The Oslo follies

We are approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oslo Accords this coming September 13. The accords of course resulted in the return of Yasser Arafat from his Tunisian exile to rule over the Arabs on the West Bank and Gaza. I think it is fair to say that they have proved to be a disaster, yet Israel has never had a public accounting for it.

Shimon Peres was the Israeli Foreign Minister who was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the Oslo Accords. Rabin, Peres, and Yasser Arafat all shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Oslo.

I think Oslo was a profound mistake deriving (on the Israeli side) from idealism and cynicism, but you can be sure that Peres never counted it as such. Indeed, Peres reaffirmed the wisdom of Oslo in the supposed witticism I heard him utter at his 2012 Presidential Conference in Jerusalem: “In order to make peace, you have to close your eyes. You cannot make love or peace with open eyes.” I am quite sure that this is a quote that will not bear comparison with “At the summit true politics and strategy are one.”

From the perspective of Rabin and Peres, how can the Oslo Accords be deemed cynical (as I deem them)? I think that they imported Arafat to rule over the Arabs because they counted on him to do the dirty work that Israelis would not do to pacify the West Bank and Gaza.

Indeed, Rabin said so explicitly in September 1993, when he told an Israeli paper that the beauty of empowering Arafat was that Arafat could operate “bli bagatz uvli B’tselem” — Hebrew for “without the Supreme Court and without B’tselem” (i.e., the new Palestinian Authority wouldn’t be hampered by such niceties as due process of law and human-rights NGOs). Rabin and Peres had that right, but their belief that Arafat’s actions would further Israel’s interests in peaceful resolution of conflict was also — how to put it? — not very smart.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, Michael Freund took a look back and called for repentance on the part of the Israeli architects of Oslo. “By all measures,” Freund wrote, “Oslo was a disaster. It divided the people and land of Israel, failed to bring peace, established a hostile Palestinian entity, weakened the Jewish state’s deterrence posture and empowered Hamas.” The Israeli architects of the Oslo Accords failed to heed Freund’s call, but the Israeli public has awoken to their folly.

In Rabin’s case, at least, there must be some deeper explanation for the disaster. Now comes historian Efraim Karsh to ask the question that the intervening years raise in acute form: “Israel 25 years after the Oslo Accords: Why did Rabin fall for them?” It is the illuminating essay that leads the new issue of the Middle East Quarterly. I learn from Karsh’s excellent essay that Peres’s “eyes wide shut” approach to diplomacy appears to have been a motif in his thought from the beginning of the Oslo process to the end of his life.

Rabin, however, is something else. From Karsh I learn: “If Peres and [Yossi] Beilin’s self-delusion can be partly explained, if not condoned, on ideological grounds, Rabin’s behavior seems nothing short of the extraordinary.” Karsh adds: “Unlike Beilin, he did not equate peacemaking and reconciliation with appeasement and self-flagellation; unlike Peres, he had no pipe dream of a budding ‘New Middle East.’ Rather he was a quintessential representative of the ‘activist’ approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict dating back to Zeev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion, which upheld that peace would only follow upon Arab realization of the inability to destroy Israel by force of arms.”

So what happened? This is the burden Karsh undertakes to explain in his excellent essay. Jeff Jacoby notes Karsh’s essay in his Boston Globe column “The White House handshake that made everything worse.” Jonathan Tobin has related thoughts in his JNS column “25 years of illusions about Oslo.”

NOTE: Karsh is also the author of the excellent 2016 essay “The Oslo disaster” as well as several related books. Jeff Jacoby supplied me the Hebrew quote from Rabin that I cite above a few years back. Jeff added in the accompanying email message: “I think it can be argued that that very cynicism might have led Rabin to call a halt to the Oslo appeasement once it was clear how badly it was failing. He almost certainly wouldn’t have gone on to recognize Palestinian statehood or propose shared control of Jerusalem. In Rabin’s last speech in the Knesset, a few weeks before he was killed, he talked about the Oslo process and specified, among other things, that any final-status agreement would not include a Palestinian state, or a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, or withdrawal to the 1967 lines.” Karsh’s essay supports Jeff’s observations.