The Abraham Accords could meet the same dead end as Oslo.
What did it for me was the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah on the Gaza Strip in September 2000. He was a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who hid behind his father as they were caught in the crossfire between Palestinian security forces and the IDF.
The world watched as the boy cried in terror, then was struck by a bullet. I was managing editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time. Shortly after this incident, which was the beginning of the larger Palestinian uprising that became known as the Second Intifada, I resigned my job at JTA, moved from New York City back to my old home in Metro Detroit, and quit writing about Jewish issues for the next 16 years.
This was not what I had signed up for.
I was among the Oslo Peace Process hopefuls. I was convinced that at JTA, I was going to help lead coverage of a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations, a time when I could write about, and think about, what it means to be a Jew without a constant reminder of Mideast conflict. I never wanted antisemitism, or the Middle East, to define the way I write about Judaism. Today, this is unavoidable and now that I am writing again about Jewish issues, I am faced with the same frustration.
We can argue forever over what put that father and son in that position, and how and why the IDF was exchanging gunfire with a Palestinian security force that was supposed to have been their peace partners. I was angry at the circumstances that put that boy in harm’s way. It was just after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had broken off peace talks. Or, I should say, Arafat refused a Palestinian state and chose, instead, another generation of bloodshed. It was egged on by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which unnecessarily heightened tensions, but it was failure of Palestinian leadership and vision that created the Second Intifada and placed that poor boy in the line of fire.
I’m bringing this up today because I don’t want to fall into the same trap of unwarranted optimism, then sudden dejection, in light of the so-called “Abraham Accords” between Israel and some of her Arab neighbors.
What many forget is that the 1993 Oslo Accords were made possible, in part, by the coalition the United States put together against Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War in 1991. Today, an Arab coalition against Iran can create another window of opportunity to tackle peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I have confidence that the opportunity will present itself, but I am not confident the Palestinians will avail themselves of it.
In July 2000, I was still hopeful, writing that Barak was swinging for the bleachers. He felt he had a mandate, and he probably just barely did at the time. I quoted Barak as saying, “The fall of the Soviet Union and the victory over Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War … gave Israel a window of opportunity to make peace with its neighbors.”
By November 2000, I was back in Michigan, interviewing Arabs in Dearborn during the election. Surprisingly, they mostly went for George W. Bush. The top concern for Arab Americans in this pre-911 time was the perception that President Clinton has not been a fair mediator in the peace process.
Shortly thereafter, I quit Jewish journalism and helped launch a science and technology magazine in Ann Arbor. I did not return to writing about Jewish issues until Charlottesville, when I was moved to speak at an anti-Nazi vigil in Traverse City.
Anger at Leadership
Today, the Palestinians appear to be going down the same road as before. Yet, there is a detectable difference between the words of the P.A. and Hamas leadership, and the words of Palestinians themselves.
There is a revolt among average Palestinians against hardline Hamas rule. Average Palestinians are actually bypassing official channels and talking to Israelis. So, this time, I don’t think there will be a “third intifada” to distract from the failure of Palestinian leadership. There is just as much anger with Hamas as there is with Israelis. I’m seeing some cracks appear that the U.S. and Israel could exploit to relaunch talks with the Palestinians.
To me, it doesn’t feel like the hopeful ’90s all over again, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to that level of optimism unless an actual permanent-status deal is signed. But I think the momentum of normalization with Arab states could be used as an opportunity for Palestinians to end their permanent refugee status … or they can deepen their alliance with Iran, through Hamas, and lose another opportunity for peace.
As for previously hostile states making peace with Israel in the Abraham Accords, well, governments change. And they can change in a heartbeat. Look at Turkey.
So, long story short: History says peace can bring with it its own momentum. But so can unrest, and the horrible specter, for me, of the death of Muhammad al-Durrah, can easily emerge again. Yet, the Palestinians can be masters of their own fate if they choose.
Howard Lovy is an editor and writer based in Traverse City. He is the former managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.