What You Can Lose When You Try Too Hard

Benjamin Kerstein

Benjamin Kerstein

Associate Editor, The Tower Magazine

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Benjamin Kerstein ~

From the Blog

Twenty years later, the dashed hopes of the Oslo Accords still feel to many like an open wound. Will the diplomats learn from past mistakes?

It has become a staple, or even something like a sacred principle, of the ongoing negotiations over a Palestinian state to respond to Israeli misgivings by saying, “You don’t lose anything by trying to make peace.” According to this maxim, negotiations are undertaken essentially without cost. The results may be negligible to non-existent, but they cannot be bad. At best, negotiations result in peace; at worst, they fail without significant consequences. So why not try your best?

This belief may be the most important reason the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which on September 13, 1993 effectively began the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process that continues today, passed with such little fanfare. To Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S., Oslo has become a mostly unspoken but nonetheless terrible conundrum. Both its architects and its supporters are still hoping to complete its work, while perhaps suspecting that it constitutes a disturbing counterproof to the catechism. It is indeed possible to lose something by trying to make peace.

In fact, it is possible to lose a very great deal.

While rarely acknowledged in public, the majority of Israelis appear to have reached this conclusion, despite continuing to support a two-state solution in principle. A poll conducted by the Hebrew-language daily Maariv this past August found that 57 percent of Israelis believe that the Oslo process was not only bad, but did significant damage to the Jewish state and to the prospects of living in peace. The poll was not widely reported in the foreign press, but its importance seems clear: The psychological effect of Oslo on Israeli sensibilities has been profound, and a consensus now exists that negotiating for peace can be not only futile, but acutely dangerous.

The most obvious reason is their grim and traumatic experience of the second intifada. Following the collapse of negotiations in 2000, Israel experienced an unprecedented wave of terrorist atrocities: Suicide bombers detonated themselves across the country, in cafes, on buses and at tourist destinations, sniper attacks on Israeli roads became commonplace, a government minister was assassinated, reserve soldiers in the custody of Palestinian police were literally ripped to pieces; men, women, and children across the country were ruthlessly murdered; and when the horrific murder of innocents was finally over, more than a thousand Israelis were dead . This eruption of violence was not only a national trauma, but a tragedy that cannot be forgotten. Israel’s streets are now littered with small monuments marking the sites of terror attacks, the names of the dead etched upon them, silently quantifying the human cost of terror.

But perhaps even more significant was the reason behind the collapse of the negotiations, which precipitated the terrorist war that followed: The absolute, unequivocal “no” to peace from the Palestinian Authority’s then-president Yasser Arafat. A “no” rendered even more significant by the nature of the agreement on offer. Put simply, then-prime minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat more or less everything he wanted; or, at least, everything Arafat had said he wanted for years. Barak’s offer, moreover, went well beyond anything Israel had previously been willing to concede, crossing red lines on such fraught questions as the division of Jerusalem, its Old City, and even the Temple Mount itself.

Yitzhak Rabin. Photo: Nati Shohat / Flash90

Yitzhak Rabin. Photo: Nati Shohat / Flash90

Arafat’s “no” to all of this convinced many Israelis— judging by the poll above, a decisive majority—that they had been lied to for years: Neither Arafat nor the Palestinians as a whole wanted peace. Fulfilling Palestinian demands not only failed to satisfy them, but convinced their corrupt leadership that Israel could be forced and intimidated by violence to go even further. It became clear to most, in other words, that Arafat wasn’t interested in a two-state solution, but rather, the destruction of Israel itself. As had been the case since its inception, the Palestinian national movement did not want peace with Israel, but its replacement with an Arab state.

Given all of this, a simple equation began to take shape: Concessions cause terrorism. This view was only strengthened by the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which led to a mini-state ruled by Hamas and continuing missile attacks on Israeli civilians.

Equally traumatizing was the reaction to the collapse of Oslo from the international community. One of the expected benefits of the Oslo process, publicly hailed by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was an end to Israel’s isolation by the international community and its integration into the post-Cold War global economy. And for a time, this appeared to be happening.

But when the Palestinians refused Barak’s offer and turned to terrorist violence—something they had consistently pledged not to do—the world not only refused to acknowledge the risks Israel had taken and the at least partial responsibility of the Palestinians, but unleashed a wave of hatred that dwarfed previous outbreaks of anti-Israel sentiment, including an explosion of renewed anti-Semitism that targeted not only Israel but Jews around the world. To many Israelis and Diaspora Jews, it constituted something like a global pogrom; one that has yet to expend itself.

The ultimate result of all this was to effectively demolish the trust that had been painfully built between Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world in general, and the international community. The Palestinians could not be believed. The Arab states would always stand behind them, however misguided and brutal their behavior might be. And the international community—which ignored and still ignores Arafat’s “no”—could not be counted on to treat Israel with even a modicum of fairness.

Perhaps more than anything, then, Oslo created in the Israeli public a profound sense of betrayal. The faith in one’s partner that is indispensable to peace was effectively blasted to pieces alongside Israeli bodies. Israel had compromised its security, risked potential civil war, seen the murder of a prime minister, sacrificed hundreds of its citizens, and the world seemed not to care. Many Israelis were inevitably convinced they had done it all for nothing. As one of them said to me at the height of the second intifada, “we have lost ten years.”

Politically speaking, the most significant result of the failure of Oslo and the international reaction to it has been the end of the ferocious Left-Right division that characterized Israeli politics since Menachem Begin’s victory in the 1977 elections, and the rise of a largely depolarized electorate. The most obvious beneficiary of this was Ariel Sharon, who achieved two landslide election victories due to his leadership of the war against Palestinian terrorism, even amassing enough political capital to undertake a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But the most lasting effect has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure in the prime minister’s office. Although Netanyahu does not command the massive electoral support enjoyed by Sharon, he has managed to maintain a stable government, built on strong public support, over a long period of time—something almost unprecedented in Israeli politics.

Clinton and Arafat meet at Camp David. Photo: Council on Foreign Relations / YouTube

Clinton and Arafat meet at Camp David. Photo: Council on Foreign Relations / YouTube

Supporters of Oslo and the international community in general tend to despise Netanyahu. But, ironically, his success is mostly their creation. An early and persistent critic of the Oslo Accords, Netanyahu is today reaping the benefits of the perception that he was right in opposing what he once called “a historic blunder.” And he has only been strengthened by the continuing violence emanating from the Gaza Strip, the withdrawal from which Netanyahu also opposed, warning that Gaza would become a “Hamastan” and cross-border violence would only increase. The majority of Israelis have no interest in reoccupying Gaza, but they give Netanyahu credit for being right.

For decades, many Israelis have tended to be ambivalent about Netanyahu, often disliking his slick, American-style image and sometimes manipulative tactics; but on matters of security—always paramount on the list of Israeli concerns—they have largely come to agree with him. Even Netanyahu’s relatively poor showing in the last elections was based almost entirely on domestic issues. Whatever one thinks of the prime minister, he has staying power, and it is largely the result of the fact that he is perceived to have been right at the wrong time. And his critics’ conviction that he was wrong and is still wrong has only solidified his hold on power. Netanyahu, in effect, represents Israel’s distrust of the Palestinians and the international community—a distrust that is not entirely without merit.

To be fair, however, the Oslo process was not entirely without positive results for Israel. For a brief time, it led to greater integration in the global economy, which gave Israel the opening it needed to put its high-tech sector on the road to the success it enjoys today. To a great extent, Israel’s continuing economic strength in the face of a global meltdown is a result of this. Moreover, the temporary relaxation in tensions with the Arab world that accompanied Oslo allowed Israel an almost unprecedented opportunity to concentrate on domestic issues, allowing the public sector to benefit from the sudden prosperity of the private sector. And there were tangible diplomatic and strategic benefits. In particular, Israel and Jordan finally succeeded in formalizing the de facto peace that had existed between the two countries for decades.

Perhaps most importantly, Oslo succeeded in at last breaking the Israeli taboo on the land-for-peace formula in regard to the West Bank and even parts of Jerusalem. For more than two decades after the Six Day War, at least half the Israeli electorate was opposed to territorial compromise on these issues; some for ideological and religious reasons, others because of concern over Israel’s security. Exchanging the Sinai for peace was one thing, exchanging Hebron and especially parts of Jerusalem was quite another.

An IDF instructer teaches a child how to put on a gas mask in Holon. Photo: Israel Defense Forces / flickr

An IDF instructor teaches a child to put on a gas mask in Holon. Photo: Israel Defense Forces / flickr

The Oslo process ended this stalemate, and while the results of it severely undermined Israel’s faith in the Palestinians, they have not destroyed the consensus on a two-state solution. The idea of annexation or a perpetual occupation is now confined to a political minority, and Netanyahu, who spent years eliding the issue, has now declared himself in favor of territorial compromise. Israel’s red line is now drawn at Jerusalem, not the Jordan River. This represents a clear rejection of the idea of maintaining Israeli control over the West Bank more or less forever.

It is also necessary to deal justly with Oslo’s architects. With the exception of Shimon Peres, almost all of them have seen their political careers wiped out by the failure of the accords. Despite the prodigious efforts of men like Yossi Beilin to engage the public, they have failed to gain the support of even a substantial minority of Israelis. And such negotiations as continue today are being undertaken by figures like Tzipi Livni, who are not identified with Oslo in the public mind.

While some on the far-Right have demonized the architects of Oslo as blind fools and even traitors (the graffiti “Oslo criminals to justice!” is still occasionally glimpsed in Jerusalem), this is a deeply unfair characterization. For the most part, they were men who genuinely believed that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was in Israel’s supreme interest. They may well have been too blasé about Oslo’s potential dangers, and too reluctant to acknowledge its failure, but they had the best of intentions. Their story is a tragedy, not a crime. If anyone was truly betrayed by the Palestinians, it was them.

And the truth is that not all of them were nearly as blind as they have been accused. According to his own daughter, in fact, Yitzhak Rabin himself was deeply skeptical of the process. Despite being understandably transformed into a martyr for peace by the Israeli Left, Dalia Rabin has said that members of her father’s inner circle

told me that on the eve of the murder he considered stopping the Oslo process because of the terror that was running rampant in the streets, and because he felt that Yasser Arafat was not delivering on his promises. Father, after all, wasn’t a blind man running forward without thought. I don’t rule out the possibility that he was considering a U-turn, doing a reverse on our side. After all he was someone for whom the national security of the state was sacrosanct and above all.

There is reason to believe this is accurate. Rabin himself said in his final speech to the Knesset that Israel “will not return to the June 4, 1967 lines. The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” He also pledged that “first and foremost in our concerns is a united Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty.” Indeed, Rabin’s views on the subject appear to have been largely the same as Netanyahu’s today.

Contrary to the claims of both Oslo’s most fervent supporters and its most violent critics, this shows a leadership deeply aware of both the necessity and the dangers of territorial compromise. Men who knew that one can indeed lose something by negotiating peace, if one is not careful.

In a sense, this is the greatest tragedy of Oslo. Despite its failure, no one on any side has any better ideas. It seems that it was not the Oslo concept itself that was flawed. Even the many mistakes made during the process, such as the fact that it was negotiated in secret, that it was pushed through the Knesset by a narrow margin, that its supporters felt it unnecessary to build a wide political consensus behind it, would not matter if it had succeeded—if the terrible “no” had not been uttered by Arafat at the end.

This “no” is what none of those involved in the peace process has ever really confronted or wanted to acknowledge. To a startling extent, all of the diplomatic efforts expended today by people like Secretary of State John Kerry are attempts to get back to the “no” and somehow reverse it. But there is little reason to think this will happen, mainly because the Palestinians still appear to regard a “yes” as something like a defeat. They do not seem to want a state through an agreement with Israel. They want to wrest it out of Israel’s hands. And, among some of them, a great deal worse than that.

Hamas militants burn a coffin draped in an Israeli flag, during a rally marking the 13th anniversary of Second Intifada', in central Gaza Strip, 27 September 2013. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Hamas militants burn a coffin draped in an Israeli flag, during a rally marking the 13th anniversary of the Second Intifada, in central Gaza Strip, 27 September 2013. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

It is this, more than anything else, that puts the lie to the claim that there is nothing to lose by negotiating peace. In fact, the concessions that must be made along the way can have terrible consequences. And at the end, one may well receive a “no.” Or a great deal worse than that. For the moment, it appears Israelis are less than enthusiastic about taking that gamble again.

It is hard to see precisely why they should be. Today, as they watch much of the world scramble to satisfy the demands of the Iranian regime, they must wonder what the consequences will be if Iran also says “no” at the end—this time in the form of a nuclear weapon. It is hard not to conclude from the spectacle that Iran’s interlocutors also appear to believe that they have nothing to lose by negotiating peace. And if they are willing to entertain this illusion in regard to a nuclear bomb, what more would they be willing to do in regard to a small country concerned with its future security and the fundamental good faith of its most persistent adversary?

Banner Photo: U.S. State Department