The Oslo Accords and the Failures of Idealistic Internationalism

A reflection on a wish-fulfilling folly.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Twenty-five years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat stood in front of Bill Clinton in the White House Rose Garden and shook hands to mark their signing of the Oslo Accords. This pact included handing part of Judea and Samaria to the control of Palestinian Arabs. A year later the Palestinian Authority was created as the controlling authority that still governs part of the so-called West Bank. These changes were celebrated as a major step toward furthering the “peace process” whose aim was to create national “self-determination” for the Palestinian Arabs, and eventually the fabled “two nations living side-by-side in peace.”

A quarter of a century later, the peace process is dead, and peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is farther away than ever. The Oslo Accord became the Oslo War, as Middle East historian Efraim Karsh calls it. Rather than peace, the lasting legacy of the Oslo Accords will be another reminder of the serial failures of idealistic internationalism.

That Oslo was a wish-fulfilling folly became obvious soon after the photogenic handshake in the Rose Garden. Terror attacks between 1994-1999 totaled 215, roughly equal to the pre-Oslo number in the early 90s. Terrorism continued to escalate in subsequent years. In 2000––a mere month after Arafat turned down Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of everything the Palestinian Arabs claimed they wanted except for the suicidal “right of return” –– Arafat launched the so-called Second Intifada, which in five years murdered over a thousand Israelis. The killing didn’t start to abate until Israel walled off Judea and Samaria from Israeli territory.

Still unschooled in the dangers of relying on “parchment barriers” like Oslo, and facing intense international opprobrium and pressure to cede “land for peace,” in 2005 Israel evacuated 8,500 Jews from the Gaza Strip. The territory fell into the hands of Hamas, a terrorist gang whose genocidal intent is still encoded in its founding charter. What followed was not peace, but a continuing series of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, incursions, and nearly 20,000 rockets and mortars fired into Israeli territory. Hamas today has made no more progress than has the PA toward creating the political and economic infrastructure necessary for a viable, independent nation.

The failures of Oslo reflect the same false assumptions of idealistic internationalism or the “rules based international order.” The most glaring is the unexamined belief that technological progress and material improvement everywhere trumps the older, deeply engrained cultural, traditional, and religious beliefs and practices that for most of human history have defined collective identity. This arrogant projection of culturally contingent ideals onto the whole planet enables the failure of imagination to see the alternative or often conflicting beliefs and aims of those who are different from us. As a result, diplomatic engagement and transnational institutions take at face value the duplicitous participation of other nations and peoples in treaties, summits, conferences, and accords. Such agreements reflect not the “meeting of the minds” necessary for a sincere agreement reflecting common aims and shared values, but the national interests and goals of the participants that often contradict the values and principles supposedly underlying the agreement.

Like the failure of the League of Nations, that of the United Nations has illustrated this foundational weakness of transnational institutions. As the creation of multinational treaties, the UN does not rest on similar values and goals of the diverse nations comprising it. It reflects instead the national interests of these nations, their interests believed to be served by participation in the UN, and frequently at odds with the principles of the UN’s founding.

It is no accident that the recalcitrance and violence of the Palestinian Arabs have been encouraged and financed by the UN. The UN was barely two years old when its weakness and hypocrisy were exposed. Its resolution partitioning Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states was violently rejected by the Arab UN member-states with impunity. In subsequent years, the UN has spent billions of dollars propping up the PA, which is riddled with corruption and incompetence, and regularly incites genocidal hatred of Israel with school curricula and stipends for the families of terrorists. The UN has also been the inciter and enabler of global anti-Semitism and irrational hatred of Israel even by liberal-democratic European member-states who think that Israel is the biggest impediment to their national security and economic interests. Nor should this surprise anyone who realizes that nations pursue their interests as they define them, rather than acting on universal principles, values, or morals.

Oslo, like virtually all of the accords and agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, is a textbook example of the danger of such naïve and hypocritical internationalism. The disconnect between the West’s understanding of the public pretexts supposedly underlying Yasser Arafat’s rule of the Palestinian Arabs, and the reality of his actions, was expressed several years before Oslo by Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the UN:

The long march through the UN has produced many benefits for the PLO. It has created a people where there was none; a claim where there was none. Now the PLO is seeking to create a state where there already is one. That will take more than resolutions and more than an ‘international peace conference.’ But having succeeded so well over the years in its campaign to delegitimize Israel, the PLO might yet also succeed in bringing the campaign to a triumphant conclusion, with consequences for the Jewish state that would be nothing short of catastrophic.

In short, the global order has recognized the cosmetic alteration of the terrorist Palestinian Liberation Organization into the Palestinian Authority, accepted the presence of non-existent “Palestinian nationals” in UN organizations like UNESCO, and transformed a terrorist like Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas into “heads of state” due all the pomp. privileges, and respect owed to genuine leaders of nations. These willful blunders all reflect the West’s failure to imagine and acknowledge goods and motives different from our own, and to hold accountable Palestinian Arabs who continue their terrorism against Israel, nurture a culture of hatred and violence, and keep alive their dream of a Judenfrei Palestine “from the river to the sea.”

Indeed, like most of the world outside Europe and America, aggressors and tyrants have seen through the “parchment barriers” that comprise the “international rules-based order.” They are experts at mouthing the West’s shibboleths like “human rights,” “national self-determination,” “freedom and equality,” and “anticolonialism,” even as they find such notions an alien, neocolonial intrusion into their own traditions, cultures, and sovereignty. Particularly in the Muslim Middle East, the faith-based imperatives codified in the Koran and Hadiths of Islam’s right to dominate other nations, and the belief in Islamic sharia as the only legitimate order governing the totality of human existence, are disguised by duplicitous appeals to Western notions of government and social life.

Hence the Koranic demand that no territory once conquered by Islam can ever revert to its original possessors, creates specious demands like a nation free of Jews, or the “right to return” not just for the surviving handful of Arabs who left Israel during the 1948 war, but for their four million descendants. Or the Muslim protestations of a respect for “human rights,” which on closer inspection of documents like the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, or the many constitutions of Islamic nations, include the proviso that nothing said about human rights can conflict with illiberal sharia laws that proscribe full rights and equality for women or religions other than Islam.

What is reprehensible is that the democratic nations of the West have indulged these delusions for 70 years–– despite the bloody failures of the international order most obvious in the decades before World War II. We know why Barack Obama disdained Israel. He is the product of the progressive university that has made the so-called Palestinians emblems of justified guerilla resistance against a neocolonial aggressor. But too many Republicans have continued the charade of “peace talks” and “peace summits” that legitimize terrorists and demand suicidal concessions from the region’s only true democracy.

Donald Trump has been the belated corrective to the “national self-determination” and “two-state solution” clichés. Actually enforcing US law, he has moved our embassy to Jerusalem. Recognizing the despicable role that the UN has played in enabling terror, he has cut-off aid to the UNRWA, which has blatantly misused member-state money to fund terrorism and corrupt leaders. He has shut down the PA “consulate” in Washington. He and Congress have passed the Taylor Force Act that conditions aid to the PA on its suspension of payments to the families of imprisoned or dead terrorists. In short, he has been a full-throated supporter of Israel, going far beyond the token protestations that most presidents issue in vague diplo-speak.

All these actions are a sea-change compared to previous administrations. Unfortunately, Trump still speaks of a “deal” and “peace plan” that he or his representatives can broker between Israel and the gangsters scheming to destroy her. The time has come to go even further and end this foreign policy charade that emboldens terrorists and puts Israel at risk. Don’t just reduce aid, stop all of it. Tell the UN that the US will reduce its dues by one dollar for every dollar given directly or indirectly through NGOs to the PA. Stop all diplomatic contact with Mahmoud Abbas and other high-ranking PA functionaries, and instead shun them like the terrorists and gangsters they are. Stop any participation by any American official or “special envoy” in the endless parade of “conferences” and “summits, “peace processes” and “agreements.” And stop using a cowardly phrase like “cycle of violence,” which is moral equivalence masking moral idiocy.

And most important, let’s stop indulging the delusions of idealistic internationalism and its utopian dreams of peace and harmony, which more often than not are an excuse not to act or discriminate between aggressors and their victims. Let’s return our foreign policy to the only aim it should have: protecting the security and interests of American citizens, an aim furthered by supporting and defending those allies like Israel who share in word and deed our fundamental principles of individual rights, citizen self-government, and ordered liberty.