Oslo on My Mind

Memories of the day, twenty-two years ago, when the Oslo Accords were signed—and of the price Israel paid for that “terrible mistake.”

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin with their Nobel Peace Prizes in Oslo in 1994. Wikipedia.

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin with their Nobel Peace Prizes in Oslo in 1994. Wikipedia.

Sept. 10 2015
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

As happens every year at this time, I can’t help dwelling on the events of the day, twenty-two years ago, when the Oslo Accords were signed by Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of the state of Israel, and the PLO chieftain Yasir Arafat, thereafter to be known as president of the new Palestinian Authority. This year, my memories of September 13, 1993 have been triggered by a passage in Ally, Michael Oren’s recently published account of his term as Israel’s ambassador to the United States between 2009 and 2013.

The most important parts of Oren’s book recount his dealings—fraught, frequently contentious, even abusive—with the Obama administration and the American president. That Oren is a professional historian and trustworthy witness only underlines the significance of what he reveals about this agonizing period in America-Israel relations. But along the way he also tells his own personal story: the story of how an American Jewish boy fulfilled his adolescent dream of moving to Israel and entering a life of service to his people.

It is within the context of that personal story that, early in the book, Oren recalls and reflects upon the meaning of September 13, 1993. Having moved to Israel in the mid-1980s, he was then raising his family in Jerusalem. That night (which was still afternoon in the U.S.), he stood on the roof of a downtown office building and observed the stark contrast between the festive lights blazing in the city’s Arab areas and the darkness of its Jewish neighborhoods. Like his cautious fellow Israelis, he says, he doubted that peace was actually in reach. Yet, for reasons both moral and political, he supported the peace process itself, and endorsed Rabin’s decision to enter into the agreement:

Even if we could not immediately achieve peace, we were morally bound to lay its foundations. We had to convince the world and, more importantly, our own children that Israel had done its utmost to avoid confrontation. Hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ethiopian Jews were arriving in Israel, and absorbing them required beating some swords into plowshares. So, too, did transforming our economy, long girded for war, into a global, high-tech contender. And while the land of Israel—including the West Bank [of the Jordan River]—remained our birthright, sustaining it came at a rising international price.

Whatever he may think of Oslo now, this paragraph remains Oren’s justification for his support of the accords at the time.

As it happens, I was also in Jerusalem that same night, as a visitor—and mine was a very different frame of mind. On a late afternoon of the previous week, I’d received a phone call from Richard Bernstein of the New York Times asking me to comment on the agreement that had just been scheduled to be signed on the following Monday. It surprised me that a reporter would have taken the trouble to track me down in a Jerusalem hotel to solicit my view on something happening back in Washington; if Bernstein had to go so far afield, I thought, he must have been having trouble finding a dissenting voice. But found it he now had. Pacing back and forth, holding nothing back, I argued against the agreement as though he, on the phone, had the power to abrogate it.

About an hour later, Bernstein called back to confirm the words that would appear in the morning paper:

“I think that the Jews think that they can solve the Arab problem and I think that that is a terrible mistake.” Ms. Wisse’s concern is that in dealing with Mr. Arafat, the Israelis are, in effect, intervening in Arab politics, choosing the PLO chief, whom she called “a killer,” to be the leader of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

If things go wrong—and she believes there is a good chance they will—it is Israel that will bear responsibility, she said. “It’s the first time that an Israeli government is doing something for which I, as an American Jew, would not like to bear moral responsibility.”

Although Bernstein had turned my certainty that things would “go wrong” into a mere belief, and had greatly abridged my oration, the words, however clumsy, were mine. But then he surprised me again by giving me his number and saying he would wait another half-hour in case I had second thoughts about putting my thoughts on the record. Before or since, no interviewer has ever made me such an offer. What impelled him? It may have been the same thing that kept my heart pounding after I’d put down the phone: how could I renounce the dream of peace, of toleration, of recognition, of hope for a saner world, the hope that had eluded the Jews since almost their beginnings in history?

Yet, however alluring the hope, as precious to me as to those who the next week would be giddily dancing the hora on the White House lawn, I could not collude in what I saw as a charade, and one that was bound to prolong and intensify the Arab war against the Jews, increase terrorism against Israel—and impede any true hope of Palestinian self-determination. Yasir Arafat was more than a “killer”: he was the original and archetypical Arab-Muslim terrorist, backed by regimes that did not want to take the risk of violent action against Israel for fear of retaliation but were eager to direct against the Jewish state the festering popular discontent at home that might otherwise be directed against themselves.

Had there ever been any real prospect of peace with Israel, negotiations with Arafat would have been conducted by legitimate representatives of Israel, not by the self-appointed, unelected Jews who convened meetings in secret—in Norway!—with PLO men who bore no accountability to any public. The Jews who organized these meetings, not all of them Israelis, subverted the will of the citizenry that had elected Rabin on the strength of his promise that no such negotiations would take place. Arafat orchestrated the farce, no doubt having assured his Arab funders that he for his part had no intention of beating his or their swords into plowshares. Nor, as the deal moved forward, did any of those funders see a need to declare an end to their support of terrorism against the Jewish homeland. In brief, there was not a shred of evidence to substantiate the assumption that Israel could win even an hour’s respite from this agreement.

In 1970-71, King Hussein of Jordan had murdered enough of Arafat’s local cohort to deter the PLO from trying to turn Jordan into Palestine. “Black September,” as the king’s crackdown on Arafat’s terrorist cadres was dubbed, served to discourage further incursions. But now it was to this same terrorist force, crushed by Hussein with requisite harshness two decades earlier, that Yitzhak Rabin was assigning the honor of “policing” the Palestinian people. Over and over, the thought reverberated in my mind that no nation in history had ever armed its enemy with the expectation of gaining security—much less an enemy exclusively trained for violence, intimidation, and terrorism. Once Israel granted Arafat the legitimacy that no Arab state would ever have given him, he would proceed simultaneously to suppress his Arab subjects and organize an army-in-waiting to supplement the brand of anti-Israel terrorism he had already refined.


I had often feared for the safety of Israel—in 1967, in 1973, and throughout the intervening years known as the “war of attrition.” In 1993, I was in despair. I doubted that any people—much less Jews with their bad political record—could survive so blind and damning a political move. On the evening after the signing, while Michael Oren was standing on a rooftop overlooking Jerusalem, I was composing in my head a letter of apology to a man I realized I had wronged for 50 years. If I was to demand a reckoning of others, I had to own up to a terrible misjudgment of my own.

One of my earliest true memories as a refugee in Montreal is of a school assembly in the late spring of 1943—I was in second grade at a Jewish day school—at which our principal informed us about was happening to the Jews of Europe. If each of us took one of our notebooks, he said, and wrote on every line of every page the name of a Jewish child, and if we then collected all of the notebooks, the total would still not equal the number of Jewish children murdered by the Germans in the war thus far. I don’t remember whether he spoke of the recent uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, but he did tell us of a man named Shmuel Zygielbojm who had escaped from the ghetto and reached London.

A delegate of the Jewish Socialist Bund to the London-based Polish government-in-exile, Zygielbojm had begged his Polish colleagues to help devise a plan that would stop the deportations and mass killings. He met with editors and broadcasters to urge their intervention, pleaded with the Jewish community to organize mass rallies. The reports he was receiving through couriers from Poland were becoming more and more desperate, and yet he could not move those around him to take action. He felt increasingly helpless.

Finally, in protest, Zygielbojm took his own life, writing: “Perhaps my death will achieve what I was unable to achieve with my life, and concrete action will be taken to rescue at least the few hundred-thousand Jews who remain out of three-and-a-half million.” The latter number referred to the Jews of Poland; he did not know about Russia, and Hungary was still to come.

From the moment I heard about Zygielbojm, I hated his suicide. So many Jews were being killed; how could he add even one unnecessary corpse to their number?! I resented his despair, no doubt in part out of a seven-year-old’s fear that her parents, who were receiving similarly dire news about their relatives and friends, might be in danger of capitulating to the same impulse. But my revulsion stayed with me for years afterward; I remained unforgivingly furious with Zygielbojm as though he had done me personal harm. Decades later, I refused to attend an inaugural event for a Montreal park in his memory in the Jewish neighborhood of Côte St. Luc.

Fifty years later, on that night of September 13, 1993, I thought I fathomed for the first time what had driven Shmuel Zygielbojm to join the dead rather than stay with the living, and I silently offered my apology. Convinced that the Jewish people would not prevail—they in whose fate his own life was so entwined, and in whose civilizing spirit his hopes were so invested—he did not want to outlive them. More than his wife and child had been killed in the ghetto; his faith in Jewish survival was annihilated with them. Until the night I, too, despaired of the Jewish people, I could never forgive him; and then, God help me, I asked his pardon.

For Zygielboym in 1943, it was the world’s reluctance to oppose evil that had failed the Jews; in 1993, if out of a kindred reluctance, the Jews had failed themselves. And soon enough, given free rein, Arafat declared open season, killing Jews in buses and at bus stops, in discotheques, cafes, and restaurants, at street markets and in family homes. Abroad, the propaganda beat picked up, placing blame on Zionism and the Jews rather than the Arabs and Muslims who, with their infinite territories, were bent on denying Jews their national revival. For Israel, as I saw it, installing Arafat as the instrument of that denial was like hiring a professional hitman to do the “policing” you couldn’t be bothered to do yourself. That the Arab hitman would prefer killing Jews to policing Arabs was only natural and predictable.


So today I would turn Michael Oren’s moral calculus in Ally on its head. Even if Israelis “could not immediately achieve peace,” as he feared, they were indeed “morally bound to lay its foundations”—but in a very different way: by persuading the world that they were prepared—especially at a time when so many Jews had sought refuge in the national homeland—to protect their children rather than setting them up for target practice. They were also “morally bound” to convince the world to correct its own abuses and wrongs and allow the Jews, long habituated to the exercise, to correct their own. Israel was not, in Saul Bellow’s memorable phrase, the moral playground of its moral inferiors.

False messianism is the Jews’ eternal temptation, self-delusion their moral defect. I have no wish to scold Israelis who, over the ensuing decades, have reaped more than their share of punishment for their leaders’ folly in 1993. Theirs is the country I most admire, and its example is the hope of humankind. But the misplaced dream of “peace” can destroy a democratic society. The more a nation is able to build, the more it must be prepared to defend against those who want to destroy and conquer it. Any country will go down to defeat if it is not prepared to protect all that it has created.

For myself, if I have slowly made my way back from the despair I experienced on the night of the Oslo accords’ signing, it is on account of how soberly the Israel of today confronts the raging, implacable hate of the mullahs of Iran.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Michael Oren, Oslo Accords, Peace Process