Oslo Logic Still Valid
In the midst of unprecedented violence, the underlying logic of the Oslo process remains valid: the national
interest of Israel to disengage from the Palestinian people is as critical today as it was when the breakthrough with the Palestinians occurred on Sept. 13, 1993.
In Oslo, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) concluded a Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Oslo A Agreement or the DOP) based on the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accords. The agreement was preceded by mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and a commitment by the PLO to abandon the use of force as means to achieve its political aims. It provided for a framework for the establishment of Palestinian self-rule in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, and for the resolution of the major outstanding issues, such as borders, security, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.
Since 1993, 10 additional agreements and protocols have been concluded. At the same time, the Israeli side experienced waves of terrorism, and the Palestinians claim to have experienced a much higher burden of occupation. The Oslo process, designed to enhance mutual confidence, produced the opposite.
The Oslo process was derailed in October 2000, when the Palestinian uprising erupted, throwing the entire region into chaos. Ironically, this was at the very moment when the Palestinians were closer than ever to achieving their dream of an independent, viable and contiguous state.
Today, peace seems very distant. Many Israelis and Jews are disillusioned with the Palestinians as partners for peace and with the prospects and feasibility of peace. However, these frustrations are not the most productive mindset. The appropriate lens is different.
The Oslo process and its logic should be evaluated from the perspective of over 100 years of Zionism and 50 years of Israeli independence and sovereignty. Viewed from this perspective, the Oslo process was a historic attempt to address the fundamental Zionist predicament, with the purpose of securing a viable Jewish state that is both humanistic and democratic.
The Zionist predicament stems from the incoherence among the three basic competing narratives espoused by the Zionist movement since its inception. One story is about the land — Erez Yisrael — and the right and obligation to establish and maintain Jewish sovereignty therein. It extended initially to the full extent of the British Mandate, including Trans-Jordan (today’s Jordan). Gradually, this story focuses on the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The second is about the Jewish and universal values of humanism, liberalism and democracy. The third narrative is about the Jewish uniqueness of the State of Israel: its Jewish majority and Jewish identity to manifest itself in issues such as Hebrew language, Shabbat as the official day of rest and Jewish holy days as national holy days.
The Zionist predicament, exacerbated since 1967, is that these narratives cannot co-exist. The 1967 War brought the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the control of Israel. These territories are the present place of residence of nearly 4 million Palestinians.
Consequently, within a few years, Jews will become a minority within the areas under the control of Israel. As the demographic balance shifts, painfully hard choices need to be made. However, these decisions have been avoided for over three decades.
Israel faces a portfolio of alternative strategic choices. It can ultimately hold on to only two of Zionism’s basic three stories: democracy, territory or Jewish exceptionalism. It needs to decide which stories to embrace for the future or forgo.
One option is that Israel chooses to maintain its control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In this scenario, as Jews become a minority, Israel would either be able to preserve its Jewish identity by compromising its humanistic and democratic values, or hold on to its democratic values while compromising the polity’s Jewish identity.
A second alternative is that Israel holds on to its Jewish identity. In this scenario, Israel would have to compromise territory in order to maintain its Jewish exceptionalism or compromise its democratic values, while preserving immunities and privileges of a Jewish minority over a Palestinian majority through the use of force.
A third scenario is that Israel chooses to uphold its democratic values. In this situation, Israel can either compromise its territorial scope and maintain its Jewish identity, or, alternatively, preserve its territorial scope and compromise its Jewish character.
Israel does not have the luxury of postponing these tough choices. If it does not engage in far-reaching efforts to shape its future and geopolitical reality, time will instead determine its fate. As the demographic clock ticks, real facts are established that are nearly impossible to reverse.
The Zionist predicament has translated into a political paralysis in Israel and in the Jewish world. There are those who behave like ostriches, placing their trust in divine intervention. They embrace the status quo.
On the extreme right, there are those that advocate holding on to the land and to the Jewish identity of the State of Israel at the price of compromising Israel’s humanistic or democratic values. They call for transfer of the Arab population, or, in the milder version, for their permanent occupation as second-class citizens.
On the extreme left, voices call for a democratic state in Mandatory Palestine, in which Jews are a minority. At the center there are those who advocate the territorial compromise as an avenue to secure the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.
The logic of the Oslo process was to secure the Jewish, humanistic and democratic character of the State of Israel through a territorial compromise. This was the underlying motivation that led the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to endorse and advance the Oslo process at great political and ultimately personal costs. Rabin realized that disengaging from the Palestinians is the only avenue for Israel to break through the conundrum of the Zionist stories, toward a democratic, Jewish and vibrant Israel. If this vision is to be realized, the question is not whether Israel should disengage from the Palestinian people, but rather the context of this disengagement.
Now, in the face of the raging violence, many are prone to focus on the conduct of the Palestinian side and avoid the fundamental dilemmas. Israel cannot surrender its national interests to its reservations, grave as they may be, regarding certain Palestinian leaders, the conduct of Palestinian body-politic or governance.
For Israel, it should not be about justice, but about wisdom; not about a backward-looking policy that strives to settle old scores, but about a forward-looking approach that seeks to embrace the unique opportunities of the future. The challenge for Israel is to assume a massive shaping move to realize its vision and secure its future as a Jewish democracy. The Zionist predicament has not ended with but rather has been exacerbated by the Palestinian uprising.
The success of the Zionist movement has stemmed from its ability to distinguish between the essentials and attainables of the Zionist vision from the expandables and unrealistic. This is the legacy that brought about Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, to establish the State of Israel in 1948 on a very narrow territorial scope. This is the spirit that led Ben-Gurion, in spite of atrocities of the Holocaust, to conclude the reparations agreement with Germany in 1953 that allowed for Israel’s long-standing alliance with Germany and rapid economic growth.
It is this legacy that brought the late Prime Minster Menachem Begin to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, to withdraw from the last inch of the Sinai Peninsula and to lay in the 1979 Camp David accords the political foundation for Palestinian self-rule. The decision of Prime Minister Rabin to embrace the Oslo process is a direct evolution of this pragmatic school.
This was also the logic that led Prime Minister Ehud Barak to devise and implement a far-reaching strategy for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This logic remains valid today as this legacy calls for precisely the same kind of pragmatic Zionist leadership.
The question is not whether to disengage from the Palestinian areas. The real question is the context of this disengagement.
There are three schools of thought in this regard. One school, led by Dr. Yossi Beilin, supports a return to the negotiations on the permanent status agreement, from the point in which the negotiations were brought to a halt.
A second school advocates interim territorial, security and economic arrangements in which the outstanding issues, such as refugees and Jerusalem, are deferred.
The third school, having lost faith in the capacity or will of the Palestinian side to conclude or implement agreements, calls for Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Palestinian areas.
Prime Minister Barak calls for a return to the negotiations from Camp David, while promoting unilateral disengagement. Others call for the introduction of an international role in controlling the Palestinian territories. The common denominator of all these approaches is the fundamental logic of Oslo: It is in Israel’s highest national interest to bring an end to its control over the Palestinians.
As compelling as this logic is, it faces pernicious opposition. The Oslo process will have entailed moral, ideological and physical loss and sacrifice for many. Individuals would have had to forgo dreams and ideals, and communities may have to be dismantled in favor of a new paradigm that highlights statehood, as well as humanistic and Jewish values. It will have required a leap of faith. Many did not find this faith in them.
For the pragmatist Zionist school, the collapse of the Oslo process is a trial of truth and learning. There have been numerous criticisms of its management or structure. Some were valid; some unfounded in reality or intellectual integrity.
Nonetheless, politics is art, not science; there are no guarantees.
The fundamentals of the logic of Oslo remain valid, because the fundamentals of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the fundamentals of Israel’s national security have not been changed by this conflict. Only through a territorial compromise can Israel secure its future as a Jewish and democratic state. The rest is a derivative.