Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege

Originally published in The Jewish Press.

The Oslo process was supposed to usher in, finally, peace and normalcy between Israelis and Palestinians. It brought instead the worst terrorist violence in Israel's history, and pundits and policy analysts have yet to explain satisfactorily why the catastrophic failure occurred. They have uniformly avoided addressing what should be obvious questions.

Why did Israel embrace Yasser Arafat as its "peace partner," even as Arafat continued, amid the fanfare of White House signings and handshakes, to assure his own people and the Arab world his goal remained Israel's annihilation? Why were Israel's leaders undeterred even when, in the wake of the initial Oslo accords, the Palestinians unleashed what was then an unprecedented wave of anti-Israel terror? Why was the response more Israeli concessions?

Nissim Zvilli, a Labor MK and member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time, recalled 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 '90's... 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 conflict... 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 persistent attack by their neighbors. People living under such stressful conditions often choose to accept at face value the indictments of their accusers in the hope of thereby escaping their predicament.

They may seek to reform their community in a manner consistent with the attackers' accusations. Or they may simply abandon what they have come to see as a tainted identity. Or they may join the attackers as a means of more thoroughly separating themselves from their status as target.

Such reactions have been a staple of Diaspora Jews' responses to besiegement over the centuries.

They can be seen throughout the Middle Ages, for example. But strong Jewish communal institutions served then as a counterweight to the corrosive psychological impact of tormentors' accusations. Those institutions helped Jews sustain a sense of their own and their community's essential validity despite the drumbeat of deprecation directed against them by their neighbors.

The weakening of institutional bulwarks in recent centuries left Jews more psychologically vulnerable. A hundred years ago, so commonplace was Jews' taking to heart anti-Jewish caricatures and canards that the early Zionist Max Nordau famously observed, "It is the greatest triumph for antisemitism that it has brought the Jews to view themselves with antisemitic eyes."

Nordau could have added that if Jews saw themselves as the haters saw them, they often viewed other Jews as fitting those stereotypes even more. Apostates tended to see all those who remained Jews in such a light; German Jews not infrequently viewed Polish Jews as the true and deserving butt of Jew-hatred; secularized Jews regarded religious Jews similarly; and unionized working class Jews held comparable opinions of the Jewish bourgeoisie. Of course, those who looked at others across the various social divides in this way, and who believed that separating themselves from those others would win them acceptance by the wider society, did not acknowledge that their biases reflected a pleading for gentile acceptance. Rather they cast their prejudices as representing a more progressive and enlightened path.

Zionism, as conceived by Herzl, was intended not only to rescue Jews from physical threats but also to save them from the corrosive psychological consequences of being everywhere an embattled minority.

But even among the Zionists there were many infected with the anti-Jewish biases of surrounding societies. While Herzl conceived of the national home as a refuge for all Jews, the Russian socialist Zionists that came to dominate the Zionist movement dreamed of building a socialist utopia peopled by a New Jew. They were very often hostile to both middle class and religious Jews, and they formed their biases against both groups in large part through absorption of European society's attacks on religiously traditional Jews and the Jewish commercial class.

Similarly hostile to Herzl's vision were a number of German Jewish intellectuals who came to the Yishuv championing the concept of a cultural homeland and opposed to creation of a Jewish state. They argued that Jews had evolved beyond narrow nationalism and should devote themselves exclusively to Judaism's universalist spiritual mission. But their views were shaped largely by their having taken to heart the widespread European indictment of Jews as an "alien nation" and their wishing to reform the Jews and foreswear a Jewish state in order to assuage that hostile opinion.

In the 1930's, as conditions in Europe worsened, many of the socialist Zionists opposed large-scale immigration as bringing in the wrong Jews and compromising the socialist experiment, while the cultural Zionists opposed immigration as serving the unholy goal of nation-building. Some even supported imposing limits on Jewish immigration such as those established in Britain's infamous 1939 White Paper.

The war, the Shoah, and creation of the state marginalized such voices. The nation undertook the ingathering of survivors in Europe and the Sephardi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East, and Israel's Jews overwhelmingly dedicated themselves to the state's survival and well-being.

But Israelis were confronted with a persisting Arab siege. Recurrent hopes that the Arab world would reconcile itself to Israel's existence and establish normal inter-state relations went unfulfilled. Expectations, for example, that the Arabs' losses in the 1967 war would oblige them to negotiate with Israel, or that the treaty with Egypt would entail genuine normalization, end anti-Israel and anti-Semitic demonizing in that nation's media, mosques and schools, and would be quickly followed by treaties with other Arab states, were dashed. And the continuing siege kept alive old predilections of Jewish self-blame and self-reform in the face of chronic attack.

The election in 1977 of Israel's first non-Labor Zionist government was a turning point for such tendencies. Its significance went beyond simply policy differences between the Likud and Labor parties. On the territories captured in the 1967 war, the major difference was with regard to Judea and Samaria: Labor advocated a territorial compromise along the lines first proposed by Yigal Allon, with Israel retaining key strategic areas while allowing the rest, particularly heavily populated regions, to revert to Arab rule. The Likud position was that all of Judea and Samaria, the heart of the historic Jewish homeland, should properly be in Jewish hands for reasons of history, religion and justice, and that, in any case, all of this area was strategically vital; the accommodation of the Palestinian Arabs should entail granting of autonomy under Israeli sovereignty.

But, for all the substantive differences, both stances reflected recognition that the Arab siege was going to continue, that the state must be ready and able to defend itself, and any arrangement for the territories must allow for this.

In contrast, the perspective of the Peace Movement that had evolved in the wake of the 1967 war was that Israel's retention of captured territory was now the major source of Arab enmity and if Israel would only return virtually to its pre-war lines, peace would follow. Both major parties rejected this view as having no basis in reality.

But the election of 1977 put the nation in the hands of what many in the Labor Zionist camp regarded as the "Other Israel," the more religious and traditional Sephardim and the religious and non-socialist among Ashkenazi. This rendered many in the Labor ranks open to a revaluation of the persistence of the Arab siege as not a rejection of the New Jew who was to have made Israel a normal state with a normal people, but a rejection of the Old Jew represented by Likud. It rendered them more open to arguments by the Peace Movement that if only power could be wrested back from Likud and won by those willing to return all the territories then peace would follow. This was the rhetorical stance of the Peace Movement over the period from 1977 to 1992, when Likud either dominated or was an equal partner in Israeli governments, and the position won more and more adherents from the ranks of Labor's constituency.

The growth of the Peace Movement was accompanied by the evolution of two auxiliary camps. The so-called New History entailed a largely bogus rewriting of the history of the state with the aim of demonstrating Jewish culpability; the corollary of such claims was that Arab grievances were legitimate and if Israelis only recognized their sins, properly reformed themselves, and became sufficiently accommodating then peace would follow. Adherents of the second movement, post-Zionism, argued that Zionist dogma stood in the way of peace and that if the state would strip itself of its Jewish accoutrements, such as the Law of Return, Hatikvah and a flag with the star of David, another obstacle to peace would be removed.

The Peace Movement's stance in fact was as divorced from reality as had been German Jews' blaming of Polish Jews for anti-Semitism, or secular European Jews' blaming of the religious, or socialist Jews' blaming of the Jewish bourgeoisie. But proponents of the Movement, cowed by persistence of the siege and desperate to see its end, chose to delude themselves. They grasped at whatever seemingly positive came from an Arab political figure and ignored all the countervailing evidence.

For example, the PLO's proxy representative in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, declared in 1992, "We have not conceded and will not surrender any of the ... commitments that have existed for more than 70 years... We have within our Palestinian and united Arab society the ability to deal with divided Israeli society... We must force Israeli society to cooperate... with our Arab society and eventually to gradually dissolve the 'Zionist entity.'" He made other statements in the same vein.

Yet Husseini was a Peace Movement favorite. Mordechai Bar-On, a founder of Peace Now and author of the most definitive history of the Peace Movement, wrote of the period before Oslo, the time of the Husseini quote, "A new generation of Palestinian leaders was emerging... Younger people like... Faisal Husseini... Most of the peace groups on the Israeli side maintained contacts with these new leaders and tried to persuade Israelis that these Palestinians could be partners in negotiations."

Labor, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, ran and won in the 1992 election on a platform of standard Labor positions with regard to the territories. But, under pressure from the growing ranks of the Peace Movement, drawn largely from constituents of his own party, Rabin soon capitulated to a "peace process" along the lines dictated by the Peace Movement. As noted, even the subsequent blatant promotion of terror by Arafat and his subordinates, and the horrendous acts of terror that soon wracked Israel, did not deter the Labor–Meretz coalition from its disastrous course.

The terror did propel Likud, under Benjamin Netanyahu, to victory in the 1996 election. Netanyahu made an issue of the PA's failure to live up to its obligations to forego and indeed fight terror, dismantle terrorist infrastructures and end the incitement that prevailed in Palestinian media, mosques and schools. But when he demanded that the PA fulfill its prior formal commitments on these vital matters before he would agree to further Israeli concessions, he was attacked by the opposition for creating obstacles to "peace." Indeed, half the nation remained caught up in the delusions of the Oslo process until Arafat's launching of his terror war in September, 2000, and many have remained devotees of those delusions even through the terror war.

But if the terror war has disabused most Israelis of the delusions of Oslo, can this awakening be sustained? There is no end of the Arab siege in sight. The promotion of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, and indeed broadly xenophobic opinion serves purposes of domestic and inter-state politics in the Arab world and there is scant evidence of this changing in the foreseeable future. Israel has an interest in separating itself from the Palestinian Arabs and good reason to pursue some path to separation that takes account of the ongoing dangers it will face and leaves it in a position to defend its population both from continued terror attacks and conventional assault. But some in Israel even now are eager to resuscitate Oslo and insist that peace is presently 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.