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Doomed to Failure?: The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process
By Ofira Seliktar
In her latest book, Doomed to Failure?: the Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process, Ofira Seliktar dissects the 1993 Oslo Accords, showing how they were doomed to failure from their inception.
Seliktar, an Israeli-born former professor of political science at Temple University, is no stranger to controversy. Among her recent books are a study of American Jewish attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli peace process and others detailing American intelligence failures regarding the Soviet Union and Iran. Neither of these preached the conventional wisdom; rather they were organized around the central theme of what might be called willful blindness.
Yasser Arafat at best was a chameleon but he was more of a drama queen than anything else, particularly in the way he threw his own people under the bus for sake of the "Palestinian cause," which he identified solely with himself. Arafat's Oslo was considered to be the "peace of the brave" only in its English version. In Arabic, however, where it really counts, Arafat sold the concept of Oslo as the Treaty of Hudibiya, referencing the agreement Muhammad signed with the Quraish tribe during the early days of the spread of Islam with the intention of breaking it once he could overcome his adversaries militarily.
Similarly, Seliktar is able to show how the Israeli leftist intelligentsia, which included academics, journalists and military officials, also bought into the idea of Arafat's "peace of the brave." It is especially worth noting revered individuals like the late Haaretz military correspondent Ze'ev Schiff, who initiated and sold the peace process under the guise of academic objectivity and then covered up for it when the PA turned out to be dysfunctional.
Other examples include Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Gazit who joined the Jaffee Center in 1988 after completing 33 years of service in the IDF. Following the Six Day War, Gazit served as coordinator of government activities in the territories, and following the Yom Kippur War, he served as the head of Military Intelligence.
In contrast, it was individuals like Barry Rubin at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and the director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center of the IDC who were consistent in their evaluation of Palestinian society and Arafat.
The push for Oslo was done on every possible level within Israeli circles, socially, politically and militarily, and reached a point where being "anti-Oslo" connoted being anti-Israel. There was a lack of understanding that no matter what Arafat voiced in English, there was really no room or desire in him to compromise.
The intractable Arab position insists that there is no need for compromise when it comes to negotiating peace with Israel; UN Resolution 242 stands, so what is there to compromise? To Palestinians the word compromise relative to the 242 parameters, means breaking 242, anathema in the Arab world. Thus, "compromise" signals a pro-Israeli bias. Ultimately, this language has derailed numerous agreements between Israelis and Arabs, including the Oslo peace process.
Palestinians and Arabs love to quote UN Resolution 242. It's become the foundation for the land-for-peace formula and a superficial reading seemingly places Palestinian/Arab brokers of peace in a position of strength. For Arabs, this "legal" prerequisite emphasizes the give and take: If Israel valued peace, it would return land. If Arabs wanted land, they would give peace.
In essence this was the core of Oslo's failure. Seliktar rightfully describes the West and the Israeli Left as so enamored by the infamous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat and Bill Clinton that they never took the time to understand that it was a faÃ§ade.
Furthermore, as the Islamists were gaining more and more support within Palestinian society, Israeli society was becoming more disillusioned by Oslo and its architects. Ehud Barak was chosen to lead the Labor Party after Shimon Peres's defeat in 1996 to Binyamin Netanyahu and was set to complete Rabin's mission after his murder. Barak, former chief of General Staff and Israel's most decorated soldier, lacked any political refinement. He tried to govern the Knesset like he ran the army and this was one of the many reasons he failed in Camp David II in 2000. Even Barak's foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami acknowledged that Arafat never accepted Israel's legitimacy.
So although Barak put on the negotiating table one of the most generous proposals offered by an Israeli government with regard to the Palestinian state to be, there was no way Arafat would accept it and give up the Nakba mentality, as it would signal to the Arab world and Palestinian society that he had given up the struggle for the Palestinian cause.
There is no doubt that the Israeli political paradigm has changed over the past 16 years and it is clear that Hamas is more blunt and direct about its goals than Arafat was in his day. The lines between Left and Right in Israel have become blurred as most understand that Iran is an existential threat.
That said, as the Obama administration is surrounded by many Osloists, it would be wise to learn from failures of the past before huddling around the negotiating table for endless meetings that have no practical goal in sight. Seliktar's sobering analysis on the dynamics in which Oslo came about, especially within Israel society, should be taken into consideration before another "brave peace" comes to play.
The writer is a PhD candidate in Mediterranean studies at King's College in London and an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.