25 years to the day since the signing of the Oslo Accords, analyses abound on what went wrong with the historic agreement that was supposed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some blame Palestinian leadership while others cast the fault with Israel’s government or argue that the agreement was doomed from the start by its flawed premises. The unavoidable reality, however one arrives at it, is Oslo’s failure, unless success can be counted as a colossal loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives, coupled with a legacy of ever-mounting attacks on Israel’s legitimacy.
My own reflections on Oslo’s anniversary are colored by the minor role I played in one of the Rabin government’s central challenges following the Accord’s rollout. Namely, convincing those who had the most at stake—Israelis, and those who feel their lives wedded to Israel’s—that embarking upon the Oslo process was a risk worth taking. Twenty-five years later, we can see the efforts to meet this challenge eroded the very ties binding Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
In the Fall of 1993, I was working at Federation CJA, the umbrella organization of the Montreal Jewish community, which was about to host the annual convention of communities from across North America, known as the General Assembly, or GA. A few days before the festivities began, I received a telephone call from a friend and former colleague at the Israeli Consulate, where I had worked previously for four years. The Consulate was busy too, preparing for a visit from the Prime Minister of Israel, whose keynote address was seen as a traditional high point of the GA, a State of the Union address on the condition of Israel and its bond with world Jewry. It appeared, my friend told me, that Prime Minister Rabin might need someone to translate his speech into English. If necessary, would I be willing to do the job?
In truth, I wasn’t eager for distractions from GA activity but I thought it very unlikely the prime minister wouldn’t have a translator of his own, so agreed to pitch in if necessary and promptly forgot about it. Then, on the afternoon of Rabin’s arrival, the call came, summoning me.
I arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where an entire floor was off-limits awaiting the PM and his entourage. I found my former colleagues from the Consulate and diplomats from the Embassy crowded into a hotel room that had been converted into a temporary office. A disheveled looking man entered our room. He conferred with my former boss the Consul General, who pointed to me. My friend, beside me, whispered reverently, “That’s Eitan Haber, Rabin’s Chief of Staff.” Haber greeted me and asked me to follow him down the corridor, where a security guard showed us into a large hotel room.
Haber immediately sat himself at a desk jutting out from the wall and motioned to me to take the seat opposite him. From his briefcase, he removed two writing pads. Handing one to me with a pen, he took the second pad, paused for a moment, and began to write. When he got to the bottom of the page, he tore it off, passed it to me, and I began to translate. Once a few pages of handwritten translation were complete, one of the diplomats from the Consulate came to bring them to the make-shift office near the elevators to be typed. Thus the night progressed. Collaborating on the speech, and sprawled on the hotel room bed, were Itamar Rabinovitch, Israel’s ambassador to Washington DC, the ambassador to Ottawa, Yitzhak Shelef, and others. When we had finished a draft, Haber discussed it with the dignitaries, revised it, and on two occasions during the evening, and again in the morning, brought it to Rabin’s suite for his review.
From Haber’s very first paragraphs, I realized the speech’s main purpose. This was November 1993, a mere two months since the famous September 13 handshake on the White House lawn initiating the Oslo agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Rabin saw this address to Jewish community representatives gathered at the GA as his first opportunity to appeal to Jews all over the world who had watched on television as he signed an agreement with an organization known for introducing organized terror to the world stage.
Rabin understood the grave ambivalence of the Jewish community. Through Haber, the speech expressed empathy for where these listeners were coming from. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the speech acknowledged, “I know that all of you, or most of you, watched that ceremony on the White House lawn with mixed emotions, many of you grinding your teeth.”
Indeed, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported the day after the speech in its Daily News Bulletin:
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin went straight for the gut when he addressed North American Jewry last night. Speaking before 4,000 people at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, Rabin emphasized his intimate knowledge of “scars of war” even as he leads Israel to “peace with the most bitter and odious of its foes.”
At a certain point during the back and forth of translation, Haber took a break from writing and handed me a portion of an internal memo to translate and include in the speech. Written by a senior Jewish professional based in Israel, the key paragraph took me aback. Admitting that the vast majority of North American Jews expressed great difficulty and confusion with Israel’s move to recognize the PLO, the author attributed their resistance to a post-Holocaust syndrome that made a move to peace incompatible with a Jewish consciousness so accustomed to persecution. It was this mental state that made them incapable of welcoming the Oslo breakthrough, according to the memo.
Haber apparently sensed a change of pace in my work and asked what the matter was. Trying to hide my irritation, I responded, “You know, you need to make up your mind. Are Jews in a perpetual state of mass-delusion that they don’t want to shake? Or has something actually changed, something that’s enough to justify Israel making this kind of major shift?” Haber gave me a pointed look, took the memo from my side of the desk and placed it in the wastebasket after tearing it in half. “If even one other person in that hall has the same thought,” he told me, “it’s not worth telling them.”
While the disturbing thought did not make it into Rabin’s speech the next night, one can easily see, in retrospect, the role it played in the Oslo team’s playbook. What Haber and the others selling Oslo plainly recognized was that Jewish opposition, both outside Israel and within, to the abrupt Israeli policy change was a serious obstacle which must be overcome. “Gaslighting” the community with enough cognitive dissonance to make them second guess their objections and principles must have been seen as valid a tactic as any.
In the months and years to follow, it indeed often seemed that within internal discourse, resistance to the Oslo process constituted a greater offense than Palestinian violations of the Accord. Concern over evidence of subterfuge by Arafat and the newly-formed Palestinian Authority was dismissed as irrationality and labeled a subversion of government policy, or worse: anti-peace. When presented with documented examples of incitement to hatred and violence by official PA figures, Shimon Peres would famously respond, “What matters to me is not what they say, but what they do.” Rabin’s rejoinder to the surge in terror attacks following the Oslo Accords was that one must fight terror as if there were no negotiations, and negotiate as if there were no terror attacks (as if to evoke Ben Gurion’s call for resilience in the Yishuv in fighting both Hitler and the British Mandate’s hated White Paper that restricted Jewish immigration). There seemed to be little room for discussions of substance if they implicated the Oslo process.
While Oslo supporters promised that Israel’s pursuit of peace would improve Israel’s international standing, they had the opposite result as Evelyn Gordon documented:
Perhaps because pro-Oslo Israelis viewed Israel’s own rights as too self-evident to need restating … Oslo marked the moment when Israel stopped defending its own claim to [the land] and increasingly endorsed the Palestinian claim. …With no competing narrative to challenge it any longer, the view of Israel as a thief…has gained unprecedented traction… And no one would admire a thief for returning some, but not all, of his stolen property…Indeed…even conditioning withdrawal on an end to Palestinian terror becomes harder to justify.
Israel’s standing has declined so precipitously not despite Oslo but because of Oslo…Israel’s very pursuit of peace has spurred its enemies to go for the jugular.
There was a second theme to emerge in Rabin’s GA speech. In an ironic twist, never dreaming of the damage yet to befall Israel’s standing, Rabin envisioned that with peace now at hand, the time was ripe to channel a new outlet for Jewish communal energy:
As Israel makes the transition from war to peace, a question arises regarding its relationship with the Jewish people in the Diaspora. For many, the mobilization of support for survival formed the key element in the relationship. There are those who ask whether now that the threat to our existence is being reduced considerably, a vacuum may be created in the place of that support…We should be preparing now for the day in which new issues will occupy our heart and minds because our support for Israel and our identification with Israel is based on more than the external threats to Israel. It is for that day that is approaching that we should be thinking of a new agenda.
Rabin set the stage for unveiling a project that would come to be known as Birthright. Not coincidentally, seated on the dais near Rabin was then-Montrealer, community leader Charles Bronfman, one of Birthright’s first major donors. Rabin continued:
An “Israel Experience” should be part of the upbringing of every young Jew, a rite of passage. We can bring tens of thousands of our youth to Israel through the joint efforts of Jewish communities and Israel. By bringing Jewish youth to Israel, we achieve two essential objectives: we strengthen their Jewish identities and ties to Israel while simultaneously helping our Israeli youth [with] understanding the concept of “Am Israel.”
In looking back at those early Oslo days, what is so striking, so heartbreaking, is that Jewish supporters’ opposition to the process was so vigorous. Who could ever have foreseen a time when that support would no longer be a safe bet, but that Israel would become a flashpoint issue in synagogue congregations and community organizations, not to mention campuses, where students and faculty increasingly come under assault for supporting Israel or for even affirming Israel as a component of their Jewish identities.
In working to undermine and dislodge a near monolithic, full-throated concern for Israel’s security among American Jews, replacing it with talking points designed to second-guess their own interests, Israel’s new foreign policy opened a trap door, pushing Jewish supporters to make common cause with their own adversaries. One can see clearly now, how this led to the discord now seen between Israel and American Jewry.
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It was with some bemusement that I watched Rabin deliver his speech from the rear of the packed conference center, reading the words I had translated. I met with Eitan Haber once more the next morning, before the delegation departed. As a goodbye token, he handed me the speech’s final draft, with Rabin’s last-minute edits in his own handwriting, from which the excerpts that appear here are copied. While we maintained contact over the years, including after Rabin’s assassination, I never confided to Haber the questions that have so often plagued me: What would Rabin have made of having his name and heroic record appropriated by the pro-Oslo camp? At a certain point, had he lived, might Rabin have removed the gilded-colored glasses from the “peace” industry and those who trumpeted it, and led the country to negotiations based on realistic expectations? If so, would it have been in time to salvage Israel-Diaspora relations?
Rabin’s speech reflected a monumental pivot and foreshadowed much of the fragmentation we have seen unfold. It has been years since the Israeli prime minister has traveled to address the GA.
Jennifer Roskies works at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs as chief of staff to its president, Dore Gold.