The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oslo Accords has brought forth a profusion of media commentary on the efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What might have happened? What could have been? Who and what are responsible for the failure to achieve the lofty ambitions of Israel’s peacemakers at the time?
Was it the opposition to the agreement from Israel’s right? Was it Yasser Arafat’s unwillingness to go the extra mile? Was it Palestinian terrorism that brought about the failure? In some measure, all of the above probably contributed somewhat to the result. But in the final analysis, any peace agreement reached between Israel’s leaders and those of its neighboring Arab countries depends on the ability of each side's leadership to implement it.
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This is where the difference between a democracy and totalitarian rule is clear. This asymmetry, which characterizes Israel and its Arab neighbors, can determine the outcome: Totalitarian rulers are able to make an agreement stick even if it is not popular with its population, using their secret services, the military and the media. In a democracy, peace cannot be pushed down the throats of voters - it is their support or lack thereof that determines the ultimate outcome.
The historical record speaks for itself. Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt was implemented there by Anwar Sadat, his successor Hosni Mubarak, and now the current Egyptian ruler Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, even though there are many signs that it is not popular with the majority of Egypt’s population. Menachem Begin succeeded in obtaining overwhelming support in the Knesset for the agreement, a support that persists to this day.
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The Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty has been enforced in Jordan by King Hussein and his heir King Abdullah II even though there are recurring signs that it is not supported by the majority of Jordan’s population. In Israel it has enjoyed almost unqualified support. The attempts to reach an agreement with Syria were based on the assumption that Syria’s leaders would be able to impose the agreement once it was signed. Differences of opinion regarding the terms of the agreement kept it from being signed. On the Israeli side, there were concerns that giving in to all of Syria’s demands would be resisted by a majority of Israeli voters. And thus it has remained since the Syrian civil war, which has for the time being made peace between Israel and Syria impossible.
As for the Oslo agreements, there were signs from the beginning that in Israel there was substantial opposition to the terms outlined for a resolution of the disagreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Some, like Yitzhak Rabin, believed that Arafat would be able to overcome any Palestinian opposition without the encumbrance of “judicial authorities or civil rights organizations.” It was a vain hope. Arafat never even tried. On the contrary, there were signs that he supported acts of terror.
The agreement barely passed in the Knesset, with a narrow majority that was cobbled together by political manipulations and incentives. It was a blatant attempt to force the agreement down the throats of Israeli voters. It was bound to fail. Since then, opposition in Israel to the Oslo agreement has only grown.
With all due respect to the vision and courage of Israel’s peacemakers, they have to remember that it is the citizens that call the shots. Obtaining the meaningful support of the Israeli voter is a necessary condition for reaching a peace agreement with Israel’s Arab neighbors. That is how things are done in a democracy, and there is no other way.