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 Washington.”

Indeed, Oslo opened to us the road to the Arab world.

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 Palestinian terror.

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.

The 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 ghetto.

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, half-terrorist.

Yet he signified to the world an unresolved problem that resulted from the establishment of Israel and its nonrecognition by the Arab world.

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.

More 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.

The Oslo 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 vehemently.

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 1994.

• 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.

Oslo made 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.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.

Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.

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