Saving Oslo

UN vote was not intended as a violation of the Oslo Accords, but as a means to salvage Palestinian purpose.

oslo 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
oslo 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is exactly 20 years ago since the first meeting between PLO representative Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) and Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, a meeting that would lead to the start of the Oslo process. A few weeks later, I travelled with Hirschfeld to Norway, where we began a journey that would last for nine months and end with the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Contrary to what people today recall, the period prior to Oslo was a violent one. December 1992 was a particularly tempestuous month, and claimed a heavy price on both sides. On the first day of the month, Israel Defense Forces troops in the Gaza Strip clashed with Palestinian demonstrators. A 12-year-old Palestinian boy was killed, and 40 people were wounded; on the Israeli side, eight soldiers and Border Policemen were hurt. As the month progressed, the violence worsened. Hamas’s Izzadin al-Qassam brigades started to attack soldiers and settlers.
On December 7, three reserve duty soldiers were killed by a Hamas cell. On the same day, a woman settler was hit in the head by a rock, seven petrol bombs were thrown at IDF patrols in Ramallah, and an Israeli car was set alight in Jerusalem. On December 13, Hamas activists kidnapped a Border Policeman, Nissim Toledano, and demanded the release of their organization’s leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, jailed for life by Israel. Two days later Toledano’s body was found near the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, shortly after the deadline issued by Hamas had expired.
The response was not slow in coming. On December 17, Israel deported 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and activists to Lebanon, and the violence only increased.
That same week, the Palestinians marked the fifth anniversary of the intifada, and the statistics that were released were damning.
Some 800 Palestinians had been killed, including 137 children. Some 31 Israeli civilians and 28 security personnel had lost their lives; many more were wounded.
It was against this background that we headed to Oslo to launch a diplomatic process that would end the conflict. But the Oslo Accords signed in September 1993 were not yet a peace treaty, rather a declaration of principles that aimed to set in motion a process of historic reconciliation and bring about negotiations that would realize the vision of two states for two peoples. The accords dealt with various issues, but focused on two historic principles: the first mutual recognition between two national movements, with each recognizing the political legitimacy and right to selfdetermination of the other; and the second, a mechanism for a solution based on a diplomatic process that was meant to lead to implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 at whose heart is the principle of land for peace.
Almost 20 years have since passed, and the occupation continues and peace is nowhere in sight. Yet Oslo remains the basis for relations between Israel and the Palestinians, which is why the current government’s legal advisers have scoured the accords to find a claim that the UN decision on non-member observer state status for the Palestinians was a violation of Oslo. The clause upon which they base their case states that the sides shall “strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process.”
The legal claim seems weak and thus the legal advisers turned also to the following clause from the memorandum signed in Sharm el-Sheikh in 1999, four months after the original Oslo Accords were to have been implemented. This clause states that “to create a positive environment for the negotiations, neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in accordance with the Interim Agreement.”
Those claiming that the Palestinian move at the UN is not a violation of Oslo argue that these two clauses are not valid, given that there are no negotiations and that Israel has since 1993 acted to change facts on the ground in the territories, by such actions including the construction of outposts and new neighborhoods in settlements in Area C. It is worth noting that according to a standard argument in international law, any step made by either party to promote the purpose and the spirit of an agreement, even if it does not strictly abide by the letter of the text is not considered a violation. Such was the case with the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which unilaterally changed the status of the Strip. Either way, only nine out of 193 member states at the UN voted against the Palestinian request on November 29; thus almost the entire world indirectly told Israel that the move was not intended as a violation of the Oslo Accords, but as a means to salvage their intent and purpose.
The Israeli reaction, in particular the decision to advance building plans in the E-1 area of the West Bank, harms our own interests more than anything. E-1 was always a red flag for American administrations, which for years have insisted that there be no change in the status quo there. After the United States went out on a limb and voted against most of the world on the Palestinian bid – a decision that many see as going against American interests – the Israeli reaction was no less than a diplomatic spit in the face for President Obama.
The reason for the American decision on the UN vote is unclear. The U.S. can see that Jerusalem’s policy is to create a reality on the ground in which Israel controls Area C, which constitutes some 60 percent of the West Bank, and then propose a Palestinian state on the little that remains, a state that would be trapped between Israeli-controlled areas. In this situation there would be no peace agreement.
Thus, the Palestinian move at the UN should be seen as one that can reinforce the two-state concept, a concept that is based on a win-win situation. A serious reading of the UN decision shows that the Palestinians invested effort to create wording that was moderate and realistic, and which also does not contradict the position of the majority of the Israeli public or the traditional positions of the U.S. and the European states. For example, the borders proposed in the document are based on those of June 4, 1967, and are to be determined in negotiations with Israel.
Moreover, from Israel’s perspective, the UN vote has many advantages. Implicitly, the world for the first time recognizes the 1967 lines as Israel’s borders; West Jerusalem, which until now has not been recognized by the world as Israel’s capital because of the issue of borders, would be included within Israel’s legitimate territory - the Arab world has de facto recognized Israel within the 1967 borders.
Israel is in the midst of an election campaign and the various factions on the rightwing of the political map are competing in extremist statements. The description of Mahmoud Abbas as a terrorist and of the Palestinian UN move as more dangerous than Hamas attacks is aimed at presenting the Palestinians as a homogenous bloc intent on harming Israel. Hamas sticks to its opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel, but the moderate PLO is also presented by Israel as an enemy. In fact, Abbas is a real partner for peace with Israel, and believes that the diplomatic path culminating in a peace treaty with Israel is the way to national emancipation. Rejecting the pragmatists weakens – perhaps intentionally – the moderates in the territories and strengthens the extremists. Israel’s punitive measures, including withholding taxes collected for the Palestinians, could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, something that without a doubt is not in Israel’s interests.
The UN vote took place exactly 65 years after the historic decision that ended the British Mandate for Palestine and divided the territory into two states – one for the Jews and the other for the Palestinians.
Then the Jews said yes and the Arabs were opposed. The result was the birth of the State of Israel and tragedy for the Palestinians.
Today, it is the Arabs who are saying yes and Israel that is opposed. The fear of the peace camp in Israel is that opposition to a Palestinian state could be another step on a slippery slope that will lead to tragedy for the country.
Time is working against us, and lack of progress on the diplomatic front harms the moderate forces in the Middle East. Changes are occurring that may preclude the possibility of reaching an agreement in the future.
The fundamentalists on the Palestinian side are getting stronger, as is the possibility that the PA may collapse in the absence of an agreement, leaving Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even more extreme Salafist elements to fill the vacuum. On the Israeli side too, deterioration may lead to the strengthening of extreme and religious groups. In such a reality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is nationalist and territorial in its essence and therefore solved by realpolitik, may turn into a Jewish-Islamic religious conflict. This would end any possibility of a two-state solution and threaten not only the Palestinians, who would most likely find themselves continuing life under Israeli occupation, but also to Israel, which could become an apartheid state scorned by the majority of the world.
Historian Dr. Ron Pundak is Chairman of the Israeli Peace NGOs Forum. He is a former CEO of the Peres Center for Peace, and was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords.