The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege
A briefing by Kenneth Levin
September 26, 2005
Dr. Levin is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege. He earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.A./M.A. in English language and literature from Oxford University, an M.D. degree from Penn and a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. He is a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and maintains a private practice in psychiatry. Dr. Levin has written extensively on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. His articles have appeared in The New Republic, The Boston Globe, The Washington Times, and The Jerusalem Post.
On the very evening of the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in September of 1993, the latter went on Jordanian television and told his constituency that it should understand the Oslo accord as the first phase in the Phased Plan elaborated by the PLO in 1974, with the ultimate goal being the destruction of Israel. Arafat repeated this assertion at least a dozen times during the first month of Oslo. Why did Israel persist in the Oslo process when following Arafat's arrival in the territories in July of 1994 Israel experienced the worst terror attacks in its history?
The Oslo process was supposed to finally achieve genuine peace between Arabs and Israelis; instead it resulted in the worst terror that Israel has ever experienced. We must ask why this was the case. Why did Israel enter into multiple agreements with Arafat when he was openly stating his goal to be the annihilation of Israel?
According to Ari Shavit, a writer for Ha'aretz, during the Oslo accords enlightened Israelis were affected with a Messianic craze – they believed that the end of the old Middle East, the end of history, the end of wars and the end of conflict was near. They fooled themselves with delusions, bedazzled into committing an act of Messianic drunkenness.
To understand the why of this situation we must look at the psychology of chronically besieged populations. Almost invariably there are parts of the population that accept the indictments of the besiegers in the hope that they can win relief and peace. This is a psychological response to being besieged, and Jews have been besieged for 2000 years. As Max Nordau wrote over a hundred years ago, the greatest success of the anti-Semites was that they had gotten the Jews to see themselves through anti-Semitic eyes. Nordau saw the idea of a Jewish state as a refuge for all Jews, regardless of their politics, language, or nationality.
In the 1920's and 1930's within the Zionist movement the "new Jew" was cast as a secular socialist, without the accoutrements that enraged the wider gentile world. German Jewish intellectuals like Martin Buber cast their disapproval of a Jewish state in moral terms, and argued that Jews had moved beyond the need for a state, but were also concerned that they might lose their newly acquired nationalities if a Jewish state were formed.
From the creation of the Jewish state until 1977, Israel was run by socialist-Zionists. However, things changed in 1977, when for the first time, a non-socialist-Zionist government was elected. Between 1977 and 1992 the Labor constituency began to accept the idea that if Israel retreated to the 1967 lines the Arabs would allow them to peacefully coexist. The New History movement also supported the idea that in order to achieve peace Israel must acknowledge its guilt and accede to a retreat. Moreover, it proffered the notion that Israel bore primary responsibility for the hatred with which it was viewed by its neighbors. The post-Zionist movement argued that Israel was too Jewish and that it must abolish the law of return and change the flag and national anthem as they were unfair to Arabs.
Within a year of the 1992 election the Labor party had accepted some of these ideas. Still, the "peace movement" marched in the street against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, arguing that he was not making concessions quickly enough. This movement continued to press for more concessions despite Arafat's statements that this was the first phase in the plan to annihilate Israel and despite the terror attacks that were perpetrated against Israel.
The Labor coalition was defeated in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister. During his three years as head of the government Netanyahu's tone was less conciliatory but he continued to conduct a series of negotiations based on the principle of Israeli concessions in exchange for Palestinian assurances.
In 1999 Netanyahu was succeeded by Ehud Barak and a Labor-led coalition. Barak's approach was rhetorically and practically similar to Rabin's, whose successor he seemed. A series of intensive negotiations were undertaken, such as at Sharm el-Sheikh, but with each step terror attacks became more frequent and horrific.
The Barak approach of adding incremental concessions failed badly. In September 2000 when Arafat launched his terror war against Israel an increasing percentage of Israel's population came to the realization that neither retreat nor concessions would afford them the peace they so earnestly desired. The process culminated in the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in early 2001. The subsequent war of terror convinced many in the Israeli public that concessions had run their course.
Despite almost sixty years of being under siege Israel has created a free, vibrant, and creative society. The question is whether Israel will continue nurturing what it has built as it awaits true change in the Arab world or will Israelis, in their search for a genuine peace, continue to grasp at delusions of peace that will threaten everything they have created.
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