It is uncanny to read the dreams about our country’s future expressed by 16 prominent Israelis in 1994, soon after the Oslo Accords – while knowing the harsh reality of how they were shattered one by one.
The timely new and updated edition of this 1994 book of interviews has been published during a tense period of worried uncertainty for lovers of the Land of Israel. Born-again leftist Minister Tzippi Livni (Hatnua party) is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s representative at secret negotiations with the Palestinian Authority which bring back memories of the secrecy that surrounded the ill-fated – or more accurately, tragic – 1993 Oslo Accords, how they were passed in the Knesset and how the dire prophecies of those who opposed them are the only predictionswhich came to pass.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld remembers only too well. With self-effacing wisdom that is nothing less than prophecy, he published the forecasts of these experts and put them together in a 1994 book shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed, garnering the sober expectations, hopes, worries and predictions of well-known academic, political and professional figures. This was a totally new situation, a period when the country was divided into three, albeit unevenly: there were the true believers who were in total euphoria, the doomsayers who predicted the worst and last of all, those who adopted what they considered a pragmatic, “let’s give it a chance” approach.
Gerstenfeld, considered a world expert on anti-Semitism and the author of 21 books and countless articles, was born in Vienna and raised in Holland where he received his Ph.D. He moved to Israel in 1968 where he became the CEO of a leading local business consultancy, while he continued to advise the boards of some of the world’s major corporations. He was an editor of The Jewish Political Studies Review, co-publisher of Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism and Changing Jewish Communities and a member of the council of the Foundation for Research of Dutch Jewry, of which he was formerly the vice-chairman. He is a member of the Board of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank and was previously chairman of the Board. He is the 2012 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
Gerstenfeld, whose style is clear and eminently readable, and whose own analysis of the changes since Oslo, as can be seen in the current edition’s new forward which is comprehensive and convincing, did not write his ownpredictions in the 1994 book. He explained that, “In a complex, highly dynamic situation, the risk of injecting too much of an individual’s own bias into forecasting developments…is unavoidable.”
Accordingly, he left the reader free to pick and choose among the analyses and predictions of some of “Israel’s most knowledgeable people”– people who were decision makers, people from diverse backgrounds, all with expertise on various facets of Israel and the Middle East. Some of the interviewees have since passed away and it is fascinating to have them come to life again via their opinions.
Those interviewed spoke on a variety of subjects in more depth than is usually found in interviews. The author interviewed each with a keen eye for appropriate and meaningful questions. Among them is former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who was buoyed by the succession of events “that cannot be underestimated,” including what he saw as the beginning of the disintegration of the Arab boycott. Former Likud Defense and Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Arens fully expected democracy to be the future of the Middle East; Political Science Professor Yehezkel Dror predicted a Palestinian state in Jordan.
With remarkable foresight, Professor of International Relations Dan Segre raised the prescient question, “Can Israel ever trust Europe?” Middle East Academician Mordechai Abir evinced a keen understanding of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and the direction in which Iran is going, while warning of the dangers of a fundamentalist Palestinian Arab state on Israel’s border. Editor David Bar Ilan realistically explained why he doesnot expect the foreign press to end their discrimination against Israel; Political Scientist Peter Medding saw a bright economic future for Israel, which would strengthen its already strong democracy.
It is sad and, at the same time enlightening and humbling, to find how few of these experts hit the mark in most of what they said. Those who did were the ones who predicted developments which are independent of the peace accords or those who were not highly optimistic, – and especially those who, using past experience to guide them, were skeptical about the chances of long lasting radical change in the Arab world’s attitude vis-a-vis Israel.
The interviews also contain significant and interesting predictions on the future of the Hareidi population in Israel, the kibbutz movement, Israel’s economy, relations with the Diaspora and the Vatican, social stability and redefined identity.
Gerstenfeld’s new lengthy forward in the current edition takes us through the twenty years since Oslo, which saw the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the major rise of anti-Semitism, the increased UN double standards, continued incitement in Arab education – a factor whose importance none of the interviewees realized – rising demonization and delegitimization of Israel, the waning of America, the accelerated moral decay of Europe – and how Israel functions, to a certain extent, as a laboratory for the West, which seems to be fated to undergo much of what has already occurred in Israel.
Perhaps the most significant sentence in the book is the one that explains how one cannot predict anything in the Middle East because the variables in that volatile region are constantly changing. As the author points out, had the forward to the new edition been written just a year or two earlier, it would have been completely off the mark on Egypt and Syria.
Can one dare to predict the future, as some of those famous and highly intelligent experts thought they could? Does anyone know if the violent Sunni-Shiite confrontations we are witnessing will become the major element of developments in the Muslim world, he asks? Will Iraq exist? Will Syria? And more easily answered, what would have happened had Israel given the Golan Heights to Syria years ago, under pressure from the United States?
Upon completing the book, I reread the new forward and decided that I would have liked some of it to appear at the end of the book in order to ensure that it be reread. It is a perfect epilogue for the experts’ predictionsand, in contrast, adds perspective to the experiences we have undergone since that fateful handshake on the White House lawn.
And as the author writes, “There seems to be another important indication for the future. Making far reaching concessions for a doubtful peace in a quickly changing environment and an unstable and largely unpredictable world would be irresponsible. Yet Israel may be pressured to make such concessions by many worldwide.”
Are you listening, Ms. Livni?