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The Oslo accord's terrible toll

ON SEPT. 13, 1993, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn. That gesture ushered in the Oslo "peace process," so called after the Norwegian capital where its groundwork had been laid.

The deal that led to the White House handshake had been sealed with an exchange of correspondence four days earlier. On Sept. 9, Arafat had signed a letter declaring that the PLO "recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security" and "renounces the use of terrorism and acts of violence." He promised to "assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations, and discipline violators." Rabin replied that Israel would recognize the PLO as the Palestinians' representative and accept it as a negotiating partner for peace.

But the White House ceremony did not inaugurate an era of peace. It inaugurated instead the worst decade of terrorism in Israel's history.

Just 11 days after the handshake, 22-year-old Yigal Vaknin was stabbed to death in a citrus grove by a Hamas death squad, which left a note boasting of the murder. Vaknin was the first of 1,126 men, women, children, and babies who would lose their lives to Palestinian terror in the 10 years following Arafat's renunciation of violence. Some, like Vaknin, were knifed to death. Others were shot or stoned or bombed. The terrorists have killed their victims at a discotheque and a bat mitzvah party, at a Passover seder and in a pizzeria, on a university campus and in a farmer's market, and in dozens of buses and bus stops.

The Palestinians, too, have suffered thousands of casualties. Many have died while planning or carrying out violent attacks; others, smeared as "collaborators," have been lynched by Arafat's cutthroats. Innocent bystanders have lost their lives, tragically killed when Israel has fought in self-defense. They, too, are part of Oslo's terrible toll. I was on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, 1993, and saw the handshake in person. It was, for me, a surreal and disquieting moment: I had never expected to see the world's most notorious terrorist hailed as a peacemaker.

Yet even more surreal and disquieting was the rapture of the audience. People were giddy with happiness, elated that the impossible dream of Arab-Israeli peace was coming true before their eyes. In a commentary that morning I had written: "A reality check is in order. . . . One letter from Arafat does not a Palestinian peace with Israel make. . . . The millennium has not arrived, and there is no cause for euphoria." But that was clearly a minority view, both on the White House lawn and in the media at large.

At the Israeli embassy a few hours later I saw Shimon Peres -- then Israel's foreign minister and a key Oslo architect -- mobbed by a deliriously joyful crowd. Even more than the Washington dignitaries and media talking heads, Israelis and American Jews embraced the new "peace process." Oslo was extolled as the start of a "New Middle East," in which Israel would be smiled on by its neighbors and the Arabs' enmity would give way to tourism and joint ventures.

Oslo quickly became a cult, worshipped with a fervor that brooked no doubts and disdained all skeptics. There was never peace but there was a "peace process," and the more the evidence of its failure mounted, the more fervently it was venerated.

Within a few months it should have been clear to all that Arafat and the PLO leadership had not abandoned terrorism. Empowering them with land and money and authority had inflamed, not quenched, their thirst to "liberate" Israel from the Jews. Buses exploded and funerals proliferated, but Israelis told themselves that they were fashioning a "peace of the brave" and that there was no alternative but to return to the negotiating table and offer new concessions.

Yet each concession just convinced the Palestinians that the Jews were weakening and that upping the violence would make them even more desperate for peace. Not until September 2000 did Israel begin to wake from its stupor. That was when Prime Minister Ehud Barak made his unprecedented offer -- a sovereign Palestinian state with shared control of Jerusalem -- and Arafat replied by unleashing the deadliest terror campaign Israelis have ever known.

Oslo was not a good idea that went sour. It was fatally flawed from the start. The fundamental premise of Oslo -- that the Palestinians were ready to live in peace with Israel -- was always a lie. To Arafat and the PLO, peace was merely a tactic, one step forward in the "liberation" of Palestine. On the very day he shook Rabin's hand, Arafat assured a Jordanian TV audience that the liquidation of Israel was still his goal. It was a message he and his lieutenants would repeat time and time again.

Israelis crave peace, and they thought they craved it at any price. But peace at any price leads to war. Ten years after the handshake at the White House, let that be Oslo's epitaph.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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