Oslo Remembered

Israel and Palestine


Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords. A second agreement, known as Oslo II, was concluded in September 1995. A few weeks later, a friend of mine attended what turned out to be a massive rally in Tel Aviv in support of the peace process. It didn’t even feel like a rally, he said; it felt like a celebration. After nearly half a century of war, terror, and intifada, of prayers and songs and wild, impossible hopes, peace for Israel was finally at hand. That evening, when my friend got home, he learned of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, on his way from the event, by a right-wing extremist. A few months later, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister by a margin of less than one percent.

Last Saturday, the day after Rosh Hashanah, was the Fast of Gedaliah. Gedaliah was a Jew who’d been appointed governor of Judea after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Four years later, he was assassinated by a conspiracy of fellow Jews, an event that precipitated the completion of the Babylonian Exile. The fast was instituted by the rabbis to commemorate this national calamity.

Let’s dispel a couple of myths about the State of Israel. It is not the only democracy in the Middle East and hasn’t been for several decades. Turkey and Lebanon were democratic long before the Arab Spring. Their democracies have been imperfect, to be sure, but what do you call a country that denies the rights of citizenship to a large minority of the population it controls, has done so for more than two-thirds of its existence, and has no evident intention of altering the status quo?

Given that the assertion of Israel’s uniquely democratic nature is so obviously false, what symbolic work does it do? The same as that performed by Netanyahu’s American accent, or that of his ambassador to Washington, the smooth, persuasive charmer Michael Oren. It says to their audiences here—their willing gulls in Congress and the press, the Christian fundamentalists with whom the Jewish right had made its pact—we’re just like you. (And not like them.) And so it feeds another myth: that Israel’s interests coincide, by definition, with those of the United States. Our leaders have apparently been gifted with prophetic powers. Not only have the countries’ interests always been identical; they always will be.

Look at almost any picture of Netanyahu, especially one that catches him at an unguarded moment, and you will see, written in the language of his sneering smirk, the bottomless cynicism that underlies Israeli strategy. The proponents of a Greater Israel have always believed that they can outsmart the rest of the world, including their patron the United States. Promise peace, perpetuate occupation. Keep delaying the future, and maybe it will never come. In the end, they will have only outsmarted themselves. Israel had 44 years after the Six Day War and before the Arab Spring to resolve the situation with the Palestinians, 31 years after the Camp David Accords, which removed the major military threat, and 17 years after Oslo. Now it’s almost certainly too late.

Mipnei chata’einu, we said on Rosh Hashanah: because of our sins we were exiled from our land. As a boy in yeshiva day school, I was taught that the Second Temple was destroyed as a punishment for gratuitous hatred, and that it could only be rebuilt as a reward for gratuitous love. Friday also marks the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As is usually the case in Jewish prayer, the liturgy will speak in terms of the collective. “We have stolen,” goes the litany. “We have slandered. We have given evil counsel.” All of us, together, as a people. What is my solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Repentance.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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