Oslo: The Peace That Wasn’t


By January 1993, the Israelis and the Palestinians had opened secret negotiations, culminating in the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements between Israel and the PLO, as the representatives of the Palestinians. So, what was Oslo? What is its legacy? How did the Israeli public, including the settlement leadership, view Oslo? What about the Palestinians? And, what lessons can we learn from this haunting story?

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Episode Transcript

So, as might be obvious from the fact that I host a podcast called “Unpacking Israeli History,” I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about things that happened way before I was born. Longtime listeners — not to mention my former students — likely understand how deeply I believe that the past continues to shape our world. You can’t understand the present if you don’t have any awareness of the past. 

So there’s something a little surreal about the fact that I remember the events I’m about to tell you about: the 1993 Oslo Accords. It’s crazy to think that my 8 year old son Eyal is the same age I was when my elementary school principal, Dr. Shloush, stopped all classes on September 13, 1993 to, as she described it, “watch history.”

I mean, I was a kid. I couldn’t have found Oslo on a map! But I do remember, in stark and haunting detail, the atmosphere in Baltimore, Maryland, as we learned that the Israeli government had been meeting secretly with the Palestinians — and that these meetings, by some strange and inexplicable magic, were expected to turn into a lasting peace deal.

I also remember learning — from a rash of screaming headlines — the phrase “suicide bomb,” as a string of terrorist attacks ripped though Israel in protest of the peace process. I remember the grim Purim of 1994, when we learned of the horrible massacre that had been perpetrated in our name. And I remember, with awful, piercing clarity, the sorrow and horror of learning that one of our own had killed the Israeli Prime Minister, and with him, any hope that the promises of Oslo would ever come true. (For more on both of those topics, check out the Baruch Goldstein and Rabin assassination episodes from last season, the links for both are in the show notes.)

But here’s the thing. We’ve had almost thirty years to reckon with the legacy of Oslo, and in that time, I’ve come to realize that I’m not totally sure that “the promises of Oslo” were ever real.

Oh, these promises were certainly hyped up. Just listen to President Clinton, flanked by Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat, introduce the 1993 Declaration of Principles with such hope:

Ever since Harry Truman first recognized Israel, every American President, Democrat and Republican, has worked for peace between Israel and her neighbors. Now the efforts of all who have labored before us bring us to this moment, a moment when we dare to pledge what for so long seemed difficult even to imagine: that the security of the Israeli people will be reconciled with the hopes of the Palestinian people and there will be more security and more hope for all.

But for all the talk of peace — the Peace Now posters at pro-government rallies; the slogans of “Ha’Am Hechlit Shalom,” “the nation has decided on peace,” and “hegia zman shalom,” “the time of peace has arrived,” the atmosphere in Israel was anything but peaceful.

The Accords were bitterly contested, dividing Israeli society along political and religious lines. And despite the promise of peace — so yearned for in one of the world’s most embattled countries — Oslo didn’t offer a concrete path towards that beautiful future.

At the end of the day, the agreements were not a substantive roadmap to peace, but a declaration that kicked the really tough questions — like what to do with Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees or settlements — down the road. A road we’re still traveling, by the way.

So, what is the legacy of Oslo? How did the Israeli public, including the settlement leadership, view Oslo? What about the Palestinians? And, what lessons of leadership can we learn from this haunting story? 

Let me start by saying something completely obvious: The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a thorn in the side of American presidents since, well… 1948, give or take a few years. In 1991, President George Bush (senior) grabbed his chance to be the president who brought peace to the region, declaring to Congress that “The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” LOL.

Easier said than done. Bush — or, more accurately, Secretary of State James Baker — did manage to get Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation into the same room during the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. Ultimately, the conference went nowhere, with one small bright spot: This marked the first time that these parties had negotiated with each other directly — a process that was about to be replicated.

By January 1993, the Israelis and the Palestinians had opened secret negotiations far from their contested borders. It’s hard to overstate how momentous this was. Since the PLO’s founding in 1964, Israel had refused to negotiate with what it considered a band of terrorists. The PLO had to attach itself to the Jordanian delegation in order to enter the room at the Madrid Conference. But in Oslo, Norway, Israelis and Palestinians were meeting — talking — negotiating for the first time.

And I’ll ask what I think we all wonder? Norway? Why Norway, of all places?

Well, it started as a research project. A professor named Terje Rød-Larson was researching Palestinian living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. (Classic, right? isn’t this how all major political upheavals start?) With his contacts in the region, he and his wife Mona Juul were well-placed to bring together Israelis and Palestinians for the first time.

Now, for reasons I’ll explain shortly, the initial talks were conducted in utmost secrecy. Truth be told, Rabin was reluctant to get involved at first. The man who became the face, and eventually the martyr, of the peace movement agreed only begrudgingly to parley with the Palestinians.

In fact, Rabin didn’t even want the Mossad or the Shin Bet — the country’s intelligence agencies — to know about the talks at first. This secrecy led to a bizarre mismatch between the Israeli government and its intelligence agencies, which Ronen Bergman summarizes neatly in his awesome book Rise and Kill First. Here’s what he says: “While the highest levels of the Israeli government were trying to negotiate peace, the country’s intelligence agencies continued fighting a covert war, unaware that anything had changed.” In a twist that could have come out of a spy drama, or a comedy, or a comedic spy drama, the director of the Mossad learned about Oslo from a bugged chair he had placed in Mahmoud Abbas’ office. It was only after the incident of the so-called “singing chair” that Mossad and Shin Bet officials began “meeting with men who, a few short months earlier, had been their targets for either espionage or assassination.”

But how do you start a conversation about peace with someone you’ve been trained to kill?

First, you recognize his right to exist. On September 9th, 1993, Rabin and Arafat exchanged letters of mutual recognition. The PLO Chairman admitted Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security,” renounced terrorism, and promised to revoke certain unsavory articles in the PLO charter — you know, the ones pledged to Israel’s destruction while also not recognizing its existence. Rabin wrote back, “In light of the PLO commitments included in your letter, the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.”

So, the PLO and Israel recognize each other. Which may sound small, but was absolutely unprecedented.

Now what? Well, the first installment of the Oslo Accords — signed in September of 1993 — set forth some ground rules.

First, the Accords established that there would be a democratically elected “Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority” that would rule the West Bank and Gaza. This interim period was supposed to last five years, at which point there would be a more permanent, democratically elected government. 

To ensure a smooth transition into self-determination, the Accords mandated that the Palestinian interim government would establish all kinds of entities to deal with infrastructure. (It’s amazing how incredibly mundane the business of government is, when you get down to it. Someone has to make sure the lights stay on and the sewage stays out of the street.)

Finally, to ensure this government actually had land to rule, Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, starting with the ancient city of Jericho.

Two years later, a new set of accords, known as Oslo II, were signed in Taba, Egypt. This agreement had some lasting consequences for the status of the West Bank, dividing it into three areas, creatively named Areas A, B, and C.

Area A, which comprised six major Palestinian cities in the West Bank — like Ramallah, Tulkarem, and Jenin — would be run entirely by the Palestinians. Included in Area A were some regions with religious significance to all three Abrahamic faiths, including Bethlehem and Nablus, better known in Hebrew as Shchem.

Area B, which is where roughly 68% of West Bank Palestinians lived as of 1995, would be governed entirely by the Palestinian government. However, Israel would be in charge of security — a duty that overrode the Palestinian Council’s “responsibility for public order.”

Finally, Area C — which was largely devoid of Palestinians, but included Jewish settlements, and was strategically important for Israel — would be controlled mostly by the Israelis. And, the city of Hebron, or Chevron, which houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs, would remain under Israeli control. 

Outside of land, the Palestinian Council would be responsible for things like healthcare and education. Finally, Israel also agreed to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners in three stages.

That’s it. Pretty anodyne stuff for us in 2021, to be honest. But it is not an exaggeration to say that when the terms were announced back in the early 90s, Israelis and Palestinians alike went wild.

Many Israelis — particularly settlers — asked themselves, “Had the government lost its mind?” and prophesied that “Nothing would come out of this pretend peace except blood.” These are direct quotes, by the way, from Yossi Klein Halevi’s excellent book Like Dreamers.

And Israelis had good reason to be cynical. Halevi quotes Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, a founder of Gush Enumin, an activist movement committed to establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Rabbi Bin Nun believed that “Fatah [i.e., the people running the negotiations] is not more moderate than Hamas. They share the same goal. There is a division of labor between them: Hamas continues with terrorist attacks while Fatah pushes for diplomatic gains. Strategically, they are working together.” A slogan on a Ramallah wall backed up this opinion. It read in Arabic: Fatah and Hamas Together til Victory!

Graffiti aside, Rabbi Bin Nun had good reason to worry. Though Arafat had promised to revoke certain articles from the PLO charter and renounce terrorism, he was talking out of both sides of his mouth. During a closed-door speech at a Johannesburg mosque in 1994, Arafat called for a “jihad” to liberate Jerusalem. Addressing his audience directly, he said “you have to come and to fight and to start the Jihad to liberate Jerusalem, your first shrine.”

When a tape of the recording went public, the chairman’s spokespeople tried to backpedal, saying “he didn’t really mean jihad as in ‘holy war.’” But listen to a recording from his speech and decide for yourself.

The audio wasn’t perfect, so let me just read it again: This agreement, I am not considering it more than the agreement which had been signed between our Prophet Muhammad and Quraish, and you remember the Caliph Omar had refused this agreement and considered it “Sulha Dania” [a despicable truce]. But Muhammad had accepted it and we are accepting now this [Oslo] peace accord.

By the way, that treaty he’s talking about? It refers to an agreement between the Prophet Mohammad and the tribe of Koraish, who controlled Mecca but signed a treaty allowing Mohammad to pray there. Once Mohammad grew stronger, he voided the agreement, killed Koraish, and conquered Mecca. It’s not super hard to see the implications here. 

In a Washington Post article that ran after the recording was made public, journalist Jim Hoagl criticized Arafat sharply, calling him a “ruthless” manipulator. But this is hardly the nastiest thing anyone has said about the PLO’s erstwhile chairman; in 2017, Noor Dahri, founder of independent think tank Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism, called Arafat “a fake hero, a lord of corruption and a true godfather of Palestinian terrorism.”)

Had the think tank been around in 1994, there’s no doubt that Israeli public figures would have agreed. For Benjamin Netanyahu — the head of the Likud party and one of the biggest critics of the Oslo Accords at the time — Arafat’s doubletalk was enough to halt the whole process, and he called for the suspension of the talks. 

Nevertheless, Rabin persisted. If you know anything about Rabin from our episodes on the Altalena, Entebbe or the story of his assassination, one thing is clear – Rabin was a man who stuck to his guns. Some might call that brash and stubborn, and others might call that principled, but either way, he ignored the naysayers and kept going.

Israeli hardliners were disappointed, and made no secret of their hatred for their prime minister. They protested constantly, carrying posters of Rabin wrapped in a keffiyeh or dressed as an SS officer. Bumper stickers appeared calling for “the criminals of Oslo” to be brought to justice. Propaganda pamphlets — many anonymous — littered the streets. And these anti-Rabin rallies were helmed by some familiar faces. Here’s Netanyahu, speaking at a rally:

He is saying: “We will never allow Jerusalem to be divided again, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Remember… Oslo didn’t make any statements about Jerusalem. And Rabin himself emphasized that Jerusalem would never be divided. But Netanyahu knew what to say to rouse his supporters. Here are those same supporters calling for Rabin’s expulsion in no uncertain terms:

They’re chanting, “with blood, with fire, we will expel Rabin:” a threat that would indeed come true in November of 1995 – again, if you haven’t listened, check out our episode from season 1 about Rabin’s assassination.

Nerd corner: Some believe that Rabin’s Orthodox assassin had help from a mystical source. A group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, led by Mexican-Israeli rabbi Yosef Dayan, placed a kabbalistic curse called a pulsa denura, or “the lash of fire,” on Rabin just a month before his murder. 

To be clear, the pulsa denura has been levied, or at least used as a threat, against multiple Israeli politicians, among them Ariel Sharon and Naftali Bennett. A 2005 Haaretz article wryly notes “It is doubtful if any Israeli public figure could be considered truly high-ranking without a pulsa denura being invoked against him at least once.” By the way, just to extend the nerd corner: the origin of the pulsa denura is highly contested, with Haredi professors and scholars claiming that there is no such curse, and that any attempt to perform one is based in fantasy, not kabbalistic sources.) 

But I bring up the curse not to suggest its veracity but to give you some idea of what was going on in Israeli society at the time. Because Jews have always had their fault lines — the story of Hanukkah, for example, is one of Jews fighting not only the Greeks, but also their Hellenized brethren. The destruction of the Second Temple was helped along by severe infighting from various Jewish factions — including Zealots who burned Jerusalem’s much-needed food stores in order to encourage all the city’s residents to participate in the revolt. (The strategy failed and many Jews starved to death before the Romans ravaged the city.)

The story of the pulsa denura, the rallies in the streets, the propaganda, the fiery op-eds, the cheap pot-shots in the press: all of these were just another expression of the fault lines dividing Jews from each other in the wake of the Oslo Accords.

But Rabin’s message didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears. The peace rally that ultimately claimed his life boasted an audience of one hundred thousand people — one of the biggest rallies in Israel’s history. Indeed, in Like Dreamers, Yossi Klein Halevi reflects that “the majority of Israelis supported the Oslo Accords,” perhaps helped along by what he called Israeli media’s “uncritical embrace” of the process. He writes that, “Partly the changing mood was a result of the intifada: a growing number of Israelis had concluded that the price for absorbing the territories was too high, that occupation undermines Israel’s Jewish and democratic values, and that the Jewish people hadn’t returned home to deprive another people of its sense of home.”

Halevi points out that this support made sense. It was the ‘90s. UN Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism to be racism, had been repealed. And previously undreamt-of material comforts were making their way to Israel: cable news. McDonalds. International products. Israelis were ready to be just like everyone else — a nation that could focus on itself, rather than an endless, exhausting war with its neighbors.

Just a few kilometers away, the turmoil on the Israeli side was matched by the reluctance of many Palestinians. An al-Jazeera timeline downplays the Palestinian reaction to Oslo as follows: “Among Palestinians, supporters of the Oslo Accords reasoned it was a compromise that could lead to peace. Fatah, the largest faction in the PLO at the time, supported Oslo. But other political parties outside of the PLO, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, opposed the Accords and warned that a two-state solution would betray the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to the land taken from them during the 1948 Nakba.”

This timeline, however, doesn’t mention the rash of stabbings and bombings that ripped through Israel in the wake of the Accords. A car bomb in April 1994 killed eight. A week later, a bombing at Hadera’s central bus station killed five. October brought the grisliest attack yet: 22 dead in a suicide bombing on Tel Aviv’s #5 bus. And on, and on, and on.

In his book Once Upon a Country, Sari Nusseibeh is much more straightforward. He tells us plainly that in the wake of the Accords, “pictures of Arafat were burned throughout the West Bank. The local Hebronites greeted [PLO leader] Faisal [Husseini] with stones when he tried to go to the scene.”

Scholar Shamir Hassan explains that while the Palestinian left would in theory support a peace process with Israel, they still opposed Oslo, because there was no promise, let alone mention, of a state for Palestine. Yes, there was a sort of autonomy for the Palestinian people, but for Israel, that autonomy merely relieved them of the economic burden of the Palestinians while allowing them to keep all the control. Therefore, real peace couldn’t come from it, they argued.

Ironically, many Israelis — settlers chief among them — felt that Oslo posed a serious threat to the status quo. They feared being ripped from their homes and expected to be further delegitimized by their dovish government. After a terrorist attack in early 1995, Rabin said “We don’t want the majority of the Jewish population… of whom 98% live within sovereign Israel… to be vulnerable to terrorism.” Implying — at least to settlers — that their lives were worth less than the average Israelis, simply because of where they lived.

Aware of his misstep, Rabin made significant concessions to the settler movement. In Once Upon A Country, Sari Nusseibeh articulates a Palestinian interpretation of what was happening, saying: “Rabin pandered to the settlers by pumping billions of shekels into settlement defense and infrastructure.” Klein-Halevi recounts that because of the intervention of religious leaders, Rabin demanded special concessions to protect Kever Rachel and Kever Yosef, on the outskirts of Bethlehem and Nablus/Shechem, respectively.

At the same time, according to Noa Tishby’s book Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, “Rabin reduced the governmental incentives for the building of new settlements that the Likud-led government of the 80s had put in place.” This, despite the fact that the Declaration of Principles did not demand a freeze on the construction of settlements.

None of this mattered to the settler movement, by the way. To the settlers and many Dati Leumi Israelis, it didn’t matter how many concessions Rabin made to them; he was still the man handing over parts of the West Bank to an enemy who had masterminded countless massacres and terrorist attacks.

As terror attacks ratcheted up, more and more Israelis would come to believe that talks with the Palestinians were fruitless. Indeed, Oslo II, which mandated the withdrawal of the IDF from most of the West Bank, passed in the Knesset by the thinnest of margins — 61 for, 59 against. And many of the “ayes” were from the Arab anti-Zionist parties. But Rabin was unfazed. “I will make peace with whatever majority is available,” he declared.

But what peace was there, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad were blowing up busses and stabbing people in the streets? 

For Israelis, there were two options: either Arafat couldn’t control his people, which was bad news for anyone who relied on him as a partner. But the other option was worse: he could control his people. And sending them out to attack Jews was his way of doing it. According to Ronen Bergman: “Rabin complained that “Arafat and his people were doing nothing at all to rein in Hamas and the PIJ.” By early 1995, the Israeli establishment had realized that the PLO was useless. The director of the Shin Bet at the time, Carmi Gillon, said: “We decided ultimately that we would rely solely on ourselves and to make every effort to combat terror.”

A wise move. Because for his part, Arafat maintained that the suicide bombs were a false flag operation, floating the ludicrous and absolutely baseless claim that “A secret Israeli organization by the name of OAS that functions… in cooperation with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, whose aim is to disrupt the peace process, is behind these attacks and many others.” Shimon Peres put it rather diplomatically when he said of Arafat: “Facts and the truth did not always interest him.” 

But — despite his terrible partner in the peace process — Rabin forged on. And the press was with him, playing on everyone’s greatest hopes: prosperity. The early hardscrabble days of the state were long over, and the socialism of the state’s forefathers was eroding. Everyone — Israeli and Palestinian alike — hoped for a turn in their fortunes. Both the PLO and the Israeli media marketed Oslo as a harbinger of untold riches; Yossi Klein Halevi recounts the financial section of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper featuring a cartoon of a dove with a $100 bill in its mouth. 

These promises, unfortunately, never came to pass.

Though Arafat certainly lived lavishly with money he skimmed from PLO funds, his people didn’t see a dime. But it wasn’t only Arafat who “annihilated” all hopes of peace and prosperity. For many on the Israeli left and right, it was 25-year-old Orthodox law student Yigal Amir who did that when he murdered Rabin with three shots to the back as Rabin left a peace rally where he had sung “Shir L’Shalom,” A Song for Peace, just moments before. (The text of the song was found in his suit pocket, crumpled and stained with blood.)

It wasn’t just hope that was killed that night. As Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen, who performed at the rally right before Rabin was assassinated, put it in his song Mered Hadmaot, “they murdered peace in the square.”

As Israeli society reeled from the death of their leader at the hands of one of their own, Hamas and PIJ stepped up the attacks. By 1996, the Israeli public had had enough. In a surprise upset, they voted out dovish Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who had been predicted to win another term by a comfortable margin, in favor of hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s right-wing government didn’t completely halt the negotiations. The peace process limped along until 2000, dying a slow death by a thousand cuts. Finally, in September of 2000, the relentless violence of the second intifada stomped all over its grave for good measure. 

So. What are we to make of this? Thirty years on, where should we stand on Oslo?

Perhaps Oslo’s most lasting legacy was the fact that it brought Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table for the first time. And more importantly, it brought along the Jordanians, who brokered a peace deal with Israel in 1994.

Still, many are cynical about what Oslo really accomplished. Ami Ayalon, the head of the Shin Bet in the latter half of the 90s, said of the Accords: “It ultimately transpired that both sides felt cheated, with a great degree of justifiability. We didn’t get security, and they didn’t get a state.” 

And this was despite the fact that — in the words of Yossi Klein Halevi — Israelis came to believe that “there was no alternative to a two-state solution,” and that “growing numbers of Israelis were accepting the once-daring notion that the conflict with the Palestinans was between two legitimate national narratives.” 

Remember, the original Declaration of Principles had never mentioned a self-sustaining Palestinian state, that’s why so many Palestinians were so dismissive of it. And even if the idea of a “two state solution” seems more unlikely and outlandish than ever (as of 2021), for a few short years in the 90s, it seemed possible. Even within reach. 

Well, at least for the Israelis. 

Palestinian scholar Sari Nusseibeh writes: “Eventually the Israeli right found a way to embrace Oslo and the inevitable logic of a Palestinian state by redefining what it would be. It would have little territory, no control over its borders, no capital, or at least not one in Jerusalem, and no economic viability. According to one Likud politician, “Well, they want to call it a state?” Fine, they can call it fried chicken if they want to.” Ouch.

But some Palestinians remember Oslo differently: as the time they were told by their leaders that peace, maybe even a country, was coming. And the time that — yet again — they found themselves still disappointed, still stateless, still hanging in limbo between terrorists on one side, and widespread political corruption on the other. 

It’s hard for me not to be cynical about Oslo, because, as I reflected at the start of the episode, I was there. I am old enough to remember it, and skeptical enough to understand what happens when you make promises that half your nation isn’t prepared to handle. 

I wish I had a more inspiring take to end this episode. 

But perhaps we can end with Yitzhak Rabin’s last words to his people, in the hope that one day, we’ll truly be ready to hear them. This is what Rabin said on that fateful day:

I have always believed that the majority of the nation wants peace, and is ready to take risks for peace. And those who are here today, along with those who couldn’t be here, prove that the nation really wants peace.

So, that’s the story of the Oslo peace talks. Here are your five fast facts:

  1. In 1991, the first President Bush was optimistic that he would be the American leader who would bring peace to the Middle East, and he and his administration did manage to get Israel into the same room with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delagation.
  2. By January 1993, for the first time ever, Israel and the Palestinians entered secret negotiations, and by September 1994, Rabin and Arafat exchanged letters. Rabin recognized the PLO as representatives of the Palestinian people, and Arafat admitted Israel’s right to exist in peace, and renounced terrorism. Historic.
  3. Oslo I, signed in 1993, established a sort of Palestinian govt, that was meant to be temporary, and Israel agreed to withdraw from Gaza, and parts of the West Bank. Oslo II, signed in 1995, created Areas A, B, and C in the West Bank.
  4. Israelis didn’t trust Arafat as far as they could throw him, especially because of his record – on tape – of speaking one way to Israel and America, and another way to his own community. Nevertheless, Rabin kept trying, to the dismay of the hardliners in Israel, especially as terror attacks ratcheted up.
  5. After the one-two punch of Rabin’s assassination, and the continued terror attacks, Israel had enough. They voted in Netanyahu as Prime Minister, and the Oslo Peace Accords were permanently dead by 2000.

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. And — maybe ironically, maybe fittingly — it has nothing to do with war or peace, at least not directly. 

It has to do… with leadership.

You may remember from our Entebbe episode that I applauded Yitzchak Rabin’s leadership in no uncertain terms. The raid on Entebbe showed that Rabin was principled, willing to take risks, and above all, motivated by deep love and respect for his fractured, fractious country. Rabin deliberated mightily over the prospect of launching a rescue operation, acutely conscious of the 103 innocent lives that hung in the balance. But in the end, he approved the mission — aware, perhaps, that (in the words of Shimon Peres), “daring thinking about one’s options is always the better course.”

Perhaps true when there are 103 lives in the balance. When your cabinet is with you all the way. But… what happens when there are 5.3 million lives at stake, many of whom think you’ve betrayed them? How daring should you be then?

There were 5.3 million Israelis, 81% of them Jewish, the day that Rabin stood on the White House lawn, reluctantly shaking his enemy’s hand. And a significant number of those millions of people were horrified, outraged, and afraid of what this handshake would mean. This handshake took their land — land they had fought and died for, land marked by the footsteps of their ancestors, seeded with the relics of millennia of Jewish life — and exchanged it for more attacks. More suicide bombings. More stabbings. More incitement. More delegitimization of their lifestyles and religious beliefs. There is no doubt their protests echoed mightily in Rabin’s ears as he grimaced through his handshake with Arafat. 

But he went for the daring thinking. The same thinking that had brought home the hostages of Entebbe. The same thinking that he hoped would guarantee a future of peace and prosperity for Israel and its neighbors.

But this time, the daring thinking failed. Miserably. Costing him his life, and costing generations of Israelis and Palestinians any prospect of peace.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z’l, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote movingly but sadly of Rabin’s legacy. In an article on leadership, he reflected:

“A leader must lead from the front, but he or she must not be so far out in front that when they turn around, they find that no one is following. Pace is of the essence. Sometimes a leader can go too fast. That is when tragedies occur.”

In short, Israelis and Palestinians were simply not ready. You know, Rabbi Sacks had endorsed the Accords in the press, but had written privately to the Prime Minister expressing reservations that the Accords were widening the chasm between Jews. He writes “[I urged] him to spend as much time negotiating with his fellow Israeli citizens – specifically the religious Zionists – as with the Palestinians… He had pursued peace, as we are commanded to do, but he had gone too fast for those who were not yet prepared to listen.”

So… is daring thinking really always the better option? Or do you need ideological backup for it to work? Is it possible to be a daring thinker and leader when your thinking is a bridge too far for the people you’re leading? 

Perhaps the legacy of Oslo teaches us that a leader needs the consensus of their people. Leaders should always think daringly, but the legacy of Oslo remains that acting daringly only works if your people are along for the ride. True change, lasting change, comes from the bottom up, not the top down. 

For me, Rabin is a hero. But in the case of Oslo, it seems Rabin went too fast. Gambled too much, too quickly.


Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk (this is my mom’s favorite segment, by the way), where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. This letter from a listener named David really affected me, and I wanted to share it with all of you. David wrote:

Hi “Unpacking Israeli History” Team,

After listening to the last few episodes of your brilliant podcast series, I wanted to send a special thank you for all the thought and detail you put into each episode.

I grew up the son of a Protestant preacher and my Christian faith continues to be central to my identity. Before finding your show, the extent of my understanding of Jewish history basically started and stopped at the Holocaust. From explaining the fascinating Suez Crisis to exploring the nuanced dynamics of Beta Israel, your podcast has helped me gain a much richer and deeper understanding of Jewish history!

A big shout-out to your team for all the effort in producing such an excellent show and thank you for making the content accessible even to folks like myself who might not be in your primary audience demographic.

All the best,


David. David. David. This email…man. You got me right in the feels, as the kids say. Because when we started this show, we truly didn’t know who our audience would be.  Angry anti-Zionists who would send us screeds about how evil we were? Angry hard-line Zionists who would send us screeds about how we were ridiculous liberals? And yes, we do have people from all walks of life listening to this show. But the people we really wanted to reach were the people who didn’t necessarily already have strong opinions. Who wanted to approach Israel with an open mind and see what all the fuss was about, and come out feeling positively about Israel, with all the nuance. So, thank you. You made my day. And if you, listening, have thoughts to share – even if how ridiculous and evil we are, we want to hear it, don’t be shy, be like David! Send us a message at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to us at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com – your email might even get on the show.

This episode was produced by Rivky Stern. Our team for this episode includes Adi Elbaz, Baruch Goldberg, and Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening, see you next week!

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