Friday, February 25, 2005

Not Oslo Again

Originally published in The New York Jewish Week.

Back to Oslo? Yasir Arafat’s death, the election of a new Palestinian Authority president and the inclusion of the Labor Party in Israel’s governing coalition have led some in Israel and abroad to call for picking up where Oslo-style diplomacy foundered in 2000 at Camp David and Taba.

Oslo’s chief architect, Yossi Beilin, urged this path in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. Yet since the Palestinians launched their terror war against Israel in September 2000, many erstwhile Israeli supporters of the Oslo process have come to recognize it as a disaster that brought unprecedented carnage and suffering to Israel and potentially threatened the nation’s very existence.

Even at Oslo’s start there was overwhelming evidence it was a misconceived and profoundly dangerous path, and those who thought otherwise should have been quickly disabused of their wishful thinking. In the wake of the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians unleashed a wave of anti-Israel terror, and Arafat and his subordinates continued to assure Arab audiences the goal remained Israel’s annihilation. Israel’s response was additional concessions, as in the Oslo II accord of September 1995.

Why did Israeli leaders pursue their destructive path? Nissim Zvilli, a Labor member of Knesset and member the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time, said in 2002, “I remember myself lecturing in Paris and saying that Arafat’s double talk had to be understood. That was our thesis, proved [later] as nonsense. Arafat meant every word, and we were naive.”

But naivete hardly captures the self-delusions that underlay Oslo. In 1997, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, himself a former Oslo enthusiast, wrote of the course forged by Israel’s political elite and passionately embraced by its intellectual and cultural elites: “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.”

Shavit went on: “We fooled ourselves with illusions. We were bedazzled into committing a collective act of messianic drunkenness.”

But while Shavit’s “messianism” gives a label to Oslo-era thinking, it does not explain it. The explanation lies in psychological responses common among chronically besieged populations, whether minorities subjected to defamation, discrimination and assault, or small nations under chronic attack by their neighbors. People living under such stressful conditions over which they have no real control often grasp at delusions of control. They choose to believe that if they were only to reform themselves in a manner consistent with the indictments of their enemies, then their tormentors would be placated. This phenomenon has been a staple of diaspora Jews’ responses to assaults over the centuries.

Israel is militarily strong and for the most part can defend its people, but its strength cannot force an end to the siege. The Arabs are by far the dominant party in the Middle East, and they will determine if and when peace comes. At present, the promotion of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and indeed broadly xenophobic opinion serves purposes of domestic and interstate politics in the Arab world, and there is scant evidence of this changing in the foreseeable future.

Many in Israel found this reality increasingly intolerable in the decades before Oslo, as the nation was unable to engage an Arab partner to whom it could safely hand off the populated areas of the territories while retaining locations vital for its defense — that negotiation of secure and recognized boundaries called for in UN Security Council Resolution 242. Growing numbers chose to embrace the delusions that underlay Oslo: That Arab enmity was really about Israel’s ongoing control of the territories, that the Palestinians would be satisfied with a state in the West Bank and Gaza, and all that was required for peace was for Israel to accept Arafat and the PLO as its partner and hand them the land.

But if the Palestinians’ terror war has disabused many Israelis of the delusions of Oslo, can this awakening be sustained? There is no end of the Arab siege in sight. Israel has an interest in separating itself from the Palestinian Arabs and good reason to pursue some path to separation that takes account of ongoing dangers and leaves the nation in a position to defend its population both from continued terror attacks and conventional assault.

Again, however, some in Israel are eager to resuscitate the delusions of Oslo and insist that peace is at hand if the nation will only make sufficient concessions.

The ongoing Arab siege does cast a shadow over the lives of Israelis. At the same time, they have created a free, vibrant, extraordinarily successful society. It remains to be seen whether they are prepared to go on nurturing what they have built as they await changes in the Arab world that will open it to genuine peace, or they will instead, in their eagerness for “normalcy” and an end to the siege, once more delude themselves into pursuing fantasies of peace that will threaten everything they have created.