Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. What happened in the 1990s as the post-Oslo euphoria first receded and was then replaced by the horror of the terror war, the Second Intifada, was the gradual realization that Western illusions about Palestinian nationalism were misplaced.
Though then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signaled at the time that he viewed Oslo as merely a diplomatic ruse intended to help continue the conflict on more advantageous terms rather than a permanent peace, this point was largely ignored by those pushing the peace process. The question now is whether Israelis and Americans are prepared to draw the appropriate conclusions from the failed experiment.
First among them is to stop pretending that the Palestinian leadership has embraced peace. Palestinian nationalism was created as a reaction to Zionism and the effort to reverse the verdict of history on 1948 remains their focus today. As Oslo unraveled, American diplomats and some Israeli politicians persisted in ignoring not only Palestinian violations of the accords but the campaign of incitement and hate against the Jewish state that was orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority in their media and the educational system they were given control of by the treaty signed on the White House lawn.
Turning a blind eye toward Arafat’s support for terrorism did not enhance the chances of peace. Doing so merely convinced the Palestinians they would pay no price for intransigence and set the stage for the war of terrorist attrition that put an end to the illusion of Oslo. Repeating that error today as the incitement continues will only replicate those results.
They must also stop buying into the myth that Israeli settlements are the obstacle to peace. Both Oslo and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza proved Israeli governments are prepared to give up territory, even when it involves uprooting longstanding Jewish communities. But doing so merely encouraged the Palestinians to believe they could oust every settlement, if not the Jewish state itself, if they only hung tough. They remain trapped in the idea that the Jewish presence on the land is the problem rather than face up to the need to abandon the century-old war on Zionism.
Israel has spent 20 years making concessions to the Palestinians but it has received scant credit for this. The irony is that rather than these retreats being interpreted as a sign that Israel wanted peace, they were viewed as a sign of the guilty conscience of a thief that should be forced to surrender stolen property.
Many Israeli diplomats have believed that arguing for Jewish rights to the West Bank and even Jerusalem was counterproductive, but a dispute with a party that talked of its security rather than its rights is bound to be lost.
Israel’s delegitimization has increased since Oslo rather than been diminished. Anti-Zionist sentiment is far more commonplace in the West than 20 years ago. After Arafat turned down an independent state, some Israelis thought their negative image would change. They were wrong.
Palestinian intransigence, repeated twice more as they rejected more generous offers in the following years, has not harmed their image. If that trend is to be stemmed, let alone reversed, it will require Israelis and their friends to stop playing defense. They must cease discussing their desire for peace (genuine though it is) and begin again asserting the justice of their cause.
Should a sea change in Palestinian culture occur, allowing a new generation of pragmatic leaders to make peace, they will find Israelis willing to deal. But until that happens, we would do well to lower our expectations. The euphoria about peace that followed the Oslo Accords was a trap that led to years of unnecessary bloodshed. In the years that follow this anniversary, the test of statecraft in the Middle East will be in avoiding the pattern of self-deception that led to Oslo and worsened its consequences.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at Commentarymagazine.com, where a longer version of this article originally appeared.