This is the second installment of the prepared text for my talk to the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, delivered on Sunday, Jan. 20, in New London:
The first seriously bad incident during the Oslo peace process occurred on Purim, in February 1994. Baruch Goldstein, a medical doctor and West Bank settler who lived in Kiryat Arba next door to Hebron, murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron, spraying them with his machine gun, before he was overwhelmed and beaten to death in turn. Goldstein was a disciple of the right-wing extremist, Meir Kahane.
Most Israelis and most Jews around the world were mortified by what Goldstein had done, but other than issuing apologies, Israel did nothing. Yitzhak Rabin’s government debated a radical response that I believe might have made a difference and decisively improved the future outcome of events. They discussed forcibly evicting the extremist settler community in Hebron and possibly in Kiryat Arba as well. It would have been very difficult to do this in Kiryat Arba, a settlement with several thousand occupants, but easier in Hebron, where about 400 Jews were guarded by a couple of thousand soldiers.
We can’t know if evicting the settlers from at least one of these places would have been regarded by most Palestinians as an adequate response to Goldstein’s crime, but the argument could certainly have been made and something very concrete would have been done. When the History Channel ran a documentary on Palestinian terrorism a couple of years ago, it claimed that Yiyah Ayyash, known as “the engineer,” the master bombmaker for Hamas, became a terrorist as a personal reaction to the Goldstein massacre in Hebron. Ayyash adapted the suicide belt for Palestinian use. He was responsible for the deaths and injuries of a hundred or more Israelis in ‘94 and ‘95.
Following Rabin’s assassination in Nov. 1995, Shimon Peres took over as prime minister. Early in January 1996, the Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service located Ayyash and Peres gave his okay to killing him with an exploding cell phone. Sadly, in the middle of the election campaign, Hamas and Islamic Jihad struck back with four or five terror attacks. Three were devastating — two on the same bus line in Jerusalem and one at a mall in Tel Aviv, killing numerous children in costume for Purim. All in all, about 60 Israeli civilians were murdered with many more injured. Peres immediately lost his 20 point lead in the polls over Bibi Netanyahu.
Peres was suddenly locked in an unexpectedly tight election race with Netanyahu, the much younger, photogenic and well-spoken Likud candidate. When Hezbollah started raining missiles on northern Israel in March or April ‘96, Peres felt the need to show strength in the Israeli response. Israel warned the entire population of a vast area of southern Lebanon to abandon their homes and began a massive bombardment by artillery and aircraft. This went on for days on end until about 100 Lebanese civilians seeking shelter at a UN position were killed by Israeli shells; this was a tragedy caused by Israel responding to rockets launched nearby by Hezbollah. Israel’s offensive was immediately halted but Israel was left explaining what went wrong. In the meantime, Israeli Arabs were outraged. Many would have been expected to vote for Peres in the election, but they stayed away from the polls in droves, guaranteeing Netanyahu a squeeker of a victory.
Peres had tried to prove himself as a strong, security-minded prime minister– first in killing a terrorist leader and then in Lebanon. Both of these moves, however, resulted in disaster. The key decision that led to disaster was the killing of Ayyash. I don’t have tears for the man, he deserved to die. But he was killed at a time that Hamas and the other terrorist factions were quiet. That very same month of January 1996, Israel made a large-scale turnover of authority to the Palestinians in most West Bank cities and towns. Then there were the first-ever Palestinian national elections. In the eyes of many Israelis, the terror attacks of February and March ‘96 proved that the Palestinians were unreliable as partners for peace. But more accurately, two terrorist factions were reacting to Israel’s killing of one of their leaders.
In the meantime, Netanyahu had campaigned as a moderate, not a complete foe of the Oslo process. In fact, the last two negotiated agreements Israel concluded with the Palestinians were made with Netanyahu in charge. One of them involved Israel withdrawing from 80 percent of the city of Hebron, the only major West Bank city where Jews live.
There was one serious shooting episode during the Netanyahu years– a raging gun battle that resulted from bad communications regarding the building of a tunnel entrance near the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock holy site, without Palestinian approval. But once both sides got past that, the late ‘90s, from 1997 until the peace process collapsed late in 2000, were among the safest years Israel ever experienced. This was mainly due to cooperation between Israel and Palestinian Authority security forces.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu was not eager to conclude the Oslo process, which would have meant a final negotiated agreement regarding the core issues: borders, especially regarding Jerusalem, the future of the settlements, the nature of a Palestinian state, the status of the Arab refugee population from 1948. So, Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, voted a landslide victory for the Labor party candidate, Ehud Barak, over Netanyahu. Click for Part 3.