Kenneth Levin, a psychiatrist, historian, and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege, spoke to an October 20 Middle East Forum webinar (video). The following is a summary of his comments:
Israel is a study in the psychology of "chronically attacked populations . . . by the surrounding majority" that leads some of the besieged to "assuage their attackers." Such was the case with the Oslo Accords in 1993, a pair of agreements in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is against this background that one finds some "common threads" between two separate events — the failed accords, and the failed attempt to "manage Hamas" that led to the October 7 attacks and Israel's subsequent counter-offensive Gaza war.
The Jewish state has been under attack throughout its existence. The Israeli left formulated and championed the Oslo accords, which called for mutually agreed negotiations between the Israeli government and the then-head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat. The left believed that "peace could be won" by making "territorial concessions" to the Palestinian Authority (PA). While Oslo proceeded, Arafat publicly gave speeches in Arabic to his supporters that his participation was a ruse. His tactic of gaining territory through negotiations would be the first step of the Plan of Phases — a deceptive strategy to accomplish the true objective of "Israel's annihilation."
Counterintuitively, Israel calculated that continued participation in the accords afforded some level of control in uncontrollable circumstances, even after acknowledging that Arafat and the PA colluded with the Hamas terror group in Gaza. The left was under no illusion that Hamas, a "genocidal, antisemitic organization," could be induced to negotiate peace since its charter calls for the murder of all Jews as a "religious obligation." Given the choice between bad and worse, the left rationalized that the PA's veneer of moderation presented to the West was the lesser of two evils. Tolerating it would buy time for Israel to incentivize the PA towards peace.
Exploiting the Israeli left's "delusional" thinking, Arafat unleashed a terror war against Israel in 2000. From the start of Oslo in 1993 until nearly ten years later, Israelis killed in terror attacks exceeded fourteen hundred — comparable to the number Hamas murdered on October 7. The terror war in 2000 moved the Israeli public to the right and by then, Oslo had already failed. Although the PA governed Gaza following Israel's withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, Hamas was voted into power by the Gazans and took control in 2007.
At that time, any attempt by the Jewish state to eradicate Hamas posed a great risk to Israel's troops. Moreover, the question of who would administer Gaza after the fact loomed. Israel had no interest in governing two million Gazans, and installing the PA would only be "exchanging one genocidally antisemitic group for another." The possibility that international forces could administer Gaza belied Israel's dismal experience with them in the past. Such an administration would block Israel from pursuing terrorists. Inevitably, a new terror group would emerge, and peacekeepers would flee. Israel concluded that it would be back to where it started, or even worse.
Instead of solving the problem of Hamas, the Israeli military chose to manage periodic waves of terror by "mowing the grass," i.e., periodically setting Hamas back to "buy us some time." As Hamas grew, and its missiles became more lethal, another delusional notion of disincentivizing Hamas from attacking Israel surfaced. This was the idea that Israel's technological achievements and advances could somehow entice Hamas away from its genocidal raison d'etre. That Hamas would partake in the benefits that Israeli progress and peace offered was just "as delusional as the peace via concessions" failure. This delusion added to "a legacy of Oslo."
Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor in the PA, is as committed to Israel's destruction as Arafat was. He similarly uses the PA's "media, mosques, and schools" to incite the next generation of Palestinian Arabs in Jew-hatred with the goal of destroying Israel. The Israeli elites tolerated Arafat, as they do Abbas, in the mistaken belief that the PA could be coaxed towards peace. Like Arafat, Abbas traveled in elite global circles, defaming Israel in every venue while eliciting massive amounts of Western and European funds. These funds were ostensibly for the betterment of the Palestinian Arabs, but the leaders of the corrupt regime shunted much of it into Swiss bank accounts and are now "worth billions." Israel took the same approach with Hamas, permitting Qatar to pour money into Gaza "to incentivize the avoidance of military explosions," allowing some seventeen thousand Gazans to work in Israel and returning their wages to Gaza.
In the lead-up to October 7, Hamas exploited Israel's eagerness with deceptive maneuvers, to the terror group's advantage. In the last two years, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group in Gaza engaged in two smaller wars with Israel. By not joining PIJ, Hamas misled Israel into believing that its incentives were tempering the terror group, which was yet another "extension of Oslo-type thinking." Egypt, acting as "interlocutor," conveyed Hamas's message of the group's readiness for a "long-term ceasefire" to Israel. The lie was one more "maneuver" in Hamas's preparation over the last two years for its October 7 attack. Essentially it was "playing on the Israeli predilection to believe that Hamas could be contained."
Going forward, any delusion Israel indulges about pacifying genocidally antisemitic organizations is self-destructive. If these organizations remain, the impulse to placate the enemy is an internal problem that will resurface. The danger is that any lull followed by threats will elicit the same pattern of concessions and rationalizations. To withstand those internal pressures, "you need good Israeli leadership who points out the nonsense underlying that comprehension." Many Israelis now realize that anything short of eradicating Hamas will signal to Iran and to Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, to be even more aggressive against Israel. As Iran approaches nuclear capability, Israel may have to take the fight to the enemy to restore deterrence.
Secular Israelis "do not fully comprehend the determination of focus, the objective of annihilating Israel, and more broadly of genocidal antisemitism [of Islamist organizations and the PA]. But here there's a psychological component that they don't want to believe because it's genocidal. If it's fully acknowledged, just as it was never fully acknowledged around Oslo, if it's fully acknowledged, then one has to acknowledge as well that there's no way to placate it."
Even before Israel was established as the Jewish state, every Palestinian Arab leader from 1929 until today has promoted genocidal antisemitism. Although the non-governmental organization Palestinian Media Watch has been exposing the Palestinian Arab leaders who broadcast, preach, and teach in Palestinian media, mosques, and schools that killing Jews and destroying Israel is an imperative, the Israeli government-controlled media must also call them out at every turn. Failure to do so means "going back to the failures of Oslo" and their disastrous effect on Israel.
Israel's elites turned to the Oslo Accords to avoid a sense of helplessness in a failed attempt to deter the genocidal antisemites with money and territory. Following the heady days of the Abraham Accords, and with normalization with Saudi Arabia a likely prospect, Hamas, having built up its capabilities with Iranian support, was poised to launch its long-planned and coordinated October 7 genocidal terror operation against Israeli civilians.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.