Oslo at 25: What Might Have Been
September 13 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Oslo agreement. Most commentators see it as something between a well-intentioned failure and a catastrophe that provoked more Palestinian terrorism, and gave the Palestinians roughly 40 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of Gaza in exchange for nothing.
Though skeptics never believed in the Oslo process and now delight in saying, “I told you so,” the approach was based on a successful precedent that could, in theory, still work.
Those who were quick to criticize Oslo ignored the precedent of negotiations with Egypt. Like Oslo, those negotiations began with incremental territorial compromises after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel tested Anwar Sadat to see how he would behave after each withdrawal. When he kept the peace, Israel saw that it could afford to make additional compromises. Sadat did not get all he wanted when he wanted it, but rather than return to war or terror, he continued to negotiate. Had he responded differently, Israel would have gone no further.
It took 14 years before Egypt was completely satisfied (when Israel withdrew from Taba in 1988), but even before then, Sadat signed a peace treaty. Israelis took a tremendous risk throughout the talks because they gave up tangible, valuable assets for little more than a verbal promise. They gambled that Sadat was a man of his word and would keep the peace without any guarantee that his successors would do the same. Sadat’s speech directly to the Israeli people at the Knesset, though a hard-line one, broke a psychological barrier and persuaded the Israeli public that he was sincere. The land for peace formula, negotiated incrementally, ultimately succeeded.
Oslo failed because the Palestinians interpreted every Israeli concession as a sign of weakness, emboldening them to demand more. They were unwilling to negotiate over differences of opinion. When they did not get what they wanted, they resorted to terrorism — all of which strengthened the psychological barrier that Israelis felt against betting their future on the hope that the Palestinians would trade land for peace.
Oslo was premised on Yasser Arafat’s paper promises to recognize Israel, cease terrorism, and negotiate over the two sides’ differences. Arafat was no Sadat. Though he was the dominant figure in Palestinian politics, he did not have the dictatorial powers of the Egyptian president. He could not or would not stop Palestinians who rejected the idea of co-existence, particularly those driven by Islamic fervor who became Hamas loyalists.
Yitzhak Rabin never trusted Arafat, but he still agreed to Oslo because he understood the demographic dilemma that Israel faced and had no interest in “Greater Israel.” He wanted out of the territories and was therefore willing to ignore Palestinian violations of the Declarations of Principles and sign the Oslo II agreement just weeks after two suicide bombings killed 10 Israelis.
Had Rabin lived and completed the withdrawal from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, the Palestinians and their supporters could no longer claim to be under “occupation.” More important, Israel would no longer face the choice of democracy or remaining a Jewish state.
Rabin knew that the Palestinians would still demand full sovereignty, a capital in Jerusalem, and would dream of liberating the rest of “Palestine.” Rabin was also aware of the danger of a Palestinian state, and never agreed to create one, but he was willing to give up sparsely populated territory of little or no significance to the Jews for the establishment of a Palestinian “entity.” Rabin knew that Israel was strong enough to defend itself against any Palestinian threat. Meanwhile, he made no concessions on Jerusalem, never accepted Palestinian demands regarding refugees, and did not agree to stop building settlements.
Many people have forgotten the optimism of Oslo. I had Israeli friends talking about not having to send their young children to the army when they grew up. But the Palestinians literally blew up the peace process. Shimon Peres likely would have continued the unilateral withdrawal, but the terror attacks preceding the 1996 election led to the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu, who had no intention of pursuing the Rabin/Peres policy.
Nevertheless, the supposedly anti-peace, right-wing fanatic did not abandon Oslo. Netanyahu met with Arafat, which he said he would never do, agreed to the redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron, and was prepared to withdraw from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, albeit under pressure from the Clinton administration.
Yet neither the compromises of Oslo nor the offers of statehood (and the evacuation of nearly the entire West Bank and all of Gaza) by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert placated the Palestinians. Violence escalated after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
Many Palestinians and people on the left blame Israel’s expansion of settlements for the collapse of Oslo; however, the agreements placed no restrictions on settlement construction. When Oslo was signed, approximatetly 130,000 Jews lived in the territories. Had the Palestinians kept the peace and negotiated a final deal, that number would have been frozen and ultimately reduced after Israel evacuated the communities outside the large blocs. Instead, thanks to Palestinian irredentism, the Jewish population of the West Bank has increased in the last 25 years by 300,000.
Despite this history, some people are angry that Netanyahu is not begging to talk to Mahmoud Abbas, and does not extol the virtues of a two-state solution that the Palestinians have proven to have no interest in achieving. Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction, while Abbas has refused to negotiate for nearly a decade, giving up all pretense of a desire for peace. Abbas has put his faith in the fantasy that the international community will coerce Israel to capitulate to his demands. But that strategy has no more chance of success than the Palestinians’ previous hope that the Arab states would drive the Jews into the sea, or that terrorism would force them to leave their homeland.
Could a new Oslo approach change the dynamic?
The only chance would be if a Palestinian leader, with a clear mandate from his people, traveled to Jerusalem and stood before the Knesset and said in Arabic that he recognizes Israel as the Jewish state, is prepared to live in peace, and does not seek to divide Israel’s capital or overrun the country with millions of refugees. Those words would have to be followed by action: ending all incitement in textbooks and the media, and dismantling all terror groups. That and a determination to resolve all differences through negotiations is what it would take for the Oslo model to have any chance of revival or success.
Mitchell Bard, Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library, has written 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.