Oslo shattered a Taboo

The Oslo Accord didn’t bring freedom, but it changed things

Washington Watch

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, there will be commentary galore about how the accords failed. There’ll be predictable finger-pointing. Some of it will ring true, but most will miss the point.

The Israelis, of course, will blame the Palestinians for, as their false but still often-used saying has it- “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” And Palestinians will blame the Israelis for never intending to honour or deliver on what they expected to be the promise of the accords. There will also be “I told you so” recriminations from the Palestinian “left” and the Islamist “right.” They never supported the accords and like the Israeli far right, did everything they could to sabotage the peace process. So, both will crow seeing the failure as a sort of perverse vindication.

Let me be clear from the outset. I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I supported Oslo, despite being an eyewitness to its unravelling. During the first five years of the accords, I saw and wrote to President Clinton and wrote dozens of articles- eyewitness accounts, detailing the impact of Israeli policies that were undermining the chances for peace. To no avail. But even with that, I’m not sorry I supported Oslo, nor am I ashamed of the lengths to which I went to defend it against its early foes.

Thirty years ago, news of an Israeli-PLO agreement hit Washington like an earthquake, shattering taboos and upending what had been considered political constants. I was part of the group of hundreds of Arab Americans and American Jews who were there on the White House lawn to witness the signing ceremony.

After the signing, when President Clinton nudged Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pressing him to accept PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s outstretched hand, an audible gasp could be heard from the assembled- followed by applause and handshakes and embracing throughout the audience- with Jewish leaders seeking out Arab Americans and vice versa. Something big had just happened, and it was exciting. But because we were entering uncharted waters, hopefulness was mixed with uncertainty.

To those who were not of age in the years before 13 September 1993, the handshake may not have seemed so consequential. But for the generation who grew up under the cloud of anti-Palestinian bigotry and Arab American exclusion, it was enormous.

Thirty years later, those breakthroughs may seem to pale in the face of the enormity of the sufferings still endured by Palestinians. But seen in the American political context, they were important and not to be dismissed.

In 1975, as part of the Sinai Disengagement Agreement, Israel had secured a secret pledge from the USA that it would never talk to the PLO. Commenting on this, then Israeli Prime Minister Shamir said that his aversion to the PLO wasn’t based on what they did, but what they stood for- Palestinian national rights. Further elaborating, in 1985, speaking in Washington, then Defence  Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared that talking to the PLO was unacceptable because, “Whoever agrees to talk to the PLO means he accepts in principle the creation of a Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan.” And this Israel could not accept.

In the USA, pro-Israel groups did their best to broaden this rejection of all things Palestinian. The State Department forcefully implemented a “no-talk” policy. (US Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young was fired because he spoke with the Head of the PLO UN mission.) Legislation was passed declaring the PLO a terrorist group. When I attempted to modify the 1988 Democratic Party platform to include very modest language affirming the rights of the Palestinian people, I was told “If that ‘p word’ even appears in the platform, all hell will break loose.”

Not satisfied with demonizing the Palestinian cause and their organizations, pro-Israel groups imposed a religious-like taboo on Palestinian leaders. It wasn’t enough to secure restrictions banning US politicians from meeting with Arafat or other top PLO leaders, physical contact was seen as making a politician unclean. Campaigns were run against congressmen who met Arafat denouncing them for “shaking Arafat’s hand.”

And so here we were, on that September day, watching Israel not only talking to and signing an agreement with the PLO, but now shaking hands with the person whom they had spent decades vilifying. Israel and its US supporters had also spent at least that many years punishing and smearing Western politicians who had met with this same Palestinian leader and shaken his hand.

More than anything, this handshake, which out of context may seem to some to have been an inconsequential act, was the shattering of a taboo that pro-Israel groups had worked decades to establish and which they had used to torment or destroy the political careers of those who risked defying them.

Oslo also opened the White House doors to Arab Americans, normalizing for the first time our relationship with government. Vice President Al Gore launched a project to bring the economic benefits of peace to Palestinians. Invited to join the board- on equal terms- were 75 Jewish American and 75 Arab American (mostly Palestinian American) business leaders. There were frequent meetings with the President, Vice President, and Secretaries of State and Commerce. The community was given the respect it deserved and had for too long been denied. And while our foes continued to oppose us and made efforts to exclude us, the doors, once opened, could not easily be closed.

Thirty years later, those breakthroughs may seem to pale in the face of the enormity of the sufferings still endured by Palestinians. But seen in the American political context, they were important and not to be dismissed.

In the end, Oslo did fail. And while the fingers of blame can point in many directions, ultimately, as I will discuss in my next column, it was the refusal of the US to assume its responsibility as guarantor of the process that is the main reason for the disaster the Israeli-Palestinian arena has become.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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