When the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, many Israelis and American Jews alike believed that the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict was in sight. Now, after the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War and multiple wars in Gaza, very few Israelis still think this. Whether they believe that God gave all of the Land of Israel to the Jews or that ‘The Occupation’ is the root of all evil, practically nobody here expects that as soon as a few technical details are worked out a two-state agreement with the Palestinians that will end the conflict can be signed.
Israelis have learned the hard way that the conflict is not over borders, but over the existence of the Jewish state, even the presence of Jews in the Middle East. The idea that economic incentives could override the ideology of the PLO (not to mention Hamas) has been shown to be an illusion. The rapid changes in the Arab world, the rise of the Islamic State and the Sunni-Shiite conflict may have made Israel some temporary allies, but have also raised the general level of tension and insecurity in the region.
The idea behind Oslo in Israel and the West was that practical considerations could trump ideology. Westerners did not understand the deep need of the Palestinians to regain the honor that they believe was taken from them, and the very different view of Oslo that was held by the PLO — by both Arafat and Abbas — which is that it was only acceptable insofar as it could be exploited as a step in the PLO’s long-term program to replace the Jewish state. In any event, the relative weakness of the Palestinian Authority vis-à-vis Hamas would quickly pull the rug out from under any agreement made with the former.
Israelis on the Right and Left both know this today, although they propose a wide spectrum of appropriate policies. But American Jews are stuck in 1993. Worse, they are militant about their uninformed position. One reason for it is their confidence in the president and administration they helped to elect, which espouses the traditional ‘peace process’ nonsense for its own reasons (and these reasons do not include enhancing Israel’s security). Another is the propaganda that they are fed by much of their own leadership.
For example, yesterday I received an email from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish denomination in America (they like to mention this a lot when they are pressuring Israel for something they want), containing an article by Aron Hirt-Manheimer which begins as follows:
When the latest round of war between Israelis and Palestinians winds down, there will be no winners.
What makes this situation all the more tragic is that a comprehensive peace treaty was within grasp 20 years ago. In fact, the key players – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat – shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of the Oslo Accords ushering in an era of peace. That hopeful moment was derailed by the assassination of Rabin in November 1995 at the hands of a Jewish extremist. After seven years of on-and-off engagement, the peace process finally collapsed in July 2000, and was soon after sealed in violence by the Second Intifada.
Though Oslo failed, the thinking that led Israel to enter into negotiations with its enemy is as compelling today as it was 20 years ago, and perhaps even more so in the aftermath of the latest conflagration.
This is one of those rare bits of writing about which one can say that it is composed almost entirely of false propositions:
1. War is certainly horrible and Israel’s wars often end inconclusively — lately because of the intervention of the Western powers, led by the US — but I think this one will have a definite loser and a winner. Hamas, as of today, is losing, and if the result will be that it is stripped of its offensive weapons, then Israel will be the winner. The real struggle is with the “international community,” which keeps trying to pull Hamas’ bacon out of the fire (pardon the expression); but luckily for Israel, Hamas keeps throwing it back in.
2. The idea that “a comprehensive peace treaty was within grasp 20 years ago” is one of the most pernicious of the fallacies of Oslo. As I wrote above, the fundamental ideological disagreement between Israel and the Palestinians has been over whether there will be a Jewish state at all. This is why the PLO could not agree that even after a partition of the land the remnant called ‘Israel’ would be the state of the Jewish people, and why it could not give up its demand for a right of return.
3. Hirt-Manheimer claims that the assassination of Rabin “derailed” progress toward an era of peace. But Rabin was succeeded by the even more “pro-peace” Shimon Peres. Peres was replaced a year later by Benjamin Netanyahu after a series of horrific terrorist attacks. And Netanyahu, although considered right-wing, signed the Wye River Memorandum which called for further Israeli withdrawals from disputed territory. Finally, Netanyahu was followed by Laborite Ehud Barak who offered the PLO more than ever before — about 95% of Judea and Samaria and all of Gaza — only to have Arafat flee from the negotiations and begin the Second Intifada.
The idea that Rabin’s assassination halted progress toward peace is ludicrous. In fact, it has been suggested that Rabin, more of a hawk than Peres, might have stopped the process himself had he lived, because of continued lack of compliance — terrorism — from the Palestinians.
4. What we have learned from the history of the Oslo process is precisely that the thinking that led us into it was wrong, “compelling” or not. The assumptions that we made about the Palestinians were based on an arrogant projection of our own values onto them. If we want to understand the Palestinians we need to listen to them, not simply imagine what we would do if we were in their place.
Hirt-Manheimer and the rest of the URJ establishment certainly should be in a position to know better. They apparently communicate primarily with a particular segment of Israelis, those in the media, academia and left-wing parties, who represent no one but themselves today. I suggest that they would get a more balanced view if they asked the taxi driver who brings them from the airport to their luxurious hotel suites here.
They are not doing Israel or American Jews a favor by feeding them misinformation, and the fact that it is misinformation that supports the policies of the anti-Israel Obama Administration calls their motives into question.
Are they repeating the errors of Rabbi Stephen Wise and other Jewish leaders of the 1940s who allowed themselves to be co-opted by political power into taking positions harmful to the survival of the Jewish people?