The political lessons of Oslo reverberate on the Israeli right 30 years later

Right-wing grievance against Israel’s political establishment in 1993 now defines the mindset of the Netanyahu-led coalition government in 2023

With the 30th anniversary of the Sept. 13 signing of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli right is still being shaped by the backlash to what it saw as the pursuit of an agreement with the Palestinians at all costs — even as some of the leading opponents of the peace process movement are now in power and running Israel’s government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as opposition leader was an outspoken critic when the Accords were signed in 1993, is still fuming about the consequences — namely the waves of Palestinian terrorism that subsequently transpired during the pursuit of a two-state solution. 

Earlier this month, when asked about the Oslo Accords in a closed-door briefing, Netanyahu said that the decision to pursue the wide-ranging peace treaty with the Palestinians was “a terrible historic mistake.”

Netanyahu emphasized the problem of empowering Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and his acolytes, such as current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who came under fire last week for denying the Holocaust and spouting antisemitic conspiracy theories.

“It’s incomprehensible,” the prime minister lamented, according to a source in the room. “We could have developed local Palestinian leadership instead of forces that want to destroy us.”

“With the perspective of 30 years, this was a terrible folly. In order to reconcile, we must obliterate the Palestinian hope that most of the Arab world will continue to object to the existence of Israel,” Netanyahu continued.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuli Edelstein, a Likud member, recounted living in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem, at the time.

“On the day the agreements were signed, I got a gun license,” he said at a conference of the Bithonistim, a security policy group, and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “I understood the ramifications of the Accords…Processes like Oslo and the disengagement [from Gaza] cannot be theoretical successes. This was a race in the wrong direction, without any thought about the logic behind it.”

The political lessons of the Oslo period — whether the dissolution of a solidly right-wing government that precipitated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s rise, or the mass protest movement of the time — reverberate on the right today.

An issue that was secondary at the time, but is now at the fore in right-wing politics, is a sense that the “elites,” in media, academia, government institutions or elsewhere, lean to the left.  Though the right has held the majority in Israel for the past 14 years, many activists feel like they’re operating under different standards from the center-left opposition.

Army Radio Commander Danny Zaken, a pro-Netanyahu journalist, said at the Bithonistim-JISS conference that “in 2023, the media coverage still sticks to a narrative, like in Oslo. It’s a sin against journalism.”

At the same event, Nitzan Chen, head of the Government Press Office and a veteran journalist, said “the coverage of the Oslo Accords…was part of an atmosphere of a ‘New Middle East.’ The sin was not just of the media but of the whole system. The army shut its eyes…It was a failure at the level of the Yom Kippur War.”

Today, the tenor of coverage towards the current protests against Netanyahu’s efforts at judicial overhaul has been adulatory in the eyes of the Israeli right — even when main thoroughfares in Tel Aviv and other cities are blocked by demonstrators.  

In 1995, former far-right Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, founder of Zo Artzeinu, one of the leading movements protesting the Oslo Accords, was, alongside Shmuel Sackett, convicted of sedition for his role in, according to a Jewish Telegraph Agency report at the time, “a series of anti-government protests they led,” during which time “activists in the group blocked traffic along major roads across the country in a series of protests against the peace policies of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.”

“The government, media, judiciary, academia and security forces — all the systems, elected or not — got up to try to destroy the protest movement,” Feiglin recounted last week. “Now, it’s the opposite.”

Feiglin does not give the Israeli right a pass. He left Likud and founded his own party, Zehut, which ran in the 2019 election but did not enter the Knesset. His argument is that the right has no positive message — it only knows what it does not want — and he said he can understand the left demonstrating against a government that he said only presents a negation of their ideas.

“In the 30 years since the Oslo Accords and the demonstrations that I had the honor to lead, the Jewish majority was mostly under Netanyahu, and he did not offer any alternative to Oslo’s rationale,” he lamented. “There is finally a totally right-wing government with a plan to make a change — a very important one to fix the takeover by the judiciary — but there is no ideology. It’s just a toolbox for the day on which they have an ideology. The process should be backward: Tell us your vision, and if someone gets in the way, then fix it.”

The undercurrent of the ongoing protests this year is a reversal of the Oslo protests’ dynamic, Feiglin explained.

“The Israeli elite that established the country and its political frameworks did so based on secular and civil foundations that were supposed to create meaning for the whole movement. We had a country to establish and wars to fight. But if you asked ‘why,’ they took you to Yad Vashem, which became the Holy Temple of Israelism. That doesn’t work anymore; we squeezed all the juice out of that lemon,” Feiglin said. 

The old “elite” promoted a “Zionism of survival,” while society is moving towards a “Zionism of destiny,” that derives its meaning from Judaism, he argued. 

“Those who are used to the state being built in their image are scared, and their fear turns into hatred, which turns into the demonstrations we see now,” Feiglin said. Sara Haetzni Cohen, head of the right-wing My Israel movement, took part in protests against Oslo as a child in a politically active family. She recounted a paradoxical feeling where her close surroundings were riled up, while “the whole world kept going on as normal.” 

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid wrote an often-quoted column in 2005 against protesters blocking roads before the Gaza disengagement, headlined “Someone Will Die.” When confronted with the article on TV this year, Lapid said that “many years passed, these are different people.” 

“The feeling,” Haetzni Cohen said, citing Lapid’s comments, “is that there are those who are more equal and those who are less equal…The media admires the [current] protesters. They’re in the same milieu. You see it in the jargon they use, calling the reform a ‘coup.’”

Israel Hayom journalist Ariel Kahana, who has been chronicling and analyzing news in Hebrew for right-wing publications since the 1990s, pointed out that Oslo and the Gaza disengagement moved forward despite the protests.

“What the right said after that is: What’s the point of protesting? It changes nothing,” he said.

Refusal to serve in the IDF was not a part of the Oslo Accords protests, and a total of 63 soldiers refused orders in protest against the Gaza withdrawal.

Kahana called the mass refusal of reservists to serve in the IDF “incomparable to anything that had happened. This is a totally different level.”

Haetzni Cohen said the reservists’ protest means “the elites are holding the state in a very sensitive place…For the media, if you refused to do reserve duty then, you were a traitor. Today, you’re a hero.”

Feiglin went so far as calling the refusal to report for reserve duty a “passive military coup.” Those who refuse to serve are “taking the power of national security into their hands to prevent an elected government from implementing the policies it promised to the majority that elected it,” he said.

Kahana pointed out that the “death blow” of the protests against the Oslo Accords was Rabin’s November 1995 assassination. Rhetoric referring to the Oslo negotiators as traitors or Nazis were commonplace on the right before Rabin’s assassination, and one infamous demonstration featured a coffin labeled “Zionism.” Those references ended after Rabin was murdered, according to Kahana. “The murder paralyzed the right…Politicians were more careful after that with … the words they say.”

At the same time, Kahana admitted that today’s Knesset members are not cautious with their words.

The protests against Oslo were led by “ideological settlers and Likud supported them, because the idea spoke to them. Today, the ideological right is dragged behind the Likud, which is leading,” he explained.

The main debate over the Oslo Accords – whether Israel can exchange land for peace with the Palestinians — has not been the central topic in Israeli politics for many years, without any prospective peace talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah on the horizon.

For many years the ideological right had an ironclad rule not to bring down a right-wing government because internal divisions brought down Yitzhak Shamir’s government in 1992 and led to the rise of Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo.

That changed, partly as a result of Naftali Bennett forming a coalition with the center-left in 2021, Kahana said, but also partly because “the motivations are different now. They’re more political in the sense that our camp should win, not necessarily to protect the Land of Israel. There wasn’t really a danger of [land concessions] in the [Bennett-led] government, so it was ‘my soccer team will win.’ It’s less ideological and more political.”

“The lesson of the 1992 election was undoubtedly that divisions in the right could lead to terrible terrible diplomatic steps,” Kahana added. “Today, I think the…motivation to prevent divisions in the right is to maximize votes, not because there is a clear and present danger.”

The reason land concessions are no longer top of the agenda is that they failed, Haetzni Cohen said.

“Even those who think [the Gaza disengagement] was a success realize that Judea and Samaria is another story,” Haetzni Cohen argued. “It no longer looks reasonable to make such aggressive and brutal moves like the expulsion [of Israelis from Gaza].”

“As long as the IDF fights terror and there’s a status quo, most of the public doesn’t think about it. They care about personal security, the cost of living, and other serious problems,” she said.

Still, Haetzni Cohen warned, “It’s only a matter of time until the conflict returns to center stage. It hasn’t disappeared.”

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