Analyzing the anniversaries of two highly influential accords – one three decades long, one three years – and how they impacted Israel and its place in the region.
The 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords affords a chance to look back at three decades of this historic agreement. The assessment has become as much about excoriation as catharsis. The anniversary also serves as a curtain-raiser for the anniversary of the Abraham Accords. Every year, as one agreement fades into memory, the other becomes more vivid.
The anniversary of the Oslo Accords has led to a number of important events. Reflections on the Oslo era range from a sense of lost Palestinian hopes, missed opportunities, and anger at all sides for the failure of the peace process. This means that both the Israeli Right, which spurned the process, and the Palestinian Authority, which put in place its own authoritarianism, are villains – along with Hamas and the Israeli far Left, and many others.
There have been plenty of opportunities for those involved to discuss what happened. Former military experts, politicians, and security officials gathered in early September at a conference titled “The Oslo Accords at 30: Lessons Learned,” held at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The event took place with Israel’s Defense & Security Forum (Habithonistim) and the Middle East Forum’s Israel Victory Project.
The Institute for National Security Studies held an important event called “30 Years Since the Oslo Accords: What’s Left, What’s Dissolving, What’s Next?” It noted that the Oslo Accords “were a seminal development in Israel-Palestinian relations.” To mark this juncture, the INSS conference examined the success of the agreements, what remains of them today, and what future attempts toward an agreement might look like.
To explore the twin anniversaries, The Jerusalem Post reached out to several experts who addressed these events. Tovah Lazaroff and I spoke to Yair Hirschfeld, a lecturer at the University of Haifa and architect of the Oslo Accords. I interviewed Yohanan Tzoreff, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, who focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relations, Palestinian society, its connection to Israel and the settlements, as well as the Palestinian inter-organizational system.
Tzoreff also had a role as Arab adviser to the Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip during the First Intifada, the INSS notes. “Among other things, he served as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s personal translator in many of the public meetings he held with Yasser Arafat in the first year after the implementation of the Accords on the Gaza border.”
To look back at the Abraham Accords, I also spoke to experts and key individuals. These included Eitan Na’eh, Israel’s ambassador to Bahrain; Dorian Barak, an investor and entrepreneur resident in Israel and the UAE and president and co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council; and Ahmed bin Sulayem, executive chairman and CEO of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.
One theme that emerged centers on the role that extremist Palestinian rhetoric has had on the Oslo process.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas symbolizes part of the Oslo process. He is a living example of someone who was a key player in the 1990s and a facilitator of the PA’s ossification.
Recently, he was filmed making hate-filled antisemitic comments while speaking at the Fatah party’s Revolutionary Council. For 18 years, he has been running the PA, which was part of the Oslo Accords vision. “It was clearly explained that [the Europeans] fought [the Jews] because of their social role, and not their religion,” he claimed, according to reports. “Even Hitler said he fought the Jews because they were dealing with usury.”
He also repeated conspiracy theories that claim Jews are not historically from the Middle East. His comments have been condemned by many Western countries, from the UK to Australia – the same countries that have generally backed the Palestinian Authority. The comments have not been condemned by most countries in Asia, Africa, or South America.
The comments have been greeted with some surprise. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, wrote: “I have been despairing about how to respond to Abu Mazen’s profoundly antisemitic diatribe. How could someone who has treated me as a personal friend for three decades at the same time harbor such hateful views of my people?”
Others have pointed out that Abbas’s antisemitism has been widely known for decades; he even wrote a 1982 dissertation in the Soviet Union bashing Zionists as collaborators with Nazis.
The views of Abbas are not an exception. These were the views that were common among some Palestinian political elites, who have spent decades pumping hatred, through education and media, into the Palestinian public. The Palestinian Authority helped institutionalize this.
This official stamp of approval for hating Jews and Israel was integral to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, “Abu Mazen” according to the lingo of the era of “armed struggle,” was a part of the Oslo Accords. The Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement of 1995 was supposed to form a basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
How does this hatred manifest itself today? On Rosh Hashanah, the Quds News Network tweeted a video of Jews arriving at the Western Wall; “Watch: Thousands of colonial Israeli settlers perform Talmudic rituals at al-Buraq wall, the western portion of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, in celebration of the ‘Jewish New Year.’”
The Palestinian nationalist extremist narrative spends a lot of time creating media narratives like this, slandering Jewish religious events as “Talmudic rituals” and mocking Jewish holidays while re-labeling Jewish sites as Islamic. This combines both Nazi rhetoric and Islamist extremism into one banner, to influence the public. It is the fruit of a failed peace. In contrast, Arab News in Saudi Arabia and diplomats from the Gulf wished Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah.
While we consider that a key Palestinian official behind the Oslo process holds Jews in contempt, it’s worth noting how the Abraham Accords have done the opposite. The United Arab Emirates’s embassy in Israel put out messages wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah. The embassy also noted that “this week marks the third-year anniversary of signing the Abraham Accords. We have seen many significant accomplishments so far; looking forward to what we can accomplish together in the near future.” The report says trade reached more than $5 billion, and there are 106 airline flights a week between the two countries.
The antisemitism that the Palestinian Authority clings to in order to prop itself up is largely an anachronism today. However, when the PA was created, this was not the case. In the era before social media, people could make comments in private, such as “Jews are Khazars,” and the intermediaries meeting with them could brush it off as them “paying lip service to these views, but they don’t mean it; they have Jewish friends.”
One could even see the hate-filled rhetoric as one that was propped up and affirmed by the West. The BBC noted, in an article about Palestinians losing hope 30 years after Oslo, that “since 1993, when the first of a pair of agreements known as the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn, foreign donor money has flowed into this West Bank city [Ramallah], north of Jerusalem. Its streets contain smart government ministries with signs and stationery locating them in the State of Palestine.”
It’s plausible that in 1994, the West could have told those creating the Palestinian Authority that foreign donor money would only flow if they stopped pumping out anti-Jewish rhetoric. Instead, the money became a cement for the rhetoric.
To understand the winding road that runs through Oslo to the Abraham Accords, we have to put ourselves back in the era of the 1970s and 1980s. Israel was a different country then, more isolated, poorer, and with a much smaller population than the almost 10 million Israelis now living here.
Although the US was a key partner of Israel, in those days many Western countries tended to accept the terror attacks directed at Israelis. This meant that under the banner of “armed struggle,” many terrorists were seen as romantic in the West.
The romance for armed gunmen massacring people, such as the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympics, wasn’t just a romance for anti-Jewish terror. Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the “revolution” in Iran, also had his Western sycophants who tried to portray him as a progressive alternative to the East-West clashes of the Cold War. In truth, he was a far-Right, woman-hating, religious extremist – just like the members of Palestinian Black September, who were murderous gunmen living lives of lavish privilege.
There were various contexts that were at play in creating the Oslo Accords. There were international contexts, as well as the Palestinian milieu, the Israeli side, and broader shifts in the Middle East. Let’s journey back to the time before the Oslo Accords, when Palestinian gunmen still seemed romantic to some in the West, even as the world was beginning to change its view of terrorism.
It was out of this era that the contacts for the Oslo Accords developed. The 1980s were dominated in the Middle East by the Iran-Iraq war and revolutionary Iran’s attempt to export “Islamic revolution” around the region. In addition, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were growing in popularity, and those who would go on to lead al-Qaeda got involved in the Western-backed “jihad” against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Westerners were also involved in Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran; Canadian engineer Gerald Bull helped the Iraqis build a long-range gun; and the French, Germans, and Soviets were involved with Iraqi air defenses. A Swiss firm built bunkers for the regime, and the world turned a blind eye as Saddam committed genocide using poison gas against Kurds. Before his assassination, PLO terrorist Ali Hassan Salameh even enjoyed a trip to Disneyland in the US and succor from the West.
In 1984, Alan Hart’s Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker? was published. When the book made its way to the US a few years later, I was in fifth grade, and one of my teachers was reading it. Arafat was portrayed as romantic, a freedom fighter, and someone who could be trusted to bring peace, even if he ostentatiously brought a gun to a 1974 UN speech. In such an era – when Saddam met Western officials, when Salameh was considered romantic, and the birthers of al-Qaeda were jet-setting around – it’s no wonder that Israel understood that the Palestinian leadership deserved outreach.
It is in that context that the First Intifada broke out in 1987. The Palestinian leadership, then in Tunis, having been exiled from Beirut in 1982, sought to exploit the protests that became the intifada. Islamic groups also jumped at the opportunity, and Hamas was founded in December 1987. By 1988, Hamas had created a charter, replete with extreme antisemitism and conspiracy theories that underpinned its ideology.
In my conversation with Hirschfeld, he recalled the trajectory that brought him to talks with the Palestinians. “In 1978, [Menachem] Begin, [Anwar] Sadat, and [Jimmy] Carter signed the Camp David Accords; they provided for the creation of Palestinian Self-Government and Permanent Status negotiations to be concluded in five years. For me personally, it started in 1979-80, when I received from the Austrian chancellor, Dr. Bruno Kreisky, a policy paper from King Hussein of Jordan.”
In the 1980s, Hirschfeld said, “the idea was then to get Palestinian support for the Jordanian option. Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin loved the paper and asked me to arrange meetings for them with Palestinian leaders. With Peres, I would meet the pro-Jordanian Palestinians; with Beilin, the pro-PLO Palestinians; and with Naftali Blumenthal, the business leaders. We succeeded in getting Palestinian support and prepared the way for the London Agreement, which Peres concluded with King Hussein in April 1987.”
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir opposed this agreement. Meanwhile, the US, under US secretary of state George Shultz, was pressuring Israel to fulfill the obligations under the Camp David Accords, Hirschfeld said. Shamir’s opposition led Shultz to talk to the PLO and in “December 1988 created an ongoing US-PLO dialogue. It was Likud who got us to speak to the PLO.”
It’s important to recall that the Iran-Iraq war had ended in August 1988. Saddam began shifting focus to invading Kuwait, demanding more money from the Gulf to keep his fangs off the Gulf kingdom that had been a center of the Tanker War (armed skirmishes between Iran and Iraq against merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz) and other controversies in the 1980s. It’s worth remembering that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Mustapha Badreddine were linked to the 1983 bombing of the US embassy and other targets in Kuwait.
Muhandis went on to create the Iraqi version of Hezbollah, and Badreddine was the cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh. Badreddine and Mughniyeh became key Hezbollah figures in Lebanon, using their movement to fill the vacuum left by the Palestinians after the Israeli invasion of 1982. Mughniyeh had been a member of Arafat’s Force 17, which was formed by Salameh. Strange bedfellows? In a sense, yes. Hezbollah sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war; many Palestinians backed Saddam, so much that they cheered his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Why does the end of the Iran-Iraq war matter? Because it came in the context of shifting global events. The Saudis had also brokered the Taif agreement by the fall of 1989, ending the Lebanese Civil War. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in December 1989. Ceausescu had met Arafat several times for high-level meetings, hosting the Palestinian often in Bucharest in 1983, 1985, and other dates.
In 1987, Romania and the PLO submitted a “joint stand regarding the establishment of comprehensive, lasting, and just peace in the Middle East, on the basis of Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, of solving the Palestinian people question through the recognition of its right to self-determination – including the setting up of it own independent Palestinian State – and of the guaranteed integrity, sovereignty, and security of all states in that area.”
With Ceausescu dead and the Berlin Wall fallen, the Soviet Union was rapidly heading toward dissolution. This would reduce the room the PLO had to maneuver. “Our concept or basic strategy was that to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, there is a need to partition, and best to partition with Jordan in secure circumstances with international support. If this would not be possible, negotiations should be with the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza,” said Hirschfeld.
Beilin and Hirschfeld developed a formula with Faisal al-Husseini in 1989. He said this led the way to Palestinian participation at the Madrid Conference. “Faisal al-Husseini and his team would not move one centimeter without the okay from Arafat. In order to overcome that, Peres asked Rabin, early in January 1993, for his agreement to suggest to Arafat to come back to Gaza.
“It would break the power of the PLO as an exile government, and make it necessary for them to negotiate how to move from Palestinian self-government to a Permanent Status Agreement, creating a Palestinian national entity besides Israel.” Arafat would eventually return to Gaza, in July 1994.
Another shift in the region was demographics. Israel was concerned about Palestinian demographic growth. If Israel wanted to withdraw from the West Bank in the 1990s, it might have been possible after some land swaps with the Palestinians, with some 90,000 Jews living in the West Bank at the time.
People were on the move, though. Many Jews from the Soviet Union were leaving the USSR. In the 1970s, some 300,000 left, most of them for Israel and the US. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Jews previously prevented from leaving were able to flee; in 1990, a total of 184,000 came to Israel.
Palestinian groups opposed this immigration. Terrorists had even taken Jews hostage in Schoenau, Austria, in 1973, demanding that Kreisky close the Jewish Agency’s transit office. The influx of Soviet Jews strengthened Israel’s demographic hand and perhaps made the Right wing more confident.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, protesters in China launched the failed Tiananmen Square protests for democracy. In Iraq in August 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait, and US forces began to flood into Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. Two months later, he was meeting with president F.W. De Klerk; and in 1994, the country was on the path to its first full democratic elections. In Ireland, the Provisional IRA announced a ceasefire that same year.
THE OSLO process cannot be seen outside of this rapidly changing global context. “Armed struggle” groups were putting down their guns and moving toward diplomacy. Israel and the Palestinians were not as divided in those days as they are today. Israelis from Sderot could go shopping in Gaza City. People from Jerusalem could go to Bethlehem. Israelis even went to Jenin.
But not everything was coexistence. Israelis driving to Jewish communities in Gush Etzion in those days had to pass through Bethlehem and the Dehaishe refugee camp, where many Palestinian activists resided. Israel fenced off the camp in those years before building the tunnel road and the West Bank security barrier.
With Saddam ejected from Kuwait, 380,000 Palestinians were also expelled from the country, between March and June 1991. With the weakening of Saddam, the Palestinians had suffered another setback in the region in terms of support.
Now, as the Oslo Accords took shape, the Palestinian leadership faced a challenge from Hamas. In December 1992, Israel had tried to deport 400 Hamas members to Lebanon. Hirschfeld recalls the incident. “The Palestinians immediately broke off negotiations in Washington and demanded their return as a precondition to renew the negotiations in Washington. We delivered. At the end of April 1993, the negotiations in Washington were renewed. From that moment on, Rabin was fully in charge, overseeing and directing every step.”
Hamas cast clouds over the peace process. In 1986, Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi published the book Fateful Decisions (Hachraot Goraliot), which has an important lesson in light of the founding of Hamas and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Anwar Sadat, the architect of the 1978 agreement, had been killed by extremists in 1981. Hirschfeld notes that Harkabi’s book argued that “the conflict with the Palestinians had a territorial, national, and religious dimension. In order to preempt a religious conflict, we should get as soon as possible an agreement on the border between both nations. It was a mistake. Both Israeli and Palestinian society tend to be religious, and we cannot avoid addressing religious thinking and beliefs.”
Hamas increased its terror attacks during the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, and it timed more of them to coincide with the May 1994 Cairo Agreement, the October 1994 peace deal between Israel and Jordan, elections in 1996, and the 1998 Wye River Memorandum. It also increased attacks during the 2001 Israeli election when the Second Intifada was in full swing.
During these years, Osama bin Laden was also increasing his attacks, first opposing US forces in Saudi Arabia, and then declaring war on the US in 1996. It’s largely forgotten now, but other conflicts in the 1990s added fuel to the fire for the Islamists, such as the conflict in Chechnya from 1994, the Algerian civil war and the Bosnian war after 1992, and the Somali conflict in 1993.
I remember that era well, living in the US. In those days, the media portrayed Arafat as a peace partner, and Israeli extremists as ruining peace by killing Rabin. When fighting did break out or terrorist attacks occurred, we were told that Arafat’s security forces were partners with the West, fighting Hamas terrorism.
We learned about the “right of return” and discussed in classes on the Middle East how Israel would give the Golan Heights back to Syria under a US-UN plan; the Syrian regime was run by the supposedly pro-Western Assad regime. The Palestinians would have an airport in Gaza, and Israel would be forced to leave the West Bank the way the Serbs were forced out of Kosovo. Then came the beginning of the Second Intifada.
What came next shifted the region again. “9/11 – the attack of Muslim militants on the United States – changed everything and the US war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It changed the strategic balance between Israel and the United States,” Hirschfeld said.
BY 2003, US troops were in Iraq. and a lot of the romance for “armed struggle” had disappeared. I came to Israel soon after and saw the development of the security barrier and the changing face of the checkpoints. When disengagement happened in September 2005, I covered it from the Gaza border.
From 2008, I covered all the wars in Gaza, from Cast Lead to Pillar of Cloud, Protective Edge, Black Belt, and Guardian of the Walls. Then, in 2011, I taught Palestinian students at Al Quds University These were all students who had grown up during Oslo. They were the Oslo generation, and they had seen all the claims of Palestinian statehood dashed.
They were also more divided from Israelis than their parents’ generation. Many of them expressed the antisemitic views that the Abbas government has dumped on society for decades, with Abbas using extremist rhetoric at home to keep himself in charge as his security forces work with Israel.
Palestinian politicians and intellectuals, such as Sari Nusseibeh or Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), met with Israelis. The next generation didn’t. In fact, those born in Gaza have had no chance to meet Israelis for almost 20 years. Hamas has run Gaza longer than the Fatah-dominated PA ever did.
The decades since the Second Intifada have led to a self-fulfilling prophecy by the Israeli Right, which always believed Oslo was doomed, and now can point to its unraveling. However, the real problems with Oslo were perhaps baked in via a different path.
First of all, the Oslo Accords enabled the Palestinians to veto Israel’s ties with the rest of the Arab world. Not only did the Jordan and Egypt peace become a cold peace, but other states that had grown closer to potential ties in the 1990s moved away after 2000, asserting that Israel first had to make major moves in the West Bank and Gaza.
Even when Israel left Gaza, the international community still defined it as “occupied,” and there was no peace dividend for Israel. Palestinian divisions became another reason for no new peace initiatives.
It’s worth considering that the challenge of Hamas and the Israeli Right were insurmountable. Hamas bombings convinced the Israeli public that a wall had to be built and that separation without two states was the only path forward. Israeli communities grew in the West Bank, making withdrawal impossible. The extremism, unleashed in Iraq after 2003 and Syria after 2011, proved that any adventurous peace overtures could lead to chaos.
Authors wrote off the Palestinian Authority. The Last Palestinian, a book about Abbas, was published; so was State With No Army, Army With No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces 1994-2018. Some began to speak of “one state” as a solution or define Israel as “apartheid.”
IN THE region, a different wind was blowing. When ISIS was defeated and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were largely banned, a new era began. It began quietly at first, and then with some articles suggesting that an Arab-Israeli alliance could emerge in the region.
The UAE ambassador to Washington published a piece in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily. Two Israeli defense companies and a company in the UAE announced an agreement. Humanitarian flights began, during COVID. Then came the Abraham Accords, pushed along by the Trump administration and key figures such as Jared Kushner and ambassador David Friedman, and leaders in the Gulf, such as Mohammed bin Zayed.
When the Abraham Accords were signed, I welcomed the opportunity to take a direct flight to Dubai. There, I covered the first Israeli companies to participate openly at a cyber conference, and other firsts. Diplomats, businesspeople, online influencers, and a huge cavalcade rushed to Dubai in the early excitement. Initial hopes led to a more banal reality. Israelis were told not to rush things. But unlike the Oslo process, where rushing led to disaster, this time things turned out well.
For some, the Abraham Accords have meant that the Palestinian issue can be neglected. But others think the situation must be addressed. “Today, the essential task is to maintain the prevailing ‘two nations reality,’” said Hirschfeld. “Oslo is not totally dead, but the Abraham Accords are alive.”
The challenge facing the peace process has also seen several interlinked hurdles. One is for the two sides to move toward peace and not conflict. Another is the need for infrastructure and investment in the Palestinian areas. The Abraham Accords may present a unique opportunity to move forward.
“The Palestinians could not give Israel what we need: security and normal relations with the Arab world. Accordingly, I argued that after concluding a Palestinian Self-Government Agreement, it would be necessary to create a Middle East Security Organization and a Middle East Community of Water, Energy, and Tourism; today, I would say ‘Trade’ instead of ‘Tourism.’”Yair Hirschfeld
“The Palestinians could not give Israel what we need: security and normal relations with the Arab world. Accordingly, I argued that after concluding a Palestinian Self-Government Agreement, it would be necessary to create a Middle East Security Organization and a Middle East Community of Water, Energy, and Tourism; today, I would say ‘Trade’ instead of ‘Tourism,’” Hirschfeld said.
Today, we have progressed toward more Middle East regional initiatives. Whether it is the new G20 corridor, or I2U2, or the Negev Forum, there are many promising new groups and forums emerging. Countries in the region are pursuing diplomacy with each other after many years of chaos in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; even Saudi tensions with Iran and Turkey have eased.
Source : The Jerusalem Post