On a bright, sunny day in September of 1993, I stood on the White House lawn watching Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat sign the Oslo peace accords in front of President Bill Clinton. At that moment, it was possible to suspend disbelief and imagine a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side.
Twenty years on, Rabin and Arafat are dead, and so is the Oslo peace process — although politicians from Israel and the West are loath to admit this.
Last week at the United Nations, however, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said his government could no longer be bound by the Oslo pact, emphasizing Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank among his many grievances. Abbas warned that the Palestinian Authority would halt all cooperation with Israel, which would require Jerusalem to resume full occupation of the West Bank. His remarks are a warning of serious trouble ahead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was focused on denouncing the Iran nuclear deal, made only a pro forma reference to peace talks, along with a slap at Abbas. There was little sign that the Israeli leader recognized the high cost to his nation of allowing the Oslo process to come to a formal close.
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Netanyahu’s worries about Iran are understandable given Iranian leaders’ frequent denunciation of “the Zionist state” and insistence that Israel will cease to exist in coming decades. But his obsession with the ayatollahs — who aren’t likely to ever attack the nuclear-armed Jewish state directly — seems to have blinded him to dangers closer to home.
Foremost among them is long-term Israeli rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Rabin signed the Oslo accords because he recognized the risk of such rule. He warned in 1976 that it could lead to a form of apartheid. He also warned that Israeli settlements were “comparable to a cancer in the tissue of Israel’s democratic society.”
A fanatic advocate of those settlements shot Rabin dead in 1995.
With peace talks on hold, irrespective of who is to blame, the vast expansion of Jewish settlements convinces Palestinians — and the world — that Israel wants to keep the West Bank. The placement of settler towns and roads splits the area into cantons connected mainly by tunnels and bridges.
An even broader network of dozens of “illegal” settlements, built by radical youths and allegedly slated for dismantlement, is instead being gradually legalized by the Israeli government. They are filling in the territorial gaps among older settlements, further separating Palestinian towns and villages from each other and from their agricultural land.
Even if peace talks resume, the chaos in the Middle East would make any final deal impossible for years to come. But the settlements rule out any prospect of two states in the future.
As a result, tensions are rising sharply on the West Bank. Last week, an Israeli settler couple were shot to death while driving in the West Bank with their four children. Meantime, radical settler youths have been harassing or attacking Palestinian civilians, recently burning a Palestinian family to death in their home.
Abbas’ speech was a warning that the status quo can’t last.
As part of the Oslo accords, Palestinian police and intelligence forces work with Israel to prevent violence on the West Bank. For the most part, they have been successful, keeping in check the West Bank’s radicals, including those who sympathize with Gaza’s Hamas extremists.
Yet it becomes harder and harder for Abbas to continue that cooperation as settlements expand — and occupation promises to become permanent. Palestinians accuse his security forces of acting as collaborators.
If Abbas’ security cooperation lapses, Israel will have to formally reinstate military control of the West Bank. That would be bound to provoke a major resumption of terrorist attacks in Greater Israel, provoking Israeli countermeasures, which in turn would guarantee more terrorism, etc.
Until now, Abbas’ forces have prevented jihadi groups from taking root in the West Bank. The scenario above would ensure that they emerge.
Moreover, Abbas’ Palestinian Authority administers the West Bank, with heavy subsidies from international financial institutions and the European Union. Should his government, a product of the Oslo agreement, decide to stand down, Israel would have to formally resume running all the West Bank’s services. The restoration of overt occupation would be complete.
So rather than ignore Abbas’ words, the Israeli government should start thinking seriously about how to prevent such an outcome. Yes, Abbas has threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority before and failed to follow through, but the death of the Oslo process may force his hand.
It’s time for Netanyahu to pay attention. The best way to start would be to freeze the expansion of settlements that rule out any future agreement with the Palestinians.
Otherwise, Israel will soon face a growing security threat from within.