Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel last week for the first time in more than a year, and with no intention of restarting peace talks. This followed a rare agreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that there is no chance for real negotiations in the near future – prompting more voices on the Israeli right to demand a policy change, and even to call for the annulment of the Oslo Agreements. Yet it is the same right wing that has benefitted from Oslo, or to be exact – from the fact that the accord was ratified but never achieved its goal.
The treaty, signed 22 years ago, aimed to build peace gradually: Israelis would transfer control over Palestinian cities to the newly created Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat. The Palestinians would recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce terror; five years later, negotiations leading to a comprehensive agreement would begin – and end with the creation of a Palestinian state.
That final stage never reached fruition, of course: Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by an extremist Jew, both sides failed to live up to their obligations, and today the two nations are living in a twilight zone: the PA exists, Palestinians have self-rule in some of the territories, but still don’t have a state.
Before Oslo there were 100,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. Today their number has increased four-fold. Bypassing Ramallah on the road from Jerusalem to the settlement of Ofra, we meet Pinhas Valerstein, a veteran settler leader, who tells us, “The great paradox is that this whole infrastructure of roads bypassing Palestinian towns and leading to and from Jewish settlements is a foundation that Rabin insisted on, and these roads gave us the main incentive to build more settlements.” Still, he insists: “Oslo was like a road accident for us.”
“Why didn’t you ever annul the agreement? Dismantle the Palestinian Authority, annex the territory and be done with it?” we ask. “Because I understand the reality we live in,” replies Valerstein candidly. “I realize what the consequences would be. We can’t live without an American veto in the UN. We’re part of the international community.”
Twenty-two years ago the settlers were devastated by Oslo, and saw it as an act of treason. But they regrouped quickly and did everything to undermine it, to create “facts on the ground.” They know, even if they won’t admit it, that they succeeded in turning Oslo into their trump card, using the fact that the Palestinian Authority exists and that the Palestinians rule themselves – a fact that for years has served to ease diplomatic pressure on Israel – to continue building settlements. As Valerstein said, “The agreement’s signing cut me in the heart. But I wake up every morning and build another building.”
Rabin believed that the settlement enterprise was a Zionist mistake. At the same time, he had deep resentment and suspicion toward Palestinian leaders, and he saw a double opportunity in Oslo: separation from the Palestinians and a separation from the dream of Greater Israel. That’s why he took a chance on a plan presented by his staunchest political enemy – Shimon Peres.
We ask Yossi Beilin, who initiated the Oslo agreement, “What was more surprising to you – that Rabin took a chance on the terrorist Yasser Arafat or that he agreed to something Shimon Peres proposed?” “Tough call,” Beilin replies. “I knew then that negotiations had to be clandestine, or else Rabin would stop us in our tracks.” Twenty-two years later, we ask Beilin whether Oslo failed. “It was made to fail, certainly, but Oslo’s biggest curse is that is still exists. Today it is the political right that is desperately holding on to the Oslo accord, because it gave it the umbrella under which it could continue building settlements,” says Beilin.
Beilin is proud of one thing, though. “The fact Netanyahu changed his views and talks of a Palestinian state is extremely significant,” he says. “I don’t even care if lying in bed at night, Netanyahu actually believes it will ever happen.”
Driving to Jericho during this latest round of tension between Israelis and Palestinians is not the safest experience, but it is necessary to talk to the third party in the story. Saeb Erekat was a key player back in the Oslo days and remains one of the Palestinians’ chief peace negotiators. “Rabin was tough,” he says. “He wanted to see in every sentence, in every agreement that the state of Israel will live on for 300 years. Netanyahu looks at every sentence and sees the evening news. There’s a difference between being a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator.”
“Netanyahu wasn’t elected in a vacuum,” we say. “He was elected because Israelis gave up hope, because terror never stopped.” Erekat replies, “How can you stop terror if you continue to build settlements?”
“Israelis would dismantle every settlement if they could live in peace,” we reply, and Erekat shoots back, “You gave in to extremism.”
“So did you – Hamas triumphed in Gaza, it won in general elections in the PA nine years ago.” It is a heated debate. The four words he keeps repeating are, “You don’t see us.”
As Israelis, listening to Erekat isn’t easy. But he is certainly right about one thing – Oslo gave Israelis the opportunity not to see the Palestinians. They have self-rule, they deal with their internal affairs, and unless there is fresh violence, we don’t see them, we don’t want to.
In the end, Oslo unleashed another one of the paradoxes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it was the Israeli left, always accused of being too sympathetic toward the Palestinians, that wanted the separation in the first place, and the most significant peace agreement the left signed ultimately played into the hands of the Israeli right. And that is precisely why the current right-wing government wants to maintain Oslo: It’s the perfect justification for the lack of Israeli progress toward peace.
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