The lessons of Oslo

The failure of the Oslo Accords spawned the West Bank security fence, which buried the delusions of the Left and the Right.

September 23, 2008 20:02
4 minute read.
The lessons of Oslo

oslo accords 88. (photo credit: )

Wouldn't it be great if we could greet Tzipi Livni's ascension by applauding her honesty and being satisfied that integrity was enough? Wouldn't it be reassuring if all we had to speculate about was her economic sophistication and her social vision for the country? Unfortunately, the major question Livni will face, should she become prime minister, is "How effectively will she protect Israel?" This question takes on particular prominence as her razor-thin Kadima victory coincided with the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords and growing concerns about Iran's nuclear threat. Normally, a question like "why did the Oslo Accords fail" could be left to historians. But while historians can help clarify, providing evidence, context, insight, perspective, every Israeli leader - and voter - must come to grips with what occurred. The conclusions Israelis draw about what happened to Oslo yesterday is essential to figuring out what to do today and how to build toward a stable tomorrow with the Palestinians. It is scandalous that Oslo's architects, especially Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, have not accounted for why Oslo failed. The point is not to make them wallow or even apologize. Rather, the challenge is for them - and others - to draw the appropriate lessons and plot a realistic future course. While the history of the Oslo Accords is as complex and subtle as the agreements themselves, there is one clear, crude, depressing explanation for why Oslo failed. Israel's leaders - and the world - failed to appreciate most Arabs' and specifically most Palestinians' violent hostility to the Jewish state's very existence. THIS FAILURE is, in many ways, lovely and understandable. The Western mind is too rationalist - and, frankly, too self-absorbed - to appreciate the depth of the hatred. It was easier to condescend toward Yasser Arafat, assuming that when he advocated violence in Arabic he was just playing politics, than to take his words seriously and realize that when he smiled and negotiated with Westerners he was just toying with them. Shimon Peres's New Middle East pipe dream was rife with Marxist assumptions, supposing that an Israel-fueled materialism could dull the fires of maximalist Palestinian nationalism. The Oslo delusion was secular, underestimating Islamist radicalism's intensity and popularity. The Oslo apparition was also a peculiarly quixotic Zionist miscalculation. Despite the anti-Zionist narrative claiming that early Zionists alternately ignored Palestinian Arabs or brutalized them, a strong Lawrence-of-Arabia streak in early Zionism also romanticized Arabs, dreaming of a Jewish state lovingly embraced by its neighbors. Nevertheless, the failure of leaders to comprehend the intensity of Palestinian rejectionism was also inexcusable. A state's first goal is to protect its citizens. The fact that Israeli policy resulted in a prolonged war against the peace process, with more than 1,000 Israelis murdered by weapons which Israel helped deliver to the terrorists, is a failure of historic proportions. Fifteen years later, viewing the anti-Israel maps and textbooks the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority spread, assessing the culture of enmity and martyrdom that festered in the territories, Arafat's war seems utterly predictable. THIRTY-FIVE YEARS after the Yom Kippur War, Israelis still wonder about and try to learn from that intelligence failure. It is equally essential to remember and learn from the inability - and outright refusal of some leaders - to anticipate the burst of Palestinian terror reignited in 2000. Tragically, Arab hatred continues. We cannot become inured to the pornography of Palestinian violence, the lurid addiction to shooting yeshiva students, bulldozing commuters, blowing up boulevardiers, for effect. Nor should we become blasé about the broader epidemic of Islamist hatred. The world should be outraged by the report, just days before Livni's election, that a leading Muslim cleric in England, Omar Bakri, threatened Paul McCartney's life if he performed in Israel. "If he values his life, Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there," London's Sunday Express quoted Bakri as saying. "The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him." McCartney heroically refused to be cowed. Judging by the news coverage, however, neither Bakri's threat nor McCartney's steadfastness triggered much commentary, when the papers should have been filled with editorials furiously condemning the cleric and celebrating the singer. The tricky question, then, is not whether this hatred exists, rather how to respond to this unfortunate reality. Acknowledging the hatred does not necessarily preclude withdrawing from territory; it should, however, avoid withdrawing with unrealistic expectations. In fact, the Oslo wake-up call spawned the West Bank security fence, which buried the delusions of the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right. BOTH EXTREMES underestimated Palestinian nationalism. Leftists assumed Palestinians were as willing as they were to jettison core identities. Rightists assumed the Palestinians were pushovers willing to accommodate Jewish territorial ambitions. In building the barrier, the Israeli left abandoned its illusion that fences were unnecessary in a world where Arab and Jew would soon embrace. The Israeli right abandoned its illusion that territories housing millions of Palestinians could be integrated easily into the Jewish state. The security fence - which Livni should complete quickly - provides necessary security to Israelis while reminding them that Palestinian nationalism is real, hostile and not disappearing. In fact, Oslo teaches that the two-state solution is the only viable path for Israelis and Palestinians. Talk of a one-state solution is really advocating a no-Jewish-state-solution. And Jewish nationalists who demanded their own state should respect Palestinian nationalists' desire for their own state. But Zionists should not expect to see the characteristic Zionist pragmatism in the rival movement. Oslo teaches that whatever agreement Israel makes should come without romantic expectations of warm relations and from cold-hearted calculations aiming for stability. Oslo's paradox is that this tougher, more pragmatic, but not soulless approach may be the way to break the logjam and reorient Palestinians toward building their state rather than dreaming of destroying ours. The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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