Twenty Years after Rabin’s Death: The Oslo Illusion
Looking back in the midst of the Third Intifada
Twenty years ago today, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. On the anniversary, Omri Boehm offers the following assessment, adopted from an article for the German FAZ, of the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since then, looking back from the middle of the “Third Intifada.”
Mahmoud Abbas made headlines last month when he announced in the U.N’s General Assembly that the Palestinians would no longer “continue to be bound” by the Oslo Agreements. He had warned that he was going to drop a “bombshell,” but given that Oslo has been dead for several years already, the significance of the dramatic announcement was difficult to make out. The New York Times reported on the speech in a front-page headline, but its lead article then suggested that this was, in fact, “old, old, old, old news.” Haaretz similarly conveyed an anticlimax, pointing out that even if Abbas has “dropped a bombshell,” none seems to have been actually “detonated.”
And yet while there was nothing new about Oslo’s death, Abbas’s statement was, potentially, monumental. The reason for this is that the news, and politics more generally, isn’t so much about knowledge as it is about attention: whereas for a long time now everybody has known that Oslo is irrelevant, everybody has been looking the other way, happy to keep a comfortable Oslo Illusion alive. In this way Oslo has in the meantime become “Oslo” — codename for maintaining the status quo, where “maintaining the status quo” is itself a codename for an irreversible development of a One Jewish State Solution. It is hardly surprising that almost immediately after Abbas renounced “Oslo,” violence in the region has taken forms that many now call a third Intifada.
In the nineties, to be sure, the Oslo Agreement was no illusion; it was the Two State dream implemented as a concrete political reality. A controversial dream, it was heavily criticized from both right and left, mostly for bad reasons but for some good ones, too. The Palestinians were expected to give up massively on private and political claims to lands from which they were expelled in 1948, and to settle permanently on 22% of the territories of Mandatory Palestine. The Israelis on the other hand would have had to evacuate thousands of settlers — not a modest political task — and to will to believe that so doing would put an end to Palestinian terrorism and promote a genuine Arab recognition in Israel’s right to exist. But despite heavy skepticism, virtually everyone who supported peace, including several die-hard left One State Solutionists, agreed to compromise on Oslo. For problematic though this agreement was, the history of Arab-Israeli relations has never seen an attempt at peace that was so ambitious, nor one that managed to become so concrete. In some circles, it is now customary to doubt whether Oslo ever was seriously intended. The fact that twenty years ago today an Israeli Prime Minister was assassinated over it is near proof that it was. Yitzhak Rabin did not fight for an illusion. Neither did Yigal Amir, his murderer. Twenty years ago, Oslo was real.
But whether we like it or not, Yigal Amir’s legacy has prevailed in Israel, not Rabin’s. Already in the special elections held seven months after the murder, one of Oslo’s most violent opponents, Benjamin Netanyahu — who only a few months earlier had condemned Rabin as a “traitor,” and had been photographed in an anti-Oslo demonstration next to a black coffin with “Rabin Kills Zionism” written on it in big letters — was elected as Israel’s Prime Minister. (Shimon Peres, Rabin’s Foreign Minister, ran on the Oslo ticket but miserably lost.) Of course Netanyahu did not immediately or single-handedly dismantle the peace process. This was a joint project, orchestrated by the powerful Israeli and Palestinian opponents of territorial compromise — most significantly the Israeli right, backed by Jewish fundamentalist settlers, and their natural allies on the Palestinian side, Muslim fundamentalist groups such as Hamas. (Moderate leaders who supported the Two State Solution, such as Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, made some serious errors, too.) But the nationalist and fundamentalist opponents of the Two State Solution — each hoping for a One Jewish/Palestinian State at a later date — have been so successful that by now Netanyahu’s most effective strategy to ensure that a two state solution is buried for good is to keep an Oslo Illusion alive. While we weren’t paying attention, clinging to Oslo may have become one of the main impediments to peace.
Two years ago already, former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin warned that the destruction of the Two State Solution was crossing the point-of-no-return. It is likely that that point had already been crossed when he decided to speak. In 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was first signed, approximately 110,000 settlers were living in the West Bank and 146,000 were living on occupied territories surrounding Jerusalem. Under the blinded eye of an allegedly relevant peace process, this number has grown to an irreversible 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, and about 300,000 in occupied land around Jerusalem. Israel has built in the West Bank not just settlements, roads, and infrastructure, but also banks, factories, businesses and, recently, a research university.
In the twenty years that have passed since Rabin’s death, Israel’s political discourse and power structures have changed in ways that are nothing short of revolutionary. On the eve of the murder, November 4, 1995, the head of the Shin Bet was Carmi Gilon: a left-Zionist of the old Ashkenazy elite, who most certainly was not a dove — neither was Rabin — but who supported Oslo and the establishment of a Palestinian state wholeheartedly. (After retiring, Gilon has served, among other things, as chairmen of the Peres Institute for Peace.) In 1996, Gilon was replaced by another son of Israel’s left-liberal Ashkenazy elite, Ami Ayalon. Former commander of Israel’s Navy, Ayalon did not start his career as a peace activist any more than Rabin or Gilon did, but he too enthusiastically supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. In fact, soon after retiring from the Shin Bet Ayalon approached Sari Nusseibeh — a well-known Palestinian philosophy professor, public intellectual, and advisor to Arafat, who along with Ayalon holds an honorary degree from The New School — and convinced him to join forces in promoting the “Geneva Initiative for Peace.” In all likelihood, these Shin Bet heads felt about the settlement project similarly to Rabin who, in a recording from 1976 that was just recently released, can be heard using the word “cancer.”
Yoram Cohen, by contrast, the current head of Shin Bet, is a religious-Zionist living on occupied land on the outskirts of Jerusalem. His deputy, Roni Alsheikh, is also a religious-Zionist settler, who up until recently lived in Cochav HaShahar, a radicalist settlement located deep in the West Bank. (As a rule of the thumb, a settlement’s geographical location is a good indication of its politics: the deeper into the territory, the more extreme.) According to one report in Haaretz, Alsheikh is widely admired by his fellow settlers for his “creative” interpretations of Rabbi Kook’s messianic political-theology. (Alsheikh would have almost certainly become the next Shin Bet head, but he just agreed to be appointed as a Chief of the Israel Police.)
One cannot help but wonder just how deeply opposed Cohen or Alsheikh were twenty years ago to Rabin’s killing. Or how they look back at the murder from the perspective of twenty years: are they appalled by the idea that getting rid of the Prime Minister proved in the long run conducive to a political-theological cause of the utmost significance –namely, Oslo’s destruction? Here is another question that in the nineties was still associated with treason, but recently became central in Israeli politics: what do Cohen and Alsheikh think of the establishment of the Third Jewish Temple just about where the Al Aqsa Mosque now stands? We will not get answers to these questions anytime soon, and we need not. What we do know is enough, and that is the fact that such questions make sense. In other words, we know that a radically new realm of meaning — a new realm of possibilities — now applies to Israeli politics. (Asking what Gilon or Ayalon thought about Rabin’s murder or the establishment of a Third Jewish Temple in Jerusalem would have been absurd questions reserved to conspiracy theorists.) Unfortunately, the existence of such radically new questions concerning Israel’s most sensitive security organization is an indication that a revolution has taken place. Anyone who still hopes to return from the Oslo Illusion to the Oslo Agreement is using an outdated conceptual scheme.
Meanwhile, the legitimacy of the One Jewish State Solution is beginning to gain currency, in Israel and abroad. There are several indications of this, but the most powerful of all is the image of Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin, who was just last year elected as the President of Israel. In the context of the violence that has come to pass since he took office, Rivlin, a friendly man and longtime political enemy of Netanyahu, has managed to establish himself as the last bastion of Israeli democratic rule of law and liberal humanism. The Guardian recently elected him as “Hero of 2014” for being “Israel’s conscience.” This is a telling development just as much as it is dangerous. Rivlin was not only a ferocious opponent of Oslo in Rabin’s days; unlike Netanyahu, he remained an explicit and eloquent opponent of any territorial compromise or the establishment of a Palestinian State. An old school revisionist-Zionist, Rivlin rejected Netanyahu’s infamous 2009 Bar Ilan Speech, in which the Prime Minister pretended to embrace the idea that the Israelis and Palestinians should “live side by side… each with its anthem, flag, and government”; and he continues to support the official annexation of the West Bank to the Jewish State — but he never bothered to explain seriously how this squares with his liberal democratic ideas.
Take a careful look at Rivlin role as Israel’s “conscience” — how widely appreciated he is by Israelis on right and left, or how the White House has embraced him as the liberal democratic alternative to Netanyahu — and you will be able to see the future of the Oslo Illusion. At some point, the settlement project will be so advanced that maintaining the illusion that two states are still relevant will be impossible and unnecessary. But we’re already learning to get comfortable with a new illusion, call it the Ruvi Rivlin Illusion, according to which a Jewish state that has annexed the West Bank and consists of a population of 50% Palestinians can still remain a liberal democracy.
But as one illusion begins to fade and the next has not yet taken over, we can still notice that the current wave of violence marks a new phase in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ever since the 1930s, wars and peace negotiations between Arabs and Jews turned on political questions of territory and sovereignty: on the One- versus the Two-State Solution — and if two, then with what borders? As the Two State alternative loses relevance, the familiar political quarrel over land gives way to the fundamentalist theological struggle over Jerusalem. Or more specifically, and this is just the point: not Jerusalem the city, but the Temple Mount. The messianic-Zionist settlers sitting in government have recently begun explicitly to pronounce the wish to reestablish Jewish — political and religious — sovereignty over Temple Mount. Not only do the settlers’ ministers support the idea, but also roughly 50% of Netanyahu’s formerly secular, right-wing nationalist party, Likud. The questions surrounding the head of Shin Bet, and the next chief of Israel’s police, were mentioned above. It would be comfortable but dangerous to overlook this new phase by continuing to fantasize about Rabin’s Oslo. We have all known that Oslo was dead, but now its death is anything but old news.
Adapted from an article first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.