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The high hopes that swept across the White House lawn 16 years ago faded long ago, and peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems more remote today than it did before the Oslo Accords were signed on September 13, 1993.
Oslo was supposed to mark the beginning of the end of the conflict. I participated later than afternoon in a meeting of American Arab and Jewish leaders with president Bill Clinton to talk about working together to promote the peace. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres flew off to Morocco to meet with the king and open the expected new era.
High hopes soon came crashing down on the rocks of reality, but the conventional wisdom that Oslo was a total failure is unjustified. Yes, it was deeply flawed, but it also was a historic turning point that has not been reversed.
Oslo meant the Palestinians accepted Israel's right to exist, and Israel recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It effectively endorsed the two-state approach, although Israel would take a decade to formalize that.
For the Palestinians it meant Israel was willing to negotiate over Jerusalem, refugees and statehood, which they considered a major breakthrough.
Both sides abandoned their goals of exclusive control of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
BUT THERE was a huge gap between promise and performance. The five-year timetable for a final status agreement was unrealistic. Oslo's architects failed to clearly spell out their goals, how to achieve them and how to monitor and correct violations.
A critical shortcoming that continues to this day has been a failure to stimulate a culture of peace, notably on the Palestinian side, where the media, mosques, schools and government continue to incite anti-Israel hatred.
"Oslo was built on small steps to build confidence and trust, and put that in the bank and withdraw when they needed it for bigger things. That was a fundamentally flawed but heroic effort. It didn't work in 1993 and it won't work in 2009," said Aaron David Miller, a former US Mideast negotiator and now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Center for Scholars.
But if the incremental approach didn't work that doesn't mean moving directly to a final status agreement will either, especially in light of current weak leadership on both sides.
"I find it unimaginable how anybody can believe a conflict ending agreement - Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees - between this government of Israel and this Palestinian Authority is remotely possible. The two sides have fundamentally different views on these issues," Miller said.
Both sides share the blame for Oslo's failures, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and coeditor of bitterlemons.org, an on-line Israeli-Palestinian dialogue forum.
"The Palestinians failed spectacularly at state-building: corruption, cronyism, poor leadership and endemic violence," he said. Fatah lost control of Gaza to Hamas, which does not share its definition of peace as two states living side-by-side.
Israel's mistake was settlements, which he called "an error of grand-strategic proportions," a result of its dysfunctional electoral/political system that produces governments focused on their own survival rather than larger issues like peace, and thus "rarely... reflects the public's overall support for a two-state solution."
A former American diplomat agreed, "Today you have leaders who are prisoners of their politics, not masters of their constituencies, and that is fatal. And you can't fix it without leaders with a measure of courage and vision, not just politicians. The stakes are existential. Just ask Rabin."
Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian coeditor of bitterlemons, said the failure of Oslo led to the rise of Hamas. Israel made the PA economically and structurally dependent on it, a strategy that backfired because it "led to the empowerment of Hamas and the discrediting of any moderate Palestinian leadership." Palestinians questioned Israeli sincerity when they saw the rapid expansion of settlements and land confiscation, and Israelis saw Palestinian violence, terrorism and incitement, often with Yasser Arafat's backing, as proof that Palestinians were not serious.
No peace was possible so long as Arafat was in charge, but when he died, Israel and the US ignored the opportunity to reinvigorate the peace process by bolstering the moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile much of the rest of the Arab world was largely disinterested and failed to give the Palestinians and the Israelis the essential backing they needed to make tough decisions. Oslo was a starter - it opened eyes, ears and doors around the world - but it was deeply flawed, as were its signers. It is popular to deem the agreement a failure, but that's unfair. It opened too much that remains open today, it brought promise unfulfilled but not lost. It should be judged not for what it failed to achieve but for what it set in motion.