September left a rash of 25th anniversary remembrances and analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” This was the diplomacy launched in secret at Oslo, Norway and affirmed at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993 when a hesitant Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat, a beaming Bill Clinton presiding.
With your indulgence, one more such recollection: I was invited to be one of the several hundred Rose Garden guests, there to bear witness to history. Unwilling to be used as an extra in what seemed certain to be a travesty and probably a danger to the Jewish state, I declined. Instead, as editor of the Washington Jewish Week, I sent a reporter.
That evening I did attend the Israeli embassy’s celebration of the Rose Garden signing. A pavilion covered the front courtyard, the building’s Jerusalem Hall too small for the crowd. Rabin and his dueling foreign minister, Shimon Peres, both spoke. To call the mood optimistic would have been miserly. Euphoria was in the air.
Yet on the edge of the crowd several veteran pro-Israel lobbyists and myself agreed: Either what the Israelis had been telling themselves and their supporters at least since the 1967 Six-Day War about regional dangers and Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization had been true, and what they were saying that night about Palestinian leadership and the Middle East was false, or what they were saying post-handshake was true and what they’d been telling us and the rest of the world for the previous quarter-century had been erroneous. Or both were wrong. But the before-and-after could not both be true.
I should have seen the Oslo upheaval coming. There had been hints, or better warnings.
Straws in the wind
About two years earlier I’d been working as managing editor of the Miami Jewish Tribune. One day a local pro-Israel activist called in agitated disbelief. “You know that pamphlet, ‘Nine Narrow Miles’?” he asked. Of course I knew it. It had been a staple of Israeli government hasbara—public information efforts—for years. It illustrated with color maps and overlapping arcs of menacing artillery and short-range rockets, Israel’s ludicrous vulnerability: not just nine miles wide at one point on the populous coastal waist north of Tel Aviv, constricted between the Mediterranean Sea and West Bank, but also barely four miles thick at Jerusalem’s western city limits and less than that at the Red Sea port of Eilat, squeezed between Jordan and Egypt.
“What about it?” I asked.
“Staff at the consulate downtown are throwing copies into a dumpster.”
At roughly the same time, Labor Party Chairman Rabin, who recently had replaced the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister, gave a speech in which he claimed that the end of the Cold War meant new opportunities for Arab-Israeli peace. “You don’t make peace with friends,” Rabin asserted, “you make it with very unsavory enemies.”
At the paper we considered a critical editorial. The Cold War ended because the Soviet Union, after more than four decades of more-or-less consistent U.S.-led pressure, collapsed due to its own internal contradictions. America could now deal more accommodatingly with a smaller, less-threatening Russia. But Israel’s Arab neighbors in general faced no similar pressure and the Palestinian Arabs in particular had come to be seen by many in the West as the victim, Israel as the victimizer. Rabin’s extrapolation was dangerously superficial.
But Rabin was also former general, former defense minister Rabin, an Israeli hero and diaspora Jewry icon. He was the stolid, solid leader Israel and its supporters elsewhere could rely on. He was the man I’d heard tell a hotel ballroom full of English-speaking supporters in Herzliya in 1980, when he was campaigning against Peres for Labor leadership that under him Israel would never leave the Golan Heights, never give up the Jordan Valley, and never return to the pre-1967 war armistice lines.
We didn’t write the editorial.
In 1989, I listened as Defense Minister Rabin told a small group of visiting pro-Israel Americans virtually the same thing.
Then, in 1992, during my first year editing the Washington Jewish Week, I saw occasional news briefs alleging informal meetings in Europe between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. When names were mentioned, they weren’t those of senior officials. The snippets seemed odd, but not disturbing.
The Velveeta Process
So, convinced by both Israel’s pre-Oslo security consensus and by Palestinian rejectionism and irredentism, I too was blind-sided by the about-face. My staff at the Jewish Week gathered around the office television to watch the Rose Garden signing. “It looks like peace is finally coming,” one said. “Not peace,” I replied. “Diplomacy. Maybe a truce.”
I did write an editorial to that effect, and—so I was told—got myself on the Israeli embassy’s “enemies of peace” list. I definitely found myself on the publisher’s short leash for a few months.
Regardless, I told staff we would not use the term “peace process” unless quoting someone directly. Processed peace was to peace as Velveeta was to cheese, I said. Not the real thing. I couldn’t risk writing that so, since Washington Times Editor Emeritus Wesley Pruden later put the analogy into print, you’ll just have to take my word for authorship.
In any case, when I edited the Washington Jewish Week (1992 – 1997) references were to Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Israeli-Palestinian talks and so on, but usually not to peace. To think that Arafat and the national movement he’d long embodied, a movement built not on constructing a 22nd Arab state but rather eliminating the one Jewish country, suddenly had become partners in peace was condescending and ethno-centric. It misunderstood if not ignored Palestinian identity, which originated primarily in and pivoted on not a deeply-rooted history but rather negation of Jewish peoplehood.
Within a few years of the Rose Garden euphoria, buses began exploding in Israeli streets, pizza parlors and Passover seders were bombed, mall shoppers stabbed, axed or shot. As many Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after Oslo as had been killed in the 15 years preceding it, years in which Israelis had told each other that their continuing control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had become “unsustainable.” And that was before the second intifada (2000-2005), started by Arafat after he’d rejected a “two-state solution” at Camp David. One thousand, one hundred Israelis and foreign visitors and 3,000 Palestinian Arabs died in that terror war.
Most Oslo celebrants would ignore Rabin’s last Knesset speech, given not long before his assassination in 1995. Rabin had asserted that in the Oslo process Israel endorsed something less than a new Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and insisted on a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, the Jordan Valley as eastern defense border, annexation of major settlement blocs and no return to the pre-’67 lines.
After a far-right Israeli murdered Rabin, a Washington Post reporter called the Jewish Week seeking comment. I said Rabin’s killing was for Israel what the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy had been for America, a fanatic’s assault on democratic government. I didn’t say anything about Oslo.
That unfounded process eventually led to Palestinian sabotage of the “final status” talks envisioned for 1998, Arafat’s intifada, wars against Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) in Gaza in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014, the West Bank security barrier and erosion of Israel’s support in Western Europe, on North American college campuses and among more than a few American Jews. Among the latter were many who never quite recovered from Oslo’s “epidemic of hope.” So the flipped script of Palestinian victim, Israeli victimizer gained believers. Two years ago, historian Efraim Karsh called Oslo “the starkest strategic blunder in Israel’s history” and “one of the worst calamities ever to have afflicted Israelis and Palestinians”—afflicting both by having entrenched Arafat and the PLO.
However, time marches on, in multiple directions and at different paces. Outside the Middle East “the plight of the Palestinians” continues to loom large—especially as the useful screen of anti-Zionism shielding the reanimation of antisemitism. But within the region Sunni Muslim regimes including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates look to Israel to help counter the Shi’ite Muslim imperialists, and would-be genocidal Jew-haters, leading Iran.
The Oslo “peace process.” RIP. Not soon enough, but at last.