Dreams of Peace Led to Israel’s Biggest Mistake’
Distinguished Rennert Lecture at Bar-Ilan University
June 10, 2002
In the 1990s, America slept and Israel dreamed.
The United States awoke on Sept. 11, 2001. Israel awoke in
Like the left and like the reverie that we had in the
United States, secular messianism was intoxicated with the idea that
history had changed from a history based on military and political conflict
to one in which the ground rules were set by markets and technology. This
was the infatuation with globalization as the great leveler and the abolisher of
things like politics, war and international conflict. This kind of
geo-economics was widely accepted in the early post-Cold War era.
It was Sept. 11th that abolished that illusion. It taught
us in America there are enemies, they are ideological, they care nothing
for economics and they will use whatever military power they have as a means to
achieve their ideological ends. This is the old history, perhaps the oldest
history of all, the war of one God against another. No new history, no break in history,
no redemption from history.
The other source of this secular messianism in the Israeli
context was the success of the European Union, which was seen as a model
for peace in the Middle East. There was talk of Israel, Palestinian and Jordan
becoming a new Benelux, with common markets, open borders, friendship and
Indeed, if you look at the Oslo Accords, of course there is
page upon page of all of these ideas of cooperation on economics, on technology,
on environment, all which in retrospect appear absurd. And indeed, this entire
idea of the Benelux on the Jordan looks insane in retrospect, but I believe that
it was insane from the very beginning, when it was first proposed 10 years ago.
There are such obvious differences between the European
situation and the Middle Eastern one. First is that the period of harmony,
integration and commodity among the Europeans happened only after the utter and
total defeat of one party. It did not come from long negotiations between France
and Germany at Camp David, compromising their differences over the 20th century.
It came from the utter destruction of Germany and the rebuilding of a new Europe
after that surrender and accommodation.
These conditions do not apply in the Middle East. The only
way that that kind of peace will come definitely is the peace not of the
brave but of the grave, and that means a peace that would be established with
the defeat of Israel and its eradication. There is no way that Israel can
utterly defeat the Arabs the way the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in the
Second World War. So that the idea of some kind of harmonious Middle
Eastern Union drawing on the European mantle is drawn from a totally false
historical analogy, one that is based on surrender and accommodation that
could not happen in this Middle Eastern context unless we are looking at
the world through the eyes of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Secondly, the Middle East is still a collagen of religious
fanaticism, economic backwards and political tyranny. It is nothing more
than a mirage to transpose the situation in Europe with the harmony that came
after half a millennium of conflict and in conditions of modernity to transpose
those conditions to the Middle East, with a conflict as much younger and the
political culture infinitely less mature. In this context, to look at the savage
religious and secular conflicts going on throughout the Middle East and to
believe that the most virulent of these, the conflict with Israel, can find the
kind of harmonious coexistence that exists in Europe, can only be called
Now this is not to say that the only impulse underlying
Oslo was messianic. There was a messianic left and there was a realistic left,
if you like. The realists saw Oslo as a pragmatic way out of Israel dilemma. I
believe in retrospect, as I believed at the time, that they were utterly
mistaken, but at least they were not dreaming.
I think Rabin had a fairly coherent logic behind Oslo. He
saw three basic changes in the world having occurred in the ’90s, and he
thought they would give Israel an opportunity to quickly settle the Palestinian
dispute and to concentrate on the larger disputes coming in the longer run from
the periphery, from the missiles and the weapons of mass destruction that would
soon be in the hands of Iran, Iraq, Libya and others.
And the three events he saw were: First, the collapse of
the Soviet Union, which deprived the rejectionist Arabs of the great
superpower sponsor and source of economic, military and diplomatic assistance.
Second was the victory of the United States in the Gulf War and the
establishment of American hegemony in the region. Third was the terminal
condition of the PLO. Arafat had again, as always, chosen the wrong side in
war, was cut off by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, ostracized by the United States,
lost all of his financial and diplomatic support. The PLO was on its last legs.
Rabin thought he was cleverly exploiting the weakness of
the PLO by reviving it, he imagined, just enough so it could make peace with
him. With the Soviets gone, with Iraq defeated, with the U.S. ascended, with the
PLO weakened, he thought he could make a deal on this basis. He turned out
to be hopelessly mistaken, both on the intentions and on the recuperative powers
of the PLO once Israel had helped it out of its abyss.
It was one of the great miscalculations in diplomatic
Indeed, I believe Oslo will stand as perhaps the most
catastrophic, self-inflicted wound by any state in modern history.
But at least in Rabin’s mind, as I understood it, it was
a calculation. For Peres and his counterpart on the Israeli left, it was a
leap of faith. And I mean the word literally, faith.
Chesterton once said that when a man stops believing in God
he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything. In the
ideologically fevered 20th century, this belief in anything often turned out to
be a belief in history, history with a capital H. For the messianic left,
Oslo was more than a deal. It was a realization, a ratification of a new era in
Rabin’s Oslo was pessimistic, peace with fences,
separation, divorce wearing its tenuousness. Peres’ Oslo was eschatological:
Benelux, geo-economics, the abolition of power politics.
Israel, labored under its illusion, did not awake to its reality
for seven long years, until reality declared itself in the summer of 2000
at Camp David, when Barak’s astonishingly conciliatory peace offer elicited
a Palestinian counteroffer of terrorism and suicide bombing.
This is not to say that peace is impossible; it is only to
say that peace will always be contingent. And even that contingent peace
will require the demonstration by the Arab side of its willingness, its genuine
willingness, to live in acceptance of a Jewish state.
Again, that is not impossible. That is what Sadat offered,
and he meant it. It is not clear that post-Sadat Egypt means it, although
it has lived within the Sadatian parameters at least for reasons of prudence
But there has never been a Sadat among the Palestinians.
And the idea that one can strike a real peace deal with Arafat, in the
absence of a Sadat-like acceptance of the Jewish state, is indeed delusional.
Until there is a genuine Arab, a genuine Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish
state within whatever borders, there will be no end to history, there will only
be more and more history.
Bismarck once said of the Balkans that they produce more
history than they can consume, and that will be the fate of the Middle East
for the foreseeable future.
Let me conclude by dealing with one objection to my
characterization of the secular messianism of the Israeli, and I might say
American, left. One might ask, “Was not the original Zionist dream itself
messianic?” After all, a hundred years ago Zionism itself appeared to be a
crazy dream. The idea of the ingathering of the exiles, the reestablishment of
the Hebrew language, of Hebrew culture, the settling of the land, the
achievement of political independence, appeared all to be, well, messianic.
I would argue precisely the opposite. Zionism is the
antithesis of messianism. Zionism argued against waiting in the Diaspora with
prayer and fervency for some deus ex machina to come and to rescue the Jews.
Zionism rejected the idea of waiting for an outside agent, for a Shabbetai Zvi
and a Bar Kochba. Zionism is supremely an ideology of self-reliance, of self-realization.
It refuses to depend on others, it postulates no sudden change in the psychology
of enemies, it postulates no change in human nature, it postulates no
discontinuity in history.
Zionism accepted the world precisely as it was and decided
that precisely because the world was as it was, the Jews had no future in
the Diaspora and would have to build their future in Zion. Most of all, they
understood that the building of Zion would depend on Jewish action, Jewish
initiative, Jewish courage. They had to go out and to build a state
themselves, and they did.
Oslo, on the other hand, a supreme expression of
post-Zionist messianism, was entirely contrary to that spirit. Why? Because
of its passivity, its reliance on an almost quasi-religious change of heart
among Israel’s enemies. It is an acceptance of Israel by people who daily
in their propaganda, in their sermons, in their pedagogies, anatomize the very
idea of the Jewish state. It expected a renunciation of terrorism by people
who practice, support, and fund and glorify it, and who had been doing that for
20 years, 30 years. It believed in entrusting the security, the safety,
perhaps even the very existence of the Jewish state into the hands of sworn
We have now learned, to our sadness and horror, that one
cannot contract out the safety of the Zionist experiment to others, most
especially to Arafat and the PLO. That was the premise of Oslo and it has proven
to be catastrophic.
I repeat, in the 1990s America slept, and Israel dreamt.
The only good news is that Israel has awoken from that reverie, the most disastrous messianic seduction since Shabbetai Zvi. Shabbetianism survived nonetheless for centuries; Osloism still has its cultic adherence. But the body of the Jewish people has awoken, let us hope not too late, and once and for all determined never again to succumb to the messianic temptation.