Rabbi’s Essays

Seven Fat Years

In September 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yaser Arafat stunned the world by announcing that they had agreed to the accords that established the framework for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In September 2000, the Israelis and Palestinians become engaged in widespread violence and fighting such as had not been experienced in the region since the days of the Intifada uprisings of a dozen years before. The peace process seems to be lying in tatters.

Almost to the day, the process known as the Oslo Accords lasted for seven years. The length of time recalls the seven years in the Joseph story. There, Joseph predicts before Pharaoh that Egypt and its environs will enjoy a span of productivity followed by a period of famine. Have we just concluded another span of seven fat years?

From the start, it is worth considering—as many have—whether the last seven years should be called fat at all. There has been antagonism to the Oslo Accords from the time they were first articulated. From the Israeli and Jewish point of view (the two are not synonymous, but more on that some other time), the opposition can be expressed into two general lines of argument. One is an idealist position: that it is simply impermissible to surrender any of the land captured in 1967, either because Israel has a right of conquest, or—more commonly expressed—giving up the land contravenes God’s promise as exemplified in the miracle of 1948 and 1967. The second position is more social-political, arguing that the Palestinians are simply not sincere. Negotiations, for them, do not represent a real attempt of arriving at some accommodation for two peoples to share the same piece of land, but rather a tactic in pursuit of their ultimate goal, the destruction of the Jewish State.

However reasoned, the opposition stance posits that the last seven years have not been fat, but rather a mirage. The breakdown in the process represented by the latest wave of violence serves triumphantly to support their point: Now all Israelis, Jews and their supporters know for sure that there never was a peace process at all.

Some long-time defenders of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent negotiations appear to have conceded the point. They argue however, that the past seven years have nonetheless been modestly fat. Yes, it might be true that the whole process was a sham, that Arafat never had either the ability or the interest in forging a territorial accommodation along the lines envisioned by Oslo. But until the September breakdown, this was not clear. The process showed the world that Israel was indeed an honest partner in the search for peace, and not a remorseless oppressor of an indigenous people as the Arab world had been claiming. Since 1967, world opinion had tended to support the prospect that Palestinians and Israelis must talk directly with each other in order to work out their differences. Starting in 1993, and for the next seven years, Israel and Palestine actually did talk. They tried, it failed, and now all Israelis and all but the world’s most biased observers will know who is at fault.


Before pursuing an alternative view of events, let us accept the proposition suggested above that Oslo is dead, the peace process is over. What now? In this context, a number of scenarios can be suggested, but they all have at their root that the Israel-Palestinian issue is now at a stable impasse. Palestinians and Arabs will want the Jewish State to disappear. They will agitate in international forums and occasionally launch military expeditions. Neither, however, will be successful. They were not successful in four wars. They were not successful in numerous terrorist attacks. They were not successful even in the 70’s and 80’s when Palestinians enjoyed their widest and most sympathetic support on the world stage. This sometime violent, sometime tense, almost always anxious impasse will last until …

Until when? What indeed are the conditions that will bring the impasse to an end? This is not an insignificant question. In strategic encounters, one must work through an end-game. What is the Middle-East end-game?

We can conceive of some absolute conditions: the Messiah comes; Palestinians and Arabs give up and formally renounce any national claim to the Land; or, conversely, Jews give up and renounce their Zionism. There are factions who consider one or another of these solutions realistic and inevitable. A few of these are apocalyptic in their thinking, expecting their vision of a lasting “peace” in the Middle East to be just around the corner. Many others have no particular timetable. They sense that the stalemate in the region will go on for a long time—generations, maybe even centuries—but that the only possible ultimate solution is that only one people, Palestinian or Jew, will end up in full control of the Land.

These positions are sobering. They are hardly disconfirmed by the events of recent weeks. Territorial compromise and reconciliation between two peoples does not seem possible. Perhaps we must stand fast and wait; either until God intervenes or the other side simply gives up. Patience is often a virtue, but too much inactivity in a region filled with cycles of violence and dislocation leads to despondency and depression.

I personally witnessed this sense of near paralysis when visiting Israel in 1988, during the height of the Intifada. Speaking with Israelis from diverse social and political backgrounds, I would hear recurring themes of an existential helplessness. They did not want to annex the West Bank and Gaza territories, because they did not want to absorb a large angry Arab population. Nor were they prepared to withdraw from the territories for they feared the security consequences. Further they tended to reject schemes of attempting to expel or “transfer” the Arabs out of the area as wholly impractical and nearly impossible to carry out. For the most part, they simply wanted to wake up one morning with the whole problem solved.

Some observers and commentators have been suggesting that the most recent clashes represent a new Intifada. I wonder how many Israelis really want to go back to the conditions and feelings of 1988?


Are there less absolute conditions that would allow for a reasonably stable solution to the crisis of Israel-Palestine? I believe there are, but I also believe that they require a different attitude toward the past seven years than described above, and a different attitude regarding the peace process as well.

To begin, let us revisit 1993. By that year, the Intifada had long run its course. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The significance of this event should not be underestimated. Whatever differences were to be found among the members of the Arab League—and they were profound, particularly with Egypt’s separate peace with Israel—nothing was more devastating to Arab unity than this invasion. The unwritten pact among Arab nations had been to respect national territorial integrity, no matter how arbitrary the borders might have been. (Most had been dictated by European powers during their colonization of the region.) The Iran-Iraq War of most of the 1980’s fell outside this understanding since Iran is not regarded as an Arab nation. More to the point was Syria and Lebanon. No matter how much Syria manipulated Lebanese internal affairs, it never made any claims on its territory.

Then Iraq attempted to swallow up the sovereign country of Kuwait, and Arab unity was rent asunder. Following the Persian Gulf operation, President Bush tried to take advantage of increased U.S. influence in the region by creating the Madrid conference, in order to force direct negotiations between Israel and its erstwhile allies—including Syria and Saudi Arabia!—in the war against Iraq. The conference turned out to be a sham, as neither Israel, led by a Likud coalition under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, nor the Arab nations were really interested in any substantial conversation. The Palestinians were cut out of this process. Not only was Israel still formally adamantly opposed to any direct contact, but they had been on the wrong side of the Persian Gulf conflict.

In the 1992 Knesset elections, Rabin replaced Shamir as head of the government. Little was expected to change. Rabin had been the architect of a severe response to the Intifada. Sometime before leaving office, Shamir had suggested that the Arab-Israel conflict could last another thousand years. The change of government did not suggest any re-evaluation of this assessment.

Then Rabin suddenly revealed that his iron glove covered a velvet hand. Even as he was prosecuting the strong military response to Palestinian uprising, he had established secret and direct contacts with Palestinian leadership. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Oslo Accords, there is no doubt that the announcement of their existence in September 1993, pulled everyone out of a general torpor. Supporters and detractors on both sides were energized. Either they saw in the process the route toward a firm and lasting peace, or they felt that they must act in order to thwart a dangerous and probably disastrous course of development.

Either way, everything changed. The past seven years have been bloody. There have been suicide bombings and death-dealing retaliations. Some analysts have noted that the body count from the bus bombings and other attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was larger than in all the years since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But the target of these attacks, and of the few notable Jewish actions against Arabs, was no longer so much the opposing people as the peace process itself.

Outside of the violence, other developments were extraordinary. Jordan and Morocco joined Egypt as Arab nations with diplomatic relations with Israel. Tunisia allowed an Israel-interest section to open, a level just below an embassy. About a dozen non-Arab Moslem countries also established formal relations. Another 20-25 countries that had broken off contact in the years following 1967 restored them. A number of Arab nations dropped their secondary and tertiary embargos of trade with Israel. Israel’s population grew dramatically, both from the large immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and from the drop in Jewish emigration. Increased favorable trade ties with Europe and the Far East brought about growth in the economy and general raised standard of living. In many ways, the past seven years have been fat.


Perhaps in the context of the benefits of the Oslo Accords, the peace process has been quite popular among Israelis. In 1996, Shimon Peres was ousted by Binyamin Netanyahu. Ordinarily a Likud victory would signal public dissatisfaction with Rabin-Peres inspired program of territorial concession. Instead, it represented first a discomfort with the style and approach of Peres, and second, a sense that he might push the process too hard and recklessly. Netanyahu had to campaign on the promise that he would maintain the process, and in such instances as the Wye Plantation Agreement, he did. Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister, however, was among the shortest in Israel’s history. His decisive loss to Barak in 1999 can be laid to a number of factors, but one was certainly his evident reluctance in moving the peace process ahead.

Israel’s political map divides along a number of overlapping lines: UltraOrthodox vs. Religious vs. Secular, Old-Guard Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi vs. Soviet Immigrant, Kibbutz Socialist vs. City Entrepreneur, and so on. The agendas and ambitions of those who promoted or represented these factions in the Israeli body politic tended to obscure public opinion on Barak’s handling of the peace process. There seem to be a few things that could be said about public support. First, by the summer of 2000, Israelis were mostly accepting of the idea of an independent Palestinian State. The second is that, while the majority of Israelis supported the peace process and yet held to a wide range of opinions regarding how much compromise for how much peace, in general they agreed that a secure peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world was much more important than virtually any particulars with respect to concession of land. The old Peace Now slogan, “Peace is greater than a Greater Israel,” had gained general acceptance.

With this as a background, Barak entered into the summer’s Camp David “Final Status” negotiation with a bargaining position that had scant Knesset support. The already shaky coalition he had put together a year earlier had disintegrated. Yet Barak went ahead with his offer. I think he reasoned as follows: the coalition’s fragility was due to factors that did not have to do with the peace process. As a seasoned military leader, he was confident that the offer did not represent serious security problems for Israel. Thus, in the end, no matter how much the parties posture, the public would accept the deal he was prepared to make. Finally, it could hardly hurt for Barak to be seen out on a limb. It would reinforce his argument that this is about the best offer he can make.

In this negotiation, Barak needed Arafat to take roughly the same risk he was doing. It is akin to building an archway. The stones veer off each vertical post, become increasingly precariously balanced, and would certainly fall if they were not ultimately supported by each other into a stable portal. Barak reached out beyond the bargaining that his country was prepared to go, but it would work fine if Arafat reached out in the same way.

Arafat did not. He was not even prepared to make any symbolic gestures. His intransigence was met by public anger on the part of Clinton, who announced that he was now prepared to break a long-standing American and Western position, and move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Even more significant, Arafat discovered that his “principled stubbornness” at Camp David, was not getting any support from historic allies in Russia, Europe and the Far East. The firm threat that the Palestinian Authority would declare Statehood on September 13, a warning that contributed to the Camp David meeting in the first place, ultimately—and with some humiliation—had to be postponed.


Perhaps in hindsight, the uprising that has gripped the region over the past weeks is not so surprising. The Palestinian Authority had blown it. They took a hard-line stance at Camp David, and rather than achieving some credit for tenaciously adhering to moral principle, most of the world viewed the breakdown as Arafat’s unwillingness or inability to complete a deal. When the impasse was reached, many Israelis who were uncomfortable with Barak’s proposed concessions probably sighed in relief. But the reaction among Palestinians was more of frustration. They were stuck, no closer to their goal of their own State, and deprived any popular international support. Sooner or later, then, the pot was going to boil over.

Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount was as good excuse as any. I would guess that the initial response to Sharon was actually quite spontaneous. Arafat, in accordance with the classic principle of figuring out which way the parade is moving in order to run to the front and lead it, then moved to take as much control of the situation as possible. At any rate, it strikes me as clear that Arafat is only partially in control. By this I am not referring to his inability to turn and off the violence, but rather that the violence bespeaks a Palestinian government with virtually no plan and few options regarding how to proceed.

This condition is revealed throughout the region. The Arab League summit meeting ended inconclusively. The historically rejectionist States—Libya and Iraq, in particular—pressed for the Arab position of the 1970’s: no negotiation, no compromise. Even in the face of an apparently collapsed peace process, the League refused to consider this approach (and Libya stormed out of the meeting), but could not come up with anything else.

So, in the past few weeks, there have calls for national liberation of all of Palestine, or demands for Israeli withdrawal, or the creation of the State of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital, and most of it accompanied with support of armed struggle. And now nearly 200 people are dead and thousands wounded, the overwhelming majority is Palestinian. Leave aside questions of the proportion of the Israeli response to rock throwing and small arms fire, one cannot help but be amazed of the willingness of an Arab population willing to place themselves in harm’s way, virtually inviting serious injury or death. We are witnessing individuals who appear to prefer to be dead than face any sort of future!

The reason for this phenomenal self-destructiveness, to my eyes, is only marginally due to the actions and policies of Israel. While the last seven years have been mostly fat for Israel and Israelis, they have been far less so for Arabs and Palestinians. Not only has there been little amelioration of their material well being—particularly in the light that this was a promised subsidy of the peace process—but they have received precious little political and social benefit either.

Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Mexico, Peru, Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast: all of these nations have recently experienced popular movements and uprising that have led to the fall or the serious challenge of well entrenched autocratic governments. In every part of the world we have witnessed an inexorable movement toward democratic self-determination; every part of the world except the Arab world. Even Iran has been shaking off the dour theocracy that had replaced a self-serving autocracy.

Yet from Morocco to Iraq, one encounters kings, sheiks, emirs, generals and presidents-for-life, who tightly hold to the reigns of power and privilege; who denounce Israel (and sometimes the West) as their great enemy, but who fear their own people most of all.