The Mideast Peace Process's Biggest Myth

The Mideast Peace Process's Biggest Myth

Rabin's survival wasn't the key to long-lasting peace.


THE PARTIAL reduction of Israeli control of the territories was accompanied by a major surge in fundamentalist Palestinian terrorism, geared to torpedoing the peace process. Israeli countermeasures, which included mass arrests, curfews and area closures, bit into the Palestinians’ livelihoods and freedoms. The Palestinians charged that Israel was violating the agreements; Israel, that the PLO was failing to rein in the terrorists who were provoking the Israeli Right and limiting the government’s room for maneuver. The right claimed that the government was abandoning the settlers, facilitating Arab terrorism (Israel even helped arm the PLO “police” force) and rendering Israel itself vulnerable to Arab violence.

The peace process also occasioned a few incidents of Jewish violence against Arabs, the most telling episode being the massacre in February 1994 of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque (for Jews, the Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron by a lone, American-born settler medical doctor Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein, who became the adulated martyr of the Israeli Far Right, including Yigal Amir, sought to derail the peace process and frustrate further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Dozens of protesting Arabs died in clashes with Israeli troops in the wake of the massacre.

Rabin failed to exploit the almost consensual Israeli revulsion to crack down on the extreme Right by the mass arrest of activists, who often broke the law by vandalizing Arab property and defying government orders, and of the rabbis who incited them to attack “Amalek,” a code word used among religious extremists for Arabs. (“Amalek” was the name of a biblical tribe or people who assailed the Hebrews led by Moses in their wanderings in the desert before they reached the Promised Land three thousand years ago.) The rabbis gave the activists ideological cover, legitimacy and motivation, and called on soldiers to disobey the government and their commanders if ordered to evict settlers. At the crucial cabinet meeting following the massacre, a number of ministers urged Rabin to take a dramatic step: To uproot the one hundred or so settlers who had more or less illegally settled in the heart of Hebron, or at least demolish the smaller compound in nearby Tel Rumeida. Fearing a clash with the settlers, which might lead to Jew-on-Jew violence, Rabin did neither.

Of course, Oslo triggered a far more widespread and deadly response by the Arab rejectionists. Over the following three years there were Arab fundamentalist bombings, kidnappings and ambushes in the Palestinian territories and in Israel proper. Each month saw multiple attacks, some resulting in massive casualties. Twenty-one Israelis were killed and dozens injured by a Hamas suicide bomber on October 19, 1994 in Dizengoff Square in the heart of Tel Aviv; twenty-two soldiers died the following January at the hands of two Islamic Jihad bombers in Beit Lid, just north of the city. The onslaught seemed to prove the Right’s contention that handing over territory reduced Israelis’ security—and Rabin was held responsible for the bloodbath. Rabin, they raged, was a “traitor,” an accomplice in the murder of Jews.

Nonetheless, having taken a strategic decision to reach out to the Palestinians and withdraw from the territories (though, carefully, he never explicitly endorsed eventual sovereign Palestinian statehood), Rabin soldiered on, despite his coalition government enjoying only a razor-thin majority in the Knesset, 61 seats of the chamber’s 120. On September 28, 1995, Israel and the Palestinians signed “Oslo II,” and in November–December Israel handed over control of most of the West Bank’s cities and towns (Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Qalqilya, Tulkarm) and surrounding areas to the Palestinian Authority. But by then, Rabin—depicted in Nazi SS uniform or in an Arab keffiyah in posters brandished during massive right-wing demonstrations against the “Oslo process”—was dead.


RABIN’S SUCCESSOR Shimon Peres failed to leverage the national trauma and revulsion at the assassination into a campaign to suppress the extreme Right during his brief tenure as prime minister (November 1995-June 1996). He failed to clamp down on illegal activities and settlements—usually small satellite communities of large “legal” (in Israeli eyes) settlements; and refused to “administratively” detain the hundreds of activists or prosecute the rabbis who more or less endorsed the law breaking, including those who had specifically sanctioned the prime minister’s murder in line with the Talmudic prescriptions for “din moser” (one who hands over a Jew or, by extension, Jewish land to a Gentile authority) and “din rodef” (one who intervenes to stop a man hunting down a Jew). In both cases, the prescriptions sanctioned killing the anti-Jewish perpetrators.

Meanwhile, to stymie further progress toward peace (Peres, though a prosettlement, hardline defense minister in the past, was widely viewed as far more enthusiastic about peace-making than his predecessor), the Palestinian fundamentalists renewed their suicide bombing campaign in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with added vigor. The spate of bombings during February and March of 1996 claimed more than fifty Israeli lives—and, surprising the pollsters, lost Peres the general election, with Netanyahu winning by a slim margin and putting together a right-wing coalition government. The bombings had come hard on the heels of the Israeli pullout from the West Bank’s towns, “proving” once again that concessions to the Palestinians resulted in the murder of Jews.

Netanyahu in effect halted the peace process—and strangely enough, or not so strangely as right-wingers would have it, the three years of his first premiership were marked by a dramatic drop in Arab terrorism. Nonetheless, Israelis were disaffected by the diplomatic immobility and foreign disapprobation, wanted peace, and disliked Netanyahu on a number of personal counts. In the 1999 general elections they replaced him with Ehud Barak, the new Labor leader, who came in on a peace ticket. Like Rabin, here was an ex-general who embodied security and could deliver it—while giving peace a chance.

And then came Barak’s rapid, almost meteoric, fall from grace. He failed to clinch a peace deal with Syria and controversially withdrew Israel’s troops from southern Lebanon to the international border, and he tried and failed to reach a lasting peace with the Palestinians. In July 2000 at Camp David, he offered Arafat a sovereign, albeit largely demilitarized, Palestinian state in 91 per cent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip, with administrative control over parts of Jerusalem—and Arafat said “no.” In December President Clinton upped the ante, offering Arafat—in the so-called “Clinton Parameters”—94–96 per cent of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and sovereignty over the Arab-speaking neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, including the bulk of the Old City, and Palestinian sovereignty over the surface area of the Temple Mount, and Arafat again refused—and returned to Palestine to a hero’s welcome. Both in July and December Arafat had insisted on Israeli acceptance of the “Right of Return” of the Palestinian refugees while Barak and Clinton had provided for the resolution of the refugee problem mainly by resettlement in place or in the future Palestinian state, not in Israel.

Barak had gambled and failed to achieve peace. And the Palestinians had not only said “no” but proceeded to launch the Second Intifada, this one far more violent than the first (some 1,400 Israelis were blown up, knifed and shot to death, and many more were wounded, during the following three years). Barak lost by a landslide and was ousted from the premiership in the general elections of 2001. The Israeli public wanted a no-nonsense, hardline general and despaired of the Palestinians ever agreeing to a compromise, and installed Sharon as prime minister.

Sharon ultimately crushed the Second Intifada, but failed to persuade the Palestinians to renew negotiations, and in 2005 unilaterally uprooted all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrew Israel’s troops. The Palestinians responded by giving the Hamas a majority in their parliament in the 2006 general elections. The next year, Hamas staged an armed takeover of the Gaza Strip, from which it proceeded to periodically rocket southern Israel. Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, offered Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, a peace settlement along the lines of Clinton’s parameters. Abbas also said “no” (though technically, being much cagier than Arafat, he refrained from actually publicly saying the word “no”—and merely refrained from responding to Olmert’s concrete proposals).

Since 2009, Netanyahu has led successive Israeli governments and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been marked by treading water and stalemate, dotted by bouts of asymmetric warfare between Israel and the Hamas in Gaza and periodic bouts of terrorism and counterterrorism in the West Bank. Throughout the peace-process era, under Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, Olmert and again Netanyahu, Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank has burgeoned, the number of settlers more or less doubling to about half a million in the twenty-year period (though Rabin and even Netanyahu had periodically agreed to limited settlement freezes to give negotiations a chance. Nothing, or nothing good, came of the negotiations, and the settlement enterprise was as repeatedly renewed).


WHICH BRINGS US back to the question: Did Rabin’s assassination change anything? Would history have been different had he lived? Back in 2004 the Clinton administration’s Middle East point man, Dennis Ross, published a memoir about his years as peace negotiator, The Missing Peace. In it he offered what amounted to two contradictory theses as to why the negotiations of 2000 had failed: One, that Arafat sincerely wanted peace but that the Israelis had never offered what he regarded as sufficient concessions and that he had, at each critical juncture, responded with a tactical “no” in the belief that he still had time to eke out further concessions, but that in the end he had misjudged the situation, time ran out, matters spun out of control and he lost the chance to get a two-state solution which included a sovereign Palestinian state.