Book review by Alexander H. Joffe: Ofira Seliktar, Doomed to Failure? The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process.

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Book review by  Alexander H. Joffe: Ofira Seliktar, Doomed to Failure? The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process.
Doomed to Failure?: The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process (PSI Reports). Ofira Seliktar. Published by Praeger, 2009. $49.95 pp.238

The famed French historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, posited that history moves at different speeds, “the permanent and the ephemeral, the slow-moving and the fast …what changes and what endures.” [1] Ofira Seliktar’s book shows how Israeli, Western, and to a vastly smaller extent, Palestinian idea-setting and decision-making elites influenced one another and various publics to create the fabric of the Oslo process. This played out on different levels. For example, diplomats and intellectuals would coolly speak in secret meetings and public conferences, while at the same time riots and shootings were taking place. Then, buses began to explode and burn. Interacting at first mostly out of the public eye, these elites convinced themselves that the time to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians had come. The only ones who weren’t convinced were Palestinian leaders, above all Arafat and his Islamist rivals, and, to an unknown extent, the Palestinian people.

Misreading the intentions of adversaries is as old as human politics. Democracies are far from immune, but the question is why, in an information age, such serious misreadings of the facts could happen. Seliktar opens with a discussion of how political elites perceive the world around them, create paradigms to frame evidence and structure action, and then deal with change. Is ‘Reality’ painfully flexible; is it constructed by our ideas and actions, or discovered by acute perception? What is deception and what is self-deception? [2] Seliktar notes that the ‘conflict resolution’ (CR) and ‘peace studies’ approach so explicitly embraced by the “architects of Oslo” implied a series of clear assumptions that rejected the presumably outmoded ‘conflict management’ approach. Paramount were the ideas that politics did not have to be a zero sum game; that international diplomacy is a form of intersocietal therapy; that leaders could and would bring their societies into line; and that, somehow, these unique premises were mutually understood and accepted by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Sadly, in the real world, power, politics and culture are what count. Here, Seliktar might have dwelled longer on the cultural and religious parameters of the Arab-Israeli conflict, albeit at the risk of accusations of ‘essentialism’ and even worse, “orientalism.” Not doing so may be a matter of either delicacy or brevity on her part. Political science in general seems uncomfortable with culture, since its local messiness muddies the clean waters of prediction. [3] Religion must be treated as epiphenomenal, far away from the material core of human decision-making. Islam in particular must be treated with the utmost delicacy, since it is not, we are repeatedly told, “monolithic,” “violent” or antisemitic, and in any case has been “hijacked” by “extremists.”

For most political scientists, leaders, too, seem to matter little. Many share – as Seliktar does not – an implicit assumption that all leaders want what is ‘best,’ in the sense of optimizing and maximizing their own societies’ fortune, if only as means to their own ends. Instead, sowing fear and chaos and then managing the resulting crisis remains the essential Middle Eastern leadership style. In the case of Arafat, confident predictions that he had changed his spots defied both history and reality. The same could be said about Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe and others. Variations on the title ‘President for Life’ or ‘Maximum Leader’ may be more reliable indicators a leader’s real purpose than academic theories.

Seliktar adopts a top-down approach, because the “Oslo Process” comprised a series of intellectual constructs that originated in the academic, political, and defense/intelligence communities (all deeply intertwined in Israel), which in turn were sold to various publics. She provides an intensely detailed accounting of the various players, their backgrounds and institutional settings, and the evolution of ideas, all set against the political realities of the Intifadas. She shows, for example, how Harvard social psychologist Herbert Kelman’s ‘conflict resolution’ concepts were put into use at joint Israeli-Palestinian workshops, and then extended by his student Stephen P. Cohen’s Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, which had the backing of Carter era Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and mogul S. Daniel Abraham. This body of thought fed Track II diplomacy initiated by Norwegian and Swedish socialist politicians who had access to the Israeli Labor Party. Shimon Peres was the most influential convert to this approach and he leveraged his personal charisma and popularity to the cause of the “New Middle East,” and Yossi Beilin, who leveraged his influence within the Labor Party. Simultaneously, the PLO was being ‘rebranded’ with the aid of a Washington, D.C. public relations firm. The train had left the station, and it was given greater momentum by the unexpected outbreak of the First Intifada of 1987 and the incapable Israeli response to it. But urgency meant different things to different parties. Pummeled by the Intifada and by condemnation and demonization from both external and internal sources, Track II became the primary hope for Israeli leaders. Thus, as a result of a combination of political circumstances and considerations of political expedience, they returned Arafat to center stage.

Self-deception regarding Arafat was legion. At every turn the ‘peace industry’ and its external facilitators seized upon random ambiguities and contradictions as evidence of his moderation. Alas, despite fawning biographies (at least one of which paid for by Rita Hauser, who later helped fund the ‘Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies’ at Columbia University) and his mastery of doubletalk, even Arafat’s supporters could not explain away his support of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. But time heals all wounds and dispels all misgivings, and the Madrid Conference (combined with the incentive of American loan guarantees) provided the opportunity for renewed pressure on Israel and ultimately for the rehabilitation of a presumably chastened and ‘mature’ Arafat. In the seemingly eternal Israeli good cop-bad cop routine, the George H.W. Bush administration portrayed Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as uniquely intransigent, while Peres was presented as a positive force. Yitzhak Rabin won the 1992 election, and the die was cast. At the same time that attacks on Israelis began, the machinations of secret diplomacy shifted into high gear. Seliktar takes the story from Rabin to Netanyahu, from Oslo and the staged ceremony on the White House lawn 13 September 1993, to the Hebron Memorandum and the Wye agreement, through to Barak and Taba. And she does not fail to note the involvement of Iran, dating back to 1990 and 1991, which patiently built support for Islamist movements, even across the Shia-Sunni divide.

Flailing and contradictory, the Israeli and international responses to Palestinian violations and the growing death toll were the disheartening counterpart to the enthusiastic beginning of the Oslo Process. The general outline of the story is well known, but Seliktar’s examination is remarkably detailed. Indeed, working from her compendious footnotes it is possible to reconstruct a monthly and in some cases daily chronology of idea-spinning and political events. Counter-posing events against debates and decisions brings into high relief the failures of perception and imagination that characterized virtually all levels of the Israeli intelligence, defense and policy establishments. And as an examination of Dennis Ross’ The Missing Peace shows, whatever the American understanding of the process and Arafat himself, the train had departed, and the participants felt obliged to stay on board.

‘Peace’ was in everyone’s ‘interest,’ but cui bono? The ‘peace industry’ that developed to theorize and implement Oslo, and which was heavily funded by the U.S. and Europe, profited greatly and expanded the reach of its paradigm through conferences, research projects and other therapeutic means to a predetermined end. Who could be against peace, and what researcher could swim against the tide? The United States Institute for Peace, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the German-Israel Foundation, and many others funded a plethora of projects at the Van Leer Institute, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the Tami Steinmetz Center, the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for Peace, and elsewhere. The advocates of the cause enlisted social science as a tool of social engineering which targeted Israeli society primarily. How else could one explain the creation of such a transparently partial device as the ‘Israel Siege Mentality Scale’ which purported to measure the ‘Dread of the ‘Other’? School curricula were rewritten to reflect ‘post-Zionist’ values, and revisionist “New Historians” chipped away at national “myths” and consensus. Writers such as David Grossman disparaged Israeli society’s fears and “narratives” while carefully ignoring the realities of Palestinian society, such as rampant corruption and lawlessness. For their part, Palestinian researchers touted the “democratic ethos” of the Palestinians, their new “realism” and willingness to “coordinate.” They similarly downplayed the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But the state-building exercise that became the Palestinian Authority collided with the reality of what Seliktar terms Arafat’s “neopatrimonialism.” The rais oversaw all, pitted one against all, took a cut from everyone, hid from all and lied to all. A vast “security” infrastructure was built as a tool of repression, ”coup proofing,” [4] patronage and dependence. The Palestinian Authority crushed dissent through media censorship and personal intimidation. Finally, faced with the Islamist challenge, Arafat himself ‘found religion.’ [5] Kleptocrats enriched themselves, and individual Israelis, not a few of whom had been security officials or involved with negotiations, profited handsomely. None of this was supposed to happen, and Seliktar is unsparing in her examination of the analysts who looked for excuses or looked away entirely.

Why was such a system of repression created, especially if Palestinians had learned so much about democracy from their years in Israeli jails, according to the conventional wisdom? The simplest explanation is that Palestinians lacked any meaningful cultural traditions of law or democracy, and that Arafat’s prestige and monopoly of force were overwhelming. Willful denial of similar realities have since bedeviled state-building in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and Afghanistan, movements to democratization in Egypt and Iran, and have underpinned the destruction of democracy in Turkey. As the political scientist Adda Bozeman noted decades ago, without law as an inviolable norm and institution, “personalism” and “familism,” a “delight in secrecy,” and a “predilection for viewing conflict positively,” retards the development of states and also unhinges the West from its own dedication to law and democracy. [6] Sadly, her insights have gone unrecognized by politicians and analysts dedicated to a multicultural vision where such comments are deemed “racist” or “essentialist.”

Another notable feature of Seliktar’s prodigious research is her understanding that alternative interpretations were indeed present throughout Oslo, including from well-known figures. At the institutional level, for example, the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar Ilan University took a far harder line on the process than the Jaffee Center at the University of Tel Aviv. Individuals such as Ehud Ya’ari, Martin Kramer, Barry Rubin, Yehezkel Dror, Reuven Paz, Yigal Carmon, and Boaz Ganor were not shy about expressing misgivings about Arafat, warning about Hamas, and pointing out the technical shortcomings of the Oslo agreements themselves. [7] On the one hand, these researchers were derided as Cassandras by dominant participants who proclaimed that all was well, even as the Israeli man in the street frantically telephoned friends and family to make sure they hadn’t been blown up in a bus or a pizza parlor. On the other hand, they were also discredited by boorish and hysterical behavior on the political right in Israel. Older influential figures, such as Zeev Schiff and Yehoshefat Harkabi, who had previously taken a hard line on Arab intentions, became converts to Oslo, and their voices also carried weight. [8] But the murder of Rabin discredited the right profoundly, in addition to removing the one leader whom many presumed capable of making real demands on the Palestinians. Only with the launch of the second Intifada in September 2000 and the failure of the Taba summit could Arafat, himself, derail the train permanently.

Although Seliktar does not pursue the question in detail, a preliminary accounting shows Oslo was comprised of an avalanche of cognitive biases, as defined by behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and others. Among these were a self-serving bias (where more responsibility is claimed for successes but not for failures), the false consensus effect (the tendency to overestimate the extent to which people agree), herd instinct, projection bias (the unconscious assumption that others share similar beliefs, values or positions), and the illusion of asymmetric insight (the perception that one side knows the other better than the other ). These misperceptions led to decision-making biases such as the interloper effect (where third parties are elevated above participants), normalcy bias (refusal to plan for disasters that have never happened before), illusion of control, post purchase rationalization, confirmation bias, the bandwagon effect, wishful thinking, and many more. Seliktar also notes that the Israeli intelligence process is prone to conflating analysis with advocacy. It is tempting to suggest other arrangements, such as the National Security Council established in 1999 by Netanyahu. But if the American experience here and if the example of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is any guide, these merely become additional bureaucratic competitors in an already crowded field.

In the broader sense of creating “peace,” a number of conclusions may be derived from Seliktar’s exhaustive book. Most are, in retrospect, quite obvious. Easily the first is that diplomacy is not therapy. Peace-making is a two-way, bottom up phenomenon, and actions observed are better predictors than words spoken. Constructive ambiguity and back channels may be mechanisms for elites to speak to one another, but these maximize opportunities for confusion, ambiguity, misinformation and blackmail. Participants become believers and then captive to the process and its “success.” Another lesson is that public and private discourse must be in sync; local-political concerns are real, but duplicity and deception are intolerable. Incitement matters. Have any of these conclusions been internalized by participants? How much far away is a two-way, bottom up peace? The return of the conflict management paradigm, perhaps best exemplified by the successful separation barrier, is hard to deny. But the conflict, too, has moved on.

With Seliktar’s institutional framing, it is noteworthy both how much the situation has changed but also remained the same. The dominance of Hamas in Gaza, Iran’s patronage and the increasingly pervasive Islamization of the conflict are new. So, too, is the vastly increased importance of information warfare, the war for the hearts, and minds of global media consumers, with the strategic objective of delegitimizing the State of Israel. This is perhaps the one real example of Joseph Nye’s “soft power” paradigm, executed ironically as a form of asymmetric warfare against Israel and the U.S. But in another sense nothing has changed. The Palestinian Authority remains an artificial construct, kept afloat by international donations and protected from Hamas only by Israeli security forces. Many of the same tired personalities on both sides still dominate the scene, while Israeli communities in the West Bank slowly reduce the options for “territorial compromise.”

But, most of all, the same impulses persist, seeking to detect signs – mostly imagined — of a Palestinian willingness to compromise, coexist and cooperate with Israel. Analysts still look for meanings and realities hidden beneath those which stare them in the face. Hamas was elected in Gaza but this, for example, was merely a “reaction” to Fatah’s corruption. The Hamas charter remains unchanged, but the scent of its “moderation” is forever in the air. Despite its denials, separation between Hezbollah’s “military” and “political” wings is still assumed to provide an opening for “pragmatism.” “Root causes” are still pursued and power held by tyrants is persistently assumed to foster responsibility and hence moderation. And, in the absence of peace, the peace industry lives on. Conflict resolution seminars, polls, conferences and declarations continue, but are now set against the backdrop of the growing “one state” movement and “lawfare” against Israel by NGOs and the UN. As if by design, conflict resolution looks like the good cop.

In the end, there is also the question of historical inevitability. Could the participants have taken different paths? Freud famously defined overdetermination as the ways in which the “residues of the day” penetrated into dreams, while in philosophy the concept is defined as events with multiple causes, any one of which would be causally sufficient. Were events thus doubly overdetermined such that, as if in a Greek tragedy, the creation of the Oslo agreement and its eventual collapse could be the only outcome? If Rabin had not been murdered, if Arafat had possessed the slightest bit of integrity, if there had not been despair and yearning on both sides, would things have turned out differently? The intermingling of dreams and waking states makes for inadequate analyses and policy-making. And as Isaiah Berlin once put it, the claim of inevitability “is one of the great alibis, pleaded by those who cannot or do not wish to face the fact of human responsibility.” [9] Seliktar shows admirably which decisions were made and by whom. For this, and for a penetrating analysis of how experts went wrong, her book deserves wide attention.


[1] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philippe II, tr. Sian Reynolds, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,1995) I: 353.

[2] See Joel Fishman, “Perception Failure and Self-Deception; Israel’s Quest for Peace in the Context of Related Historical Cases,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 450, 15 March 2001. http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp450.htm.

[3] See particularly, Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, (New York: Perseus, 2000). Cf. Peter Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1996).

[4] See James T. Quinlivan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 2. (1999), pp. 131-165.

[5] See Hillel Frisch, “Nationalizing a Universal Text: The Quran in Arafat’s Rhetoric,” Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 41, No. 3 (2005): 321 – 336.

[6] Adda B. Bozeman, The Future of Law in a Multicultural World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 166.

[7] See for example Reuven Paz, The Islamic Covenant and its Meaning (Tel Aviv: The Dayan Center, 1988 in Hebrew), Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). For further literature directly related to the present subject, see Ephraim Karsh and Joel Fishman, La Guerre d’Oslo, (Paris: Editions de Passy, 2005); Joel Fishman, “The Broken Promise of the Democratic Peace: Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 477, 1 May 2002. http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp477.htm ; ibid., “Ten Years Since Oslo: The PLO’s ‘People’s War’ Strategy and Israel’s Inadequate Response,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 503, 1 September 2003. www.jcpa.org/jl/vp503.htm. Since this book does not include a bibliography, it is not clear whether the author made use of Golan Lahat, HaPitui Ha-Meshichi [The Messianic Temptation] (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 2004 in Hebrew) which documented the government’s efforts to manipulate Israeli public opinion by spreading messianic hopes.

[8] See for example Yehoshafat Harkabi’s interview with Pinhas Ginossar and Zaki Shalom published as “The Last Reminiscence, January 14, 1994,” Israel Studies Vol. 1, No. 1 (1999), pp. 171-195.

[9] Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitability,” in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 116-117.

Book review by Alexander H. Joffe: Ofira Seliktar, Doomed to Failure? The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process.

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