Assessing Oslo

Twenty years after signing the ‘Declaration of Principles’ aimed at ending the Israel-Palestine conflict, the parties are still struggling to seal the deal.

Oslo 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Oslo 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
THE OSLO Accords, signed 20 years ago, were only supposed to be temporary, a brief interlude between historic reconciliation and full peace. By May 4, 1999 at the latest, they were meant to be superseded by a full-fledged peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.
But 20 years after the initial signing, the accords are still in force and the parties are still struggling to seal the deal.
For the Israeli left, Oslo was a historic breakthrough, dramatically changing Israel’s status in the region and the world; for the right, it was a monumental strategic blunder, leading to terrorist violence and political constraints from which Israel still suffers today.
There were three main phases: In September 1993, after nearly a century of conflict and denial, the two sides signed a history-making “Declaration of Principles” that was meant to usher in a new era of peace, stability and mutual recognition.
In May 1994, they concluded the Gaza and Jericho agreement, setting up the Palestinian Authority (PA), providing for the entry of Yasser Arafat and the rest of the exiled PLO leadership to Gaza and the West Bank and starting the five-year countdown to full peace.
Then in September 1995 they signed Oslo II, the most significant territorial agreement to date, transferring all the main West Bank cities and around 450 villages to full Palestinian control, and putting in place a skeletal framework for peace, based on the two-state model.
But the intended fourth phase, two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace, failed to materialize. Instead, the peace-making process was overtaken by violence, mistrust and cynicism interspersed with sporadic attempts at negotiation and unilateral actions like Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and building of the security barrier in the West Bank, and Palestinian appeals to the UN for recognition as a state without Israel’s sanction.
So why did Oslo fail to go the distance? Was it a strategic blunder? Or was it a game-changing breakthrough despite the fact that it has, at least so far, failed to achieve the lofty vision that propelled it? And given all the mistrust and cynicism, can the parties still save the negotiated two-state paradigm? Or is it time to consider other options? For some of its architects, like then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and negotiator Ron Pundak, Oslo failed partly because of the slow incremental approach adopted by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his foreign minister Shimon Peres. At the time it made sense to test Palestinian performance, but it also gave the opponents of the process on both sides time to subvert it.
The crushing blow from which Oslo never recovered was Rabin’s assassination in November 1995 by a right-wing Jewish fanatic. A month earlier Beilin had reached agreement on the outlines of a permanent peace deal with Arafat’s eventual successor, Mahmoud Abbas. Beilin reckons that had Rabin lived, the parties would have reached a final agreement by the May 1999 target date.
The process was further derailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who first came to power in June 1996 determined to stop Oslo in its tracks. And it was handed a virtual coup de grâce by the suicide terror of the second intifada, 2000-2005.
For the Israeli right, Oslo had brought in arch PLO terrorists and given them guns, which they then, inevitably, turned on Israel.
The cost in blood was high and the political achievement non-existent. On the contrary, Oslo seriously undermined Israelis’ personal security, endangered the Greater Land of Israel vision and, for some, deferred the coming of the Messiah.
SOME ON the center-right criticize Oslo on its own terms. For example, Shmuel Even of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) argues that Rabin and Peres summarily dismissed early intelligence warnings that the Palestinians would accept nothing less than full statehood along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as their capital and deluded themselves into thinking they could get them to make major compromises. Worse, says Even, the big strategic flaw was to bring in the PLO as a negotiating partner in the first place.
This meant talking to the entire Palestinian Diaspora, not only the residents of Gaza and the West Bank, and opening the so-called “1948 file” (issues arising from the 1948 War of Independence and including the vexed Palestinian refugee issue).
According to Even, Israel could have continued to negotiate with local Gaza and West Bank leaders and restricted the focus to the “1967 file” (issues arising from the 1967 Six Day War, like withdrawing from occupied territory, delineating new borders and defining the powers of the PA or government replacing Israel’s military rule).
Moreover, he contends, once Israel chose to talk to the PLO it could have got a better deal by insisting on agreement on the 1948 issues before discussing or implementing agreements on the issues of 1967. It could have exploited the PLO’s weakness at the time to this end. But the way negotiations were actually conducted, there was a built-in lack of symmetry: Israel made phased territorial withdrawals without the Palestinians having to make reciprocal core issue concessions.
The Israeli left sees things very differently.
For them Oslo brought in the principals, the only people with whom Israel could cut a deal. It took out any Arab justification for war against Israel. It created a clear basis for a two-state solution, the only way to save the Zionist vision of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. It led to peace with Jordan and also brought Syria into the peacemaking loop, albeit unsuccessfully. It made the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 possible. It effectively put an end to the Arab boycott, paving the way for economic ties with other Arab states and, more importantly, for big international companies that had avoided Israel to move in.
Indeed, according to the left-wing narrative, the huge economic strides made by Israel over the past two decades would not have been possible without Oslo.
The left also rejects the argument that it would have made more sense to secure agreement on all the core issues of 1948 before moving ahead on the 1967 file, mainly because this was simply not possible. INSS researcher Shlomo Brom, one of the leading participants in the 2003 Geneva Initiative (an unofficial draft peace treaty signed by non-government actors), insists that the only way to penetrate the profound historic enmity between Israelis and Palestinians was through a gradual process in which potentially explosive core issues were deferred.
Brom also maintains that the security risk created by Oslo was significantly lower than the inflated claims of the right. He argues that a cyclical, recurring process of terror, response and relative quiet was embedded in the occupation situation irrespective of Oslo; that the limited number of weapons provided by Israel played a negligible role in the second intifada; that most of the Israeli casualties were caused by suicide bombers using locally-made improvised devices that would have been available anyway; that the “engineers” and leaders were mostly homegrown and that the elderly terrorists from Tunis brought in by Oslo were hardly a factor in the mechanics of the uprising.
Moreover, although under Oslo Israel sacrificed security control in the Palestinian cities and villages defined as “area A,” it was able to go in and restore order when necessary, for example, in Operation Defensive Shield in March and April of 2002.
On the contrary, in the longer term, Oslo has actually enhanced security. Ever since the Annapolis process of 2007-8, there has been effective security cooperation between the IDF and Palestinian police forces in line with the terms of the Oslo agreements.
According to Brom, Oslo also sparked a sea change in Israeli attitudes. Whereas before Oslo the idea of Palestinian statehood was taboo, there is now a solid majority in Israel for the two-state paradigm. Indeed, a succession of right-wing leaders, starting with Ariel Sharon, followed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and now, at least declaratively, Netanyahu himself have bought into the two-state model.
THERE HAVE also been significant changes on the ground. Besides the handover of territory to Palestinian control under the terms of the Oslo agreements, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the security barrier have both helped put in place an initial territorial basis for a twostate solution.
On the Palestinian side, leaders like Abbas and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) still hold that the process begun at Oslo 20 years ago will lead to statehood – either through the current American-initiated negotiation or, if that fails, through international fiat at the United Nations.
But there are other Palestinian voices.
Some influential intellectuals question whether the two-state model still serves Palestinian interests. Philosophy professor Sari Nusseibeh, for example, maintains that by continuing to build settlements in the West Bank Israel has made the classic twostate solution virtually impossible.
In the autumn issue of the French journal Politique Etrangere, the dovish president of al-Quds University in East Jerusalem writes that it would “be a cosmetic operation as far as Palestinians are concerned, one that will in effect reflect a formalization of Israel’s overall control of the entire territory.” Instead, he proposes two states, one primarily Jewish the other primarily Arab, with “porous borders” and a form of confederate linkage between them. Nusseibeh claims this would address a cluster of difficult issues. For example, Jewish settlers would not have to move, Israel’s Jewishness would not be at issue, Palestinians would have sovereignty and refugees could return.
This proposed solution, however, seems to be predicated on a somewhat idyllic picture. How would two peoples with such bitter historic memories and contrary aspirations pull together in a single federal structure? Even in peaceful Belgium there are potentially implosive tensions between Walloons and Flemings.
Indeed, the basic unanswered question from an Israeli point of view is how security – everyday and national – would be maintained in a binational structure with “porous borders.” And from a Palestinian point of view, what would stop Israel from being even more dominant in a federal set-up than it would be if there were two separate sovereign states? The big issue for Israel and the entrenchment of the Zionist enterprise is national security in the widest sense of the term. For this it needs strong diplomatic and military support, a strong military, a strong economy, a highly educated population that believes in the justice of its cause and peaceful relations with the vast majority of its neighbors.
Completing what was started in Oslo two decades ago, rolling up the occupation and creating two states for two peoples, by negotiation if possible and unilaterally if necessary, would go a long way towards achieving this goal.