By Shimon Fogel
Twenty years ago today, an Israeli extremist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. The assassin intended to quash the Oslo Accords Rabin signed with the hope of leading Israelis and Palestinians to peace. While Oslo has largely derailed over the ensuing years, Rabin’s historic bid was a watershed moment that continues to have an indelible impact on Israelis — and shed much-needed light on the obstacles to peace today.
A two-state solution depends on parallel sea-changes taking place among Israelis and Palestinians. On the Israeli side, it requires acceptance of partition of the land. On the Palestinian side, it requires acknowledgement of the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state in the region. Both elements are in keeping with UN Resolution 181 (1947), which called for the creation of two states: one “Jewish” and one “Arab.”
Thanks largely to Rabin, one of these sea-changes has taken place: the Israeli public is willing to undertake the painful and complex process of ceding large parts of a land in which the Jewish people are indigenous. The Israeli public also recognizes that unless such a historic move is reciprocated with a Palestinian commitment to end the conflict and acknowledge the Jewish state’s legitimacy, partition would only be another stage in a long and painful conflict. Retracing Rabin’s steps and events following his brutal murder is essential in deciphering why peace remains elusive.
While Rabin did not expressly call for the creation of a Palestinian state, he granted unprecedented autonomy and recognition to the Palestinian people. Moreover, he gave the Palestinian leadership an opportunity to establish a peaceful state-in-the-making. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel transferred governance of more than 95 per cent of Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority, including primary responsibility for security duties that continue to be carried out by Palestinian forces in every major city in the West Bank.
Rabin’s efforts to transform the situation on the ground heralded a paradigm shift within Israeli society. Despite short-term fluctuations in response to terror attacks, polls in the two decades since Oslo have shown a decisive majority of Israelis support a two-state solution. As in any advanced democracy, public opinion serves as a rudder for Israel’s elected officials. The widespread desire of their constituents to end the conflict gave two subsequent Israeli Prime Ministers (in 2000 and 2008) the confidence to offer peace proposals that would have created a Palestinian state on all of Gaza and 95 per cent of the West Bank. Tragically, these Israeli overtures were rejected by the Palestinian leadership without counter-offer.
This willingness of the Israeli public to accept territorial compromise also largely explains Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw every Israeli from Gaza in 2005, removing more than 8,000 Israelis from their homes. This was all the more remarkable given that the internationally-accepted framework for resolving the conflict, UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), does not require Israeli territorial concessions until Israel’s neighbours offer peace and security guarantees.
Meanwhile, Palestinian terrorism escalated precisely as Israel advanced along the path of partition. In the daily coverage of Middle East tragedies, many forget the countless suicide bombs on buses and in cafes in Tel Aviv, the countless barrage of missile attacks on Israel’s cities, and the recent scores of shocking stabbing attacks in the streets of Jerusalem.
Eleven Israelis have been murdered and more than one hundred wounded in Palestinian gun, knife, and car attacks over the past six weeks alone. The self-proclaimed goal of the latest wave of attackers is to avenge Israel’s “desecration” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, an absurd conspiracy theory that every objective observer, including Secretary of State John Kerry (who has a less-than-warm relationship with the Israeli government), has condemned as false.
This record exposed a painful reality: a critical mass among the Palestinian public and leadership rejects a democratic Jewish homeland entirely — even on the basis of coexistence with a Palestinian state. This explains why twenty years of Israeli peace efforts have coincided with twenty years of terrorism and the rise of Hamas, which in its Covenant espouses jihad and declares that all of the land must come under Islamic sovereignty.
This is not to dismiss the complexity of the issues at stake, all of which should be addressed in comprehensive negotiations. Israel has repeatedly called for an unconditional resumption of such talks; alas the response has been limited to more terror and the incitement that spurs it on. Those of us who support a two-state solution want nothing less than independence, democracy, and prosperity for Palestinians; but these goals cannot be divorced from the obligation of Palestinians to grant Israelis the recognition, peace, and security that all people deserve.
Rabin, equal parts optimist and realist, once wisely remarked: “We must think differently, look at things in a different way. Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” We must never lose our hope for the emergence of a Palestinian leader who follows the path Rabin charted and leads a similar paradigm shift among the next generation of Palestinians.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of Canada’s Jewish Federations.