Oslo did not succeed, but what’s the alternative?
Sep 27, 2023 | Yaakov Katz
The summer of 1993 was a mix of hope and anxiety. Not just for Israel as a nation, but for me as well. Just a few months earlier, our parents had gathered my older brother and me in their bedroom to announce that we would be moving to Israel for the year.
It was naturally exciting. We had been to Israel the previous summer to celebrate my bar mitzvah as well as the year before for my brother’s. To us, Israel was a country of tourist attractions, beaches, the Ben-Yehuda open-street mall in Jerusalem, and endless kosher food. Starting a new high school in a foreign language was the part that created the anxiety.
Barely knowing a word of Hebrew did not make the transition easy, but what was clear even to a new immigrant like myself was the sense of optimism that appeared to blossom in the country that September with the signing of the Oslo Accords. Still today, I remember watching the leaders of my now two homes – Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin – standing at the White House embracing a man I knew much less about back then, Yasser Arafat.
It gave a feeling like something new was happening. There were new diplomatic relations for Israel, visits by the Prime minister and foreign minister to new Muslim countries and a significant boost to Israel’s economy.
Alongside the hope though were the almost immediate terrorist attacks. In the Spring were the first suicide attacks in Afula and Hadera, and, soon after, instead of remembering the images from the Rose Garden, I started calculating which bus to take to school in the morning, since one of my options – Line 18 – kept getting hit by Hamas bombers.
There is a lot that can be written today – 30 years later – about the Oslo Accords, whether they were misguided, an example of political naïveté or the right vision, but it misses the main point. Anyhow, there are countless articles and columns that are trying to do exactly that. Why bother with one more?
In the ultimate test, the Oslo Accords were a failure. They claimed to be the beginning of a process that would lead to peace and they failed to achieve that goal. In addition, and no less severe, they brought about a terror wave the likes of which Israel had never seen and with which it continues to grapple today, in places like the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
Instead, what remains the biggest question after the last 30 years is – if not Oslo, then what? In today’s Israeli Government, there are people who called Rabin and Shimon Peres the “Oslo criminals” and believed that they should have been tried for their crimes of allowing the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. They believe that if the Palestinians will not leave the West Bank, then they should be allowed to stay but never with independence, never with sovereignty, and always as second-class residents of this land. Even if Israel were to annex the territory as these senior ministers want, they would not grant the Palestinians citizenship.
What they fail to realise is that the process that began in 1993 has been continued by every government since, including by the so-called leader of the Right, Binyamin Netanyahu, who in his first term in office in the late 90s, and then again when he returned to lead the country in 2009, signed agreements, released prisoners and enacted policies all with the aim of pursuing the Oslo model – a two-state solution.
We can argue about whether Netanyahu did so sincerely or as diplomatic subterfuge, but to sign the Hebron Agreement, to freeze settlement construction for almost a year, and to release hundreds of prisoners just to fool the world would be a bit disingenuous. What it really all symbolised was what Netanyahu knew like all of his predecessors – there is no real alternative to a separation from the Palestinians. The fact is that the framework he embraced has remained the same since September 1993 – two states for two peoples.
This vision – whether right or wrong – has been the only one presented over the years by consecutive Israeli governments. Even when Naftali Bennett, a known opponent of the two-state solution, became prime minister in 2021, he did not push another agenda. On the one hand, he knew that it would not fly in the diverse government that he had established. On the other hand, he did not really have another plan to present. His plan, which he had rolled out in 2012 and called the “Stability Plan,” is basically a two-state solution without calling the Palestinian entity a state. Again, the same basic idea.
And the real question we should be asking 30 years after that ceremony in Washington, is what does the anti-Oslo camp offer? What is their vision for how Israel thrives in this land without occupying other people and without slipping toward an apartheid state if it were to annex territory without granting citizenship?
Since the end of December, Israel has been ruled by a government that describes itself as “fully right-wing” and it is the most right-wing government that has ever governed in the country’s 75 years. But even this Government has no real plan to offer.
It simply promulgates a culture of populism without a real ideology. Instead, its members push simple and catchy slogans.
If Israel wants to, it has the votes in the Knesset today to annex all of the West Bank or even just the Jordan Valley. So why doesn’t it? If it also wants, it can decide to go back to the Oslo process and work toward greater separation from our Palestinian neighbours.
Whatever happens, it is not up to the person who sits in the Oval Office or to the men and women who will soon gather in the halls of the United Nations. It is a decision for Israelis to make.
While it is easy to vilify the attempt that was made 30 years ago, here is the question that no one in this Government has yet really answered – what is the viable alternative?