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The Ten Fatal Flaws of Oslo

by Yossi Klein Halevi

President Bush’s recent historic speech demanding Palestinian restraint and reform as preconditions for statehood was above all a eulogy for the Oslo process. In place of Oslo’s “land for peace” formula, Bush now suggests” peace for land” — that is, first the Palestinians prove their peaceful intentions, and only then does Israel empower them with territorial concessions.

In establishing that new sequence, Bush sought to correct a fatal flaw of the Oslo process: that Israel would yield concrete assets in exchange for easily revoked promises of peace. But that was only one fatal flaw in a fundamentally flawed process. Here is a list of the 10 fatal miscalculations made by the architects of Oslo — perhaps the worst wound Israel ever inflicted on itself:

1. Empowering Arafat: “Only Arafat can make the necessary compromise,” the Oslo visionaries assured us. “Only he can force the Palestinians to give up their dream of return. Besides,” they continued, “if we don’t negotiate with him, we’ll be left with Hamas.”

When the time came, of course, Arafat refused to make the most basic concessions on refugee return. And in the last two years, his Fatah has joined with and even surpassed Hamas in suicide bombings. Empowering Arafat, then, meant creating a Hamas-like regime — protected by international legitimacy.

2. Whitewashing Arafat: They want to forget it now, but many on the Israeli and American Jewish left were actually charmed by the mass murderer. The Hartzufim, Israeli TV’s satirical puppets’ show, portrayed Arafat as a bumbling but basically harmless and even likeable old man. Yitzhak Rabin’s granddaughter said he was like an “uncle.”

Peace activists went on pilgrimage to him and listened to his paranoid tirades about an alliance of Muslim terrorists with settlers and Israeli generals to destabilize the “peace of the brave.” And they continued to grant him legitimacy and ignore the growing incitement. Even Dennis Ross admits it now — but not the extent of the left’s cover-up for Arafat.

That cover-up began literally the day after the White House handshake, when Arafat told an audience in Amman that the Oslo process was the first step in the implementation of the “stages plan,” the PLO’s program for the gradual destruction of Israel. Arafat hid nothing from us; we hid the truth from ourselves.

3. Empowering the leadership of 1948: PLO-Tunis represented the Palestinian diaspora, the refugees of 1948. Israel resurrected the PLO, just as it was on the verge of collapse following the Gulf War. By saving Arafat, we imposed the leadership of 1948 onto the Palestinians of 1967 — that is, of the West Bank and Gaza, who had lived with us, however unhappily, and with whom we’d shared a measure of coexistence.

Our struggle with the Palestinians of 1967 was over borders; our struggle with the Palestinians of 1948 was over existence itself. Yet we chose to empower precisely that part of the Palestinian people that is emotionally and ideologically incapable of compromise. The result was to suppress any chance for dialogue with the Palestinians of 1967.

4. Promoting a false symmetry: “Both sides want peace,” the Oslo architects assured us.” A Palestinian mother and a Jewish mother both want the same things for their children.” Our children came home from kindergarten waving little flags made of Stars of David entwined with doves; their children were taught paeans to suicide bombers. And now Palestinian mothers send their grown-up children off to martyrdom.

The flaw was in not understanding the basic asymmetry in the way each side viewed the other: A majority of Israelis had come to see this conflict as a struggle between two legitimate national movements, and accepted partition as a moral solution; while a majority of Palestinians continued to believe that all justice was on their side, and that partition was, at best, an unavoidable option imposed by Israeli power.

5. Pretending that the Middle East resembles Western Europe after World War II: That was a favorite insight of Shimon Peres, the basis for his New Middle East. Like the European Union, he said, the Middle East was on its way to replacing dreams of national glory for prosaic prosperity. Peres was right about Israeli society: Like Western Europe after World War II, most Israelis had fought one war too many and were ready to exchange nationalist for consumerist dreams. But he misjudged the Arab world by one war: Arab society more closely resembles Europe after World War I — aggrieved, militaristic and waiting for revenge for all those decades of Israeli military victories.

6. Encouraging dictatorship: In Yitzhak Rabin’s words, Arafat could be trusted to suppress terrorism because, unlike Rabin himself, he wouldn’t have to contend with “Bagatz and B’tzelem” — that is, with a Supreme Court and human rights watchdogs. The result was that Israel helped build one of the Arab world’s most corrupt regimes, and destroyed whatever hope the Palestinians had of emulating Israeli democracy.

7. Turning Judea and Samaria into the West Bank: The moral premise of partition is that two nations claim the same land, and so the only fair solution is to divide it between them. But what if one side insists that the whole land belongs to it by right, while the other side waives its claim to part of the land?

That is precisely what Israel did by turning “Judea and Samaria” into the “West Bank.” The result was that the world quickly came to see the Israeli willingness to concede its biblical heartland as no concession at all, merely the occupier returning his theft to its natural owners.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, kept reminding the world that they had lost the 78 percent of Palestine that formed pre-67 Israel. Those Jews who supported partition should have been the first to stake their claim, at least in principle, to the whole of the land. If we have no claim to Hebron and Bethlehem and Shechem, what right do we have to trade those for Jaffa and Haifa and Lod?

8. Limiting the timetable: The Oslo process intended to resolve a 100-year conflict in seven years. By the end of that absurdly condensed period, Israel was to have transferred most of the territory to Palestinian control, with no mechanism for testing Palestinian compliance. The basis of the deal was essentially “land for words” — strategic territory for guarantees of peace. But few bothered to check whether we were even getting the right words in return.

9. Delegitimizing the critics: It’s not only the right who delegitimized Rabin; the left did the same to Oslo’s critics. And Rabin himself was a prime offender, mocking the settlers and even comparing the Likud to Hamas as part of an “anti-peace” bloc. Maybe had the left paid more attention to the criticism of the right, we would have been spared seven years of self-deception. Just as Israel might have been spared the excesses of the Lebanon War and unlimited settlement, had the right learned to listen to its leftwing critics.

10. Democracy for peace: The Rabin government sacrificed democratic norms for the sake of the peace process, ramming through the Knesset far-reaching territorial concessions on the basis of a single vote — that of an unscrupulous rightwing parliamentarian who was lured to support Oslo by a political bribe. It is hard to recall another democracy making such a fateful decision on the basis of a majority of one, let alone a majority won through a parliamentary trick.

The culmination of Oslo’s anti-democratic spirit occurred at Taba in January 2001, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left with a minority government and facing a landslide defeat, offered the Palestinians even more concessions than he’d offered six months earlier at Camp David. The above list is by no means exhaustive; additional follies could easily be cited. Understanding what went wrong with Oslo is crucial, especially at a time when some people are trying to divide the Jewish world with their insistence that Oslo’s failure was Israel’s fault.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. This column appears exclusively in JUF News and The Jewish Week in New York. He is the author of “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for G-d with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”