I Believed in the Oslo Accords for Years. But It Was Merely a Deception

The Oslo Accords have given Israel another 25 years at least of uncontrolled settlement activity and brutal occupation

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

While hands were being shaken with great pomp on the White House lawn, bullets were whistling around me. When Yitzhak Rabin shook Yasser Arafat’s hand, I was wearing a steel helmet and a flak jacket.

There’s nothing metaphorical about this description; in the middle of September 1993, I was in besieged, bleeding Sarajevo. When it seemed as if they were making peace in Washington, I was at the height of a war. I reached the peace belatedly.

Oslo Accords - 25 years on

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Two days before I left to cover the war in Bosnia, I wrote in Haaretz, “The skies didn’t fall two days ago when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a letter recognizing the PLO, but neither did anyone leap into the fountain in the city square in excess joy. This event, which is no less important than the Egyptian president’s visit [in 1977], evidently excites Israelis much less. The radical religious right is upset, the left is pinching its cheeks in disbelief, and most Israelis are more concerned about how this diplomatic progress will affect their shares on the stock exchange than with the future of the casbah in Nablus” (Haaretz, September 12, 1993).

About six weeks after the ceremony, in early November 1993, I met with the Fatah Hawks’ commander for the refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip. Raafat Abed was then in hiding in the Nuseirat refugee camp; even after the signing, he was still high on Israel’s wanted list. He had fled for his life from the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces and was sleeping in a different bed every night.

PLO leader Yasser Arafat, left, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, center, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres pose with their medals and diplomas, after receiving the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.Credit: AP Photo, File

“We’ve halted the armed struggle for now,” he told me at the time. “We’re obeying orders.”

I remember how I left Gaza via the Erez checkpoint with a theatrical wave of my hand. Good-bye Gaza, good-bye and farewell; we won’t return to you again, certainly not to cover the occupation. The occupation had ended, we thought. Its end was already visible on the horizon.

I remember the joyous peace conferences of the late 1990s, from Valencia in Spain to Rhodes in Greece, the unforgettable trip to Europe with a delegation of legislators, half of whom were Knesset members and the other half members of the legislative council of the future Palestinian state. There was Marwan Barghouti and Yehudah Harel from the Golan Heights, the late David Tal of Shas, Dedi Zucker and Haim Ramon in a picture of great hope that still hangs over my desk.

There was hope then, but it was quickly shelved, not to return. That was the last time that anyone spoke here about peace. And it is only in retrospect that it turned out to be a deceptive vision.

>> Read more: Rabin’s Man in Oslo Analyzes What Went Wrong – and Right – With the 1993 Accords

I believed in Oslo. I thought Israel genuinely and honestly wanted to open a new chapter with the Palestinian people. There were many like me. I hadn’t paid attention to the details, didn’t really see the full picture. I abhorred the skeptics who were spoiling the party with their dark, angry predictions, those for whom it is never enough. I really wanted to believe in Oslo.

For those who had experienced the reality that preceded it, when peace activist Abie Nathan sat in jail for meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization representatives, the handshake with Arafat was nothing short of a dream. I also believed in the motives of the Israeli peacemakers, that they really and honestly wanted to put an end to the occupation at a time when it was still possible to do so relatively easily.

It was many years before I awakened from the dream and understood that I had fallen into a trap. It could be that no one laid it intentionally, but it was a trap nonetheless. Yasser Arafat and a large portion of the Palestinian people also fell into it. As if Rabin hadn’t cringed over his handshake with Arafat. Even at the time, I didn’t think that was how you make peace.

There was more Palestinian blood on Rabin’s hands than Jewish blood on Arafat’s hands. If someone had needed to cringe at the Washington ceremony, it was actually the Palestinian leader. Arafat was shaking the hand of the man who captured the Arab towns of Lod and Ramle in 1948, with everything that happened there at the time, and who later broke bones in the first intifada. Arafat was shaking the hand of the person who had expelled and occupied his people. Nevertheless, Rabin’s anguish was apparently genuine and he could be forgiven for not restraining himself.

What was not forgivable, however, was what was not included in the agreements. The Oslo Accords’ original sin was and remains that they didn’t go far enough. That would have involved addressing the presence of Jewish settlements of a scope that at the time was immeasurably smaller than it is now. The fact that their fate was not debated, their status was not decided, and worst of all, that it was not decided at least to halt settlement construction, is the test of the real intentions and courage of Israeli statesmen.

The settlements were established to scuttle any effort such as Oslo. Ignoring that issue was a critical mistake. The fact that the Palestinians acceded to this proves that they too fell into the trap.

Anyone who builds so much as a balcony in the West Bank does so with the intention that it will never be evacuated. Those who did not agree to put a halt to the settlements in the territories were essentially saying that we have no intention of ever leaving them, but it took years after that for this insight to permeate my thinking.

The Oslo Accords have perpetuated the occupation. They have given Israel another 25 years at least of uncontrolled settlement activity and brutal occupation - maybe even another 50, maybe even 100, maybe the eternity of apartheid.

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