Retreat from Oslo

Israeli Labor leader Avi Gabbay: One of several leaders on the left questioning the Oslo path to peace

Having been an assistant to the late Israeli PM and President Shimon Peres, and later served as a Labor member of the Knesset, Einat Wilf was part and parcel of the establishment that led Israel into the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. 

Now, in a Hebrew book titled The War of Return (Yediot), Wilf argues that Israel’s assumption at the time, that the Palestinians were ready for peace, has since proven unfounded. 

“The Arab demand for the ‘right of return’ reveals how the Palestinians really see the conflict with us, and what they think of our presence here, because it touches a deeper phenomenon – the refusal, for now, to accept the Jews’ legitimate rights if even only in part of the Land of Israel,” wrote co-author Adi Schwartz in the book’s introduction. 

Recalling former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s farewell speech in 2016, Wilf and Schwartz note that the term “settlement” was mentioned there 58 times, compared to the word “refugees,” which Kerry uttered only three times, reflecting a common Western impression that the settlements are the main obstacle to peace. 

Wilf now disagrees with what once was her party’s dogma. Explaining that the demand for a “right of return” is designed to destroy Israel by swamping it with hostile immigrants, she now thinks that the fundamental prerequisite to peace must be Palestinian recognition that the Jews are a nation; that the Land of Israel is the Jewish nation’s historic home; and that war refugees – let alone their descendants – do not ordinarily return to their original locations. 

This is besides her call to reprogram the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which she blames for feeding and perpetuating the conflict by cultivating the Palestinian expectation of return. 

Wilf’s rethinking is part of a steadily unfolding trend. 

A quarter of a century after the launch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at Oslo, a growing number of figures on the Israeli Left are losing faith in its feasibility. 

The deal signed in September 1993 by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin created the Palestinian Authority (PA) and recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation as representative of the Palestinian people. Giving the PA immediate control of Gaza and Jericho, the accord set in motion a process that later gave the PA control of most Palestinian cities, and would also have given it an independent state, had it accepted Israeli land-for-peace offers from Ehud Barak in 2000-2001, or Ehud Olmert in 2008.

Led by Wilf’s former boss Peres, the Israelis who engineered the accords believed the Oslo process would produce prosperity, stability and real peace. 

The process ignited by Yitzhak Rabin’s electoral landslide in 1992 was accelerated in 1999, following Ehud Barak’s defeat of Binyamin Netanyahu. In that election, Israeli voters gave the Oslo process a vote of confidence in what was Labor’s tenth electoral victory since Israel’s establishment. It was also the last. 

Beset by Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s peace offer in 2000, and traumatised by the subsequent terror that cost more than a thousand Israeli lives, Israel’s swinging voters have since sidelined Labor. 

Having lost all six national elections in the current century, Labor leaders are now seeking ways to climb out of the electoral hole in which the Oslo gamble has landed them. 

Labor’s retreat from Oslo was signalled by its members’ election last year of Avi Gabbay, a former CEO of telecommunications giant Bezeq, as the party’s leader. 

While running in Labor’s primaries, Gabbay focused on social compassion and clean politics, in a thinly veiled attempt to disassociate himself from the Oslo Accords with which he, unlike his main rivals, had nothing to do. However, once elected as Labor’s new leader, Gabbay turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he did so in ways that alarmed the veteran party’s mandarins. 

“There should be no reason to dismantle settlements as part of a peace deal,” he said, arguing that a peace-seeking Palestinian state should agree to include a Jewish minority, just as Israel has a sizeable Arab minority. “The rhetoric to which we have grown accustomed, that peace means settler evacuations – is not necessarily right,” he said. 

Gabbay was immediately attacked by colleagues like former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, but he was soon joined by MK Eitan Cabel, a former secretary-general of the Labor Party. 

“Time to sober up,” Cabel headlined an article he published in Haaretz newspaper, in which he said peace cannot be attained in our time, and that Labor would therefore be better off preparing a plan for unilateral Israeli action. 

Unlike the Oslo vision, whose aim was a marriage of sorts between former enemies, Cabel seeks a divorce. Urging his colleagues “to part with the visions of signing peace agreements on the White House lawn,” he called on them to map West Bank settlement blocs, fence them off, and annex them. At the same time, he said a Labor-led Israel should freeze Israeli construction elsewhere in the West Bank. 

Cabel’s revision was then largely endorsed in an article by former Labor MK Michael Bar-Zohar, a historian who wrote, among other works, a respected biography of Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion. 

“An agreed diplomatic solution between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere in sight,” he wrote, “the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions is too wide and it seems no Israeli government, including one led by the centre-Left, will be able to bridge it.”

Bar-Zohar therefore suggested that Israel unilaterally draw a new border, leaving within Israel dozens of settlements, like those in the Jordan Valley, where Palestinian presence is sparse, and the Etzion Bloc south of Bethlehem, where Jewish communities were overrun and massacred in 1948. 

The rest of the West Bank would be transferred to the PA, according to Bar-Zohar’s plan, but the IDF would stay put; not to rule over the Palestinians, but to prevent rocket attacks and terrorist infiltrations into Israel. 

As for settlers outside the newly defined border, Israel would strive to repatriate them, but will not do so forcibly since 70% of them, according to Bar-Zohar, prefer to remain under Israeli rule, and will therefore return by themselves.

Hovering above such heretics – as others in the Left see them – is the stark revisionism of novelist A.B. Yehoshua, who once was symbolically on the Knesset candidate list of Meretz, the ultra-liberal party to Labor’s left. 

The 81-year-old Israel Prize laureate is among the founders of the land-for-peace school of thought, and has been a major supporter of the two-state solution since shortly after the 1967 Six Days War. 

No more. 

“It is impossible to evacuate 450,000 settlers,” he said in 2016. Now, in a two-part essay in Haaretz last April, Yehoshua said Yasser Arafat first misled the world when he said he wanted “a secular, pluralistic and democratic state,” and then “trampled over the Oslo Accords with terror attacks.” 

Blaming the PA’s current leader Mahmoud Abbas for failing to accept Israel’s land-for-peace offer in 2008, Yehoshua suggests that Israel offer the West Bank’s Palestinians Israeli citizenship; that Israel retain full control of the border with Jordan; and that Israel’s citizens and the West Bank’s Palestinians jointly elect a new, bicameral parliament.

What such proposals mean for the future is debatable, but what they say about the present is clear: After having lost the sympathy of the Israeli centre, the Palestinian leadership is beginning to lose the support of the Left. 

Facing repeated electoral defeats underscored by recurring violence from Gaza, which Israel evacuated unilaterally and completely in 2005, and animated by rejectionist rhetoric peppered with antisemitic vitriol – there is a growing quest among former Oslo supporters for a revised platform. 

One aspect of the Left’s sense of despair was sharply expressed by Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, the dean of Israel’s political scientists as well as former Director-General of the Foreign Ministry.

Avineri had been among the first and most prominent Israelis to champion the two-state solution. 

Yet referring to Abbas’ antisemitic speech in May, in which the PA President said Jews were massacred throughout history “because of their social and economic role as bankers and moneylenders,” and in which he repeated his denials of the historic bond between the Jews and the Land of Israel – Avineri wrote that “no Israeli government, whether from the Right or the Left, will be able to negotiate with the Palestinians as long as he [Abbas] heads them.”

Added up, voices like Avineri, Yehoshua, Gabbay, Wilf, Cabel, and Bar-Zohar – representing a range of current and retired politicians, as well as academics and literati, at the core of the Israeli Left – are effectively saying one thing: Oslo has failed, it’s time for something new.