Fourteen people were killed in Palestinian terror attacks over the first two months of 2023. Ten were murdered in Jerusalem: On January 27 seven outside a synagogue in Neveh Ya’acov; and on February 10, three, including two brothers ages six and eight in a car-ramming attack in Ramot. February 13 saw a border policeman killed outside the Shuafat refugee camp. On February 26 two brothers were shot dead while driving through Huwara, and on February 27 a man was murdered near Jericho.
A myriad of explanations is offered to justify these attacks: From vigilante settler violence; to deadly IDF incursions in the West Bank; to construction creating irreversible facts-on-the-ground. The common denominator of all such rationales being that terrorism is a response to the gross injustices of occupation.
Put succinctly, it is the hopelessness, frustration, and despair of the Palestinians that feeds violent extremism, there being a lack of alternative paths for them to better their situation – the absence of a political horizon.
This position finds expression in the highest diplomatic circles. Speaking on February 22, UN Secretary-General António Guterres lamented the “deadly cycles of violence.” Guterres then pointed to the importance of restoring “a credible political horizon,” reiterating the UN’s commitment to “end the occupation” and “realize a two-state solution.” If only Palestinians could see some light at the end of the tunnel.
The US too broadly embraces this narrative. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was recently in Ramallah and after talking about the dangers of spiraling violence added: “What we’re seeing now from Palestinians is a shrinking horizon of hope, not an expanding one; and that too, we believe, needs to change.”
In January, when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel and the West Bank, the White House released a statement that Sullivan and PA President Mahmoud Abbas “exchanged views on measures to build trust, enhance security, and foster conditions for a political horizon.” Once again, security and a political horizon were placed together.
On the face of it, the argument is eminently plausible. After all, if Palestinians believe that their aspirations can be advanced through peaceful means, surely the motivation for violence would be reduced.
Unfortunately, this ostensibly logical proposition has been tested in a real-world laboratory, and the results were far from encouraging.
A Palestinian state
When the Oslo Accords were signed at the White House on September 13, 1993, they undoubtedly established a clear political horizon. The breakthrough agreement between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chair Yasser Arafat involved the creation of interim Palestinian self-government with the promise of eventual Palestinian self-determination.
Palestinian rule was initially established in Gaza and Jericho, and later expanded to the West Bank, which was divided into areas A, B, and C; the PA receiving full control over area A, where most Palestinians live. By the end of 1995, the IDF had completed its pullout of all the West Bank’s major cities, except Hebron.
DESPITE THIS, the first months of 1996 witnessed an explosion of murderous Palestinian terrorism. The deadliest of the period’s suicide bombings: The February 25 attack on bus No. 18 near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station that murdered 26; the March 3 bombing of bus No. 18 on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road with its 19 fatalities; and the March 4 attack outside Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center that left 16 dead.
In response to this carnage, the elections of May 29, 1996, saw Israeli voters remove from office the leadership associated with the Oslo agreements.
The beginning of the new century produced a similar phenomenon. At the July 2000 Camp David peace summit, prime minister Ehud Barak, a self-declared Rabin disciple, agreed to a Palestinian state on over 90% of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with Jerusalem being redivided and serving as the Palestinian capital.
Yet Barak’s concessions and president Bill Clinton’s hands-on involvement in the talks did not prevent the eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. Forty Israelis were to be killed before the end of the year, and an additional 25 would die in early 2001 up until 7 March, when Ariel Sharon’s government was sworn in.
Ongoing violence notwithstanding, the final months of Barak’s premiership saw intensive peace talks: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington in December, and thereafter Clinton presented a set of parameters designed to be the basis for a future agreement.
Clinton’s proposal called for a Palestinian state on between 94-96% of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, with Israel ceding 1-3% of its pre-1967 territory in land swaps to compensate for annexations. Jerusalem would become the capital of two independent states.
When Clinton left office in January 2001 Israeli-Palestinian talks moved to Taba, Egypt. There, Barak’s negotiators offered even greater flexibility in a last-ditch effort to secure an agreement.
But for the second time in five years, Israeli voters became contemptuous of peace talks in the shadow of escalating terrorism. Sharon was elected to restore security and the new prime minister refused to continue with negotiations while daily attacks continued – placing any political horizon on hold.
Surprisingly for some, vindication for Sharon’s approach could be found in a Palestinian commitment. On September 9, 1993, as a core precondition for the signing of the Oslo Accords, Arafat sent a letter to Rabin in which the Palestinian leader pledged “that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations” and stressed his renouncement of “terrorism and other acts of violence.”
Today, when Palestinians contend that terrorism stems from the absence of a political horizon, they assume (perhaps correctly) that the world will blame Israel for the failures of the peace process. Conveniently forgotten is that it was the Palestinians who said “no” at Camp David; torpedoed Clinton’s parameters; dismissed Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace plan; and refused to sign up to John Kerry’s 2014 framework.
Israel’s famed dovish foreign minister Abba Eban penned the truism “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Palestinians have multiple legitimate grievances. But if the lack of a political horizon is cited to justify terrorism, they should recall the story of the boy who murders his parents only to demand mercy for being an orphan.
Postscript: At the time of the post-Oslo Palestinian terror attacks, Israelis were told that those trying to kill them were enemies of peace. Today, it is repeated ad infinitum that terrorists kill because hopes for peace have disappeared. Catch-22?
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev