The Political Manipulation Behind Oslo’s Bogus Legacy

The temporarily benign international conditions in the 1990s encouraged the hubris of Oslo’s architects. But they failed to provide for more malevolent circumstances.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.Credit: AP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

It is hard to feel charitable toward Yossi Beilin ("Beware the extremists: Lessons from Oslo, 20 years on," ) when he equates Jewish and Arab extremists and peddles the sorry excuse that Oslo would have reached fruition if Rabin had lived.

The Rabin assassination, far from derailing Oslo, provided it with an undeserved boost by temporarily silencing opposition. Worse, it created a bogus "Rabin legacy," which approached Stalin's Lenin legacy as a masterstroke of political manipulation. The left, still wedded to Oslo despite the numerous reality checks supplied by Arafat and his minions, set out to vindicate the martyred prime minister under its post-assassination slogan, "The peace will avenge his blood." Rabin himself, according to his daughter Dalia, in an October 8, 2010 Yedioth Ahronoth interview, may have been ready to pull the plug on Oslo.

However, I would like to be generous to Beilin and other protagonists of the grand illusion by pointing out that the agreement was spawned under very different international circumstances; circumstances that contributed to an atmosphere of false optimism. The international climate underwent a tidal change between the exhilaration of the post-Desert Storm period and the Hobson's choice posited by Al-Ghouta (the Damascus suburb that was the scene of a chemical weapons attack this past August.) We have literally gone from the best of times to the worst of times.

Let us recapitulate what the world looked like in the period that Oslo was in gestation.

The Soviet Union had expired and disintegrated. Russia, the successor state, was experimenting with liberalism in terms of both big-bang economic privatization and a crash course in parliamentary democracy. China was also more accommodating. It still needed Western technology and wished to live down the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Beijing, therefore, was still in "peaceful rising" mode and sought to portray itself as a responsible player in the international system.

The Non-Aligned Movement was in a tailspin. After attaining peak influence in the 1970s, it was paralyzed by the rift created by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With the end of the Cold War it had lost its ability to play off the United States against the Soviet Union.

Membership in the European Union, with its booming economy and vaunted soft power, was highly prized. The EU had successfully weaned Spain, Portugal and Greece off dictatorship by soft power alone. It thereby created the expectation that this model could be extended indefinitely — to Eastern Europe for starters, but then perhaps even to our region.

Even the United Nations seemed pliable, with the nonaligned movement in tatters. Under the prodding of Bush the Elder, it had retracted the infamous General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Most importantly, people were talking about a unipolar world, given the disparity in power between the U.S. and any competitor. American predominance was so assured that Bill Clinton easily overcame his inferiority to George H. Bush in foreign policy during the 1992 election.

The Palestinians had wagered on Saddam Hussein and applauded and collaborated in his occupation of Kuwait. Having lost their Soviet patron, they had now infuriated the Gulf States, their financial angels, and were unloved in Washington.

Oslo got its start in these favorable circumstances, which were expected to last indefinitely. Arafat, at his low point, could be bought cheaply; the Europeans would build the economic peace (Gaza would be the new Singapore) that would make military power and secure boundaries as obsolete as in Europe; and, if all else failed, the Pax Americana was around to make things right.

Things have gone south since then. As should have been expected, the appearance of a unipolar "new world order" aroused a reaction calculated to restore the world to multipolarism.

With liberal and Western blessing, Russia morphed from a parliamentary democracy to an all-powerful presidency, while its foreign policy became more assertive under the leadership of old Soviet Middle East hand Yevgeny Primakov. When a vigorous Putin replaced the infirm and frequently inebriated Yeltsin, he was determined to avenge the insults that Russia had sustained, such as NATO's expansion to parts of the former Soviet Union. He found a willing partner in the People's Republic of China, which has traditionally tilted against the strongest power.

The Non-Aligned Movement regained its swagger under the likes of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reenergizing its essentially negative role in the international system. Naturally, the Palestinians were the darlings of this movement.

Debt-ridden Europe, weakened by talk of Grexit and Brexit (terms coined in 2012 to describe the possible exit from the EU of Greece and Britain), can flex its soft power against Israel, but it practices self-censorship when it comes to Beijing and other economic powerhouses. Far from setting moral standards, it has become extremely inhospitable to its Jewish population.

Today's America is polarized, economically weakened, disillusioned and cynical about the global environment. The public's attitude is a pox on Pax Americana.

Oslo didn't fail due to the dramatic changes in the international arena. It never had a chance from the beginning because the Palestinians, then as now, didn't want peace but only Israel's extinction. The temporarily benign international conditions in the 90s encouraged the hubris of Oslo's architects. But they failed to provide for more malevolent circumstances.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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