What Oslo doesn't say

Core issues like the settlements were postponed until enough mutual trust was built to solve them.

Suppose, for an improbable moment, that on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had given a speech in which she declared that the high birthrate of Arab women in the West Bank and east Jerusalem was having a "negative effect on the atmosphere" of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And suppose she had added that so many Palestinian babies is "not what we want" and that "the issue is to try," by having less of them, to "get back to a place where there is some confidence" that the bearing of Palestinian children is "not an effort to dictate or prejudge the final-status outcome." Needless to say, this would have made banner headlines around the world ("Condi: Pals, Use Condoms!") and led to anti-American riots in a dozen different Arab and Muslim capitals. Outraged demonstrators would have burned flags and waved placards denouncing US Zionist abortionism. THIS IS NOT, of course, what happened this week when Ms. Rice was in Jerusalem and Ramallah. To be sure, she said the very words I have quoted her as saying, but they referred, not to the Palestinian birthrate, but to Israeli settlements, and nobody rioted because of them. In fact, nobody paid them much attention at all, because the American secretary of state, like her predecessors, and like diplomats, world leaders, political commentators, and newspaper editorials everywhere, said what everybody has been saying for years. And yet, if one looks at the actual agreements that Israel and the Palestinians have signed, including the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles that set the current "peace process" in motion, there is as much logic in calling for an end to Israeli settlement expansion as there is in calling for a moratorium on Palestinian births. Nowhere in any of these agreements is there a word about ending Israeli settlement activity or Israeli construction in Jerusalem. Nor is there anything in them regarding the slightest restriction or limitation on the settlements, much less the freeze on them that the Palestinians are demanding. There is simply an Israeli commitment to discuss them with the Palestinians in final-status negotiations, with not a word about how these negotiations are to deal with them. THIS IS not because the Palestinians wanted it this way. It is because, when they demanded in the Oslo negotiations that Israel agree to curb the settlements, Israel refused and the Palestinians backed down. As any lawyer will tell you, when two sides sign a contract, they are bound not only by what is in it, but by what is not in it as well. The Oslo agreement was a bad one, bad for the Palestinians and bad for Israel, precisely because it ignored issues like the settlements in the hope that they could be postponed until enough mutual trust was built between the parties to solve them. The result, as everyone now knows, was mutual distrust and hostility, which grew constantly greater as each side fought on the ground to create the facts that would force the other side to accept its position. Thus, when it came to the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Palestinians believed that the rapid growth of their population, augmented by a campaign of terror, would leave Israel no choice in the end but to evacuate the settlements and return east Jerusalem to Arab rule. Israel, in turn, believed that the steady expansion of the settlements, particularly in areas close to the pre-1967 border that it wished to change, would force the Palestinians to resign themselves to their existence and the need for Israeli sovereignty over them. Each side hoped that, by swinging the demographic balance in its favor, it could attain its ends. It is, therefore, as absurd to blame Israeli settlements for being an "effort to dictate or prejudge the final-status outcome" as it would be to accuse Palestinian motherhood of being a similar breach of contract. Of course Israel has counted on settlement expansion to help determine the outcome of negotiations. But so have the Palestinians counted on their population growth to do the same thing. This is the inevitable logic of the faulty agreement that the Oslo Declaration of Principles was - an agreement, Secretary of State Rice might be reminded, that was signed and celebrated on the White House lawn. The world has a short memory. Ask most people today what happened at Oslo and (unless they answer that it was the 1952 winter Olympics) they will tell you that the Palestinians agreed there to recognize Israel and Israel promised the Palestinians a state. But that is not what it says in the Oslo Declaration of Principles. All that is written there is that the government of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization "recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive [the italics are mine] to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security." THE BEST interpretation you can put on Oslo is that both sides are still striving. Did the PLO recognize Israel? Not in the slightest. It recognized Israel's "legitimate rights," a phrase that it was then free to interpret as it pleased. (To this day, for example, the Palestinian Authority refuses to recognize that Israel has a legitimate right to be a Jewish state.) Did Israel promise the Palestinians a state of their own? You can comb the Declaration of Principles line by line without finding the words "Palestinian state" in it. And Israel certainly did not promise to stop building settlements. To conduct American diplomacy as though it did is once again to give Israel the message that it is a waste of time for it to sign agreements with the Arabs because in the end no one will remember what is written in them anyway. This is not the way to bring peace to the Middle East. The writer is a veteran essayist, author and translator. His column is published in collaboration with The New York Sun.