Oslo and Abraham: A Tale of Two Anniversaries
Lebanon’s new prime minister, Najib Mikati, made it clear in a press conference last week that he would do everything in his power to reverse his country’s descent into economic chaos. He said he’d cooperate with anyone and everyone to transform Lebanon’s current crisis, “with the exception of Israel, of course.”
Notwithstanding Israel’s offer of humanitarian assistance made weeks ago, Mikati’s throwaway dismissal of contact with his neighbor to the south is the stuff from which decades of Arab rejectionism of peace with Israel was made. It is a remnant of the Arab League’s “Three No’s” declared in Khartoum in 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War: “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations” with Israel. Full stop.
Major breaches in that Arab League wall began with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s historic peace agreement in 1979, and then the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty signed by Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. But early optimism that set in after these two agreements dissipated with the intifadas from 1987-1991 and 2000-2005.
With two anniversaries in the history of Middle East peacemaking upon us this week, it’s important to praise those who have taken steps to break with nihilism and rejection, and to call out those who have made a business of perpetuating violence and hatred.
I was among those present on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, for the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
There was a sense of incredulity and of “did we ever think we’d see this day” in the air as the principals, led by US President Bill Clinton, and observed by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, signed the appropriate documents.
I did not have a front row seat, but I was close enough to see the pained look on Rabin’s face as Clinton encouraged the Israeli prime minister and PLO leader Yasser Arafat to shake hands. Not pained because of the historic moment, but most likely because Arafat’s hands were soiled by 30 years of terrorism, and responsible for the deaths of so many Israelis in some of the most heinous acts imaginable.
It had to have been one of the most difficult moments of Rabin’s life — and it showed. I’m sure many in the crowd were asking themselves if Arafat could be trusted.
The other anniversary, on September 15, will mark one year since the signing of the Abraham Accords, on the same White House lawn. Many of those in the assembled crowd had been there in 1993, as well, though this time, they were wearing masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was also the same feeling of expectation and optimism, as President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain appeared on the White House South Lawn balcony, then descended the staircase to sign the Abraham Accords normalization agreement.
From my seat, I saw not pained looks on the faces of the principals, but a sense of breakthrough and accomplishment. In a way, the signing ceremony lingered, as if in slow motion, to allow all those present to savor the moment.
In the weeks that followed, Sudan, and Morocco — with its iconic Jewish history and ties to Israel’s hundreds of thousands of Jews born in that country and their descendants — joined in, pledging to normalize relations with Israel.
If there was anything discordant at all about the events of a year ago, it is because for the previous nearly three decades, the Palestinian issue was cast as being the indispensable icebreaker in Middle East diplomacy. It was seen as the Gordian Knot preventing Israel’s acceptance in the region. Policy maker after policy maker, in the US, in Europe, and at the United Nations, perpetuated this conventional wisdom. It became a mantra that guided any number of failed initiatives to push an Israeli-Palestinian agreement — by hook or by crook.
But, like the carefully executed back-channel Israeli-Egyptian contacts that produced the treaty between those two countries, forward-looking diplomats in the Gulf and in Israel saw solid reasons to find common cause to bring them together: a hegemonistic Iran and any number of economic and other joint ventures that just made plain good diplomatic sense.
The Oslo Accords held the same promise, but that was not to be.
Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas continuously played a double game, at times paying lip service to the idea of negotiations, but all the while making it abundantly clear that they were unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, keeping their hand in the business of demonizing and delegitimizing Israel at the United Nations, and either signing off on terrorist acts against Israel, or rewarding those (and their families) who carry them out.
The words “good will” were never part of either leader’s lexicon. Since Oslo, an entire generation of Palestinians has been raised on a succession of false hopes and expectations; on hatred of Israel and of Jews; and on zero-sum demands by leaders who themselves have become enriched by their titled positions and political clout.
In the past year alone, trade between Israel and the UAE and between Israel and Bahrain has grown exponentially. Banking, cyber security, and environmental quality agreements have been signed, and academic institutions are partnering with each other. An important agreement to advance the quality of healthcare, including pandemic research, has also been signed by Israel and the UAE.
But perhaps the most important developments of all have been in the people-to-people and getting-to-know-you realm. Exchange students are studying at universities in the Abraham Accords countries. Memoranda of Understanding on combating antisemitism and on Holocaust education have been signed with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. Air links have been established between Israel and these new partners; hundreds of thousands of Israelis have already traveled to all three destinations, and the prospect of thousands of visitors in the other direction — to Israel — shows promise as well, the pandemic notwithstanding.
It is currently impossible to write a paragraph about the Palestinian issue with any of the same upbeat sense of the future. The leaders in Ramallah have seen this parade passing by and it seemingly hasn’t opened any eyes about their own condition. They are mired in hate and rejection. Try as they did to push back against the Abraham Accords, wagging fingers and issuing empty threats at its participants, they have shown themselves to be angry and hateful, living in the past, and cultivating a profile of victimhood that they appear to want to very much perpetuate.
This being the Middle East, anything can happen on any given day that can change the immediate course of history. But these two anniversaries present a stark picture of what happens when one party makes intransigence a policy, and when others see the benefits not only in burying the hatchet, but in working to make the neighborhood a safer, more prosperous place for everyone.
For those who have chosen the second path, happy anniversary.
The author is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International.