THIRTY YEARS ago this week — on Sept. 13, 1993 — the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed on the South Lawn of the White House at a ceremony hosted by President Bill Clinton. The moment was captured in an iconic photo of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a grinning PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands as the beaming American president looked on.

Arafat had good reason to grin. Oslo was his ticket out of exile and oblivion. Twelve years earlier he and the PLO, having been expelled from Lebanon, had decamped to Tunisia, which inhibited his ability to wreak havoc in Israel. But with the Oslo Accords, he was back in the spotlight — and at Israel’s invitation, no less. The agreement allowed him to pose on the international stage as a peacemaker despite his lifelong career as a terrorist; soon it would enrich him with land, money, weapons, and political power.

For Israel, by contrast, Oslo proved to be a self-inflicted wound, arguably the worst in its history. It led not to less violence but more. Thousands of Israelis would die in the years ahead as the delusion of land-for-peace led to an unprecedented wave of bus bombings, kidnappings, and suicide attacks.


President Bill Clinton beamed as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993


Yet at the time, Oslo was hailed as the start of a beautiful new era for the Middle East. Among the large crowd of onlookers at the White House, the elation was almost tangible. Peace was coming to the Holy Land! Longtime enemies were burying the hatchet! The Arab-Israeli conflict was receding into history! I was on the South Lawn that day, the guest of a Massachusetts congressman, and I remember well the jubilation that surrounded us. I watched as Steve Grossman, the president of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, embraced James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute. When I approached Prince Bandar ibn Sultan for a comment, Saudi Arabia’s normally unflappable ambassador to the United States was almost euphoric. “Can you believe it?” he marveled. “A week ago, who could imagine Rabin and Arafat shaking hands?”

Four days earlier, Arafat and Rabin had signed letters of “mutual recognition.” The Israeli prime minister confirmed that his government had decided to “recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.” That may have been the first time in history that the head of a sovereign nation had extended diplomatic recognition to a terror group created explicitly to bring about his nation’s destruction.

Except that now, Arafat was claiming that the PLO would forsake violence and no longer seek Israel’s elimination.

“The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” Arafat wrote in his letter to Rabin.

The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.

The PLO . . . renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations, and discipline violators.

Had Arafat and the PLO sincerely meant those words, the giddy celebration of the birth of peace would have been amply justified. But Arafat’s pledge was a sham from the outset. He said so explicitly in a message to the Palestinian people, broadcast in Arabic by Jordanian television on the very day of the White House ceremony. “O my beloved ones,” Arafat exulted: “This is the moment of return, the moment of gaining a foothold on the first liberated Palestinian land.” Again and again, speaking in Arabic to Arab audiences, Arafat declared that the “Phased Plan” adopted by the PLO in 1974 remained in force. That plan was a strategy to establish political control over any territory it could acquire from Israel, then use that territory as a base of operations to continue the “armed struggle” until all of Israel was conquered.

Just 11 days after the handshake, 22-year-old Yigal Vaknin was stabbed to death in a citrus grove by a Hamas death squad, which left a note boasting of the murder. Vaknin was the first of 1,675 Israeli women, men, children, and babies who would lose their lives to Palestinian terror in the years following Arafat’s renunciation of violence. Some, like Vaknin, were knifed to death. Others were shot or stoned or bombed. The terrorists have killed their victims at nightclubs and bat mitzvah parties, at Passover seders and in pizzerias, on university campuses and in farmer’s markets, as they waited for buses or slept in their beds or worshiped in synagogue.

“Underlying Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is the cliché that one can only make peace with one’s enemy,” wrote the late great Charles Krauthammer in a Washington Post column. “It is equally true, however, that one can only make peace with an enemy who truly wants peace. If the enemy is intent on remaining an enemy, if his objective is not peace but victory, if he believes your very existence is a stain on his honor and his God, peace is not possible. With such an enemy negotiations are futile.”

Yet Israel, seemingly oblivious, went to ever greater lengths to appease Arafat and the PLO. It cleared the way for him and his lieutenants to establish themselves on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, supplied them with funds, arms, governmental authority, and a bottomless supply of legitimacy as “peace partners.” It did not stop the Palestinian Authority from establishing control over the media, schools, and mosques, all of which became channels for inculcating a relentless hatred of Israel and Jews, and a fervent hostility to peaceful coexistence. Though Arafat never adhered to even one of his core Oslo commitments — least of all the pledge to renounce violence and accept Israel’s existence as a legitimate fact of life — successive Israeli governments extended even more and deeper concessions.

At Camp David in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat statehood in 92 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip, along with shared control of Jerusalem and the dismantling of 63 Israeli settlements. To the astonishment and fury of Clinton, Arafat walked away from the offer. In 2008, another Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, tried again with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas. He offered Palestinian sovereignty in virtually the entirety of the West Bank, along with a land corridor to Gaza (which by then had been taken over by Hamas), and even proposed to relinquish Israeli authority over the Old City of Jerusalem. Abbas turned him down.

Belatedly — very belatedly — Israelis came to understand that the peace process was a fraud and that the “two-state solution” that continues to beguile the rest of the world was never the Palestinian goal.

Thirty years on, the Oslo Accords are a monument to the folly of magical thinking in diplomacy. Land-for-peace was always a deadly delusion. “The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel,” Arafat told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in an interview published in 1974. “Peace for us means Israel’s destruction and nothing else.” He was always ready to shift tactics, but his ultimate goal never changed.

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What I Wrote Then
25 years ago on the op-ed page

From “His moral authority is gone. He should be, too,” Sept. 14, 1998:

A lot of people trusted Clinton. They believed him when he said Gennifer Flowers was a liar. When he said Paula Jones was a liar. When he said the Arkansas state troopers were liars. When he said Kathleen Willey was a liar.

But no one except his most purblind fans believed that Monica Lewinsky was a liar. She made it clear, finally, to all those who had given him the benefit of every doubt: He was the liar, and had been all along.

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The Last Line

“Villains!”I shrieked. “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart (1843)

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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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