THE OSLO SYNDROME: Delusions of a People Under Siege
By Kenneth Levin
Smith and Kraus, 352 pages
In this massively researched, lucidly written and cogently ar gued narrative, Kenneth Levin tells the appalling story of what has been called the greatest self-inflicted wound of political history: Israel's embrace of Yasser Arafat and the PLO in the Oslo Accords of September 1993 and its dogged adherence to its obligations under them even as its "peace partner" was blatantly flouting its own.
The book is divided into two sections. The first recounts Jewish political failure in the Diaspora, where Jews lived with a constant burden of peril, as the background for the self-deluding rationales that engendered Oslo. The second traces the same self-delusions in the history of Israel itself.
Levin shows how a tiny nation, living under constant siege by neighbors who have declared its very existence an aggression, was induced by its intellectual classes to believe that its own misdeeds had incited Arab hatred and violence, and that what required reform was not Arab dictatorship and Islamicist anti-Semitism, but the Jews themselves.
Reversing cause and effect, Israeli leaders blinded themselves to the (obvious) fact that it was Arab hatred and aggression that repeatedly led to Israeli occupation, not occupation that caused Arab hatred and violence.
Although Levin argues strongly that Israeli leaders like Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and the ineffable Shimon Peres hallucinated moderation in a murderous enemy, his book is not a polemic that excludes all opposing points of view; on the contrary, we get the fullest possible account, and "in their own words," of those Israelis (and their American-Jewish supporters) who deluded themselves into believing that Oslo would bring a new heaven and a new earth.
When the accords were signed in 1993, Minister of Education Shulamit Aloni announced that "no more parents will go weeping after the coffins of their sons" and Israeli novelist and "peace activist" Amos Oz said confidently that "death shall be no more."
And all this because Arafat had — not for the first time — promised to renounce terror and recognize Israel's "right to exist." It was the used Buick he had already sold several times over.
By autumn 2000, and as a direct (and in Levin's view entirely predictable) result of Israel's endless unreciprocated concessions to Arafat's demands, the country was faced with Intifada II, "the Oslo War," in which all Israel became a battlefield, and getting on a bus or going to a cafe or a disco meant risking your life.
One of Levin's central themes is the influence of Israel's cultural elites on the governments of Rabin and Barak. In Israel as in America the motto of many intellectuals is "the other country, right or wrong"; but whereas in America leftist intellectuals now aspire only to take over the universities, in Israel they aspired to (and in one sense did) take over the government.
The consequence: Israel was soon reminded of Churchill's judgment of England's intellectual appeasers: "Mr. Chamberlain was faced with a choice between surrender and war; he chose surrender, and he got war."
Edward Alexander is author of "Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.