Editorial: A year of hope or disaster?
Sep 26, 2023 | Colin Rubenstein
In Jewish tradition, the High Holy Days period – from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year (which this year fell on September 16-17), until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement nine days later – is a season to reflect on the year that’s been and contemplate the year that lies ahead.
This year’s High Holy Days season provided additional reasons for such contemplation because it more or less corresponded with several highly significant anniversaries: 30 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords; 50 years since the outbreak of the traumatic Yom Kippur War; 22 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the US; three years since the signing of the landmark Abraham Accords; and one year since the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked months of massive anti-regime protests.
It’s worth reviewing some of these events and what we have learned about them in the years since, beginning with Oslo.
On Sept. 13, 1993, the first agreement of the Oslo Accords was signed on the White House lawn, providing hope for a new era of peace, cooperation and opportunity for both Israelis and Palestinians. The Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority (PA), representing an opportunity for Palestinians to take control over their own lives and achieve self-government, and, eventually, self-determination, while minimising the security risk to Israel and hopefully leading to an end of the conflict.
As four insightful contributors explore in this edition, this dream became something of a nightmare, leading to some of the worst terrorist activities in Israel since its creation and little hope even today of any imminent breakthrough towards meaningful negotiations or eventual peace.
The history of that failure over the last 30 years is complex – but the underlying reason appears relatively simple.
In the aftermath of Oslo, I actually met PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his senior colleagues at his compound in Ramallah in February 1998. While he struck conciliatory notes at times, Arafat also openly threatened that if negotiations failed he would tear up the peace accord and renew the Intifada. It was apparent Arafat was never really focussed on reconciliation or compromise – instead threatening violence if he didn’t receive all he wanted.
And indeed only a few years after I met him, he launched the massive armed terror of the Second Intifada in late 2000. This was despite the fact – or possibly because of the fact – that he had been offered a Palestinian state in almost all the territory he ostensibly wanted at Camp David a few months previously.
Under his successor Mahmoud Abbas, the PA remains a corrupt and undemocratic entity which both incites and rewards terrorism against Israel and is both unwilling and unable to reach a genuine peace with Israel providing two states for two peoples. Indeed, the PA has been unwilling to even negotiate about peace for almost a decade and does not even control Gaza, dominated by Hamas.
Yet Israeli strategic analysts largely agree that the PA’s continuation remains preferable to Israel resuming direct control over the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. And as Yaakov Katz argues in this edition, there appears to be no realistic alternative to continuing to pursue the eventual achievement of Oslo’s vision of a negotiated two-state resolution.
Fortunately, another anniversary highlights a possible way forward toward this vision. On Sept. 15, 2020, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House, normalising their relations. Morocco soon followed (Israel’s fourth partner in the Accords, Sudan, has seen normalisation derailed by domestic instability.).
The boom in relations that has followed in the short space of three years since then – involving mass tourism, major economic exchanges and joint projects, significant military and security cooperation and warm people-to-people ties – would have seemed the stuff of fantasy even five years ago. Israel’s recent willingness to lead the way in providing aid to Morocco in the wake of the recent cataclysmic earthquake there underscores how routine and genuine these relationships have become.
Meanwhile, there are widespread reports of serious US-brokered attempts to also achieve normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, arguably the most important of the Sunni Arab states. It would be hard to overstate the significance of such a development – if it happens.
The past three years strongly suggest that – contrary to the conventional wisdom that had asserted Israeli-Arab normalisation could only follow the creation of a Palestinian state – Palestinian statehood is made much more likely by first achieving normalisation. If Israel can develop a network of strong regional relationships, it has less to fear from a Palestinian state, as well as Arab partners it can trust to help develop that state as a stable and peaceful one while providing diplomatic legitimacy for Palestinian concessions.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are increasingly having to accept that good relations between Israel and other Arab states is now the norm, giving them little reason to continue to stand out as the violent exception. It is notable that in contrast to their reaction to the original Abraham Accords – painting those normalising with Israel as despicable traitors – Palestinian leaders today are instead quietly exploring what concessions a Saudi deal can bring them.
Of course, looming over any potentially positive hopes for the region remains the escalating threat from Iran. It is clear the huge, inspiring protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s murder a year ago have failed to overcome the utter ruthlessness of the clerical regime, although the ruling Ayatollahs must today feel appreciably less secure than in the past.
The multi-year nuclear crisis with Iran also continues to worsen. The recent expulsions of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors by Iran, described by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi as an “unprecedented unilateral measure” should spur the world to recognise that only massive, coordinated economic pressure, combined with credible threats of military action, has any hope of stopping Iran’s imminent completion of its drive to military nuclear capabilities. Such capabilities would turbo-charge Iran’s already very destabilising rogue actions – including piracy at sea, support for terrorism and Palestinian rejectionism, regional destabilisation, weapons proliferation and material support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and jeopardise any hope for regional progress.
Learning the lessons of the Oslo and Abraham Accords anniversaries could make the Jewish year 5784, which has just begun, a pretty promising one for Israel and the region – especially if Saudi normalisation comes about and Israel’s deep internal divisions over proposed judicial reforms are replaced by a genuine search for consensus. But this scenario is only conceivable if the world’s management of the extremely dangerous Iranian threat significantly improves.