Unhappy Anniversary: 25 years after Oslo, what remains?

Twenty-five years after Oslo, the Palestinian leadership that last decade lost the Israeli Center is now losing the Israeli Left.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between them, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington, on September 13, 1993 (photo credit: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between them, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington, on September 13, 1993
IT RISKED his career, but Labor lawmaker Aryeh (Lova) Eliav (1921-2010) still published in 1972 “The Land of the Hart,” the Hebrew bestseller that mapped what he saw as Israel’s path to peace.
Israel “should state its willingness to return to the Palestinian Arabs most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, so they will establish … their own free and sovereign state,” wrote the man who seven months earlier was still secretary general of the Labor Party, and before that oversaw the blanketing of the desolate northern Negev with new villages, cities, and farms.
The book infuriated then-prime minister Golda Meir, who denied the very existence of a Palestinian people, in line with Labor’s stated quest to obtain peace through a deal not with the Palestinians, but with Jordan’s King Hussein A man of principles, Eliav left Labor and roamed the political wilderness, initially as part of a minuscule parliamentary faction and then altogether outside the Knesset.
That was in the 1970s. By the 1990s, Eliav’s vision would be Labor’s roadmap and the broader Left’s tenet of faith.
What Eliav portrayed in a later book (“A New Heart and New Spirit” 1986) as a world governed by regional harmonies in which “Israel will have a key role in the peace of the Middle East and the entire world” now became a Labor-led Israel’s official policy.
Calling to crisscross the Middle East with transnational highways, fast trains, and electricity grids alongside joint tourism, farming, and water projects fed by a Middle Eastern development bank and protected by a Middle Eastern defense organization à la NATO – the New Middle East vision that Eliav inspired now underpinned the Left’s thinking as it signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993.
If Israel will allow the rise of a Palestinian state, went the new thinking, the entire region will be politically integrated, militarily pacified, and economically prosperous, much the way postwar Europe was reinvented through the creation of the Common Market that later became the European Union.
Now, as the accords turn 25, politicians and literati on the Left are steadily retreating from the vision that has been empirically tested, and cost Labor an electoral price that many in Eliav’s original party are no longer prepared to pay.
THE ACCORDS that created the Palestinian Authority (PA) initially handed it control of Gaza and Jericho and set in motion the process that later gave it most other Palestinian cities as well, and would also have given it an independent state, had its leaders accepted Israel’s offers in 2000 and 2008.
Like Eliav in the 1970s, Israel’s leaders entered the Oslo process believing it would produce prosperity, stability, and real peace.
The process that Labor led following Yitzhak Rabin’s electoral landslide in 1992 was accelerated by Ehud Barak following his defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999.
It was Labor’s tenth electoral victory since 1948. It was also its last.
Beset by Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s peace offer in 2000, and traumatized by subsequent terror that cost more than a thousand Israeli lives, Israeli voters consigned Labor to the political margins. Having lost all of this century’s six national elections, Labor leaders are now seeking ways to climb out of the electoral hole where the Oslo gamble has led them.
Labor voters’ growing impatience with the Oslo vision was signaled by their election last year of Avi Gabbai as their leader.
As a candidate, Gabbay focused on social issues, but once elected he turned to the conflict and, while at it, stunned the party’s old guard.
“There should be no reason to dismantle settlements as part of a peace deal,” he said, insisting that a Palestinian state should be willing to accept Jewish citizens. “The rhetoric to which we have grown accustomed – that peace means settler evacuations – is not necessarily right,” he said.
Gabbay’s nominal ally in leading the Zionist Union, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, immediately disowned him, saying, “This is not my stance,” only to see him joined by Labor MK Eitan Cabel, who last decade was Labor’s secretary general, 35 years after Eliav.
“Time to sober up,” Cabel called in an opinion piece in Haaretz. It’s time for Labor “to part with the visions of signing peace agreements on the White House lawn,” he asserted, calling instead to map and annex West Bank settlement blocs that Labor thinks should remain in Israel, while otherwise ceasing to build in the West Bank.
Cabel’s revisionism was then echoed by former Labor MK Michael Bar-Zohar, a respected biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.
“An agreed diplomatic solution between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere in PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between them, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington, on September 13, 1993 sight,” he wrote. “The gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions is too wide and it seems no Israeli government, including one led by the center Left, will be able to bridge it.”
Bar-Zohar urges the construction of a new border fence that would leave on the Israeli side dozens of settlements, like those in the Jordan Valley and the Etzion Bloc. The PA would get what would sprawl beyond that fence, but the IDF would still camp there to prevent terrorist incursions and rocket attacks.
Settlers stranded on the wrong side of the fence would be offered incentives to return west voluntarily.
Bar-Zohar is now 80 and Cabel, now 59, was already in his mid-30s when the Oslo Accords were signed, but Einat Wilf was back then a 22-year-old undergraduate student who would later be an assistant to Shimon Peres, a Harvard-educated political scientist, and a Labor lawmaker.
Now, in a Hebrew book titled “The Rightof- Return War,” Wilf argues that her party’s assumption in 1993 – that the Palestinians were ready for peace – has since proven to have been unfounded.
“The Arab demand for the ‘right of return’ reveals how the Palestinians really see the conflict with us, and what they think of our presence here, because it touches a deeper phenomenon – the refusal, for now, to accept the Jews’ legitimate rights if even only in part of the Land of Israel,” wrote co-author Adi Schwartz in the book’s introduction.
RETRIEVING FORMER US secretary of state John Kerry’s farewell speech in 2016, Wilf and Schwartz show that he used the term “settlement” 58 times and the term “refugees” only three times, thus voicing Western diplomacy’s common view that the settlements are the main obstacle to peace.
Wilf now rejects the vision that has been her party’s guiding principle since last century.
Arguing that the so-called “right of return” is designed to drown Israel in a sea of hostile immigrants, she now says peace will not arrive before the Palestinians recognize that the Jews are a nation; that the Land of Israel is the Jewish nation’s historic home; and that war refugees – not to mention their offspring – are seldom restored to their original homes.
Moreover, in what reads like a paragraph from a Netanyahu speech at an AIPAC convention, Wilf accuses the United Nations Relief and Works Agency of perpetuating the conflict by nurturing the Palestinian expectation to somehow return to their forebears’ villages.
Lurking beyond such apostates – as others in the Left see them – is the revisionism of novelist A.B. Yehoshua, who once adorned the Knesset candidate list of Meretz, the party that sees itself as the Left’s moral compass.
Now 81, Yehoshua’s vocal support of the two-state solution began soon after the Six Days War in the late 1960s and ended in 2016, when he told a closed meeting in Jerusalem “it is impossible to evacuate 450,000 settlers.”
Now, in a two-part essay in Haaretz last April, Yehoshua said Yasser Arafat first misled the world when he said he wanted “a secular, pluralistic and democratic state,” and then “trampled the Oslo Accords with terror attacks.”
Blaming Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, for rejecting Israel’s land-for-peace offer in 2008, Yehoshua now says Israel should offer the Palestinians residing in the West Bank Israeli citizenship, following a five-year residency period. In addition, he thinks Israel should continue to maintain control of the border with Jordan. And most strikingly, he thinks Israel’s citizens and the West Bank’s Palestinians should elect a joint, bicameral parliament.
Whether or not any part of these departures from the Oslo legacy will ever materialize, they already make one change plain: The Palestinian leadership that last decade lost the Israeli Center’s trust is now losing the Israeli Left’s faith.
The Left’s creeping sense of despair was sharply voiced by Hebrew University political scientist, and former director general of the Foreign Ministry, Shlomo Avineri, whose support of the two-state solution harks back to the days of Arieh Eliav.
Referring to Abbas’s antisemitic speech in May where he said that Jews were massacred throughout history “because of their social and economic role as bankers and moneylenders,” and in which he denied the Jews’ historic tie to their ancestral land – Avineri wrote that “no Israeli government, whether from the Right or the Left, will be able to negotiate with the Palestinians as long as he [Abbas] heads them.”
Added up, voices like Avineri, Yehoshua, Gabbay, Cabel, and Bar-Zohar, which represent a range of current and retired politicians as well as academics and literati from the thick of the Israeli Left, effectively say one thing: Oslo is brain dead.
Ironically, the one key Israeli who remains verbally committed to the two-state solution is the man who once was its most potent enemy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formally endorsed Eliav’s platform in his Bar-Ilan Speech of June 2009.
As things have since unfolded, Netanyahu’s constituency never really called him to task for this dogmatic deviation, because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas never began to negotiate with him.
Now, with Labor leaders doubting the two-state solution’s feasibility, and with Abbas disagreeable even to a longtime two-state advocate like Prof. Avineri, it is indeed difficult to reject Yehoshua’s impression that the two-state solution is no longer practical.
Then again, the Middle East has repeatedly mocked its fortune tellers.
Superpowers heavily invested in the region and led by men as unpredictable as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are capable of barging into the scene one bright morning and imposing on the conflict’s protagonists some version of the land-forpeace formula.
Should they consider such a joint venture, the pair would do well to read Eliav’s closing lines in “A New Heart and New Spirit,” where the marginalized Labor leader and embattled peace crusader replied to those who dismissed him as a dreamer by quoting poet Shaul Tchernichovsky: “Laugh, laugh at the dreams / it is me, the dreamer, speaking / Laugh, for I believe in man / for I still believe in you / I will believe in the future / even if that day be distant / for come it will / and nation to nation will then carry blessing and peace.”