Twenty-five years ago, when then-U.S. president Bill Clinton brought Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin together for that famously awkward hug, many of us thought the Oslo peace process would work. After all, the 1990s was the decade of miracles.
The American economy was booming, with no end in sight; democracy and peace were breaking out all over; the Soviet Union died peacefully and the Berlin Wall collapsed carefully; South Africa’s apartheid regime was vanishing quietly; and even Catholics and Protestants were negotiating in Northern Ireland.
Similarly, peace in the Middle East seemed inevitable. After all, Israel had pulled off a miracle with Egypt in the late ’70s that was holding. And we all know that the conflict is all Israel’s fault: if only it had the right leaders from the left, peace would reign forever and ever – and in Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel had the right leaders from the left and the center.
I challenge fellow historians to correct me: only three times in history has a country returned territory that it won after being attacked: once when Israel returned the Sinai; a second time in 1993, when Israel withdrew from as many Palestinian population centers as it could, limiting the Israeli army’s footprint in the territories and allowing Palestinians much more autonomy; and a third time when Israel withdrew from Gaza.
Alas, each of the last two withdrawals triggered violence. Oslo proved that the problem wasn’t with Israeli leaders, but Palestinian political culture – and Palestinian leaders. Clinton later admitted that American policy banked on Arafat being like Nelson Mandela – compromising, forgiving, ethical. Instead, Arafat was Arafat, the mass murderer who turned the Oslo peace process into an intifada. It’s telling that 675 Israeli soldiers died in the Second Lebanon War, 775 died in the Six Day War and over 1,000 died from the Oslo peace process – mostly civilians.
Some critics saw how foolish Clinton and the Israelis were in trusting Arafat to bring peace. The great human rights activist Natan Sharansky warned that dictators need enemies and people need democracy, but instead of giving the Palestinians the democracy they deserved, the West propped up a dictator who used Israel as the enemy he needed.
The result was Arafat’s kleptocracy, a place where naive idiots like the Canadians and the Norwegians helped pump billions into Arafat’s pockets; a dictatorship that was crushing its own citizens, terrorizing its neighbours and somehow bamboozling the world into supporting it. This led to years of war, instead of what could have been decades of peace.
Israel wasn’t perfect – no country is. But it was willing to deal, and to compromise. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s sweeping offer of concessions at Camp David in 2000 still awaits its Palestinian counter-offer. But far be it for me to ruin a more convenient bash-the-Jew, blame-Israel story with some facts, context and historical perspective.
We all know it’s Israel’s fault that Arafat wouldn’t negotiate and couldn’t compromise. We all know it’s Israel’s fault that Hamas took over Gaza and turned it into another failing Arab autocracy, rather than an emergent democracy. And we all know it’s Israel’s fault that there are hurricanes in the air, tidal waves in the sea, cancer in some human bodies, dictatorships crushing the Palestinians and evil here and there.
It is, of course, more convenient to live in a black-and-white world like that one. Dealing with greys, complexities and nuances causes too many headaches, takes too many words to explain – and lets too many Jews off the hook.