The return of Shimon Peres

Today’s news reports indicate that the Labor Party is set to join with the Likud in a coalition that returns Shimon Peres to a position of power as “deputy premier.” The Haaretz account is “Peretz waives demand to serve as vice PM.” Last week Professor Steven Plaut of Haifa University anticipated the return of Peres as the current fulfillment of the Likud Party’s traditional role of returning the Labor Party to power: “Israel’s single-issue party.”
Peres is of course the former Prime Minister of Israel; as Yitzhak Rabin’s Foreign Minister he was an architect of the Oslo Accords that brought Yasser Arafat and the PLO to power on the West Bank and Gaza. In 1994 Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat.
Rabin and Peres made the cynical calculation that Arafat’s brutal thuggery would be turned on the Arabs in the territories that had become a burden for Israel to govern under civilized constraints. Their bargain with Arafat must be judged one of the twentieth century’s most most misguided acts of statesmanship — misguided statesmanship for which Israel and others continue to pay the price.
As a distant lover of Israel, I have been genuinely puzzled by its failure to produce a statesman equal to the challenges faced by the country over the past 20 years. In every area of modern life the country boasts a genius that on a per capita basis must be unrivaled. Yet on the world stage its politicians seem almost retarded.
The country has never had a public accounting for the utter disaster that was Oslo. Its politicians seem to keep the country’s citizens in the dark about the nature of its national security strategy and the actions taken to pursue it. Ariel Sharon’s deal with Peres seems to me a metaphorical expression of the problem.
Symptomatic of the delusional political thinking that has brought Israel so much grief is the fact that there has as yet been no public accounting for the disaster of Oslo itself. Vital advocates of Oslo such as Shimon Peres are still respectable public figures playing significant roles and urging the same policy. It is as if Neville Chamberlain (if he had still been alive — he had the grace to die in 1940) were still advising Winston Churchill on the statesmanship of appeasement in 1942.
Michael Oren is a serious historian for whom the retrospective view comes naturally and who has taken the measure of Oslo. If you don’t know who Oren is, go buy a copy of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which has been issued in paperback with a new afterword. In a column for the Wall Street Journal (“Oslo’s legacy: A road map to nowhere”) last year, Oren wrote:

[T]he trouble wrought by the Oslo Accords — so-called, after the city where they were mediated — has been incalculable. Instead of a “New Middle East” [touted by then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres] with peace between Israel and an independent Palestinian state, war has ravaged the area, devastating economies, killing and maiming thousands. Rarely has an agreement been so celebrated — Rabin and Arafat won Nobel prizes — generated such vast expectations, and occupied so many presidential days, only to utterly fail. Now, in the wake of Mahmoud Abbas’s resignation as Palestinian prime minister, one must ask why.
There are many answers, the most obvious of which is accountability. Israel was not held accountable for expanding its West Bank and Gaza settlements in excess of Oslo’s proviso for their “natural growth.” But while Israelis may have exploited the treaty’s spirit, the Palestinians flagrantly disregarded its letter. No sooner had Arafat returned from Washington than he began smuggling explosives and weapons into the territories, harboring wanted terrorists, and educating Palestinian children to destroy Israel — all blatant breaches of Oslo. In the mid-’90s, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority failed to stop and in some cases abetted the suicide bombers who killed hundreds of Israelis. Yet, in spite of these gross violations, neither Arafat nor his Authority was ever called to task. Advocates of Oslo equivocated that the Palestinians would comply with the accords but only after they had achieved statehood, and until then, they were too weak to clamp down on terrorism or even to cease incitement. The many Israelis who died in the interim were dubbed, perversely, “victims of peace.”
Another, subtler, reason for Oslo’s collapse was the absence of mutuality. The accords called on both sides to “recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights,” but while Rabin specifically recognized the rights of the Palestinian people, Arafat never acknowledged the rights or even the existence of a Jewish people. Had he done so, he would have accepted the Jews’ claim to a permanent state in their homeland, and signaled his willingness to divide that land with them. Instead, he arrogated all of the land for the Palestinians and sought to transform Israel into a de facto Palestinian state through the mass repatriation of refugees. While “Palestinian people” and “Palestinian state” entered Israel’s political lexicon, the words “Jewish people” and “Jewish state” never passed his lips. Privately, with President Clinton, he even denied that the Jews had historical ties to Jerusalem.
The next factor undermining peace might best be called thuggery. Rabin believed that democratic Israel was incapable of taking the draconian steps necessary to defeat Hamas and other terrorist groups, and so sought a Palestinian partner free, he said, “of civil rights monitors and the supreme court.” That partner was Arafat, a strongman whom the U.S. and Israel essentially hired to suppress other Palestinian thugs. The assumption that a corrupt Arab dictator would suit the Palestinians was racist, but also politically unsound. Arafat pocketed the millions of dollars in payoffs but made no serious effort to combat Hamas. Rather than reigning in terror, he increasingly engaged in it himself.
The lessons of Oslo could not be clearer, but have they been learned? The answer, judging from the U.S.-backed “road map” — a direct outgrowth of Oslo — must be no.

Oren wrote his column in September 2003. Has the death of Arafat changed the equation? Is Mahmoud Abbas a legitimate partner for peace? Does Sharon know something about him that we don’t? It’s certainly possible, but today’s news suggests on the contrary that he is the true heir of Arafat: “Guerilla chief gives Abbas his backing.” And Sharon’s reliance on Peres to retain power and implement his plan provides powerful evidence that something is sorely amiss here.


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