Who is the Oslo Peace Accords' forgotten loser?

Shimon Peres underestimated Arab leaders’ hostility to democracy, but he saw better than everyone the social despair that sparked the Arab civil wars and Europe’s refugee crisis.

ATTENTION - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY AND DEATH  The body of a young Tunisian man, who set himself on fire, is seen at the main street of the capital Tunis March 12, 2013. The man set himself on fire on Tuesday in a gesture recalling the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death ign (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
ATTENTION - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY AND DEATH The body of a young Tunisian man, who set himself on fire, is seen at the main street of the capital Tunis March 12, 2013. The man set himself on fire on Tuesday in a gesture recalling the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death ign
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
Twenty-five years on, all agree that the Oslo Accords were a tragedy.
In terms of drama, their most tragic protagonist is Yitzhak Rabin, whose career was crowned by the Six Day War’s conquests, and whose murder was triggered by those conquests’ results.
In terms of death, Rabin’s was but one of more than 5,000 Israelis and Palestinians killed during the 12 years that followed the festive White House ceremony.
Beyond the fatalities, Oslo also humbled the Labor Party and a whole class of opinion makers.
With Labor MK Eitan Cabel calling to annex West Bank settlements while Labor leader Avi Gabbay says settlers should not be removed even in a peace deal; and with former Labor MK Einat Wilf blaming the conflict’s persistence on the Palestinians and UNRWA, while novelist A.B. Yehoshua calls to let the West Bank’s Palestinians vote for the Knesset – the unfolding picture is clear: the Left is retreating from Oslo, bruised and disillusioned.
Even so, the Oslo tragedy’s biggest loser is someone else: the Middle East.
NEARLY EIGHT years since Tunisian grocer Muhammad Bouazizi torched himself and thus sparked the downfalls of four Arab presidents, the outbreaks of multiple Arab civil wars and the flight of millions to European shores, the Middle East is a source of universal despair.
Hopes were originally high. The riots that spread in 2011 from Morocco to Bahrain, after scores of self-immolations, were initially seen as harbingers of a great democratic upsurge.
Euphoria proved brief. With Libya shattered, Yemen torn and Syria razed, the world watched helpless and shocked.
Understandably, many asked how come no one saw maelstrom’s approach; where were the scholars, statesmen, spies, journalists and literati, when social lava gathered between Cairo, Damascus, Sana and Tobruk.
Particular scorn was aimed at us, the two-state champions who 25 years ago expected the old Middle East to make way for our “New Middle East,” the celebration of neighborly harmony that our prophet, Shimon Peres, predicted, and we craved.
And really, what can we say in our defense? The Middle East never changed, and instead of imitating Europe invaded it.
Revisiting our dust-coated manifesto, Peres’s The New Middle East (Hebrew, 1993) indeed evokes a spirit of delusion.
With whom did we plan to establish (p. 63) “a regional framework” that would breed “positive competition in adopting democratic processes”: with the future Nusra Front? with the Houthis? With Gaddafi and his future lynchers?
And whom did we approach with statements like “the totalitarian regimes have already been revealed as too expensive and inefficient” (p. 64): the Assad dynasty? Saddam Hussein? And whom did we think we would impress with Peres’s quote from Spinoza that peace is a virtue stemming from courage: Ahmed Yassin? Hassan Nasrallah? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
How could we dream of free-trade zones in Latakia, Beirut and Gaza (p. 124), and of “fast trains from Turkey through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt to Africa,” and of highways “from Africa to Iraq and the Persian Gulf” (p. 123), which – had they been built back then – would now be buried under the old Middle East’s killing fields?
Well, like the greatest Zionists, dream we did, but we were not delusional.
SHIMON PERES failed in his forecast, but in his diagnosis he was razor sharp.
“A heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Middle East’s leaders,” he wrote (p. 71). “They can lead the region in the direction of the West European model, but they can also perpetuate hostility by continuing the region’s Balkanization.”
It was his polite way of telling Arab autocrats what the Prophet Jonah told their biblical forebears: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Peres sensed in 1993 that the Arab world’s social decay will lead to catastrophe, unless its leaders give their people opportunity and hope.
The Arab elites could have chosen the “New Middle East” and given their peoples that vision’s democracy, education, employment, prosperity and dignity. Alas, feeling threatened by the challenge this would pose to their unelected power, Arab leaders chose the old Middle East, the one that spent its petrodollars on fighter jets, naval flotillas and vast secret services peppered with glass towers planted in sparsely settled oil sheikhdoms, all while abandoning the Arab masses to the devices of the destitution, ignorance and wrath that governed the slums of Cairo, Damascus and Algiers.
“The Middle East spends now an annual $50-60 billion on arms,” said to them Peres. “If we manage to narrow this expense by 50%, then we already create a tremendous fund for the entire region’s development” (p. 72.) It never crossed their minds. Military spending climbed, social spending trudged. The Saudi defense budget alone is now 50% higher than Israel and Turkey’s combined military spending.
Arab leaders rejected Peres and his vision like the neighbors who laughed at Noah when he warned of the impending flood.
In the Gulf, where Arab money’s direction was decided, sheikhs invested in extravagance and hedonism, while in Cairo, where Arab politics was inspired, Hosni Mubarak invested in despotism while letting the media drug the masses with antisemitism, including the tarnishing of our vision as inspired by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There was no Arab leader with whom to discuss fast trains, international highways, and the embrace of foreign investors who would put millions to work the way multinational corporations did in China, India, Turkey and Brazil. The self-made Arab of whom we dreamed was to his leaders an enemy.
Unlike Pharaoh, who used the seven good years to prepare for the seven bad years, the Arab world’s leaders continued squandering oil’s returns and changed none of their budgetary priorities.
Muhammad Bouazizi and millions others like him were thus cornered. No one thought of them; no one, that is, except us, the followers of Shimon Peres, and the believers in his gospel of a “New Middle East.”