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On Capitol Hill, a look back at Oslo and forward on peace process

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – An unusual array of conflicting voices for and against renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks came to Capitol Hill to recall the nearly 20 years since the dramatic signing of the Oslo Accords and to evaluate potential steps for moving forward.

“We can agree on one thing: Oslo is done, finished, kaput,” said Danny Danon, a Knesset member of the Likud Party. “We are all agreed, the ‘land for peace’ equation does not exist anymore.”

But Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Accords, which were signed in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13, 1993, said that moving forward on such a path was needed to insure a Jewish state with a strong democratic character. 

“My interest is not necessarily a Palestinian state,” he said. “All I want is a Jewish majority forever.”

Had Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated in November 1995, he added, “We would now have peace.”

They spoke Thursday in a large room in the Longworth House Office Building during two panels sponsored by the International Israel Allies Caucus Foundation. 

The Caucus began in 2004 when a group of Israeli Knesset members from across the political spectrum formed the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. Two years later, they created the International Israel Allies Caucus Foundation; that same year the U.S. House of Representatives formed the first reciprocal caucus – the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus. 

Since then, additional caucuses have been formed in 19 countries, including Canada, Brazil, England, Finland, Japan, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea and Uruguay. 

The group is “dedicated to the purpose of promoting communication and information sharing between parliamentarians and legislators the world over who share a belief that the State of Israel has the right to exist in peace within secure borders.”

Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have never regained their full momentum. Subsequent years have seen rounds of violence, including Palestinian suicide bombings, thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip and major Israeli military reprisals. 

Danon joined Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, and Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, for a panel on why the Oslo Accords failed. 

Danon called for a three-state solution to include Egypt, Jordan and Israel. He also said that President Obama “came in to dictate” and was “one-sided” on dealing with Palestinian refugees.

“If you want to see a Palestinian state, just look at Gaza today,” he said. “We do not want to see a terrorist state in our backyard. The Israeli government has never approved any notion of a two-state solution.” 

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 14, 2009 said during an address at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv that Israel would agree to a Palestinian state were it demilitarized and if it recognized “Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

Glick said that Oslo’s path of giving the Palestinians control of the West Bank was conducted under the “false premise” that it would make the conflict “immediately disappear and we would enter into a messianic era.” 

Regardless, al-Omari said Oslo had lasting value as “a game changer” that established “mutual respect” and “a prerequisite to move forward.” He added, “We need to push for a way to get back to negotiations.” 

Throughout the program, various Congressmen offered comments to the audience of approximately 75 people on the need for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance. 

“If there is one issue we do work together on, it is the strong support of Israel,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said. “We have to look at the situation as it is, not as we want it to be.”

More than 60 years since the founding of the State of Israel, the Palestinians “still can’t get the words out of their mouths” to recognize the Jewish state, he added.

The first panel was followed by a discussion on possible paths forward. It featured Beilin,  Rabbi Benny Elon, former head of Israel’s right-wing National Religious Party and founder of the Caucus, and Aaron David Miller, a former top adviser to the U.S. secretary of state.

Elon said that there will be no progress until the Palestinians understand that the Jewish people “are back in Zion, back in Jerusalem.” 

He and other Israeli panelists agreed that the Palestinians also must stop glorifying violence, such as when they have named soccer fields and town squares in memory of terrorists. 

“Their leaders have raised a generation of kids who value death,” Glick said. “Their highest aim in life is to become the people who want to kill my kids, your kids.”

Sitting in the audience, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, head of the National Council of Young Israel, referred to textbooks in Palestinian schools that teach hatred.

“In that environment of hate, how did we ever expect [Oslo] to work?” he asked.

Regardless, Miller said, the current stalemate has dangerous implications.

“Israel will keep their state for sure, but the Arabs and the Palestinians will not let them enjoy it,” said Miller, now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

There should be, he added, continued economic development in the Palestinian areas and Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should engage in discreet negotiations.

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