Oslo at Twenty-Five: The History of a Delusion

A reflection on the immense dangers of national self-deception.

Twenty-five years ago, the world watched as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Palestinian leader and arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. The Oslo process, launched with the September 13, 1993 signing of the Declaration of Principles as President Clinton looked on, was supposed to lead to genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It never happened because Oslo was based on a delusion, a false belief by many Israelis that they had a partner for peace.       

The truth was readily evident. On the evening of the White House ceremony, Arafat broadcast a speech on Jordanian television assuring Palestinians, and the Arab world more broadly, that they should understand Oslo in terms of the Palestine National Council’s 1974 decision. This was a reference to the so-called “plan of phases,” according to which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would acquire whatever territory it could by negotiations, then use that land as a base for pursuing Israel’s annihilation.

Why did Oslo’s supporters deny the truth? The Arab siege of Israel had been underway for nearly half a century, since the Jewish State’s founding. Invariably under conditions of such chronic besiegement - whether involving minorities marginalized and victimized by the surrounding majority or small states whose neighbors seek their destruction - elements of the population under assault will shun reality. They will fool themselves into believing that sufficient self-reform and concessions will win relief. They do so out of desperate longing for respite and despite typically overwhelming evidence in the rhetoric and actions of their attackers that the besieged are merely indulging in wishful thinking.

The traditional position of left-leaning Israeli parties had been that Israel needed to await a peace partner who would renounce terror and recognize Israel’s right to exist. But in the years preceding Oslo, this reasonable stance had eroded in the face of the unrelenting siege and the Left’s alienation from governments in which, since 1977, the right-leaning Likud had largely dominated. Growing numbers on the Israeli Left - including an overwhelming majority within the nation’s academic, cultural and media elites - concluded the major impediment to peace was the Israeli Right and its unwillingness to make necessary concessions. The Labor Party’s victory in the 1992 election gave the Left the opportunity to act on its delusion.

In the wake of Oslo’s launching, Arafat and those around him continued to declare their goal was Israel’s annihilation and used their newly acquired control over Palestinian media, mosques and schools to promote this agenda. Accompanying the stepped-up incitement was an increase in terror, which the Israeli government insisted was the work of Hamas and other Islamist factions, supposedly unconnected to Arafat, but which he repeatedly praised and - as the Israelis knew - was deeply involved in propagating.

In the twenty-two months from Arafat’s arrival in the territories as head of the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority, in July, 1994, until the fall of Israel’s Labor-Meretz government that had choreographed Oslo, in May, 1996, 152 people were killed in Palestinian terror attacks. The murder rate was more than two-and-a-half times that of losses to terror in the 26-year stretch from the 1967 war to the start of Oslo.

Eventually, the carnage of exploding buses began to shift thinking among Israelis, even within the pro-Oslo elites. For example, in 1997, Ari Shavit, senior Haaretz columnist and himself an early, enthusiastic supporter of Oslo, wrote: “In the early 90s… we, the enlightened Israelis, were infected with a messianic craze… All of a sudden, we believed that… the end of the old Middle East was near. The end of history, the end of wars, the end of the conflict… We fooled ourselves with illusions. We were bedazzled into committing a collective act of messianic drunkenness.” But Shavit was broadly excoriated for his stance, and about half the Israeli electorate continued to support Oslo.

This changed substantially only in the wake of the Camp David summit in 2000. Arafat rejected all proposals put forward by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton, failed to offer any counter-proposals, and made clear he was not willing to sign an end-of-conflict agreement no matter what concessions he was given. A few months later he launched his terror war, which in the ensuing few years claimed more than a thousand Israeli lives.

Anti-Oslo sentiment among Israelis was further buttressed by all that followed on Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Proponents of the move hailed it as a major step towards peace and an opportunity for the Palestinians to build for themselves the equivalent of a Hong Kong or Singapore. Instead, Gaza was exploited by the Palestinian Authority under Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to feed the PA kleptocracy and to advance the confrontation with Israel; and, following its violent takeover by Hamas in 2007, it was used as a base for Hamas rocket and other attacks against Israel, triggering three wars over the next seven years.

Today, there is little prospect for true peace. The Palestinian Authority, under whose control more than ninety percent of Palestinians on the West Bank live, continues to use its media, mosques and schools to exhort its people to murder Israelis. PA leader Abbas has made clear, like Arafat before him, that he will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders. Hamas consistently reiterates its dedication to its charter’s calls for killing not only all Israelis but all the world’s Jews.

The great majority of Israelis, so violently awakened from Oslo’s delusions, have reconciled themselves to basic realities. They see their only option now as ensuring the nation’s security while remaining open to whatever opportunities for genuine peace may eventually emerge.
Oslo’s major legacy, beyond its grim cost in both Israeli and Arab lives, is a sober, potent lesson on the immense dangers of national self-deception.