The promise of the Oslo Peace Accords – and the reality 25 years later

In these days of violent riots along the Gaza border fence, incendiary balloons falling on the western Negev, and no real diplomatic s between Israelis and the Palestinians, it would be natural to look back at an iconic 1993 photograph from the South Lawn of the White House and sigh.

You know that picture – it’s one of Israel’s most iconic.

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It has an unshaven Yasser Arafat on the right, wearing a formal military jacket and checkered keffiyeh, smiling widely. It has Yitzhak Rabin on the left, his jacket looking a bit rumpled, a shy, awkward half-grin on his face. And in the middle is Bill Clinton, arms benevolently stretched to both sides, looking intently at Arafat in a pose befitting a Renaissance painting of the Madonna.

That photo was snapped on September 13, 1993 – exactly 25 years ago – at the signing of the Oslo I Accord, known formally as the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements.

That agreement was hammered out secretly in the Norwegian capital on August 20 and marked the beginning of the Oslo process that brought Arafat to Gaza and later Ramallah; established the Palestinian Authority; created a Palestinian security force and gave it guns; divided the West Bank into Areas A, B and C; and eventually made the idea of a two-state solution – anathema to most Israelis before then – seem, at least until recently, almost axiomatic.

Ah, the promise, one could be excused for thinking, while looking at that photo. Ah, the hope.

But one would be deceiving oneself and surrendering to a severe case of over-romanticized nostalgia.

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Some, such as the ardent promoters of the Oslo process, did indeed feel a great rush of hope at the time.

Some did believe that a page had been turned, and that the sounds they heard that sun-drenched day on the White House lawn were nothing less than the flutter of history’s wings, or at least the flapping of the wings of the dove of peace.

But others – – felt fear; a fear that this was all just a mirage, a fantasy.

They thought it delusional to think that a 100-year old conflict rooted both in religion and competing national aspirations – a conflict watered by the blood of thousands of people killed, a good number of them murdered by Arafat’s own terrorists – would end with a handshake in Washington, DC.

It didn’t.

The longed-for peace still tarries, the New Middle East of Shimon Peres, one of the architects and leading proponent of the Oslo Accords, never emerged. In fact, some argue that the handshake 25 years ago did not improve the chances of peace between Arabs and Israelis, but actually – because it raised and then dashed hopes – pushed them farther away. A quarter-century since the formal kickoff of the Oslo process, peace between the two sides has rarely felt more distant.

YET THE signing of the DOP, as it came to be known, fundamentally changed Israel. Israel in September 2018 is a much different place, compared to September 1993.

Most tellingly, since that time the right wing has been in power for almost 18 years, the left wing for four years, and a party identified as centrist – Kadima – for three.

Outsiders may look at that fact and wonder what happened to Israel. What happened to those dreams of an end to the conflict and aspirations for an agreement with the Palestinians? Have the Israelis suddenly become hardened to the plight of the Palestinians? Have they turned insensitive? Are they no longer concerned about the long-term prospects of ruling over millions of Palestinians? No, Israelis have not lost a desire for peace, or become hardened or insensitive or any less worried about the national “soul” than are John Kerry, Ron Lauder, Jeffrey Goldberg or Thomas Friedman, who have lectured the country about its soul, warning that it was about to lose it.

What happened is that Israelis were mugged by reality, a mugging that began soon after the signing on the White House lawn and all the talk about being on the cusp of a new day.

The mugging began when Yigal Vaknin was stabbed to death near Basra 11 days later; when Dror Forer and Aran Bachar were murdered in Wadi Kelt 15 days after that; when reservists Ehud Rot and Ilan Levi were kidnapped and killed in Gaza less than two weeks later; and when Chaim Mizrachi was murdered and his body burned near Ramallah the following week.

Within two months of the celebratory signing, eight Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks; 20 were killed by the end of 1993. And that was just the beginning, before the mind-numbing suicide bus bombings began in earnest in April 1994.
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