Arab world will and cannot come overnight. New relations
leading to better security and economy are not just a matter of legal agreement.
It is something that a strong country like Israel must invest in, by creating
common interests through cooperation for economic growth and cooperation on
joint regional policies against common threats such as terror.
all of this possible, as long as the Oslo mind-set was alive. For the future, if
we seek security and economic growth, our political mind-set has to change in
favor of a fair solution to the Palestinian conflict and regaining our place
among the family of nations. We must get away from petty politics, messianic
superiority, isolation from the world and reliance only on the sword, in order
to move into a realistic vision of good relations with our neighbors and the
world – relations based on strength, equality and cooperation. We must break
down the physical and mental walls of the ghetto. This is what Oslo was all
about and this, with time, is what future peace must be about.
is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief
negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.