There is not always satisfaction in being able to say “I told you so!” – especially when it comes to peace accords that spectacularly failed to deliver peace.
I didn’t need the release last week of the declassified protocols of the government meeting discussing the first of the two Oslo Accords 30 years ago to know that then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had serious qualms about the agreement meant to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to protocols of the meeting which took place on August 30, 1993, the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DOP or Oslo I) stated that the Palestinians would have to hold free general elections to establish a council to govern themselves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Rabin told the cabinet that he believed that the chances of Palestinian elections being held and the council actually being formed were “small.” He added that the first test of the accords would be if the PLO could control Hamas in the Gaza Strip, noting that “the rise of Hamas in particular and radical Islam in general in the Arab world is a problem.”
I got to see early on how Rabin was not a happy Oslo camper. The main celebration took place on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, when then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and PLO negotiator Mahmoud Abbas signed Oslo I in the presence of US president Bill Clinton, Rabin, and PLO head Yasser Arafat.
I was present at the much less festive ceremony that took place in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 10 when the documents were initialed.
Sometimes witnessing history is a privilege but not a pleasure. The first thing I noticed was the absence of Palestinians. Journalists far outnumbered the “celebrants,” who consisted of a few Israeli officials and the four Norwegians who put the “Oslo” into the accords’ name: foreign minister Johan Jørgen Holst; his diplomat wife, Marianne Heiberg; and another husband-and-wife Norwegian Foreign Ministry team – Terje Rød Larsen and Mona Juul Larsen. The Norwegians could not hide their satisfaction, but Arafat’s absence made it clear that he was no Anwar Sadat, traveling to Jerusalem to put an end to hostilities. As I wrote at the time, the ceremony in which Rabin signed the document of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO “was like a wedding without a bride.”
The ceremony lasted barely 20 minutes. Sitting at the unadorned table, Rabin did not look comfortable. This was not his idea. It had been drawn up in back channels by Peres’s people. As he read the letter brought by Holst from Arafat in Tunis, Rabin obviously realized that an empowered Arafat himself would soon land in the region. Oslo rescued the PLO terrorist organization and its head at a time when they were far from their gory glory days.
When Rabin signed his name on the document, journalists noted he used a plain Pilot pen. It seemed to symbolize the lack of a sense of occasion. The show was reserved for the White House affair a few days later, by which time the first Oslo-related Palestinian terror attacks were taking place. That Arafat was granted the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Rabin and Peres) forever cheapened the value of that award.
As Efraim Karsh noted this week in an article in Israel Affairs titled “The Oslo disaster 30 years on”: “In the two-and-a-half years between the signing of the DOP and the fall of the Labour government in May 1996, 210 Israelis were murdered – nearly three times the average annual death toll of the previous 26 years... By the time of Arafat’s death [in November 2004], his war – the bloodiest and most destructive confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians since 1948 – had exacted 1,028 Israeli lives: nine times the average death toll by terrorism of the pre-Oslo era.” The toll has since risen to more than 2,000.
Doubts on Oslo from the very start
I always had doubts about an agreement with arch-terrorist Arafat. That the accords were at the time known as “Jericho and Gaza First” did not calm my fears. I was concerned that the Golan Heights and Jerusalem would soon be “second” and “third.” My concerns grew when the Norwegian officials spoke about the need to “continue to break the consensus.”
In addition, I couldn’t see how Gaza and the West Bank could be safely combined as one entity, with tiny Israel in the middle. That “Jericho and Gaza First” did not bring about a reconciliation between the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and those of Gaza became strikingly evident following the Hamas overthrow of Fatah there in 2007.
The Palestinians also don’t have much to celebrate: Those living in Area A territories, under full Palestinian Authority control, have suffered over the years from the increasingly corrupt PA quasi-government. Far from having free elections, the Palestinian political scene has made time stand still: PA head Abbas is now in the 18th year of his four-year term. Meanwhile, the residents of Gaza are subject to the whims of the Islamist Hamas regime, still more dedicated to bringing Israel down than building their own successful state.
Three decades is enough time to grant a certain amount of perspective, but everyone has their own picture and prism. For some, it can be called The Oslo Syndrome, after the eponymous book by Kenneth Levin describing “the delusional thinking that underlay Israel’s attempt to achieve peace with its neighbors through the so-called Oslo process.”
Yossi Beilin was the main force behind Oslo when he was deputy foreign minister under Peres. He remains unrepentant about the agreement that literally blew up in our faces. In an article in Israel Hayom’s Friday supplement last week, he said: “Oslo failed because it is in effect still here.” Oslo was meant to be a five-year interim agreement, and the permanent status arrangements were never finalized and implemented.
Beilin places a lot of the blame on Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslim worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994 (an undeniably evil act). Ignoring previous acts of terrorism, Beilin said this ignited the Hamas response that included the suicide bombings on buses and elsewhere. He also sees the (despicable) assassination of Rabin in November 1995 as having killed the peace process, although there is no way of knowing how Rabin would have reacted to the ever-mounting numbers of “victims of peace.”
Beilin also sees the increase in the numbers of “settlers” – Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria – as an obstacle to peace and that well-worn “two-state solution” mantra.
Ironically, it was accompanying Beilin on an official visit that brought home to me one of the biggest faults of Oslo. It irrevocably killed the Madrid peace process initiated by Yitzhak Shamir, which combined the Jordanian and Palestinian tracks. In April 1994, I traveled with a delegation led by Beilin to the Sultanate of Oman. The trip was under the auspices of the multilateral talks on water established by the 1991 Madrid Conference, and the Palestinians participated as part of the Jordanian team.
The nature of the multilateral talks was probably influenced by the positive post-Oslo atmosphere, but the DOP possibly set back relations with Jordan more than it aided them. The Hashemite Kingdom felt directly threatened by the secret negotiations and recognition of the Palestinians.
Peace with Jordan, which I also covered in 1994, came about despite Oslo, not because of it.
That Israel managed to reach agreements with both Egypt and Jordan (albeit cold ones) and three years ago with the Abraham Accord countries shows that peace is possible as far as Israel is concerned when there is a partner truly willing to accept the existence of the Jewish state.
Unlike Beilin, when key Oslo architect Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and I both found ourselves under attack at a UN-sponsored seminar on “The Question of Palestine” in Moscow five years ago, we agreed that the two main reasons the Oslo Accords failed were the anti-normalization movement and terrorism.
The terror attacks (and incitement) that accompanied Oslo and every other attempted peace process with the Palestinians, including the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, proved that peace with the Palestinians is not just elusive but an illusion. Thirty years might be a significant anniversary, but it’s no cause for celebration.