The promise of the Oslo Peace Accords - and the reality 25 years later

"The first major lesson to learn from Oslo, is that the gaps between the parties are real, and very deep."

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between them, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington, on September 13, 1993 (photo credit: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between them, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington, on September 13, 1993
In these days of violent riots along the Gaza border fence, incendiary balloons falling on the western Negev, and no real diplomatic contacts between Israelis and the Palestinians, it would be natural to look back at an iconic 1993 photograph from the South Lawn of the White House and sigh.
You know that picture – it’s one of Israel’s most iconic.
It has an unshaven Yasser Arafat on the right, wearing a formal military jacket and checkered keffiyeh, smiling widely. It has Yitzhak Rabin on the left, his jacket looking a bit rumpled, a shy, awkward half-grin on his face. And in the middle is Bill Clinton, arms benevolently stretched to both sides, looking intently at Arafat in a pose befitting a Renaissance painting of the Madonna.
That photo was snapped on September 13, 1993 – exactly 25 years ago – at the signing of the Oslo I Accord, known formally as the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements.
That agreement was hammered out secretly in the Norwegian capital on August 20 and marked the beginning of the Oslo process that brought Arafat to Gaza and later Ramallah; established the Palestinian Authority; created a Palestinian security force and gave it guns; divided the West Bank into Areas A, B and C; and eventually made the idea of a two-state solution – anathema to most Israelis before then – seem, at least until recently, almost axiomatic.
Ah, the promise, one could be excused for thinking, while looking at that photo. Ah, the hope.
But one would be deceiving oneself and surrendering to a severe case of over-romanticized nostalgia.
Some, such as the ardent promoters of the Oslo process, did indeed feel a great rush of hope at the time.
Some did believe that a page had been turned, and that the sounds they heard that sun-drenched day on the White House lawn were nothing less than the flutter of history’s wings, or at least the flapping of the wings of the dove of peace.
But others – a significant chunk of the Israeli public – felt fear; a fear that this was all just a mirage, a fantasy.
They thought it delusional to think that a 100-year old conflict rooted both in religion and competing national aspirations – a conflict watered by the blood of thousands of people killed, a good number of them murdered by Arafat’s own terrorists – would end with a handshake in Washington, DC.
It didn’t.
The longed-for peace still tarries, the New Middle East of Shimon Peres, one of the architects and leading proponent of the Oslo Accords, never emerged. In fact, some argue that the handshake 25 years ago did not improve the chances of peace between Arabs and Israelis, but actually – because it raised and then dashed hopes – pushed them farther away. A quarter-century since the formal kickoff of the Oslo process, peace between the two sides has rarely felt more distant.
YET THE signing of the DOP, as it came to be known, fundamentally changed Israel. Israel in September 2018 is a much different place, compared to September 1993.
Most tellingly, since that time the right wing has been in power for almost 18 years, the left wing for four years, and a party identified as centrist – Kadima – for three.
Outsiders may look at that fact and wonder what happened to Israel. What happened to those dreams of an end to the conflict and aspirations for an agreement with the Palestinians? Have the Israelis suddenly become hardened to the plight of the Palestinians? Have they turned insensitive? Are they no longer concerned about the long-term prospects of ruling over millions of Palestinians? No, Israelis have not lost a desire for peace, or become hardened or insensitive or any less worried about the national “soul” than are John Kerry, Ron Lauder, Jeffrey Goldberg or Thomas Friedman, who have lectured the country about its soul, warning that it was about to lose it.
What happened is that Israelis were mugged by reality, a mugging that began soon after the signing on the White House lawn and all the talk about being on the cusp of a new day.
The mugging began when Yigal Vaknin was stabbed to death near Basra 11 days later; when Dror Forer and Aran Bachar were murdered in Wadi Kelt 15 days after that; when reservists Ehud Rot and Ilan Levi were kidnapped and killed in Gaza less than two weeks later; and when Chaim Mizrachi was murdered and his body burned near Ramallah the following week.
Within two months of the celebratory signing, eight Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks; 20 were killed by the end of 1993. And that was just the beginning, before the mind-numbing suicide bus bombings began in earnest in April 1994.
Following the killing of Forer and Bachar, Peres – then the foreign minister – said the two youths “fell on the altar of peace.” Interesting turn of phrase, but it infuriated the Right, whose members were not consoled by it, and had no interest in seeing their children become peace offerings. They protested loudly and harshly.
The fall of 1993 was not only a period of hope, as that picture of Clinton, Rabin and Arafat might indicate, but one of deep divisions, which culminated in Yigal Amir’s assassination of Rabin a little more than two years later.
Oslo’s champions said that the assassination doomed this experiment, that Amir killed not only the prime minister but also the peace process, and that had Rabin lived, things would have been dramatically different. Oslo, they claim, would have been a success.
But Oslo’s opponents disagree. They say that the accord was born dead; that Arafat never really intended to lay down his weapons; and that the whole thing was a charade that began to unravel soon after with the terrorism – and the incitement against Israel – never letting up.
Even though Oslo never came to fruition – it was supposed to lead to a final agreement within five years – there have been any number of attempts since then to resuscitate the process, to start a new round of negotiations.
US President Donald Trump is expected shortly to put forward a blueprint for peace in the Middle East, a blueprint that will undoubtedly be based on the model of negotiations toward a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that began with the signing of the DOP on September 13, 1993.
The Oslo process did not fail to bring about peace for any lack of trying. In starts and spurts the two sides have negotiated long and hard since 1993 – they negotiated throughout the 1990s, at Camp David in 2000, at Annapolis in 2007, in a back channel in 2013 and with Kerry in 2014.
Before the sides take another crack at it, whenever that may be, and in light of the silver anniversary of the signing of the first Oslo accord, it is instructive to look back at the lessons that should and could be learned from Oslo, in order to perhaps do things differently, and maybe better, the next time around.
ONE MAN who has an up-close perspective is Mike Herzog, a retired brigadier general who in various capacities both in the IDF and in the Defense Ministry has played a key role in every significant negotiation process with the Palestinians since 1993.
“If you ask people why we failed, you will get many different answers on both sides,” he said. “Many Israelis will tell you it is because the Palestinians were not willing to recognize us or give up their aspirations on all of Palestine. And many Palestinians will tell you that Israel was never really willing to divide the land, and continued to embark on settlement activity.”
The first major lesson to learn from Oslo, Herzog said, is that the gaps between the parties are real, and very deep.
“I say that because some people who have been part of the negotiations will tell you that the gap is not that big, that we are very close to closing it, and that all it takes is political will on both sides; that if you have the right people, you can close them up in a room and in no time produce an agreement.”
Herzog said that “this is not exactly the case.” He took issue with those who say that “everyone knows what an agreement will look like,” saying instead that the two sides were never that close to an accord.
“The gaps are real, the narratives are irreconcilable,” he said, adding that although it may not be impossible to overcome the difficulties, several elements are needed to do so.
“You need capable and willing leaders, you need to marginalize spoilers, you need an effective third party, and you need to socialize the people to peace,” he said.
Herzog said that there is a tendency to minimize the gaps, or say they are only on the “narrative” issues – the question of mutual recognition, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. But he disagrees.
The gaps exist on those issues, but elsewhere as well, he maintained. They also exist on the practical issues such as security and borders: for instance, the percentage, quality and location of land to be swapped or ceded in a final deal.
And regarding security, “while we agree that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized, we never agreed on anything below that headline,” he said. “What exactly does this mean? What weapons will they have? What weapons will they not have? How do you monitor that? and so on.”
In theory, Herzog said, the aphorism “everybody knows what a deal will look like” is true, but “in practice it is very different.”
Herzog’s second lesson from Oslo is that leaders on each side are needed who are both willing and capable of delivering.
“If you look historically at our peace agreement with our neighbors, there was always this alignment of stars – Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, King Hussein and Rabin. This alignment produced peace agreements. We never had that combination with the Palestinians.”
Herzog said that on the Israeli side of the equation, “I am not convinced that those who were willing [to make a deal] were capable, and vice versa.” And the same is true of the Palestinians.
The situation on the Palestinian side may become even more difficult after PA President Mahmoud Abbas leaves the stage, because he is the last of the “founding fathers” of the Palestinian national movement, and Herzog said it is doubtful that his successor will have the same authority in the eyes of his public to make the historical concessions necessary for an agreement.
Another important lesson, Herzog said, is that because of the complexity of the problems, with so many moving parts, it needs to be treated “holistically.”
“You have to treat all the dimensions,” he said. “You cannot just single out one element and think that if you treat that element, everything else will fall into place.” In other words, you can’t just shoot for agreement between the leaders – the top-down approach – and ignore the reality on the ground.
“Many different elements need to be addressed,” he pointed out, “such as a stable security environment, political agreement on the core issues, economic investments, Gaza, making sure the Palestinian institutions don’t collapse, involving the greater Arab world, socializing public opinion toward peace.”
All these issues need to be addressed, he said, and that takes enormous preparation – a degree of preparation he found wanting in Oslo.
“My point is don’t single one or two elements out and say that with this you have solved the problem.
No, you have to think about all the elements, identify all of them, and deal with them all.”
Another lesson to be learned from Oslo, he said, is that “there is a price for trying and failing.”
Over the quarter-century that began with Oslo I, reaching a comprehensive deal was tried three times: at Camp David in 2000, between Ehud Olmert and Abbas at Annapolis and beyond in 2007-8, and in the Kerry-led process and the back channel discussions that led up to that in 2013-4.
“When you launch a process, you have to be aware that a failure comes with a price tag; and the price tag today, after so many years and so many failures, is that people on both sides are despairing of a two-state solution,” Herzog lamented. One result of the repeated failures, he maintained, is that there are increasing voices on both sides saying that the answer is a one-state solution.
An additional lesson from Oslo, said the veteran negotiator, is that “it is time to think differently about how the region can play a part in the Israeli-Palestinian context. It was always purely bilateral, and when Arabs were approached, it was usually when there was a crisis and they were asked to intervene and so on, to provide political and economic support from the outside.”
That was the Oslo paradigm. But today, Herzog said, the Arab states, or at least some of them, “can provide the parties with space and legitimacy – something that is possible today because of our developing relations with our neighbors, an element that was not there during the Oslo period. We never had such relationships with the Arabs. So that is an asset to be used.”
Herzog clarified that he was not advocating what some call an outside-in approach to peacemaking, whereby an agreement is first reached with the Arab countries and then “parachuted onto the Palestinians.”
Rather, he was speaking about “involving them in the process in a more integral way.”
In this type of process, the Arab states would give “their blessing to the process, provide Israel with some steps toward normalization which will open up space for Israel to give more to the Palestinians, and vice versa.
And this will also give the Palestinians legitimacy to do certain things, or move toward Israel in the process.”
And Herzog’s final lesson is that the guiding principle of Oslo – that “nothing is concluded until everything is concluded,” which essentially meant “all or nothing” – needs to be replaced.
Considering where we are today, Herzog believes that there needs to be “more flexibility,” whereby what is agreed upon is implemented. “Right now we can’t agree on everything, there is no catch-all solution, there is no one home run, so you need to do it in a more phased and gradual manner.”
Since some of the issues are too difficult to solve at the moment, he said, it is better to implement what can be agreed upon, thereby building a foundation on the ground and creating some degree of trust between the parties, so that perhaps the more difficult issues will be easier to tackle later.
GILEAD SHER, another veteran of the Oslo negotiations who also served as Barak’s chief of staff in 1999/2000, agrees on the need to adopt this approach.
Sher, who stressed that he still believes in the validity and the vision of the Oslo process, said it is important to implement what is agreed upon so that both the leaders and the public on both sides will come to understand that while “we will not in the foreseeable future conclude an agreement that would resolve all the core issues, we can gradually take steps and implement them, and that this will lead us there eventually.”
Under Oslo, he said, there was no insistence on implementation of what was agreed upon, but rather a fervent “compiling of the violation and infringements of the other party,” something that just added to poisoning the atmosphere.
One of Sher’s main lessons from Oslo is the need for “graduality,” the need “to understand that there is no one-off comprehensive agreement in sight, so that we have to do things gradually – first to preserve the situation for a two-state solution, and then create a two-state reality even in the absence of a full-fledged agreement.”
An example of preserving a two-state reality in the absence of a final agreement – and a lesson he said should be learned from Oslo – would be “to differentiate the large settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line, as well as the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, from all the rest of the settlements, which at a later time would not be part and parcel of Israel.”
The idea, then, would be to build only in those blocs, not beyond, to keep a two-state option viable.
“I believe that from the very beginning there was a lack of efficient implementation, there was an acceptance of violence, there was no public buy-in from either society, there was lousy process management, lousy continuity, no binding mechanism, no realistic benchmarks, and there was a lack of a regional approach.”
And all that, he said, needs to change the next time.
FOR KULANU Deputy Minister Michael Oren, a historian and former ambassador to the US who began working in the Prime Minister’s Office under Rabin in 1994 soon after the signing of Oslo I, the lessons to be learned from Oslo are different.
One small lesson, he said, is that “if you don’t apply the treaty down to the smallest part, then none of it will be honored.”
Oren recalled that a couple of weeks after the ceremony at the White House, Arafat had a triumphant return to Gaza, and that in his motorcade were terrorists from Tunis who under the accord were forbidden from entering Gaza.
“He was actually sitting on them,” Oren said.
“People noticed that he was riding unusually high in his car.”
Rabin, Oren remembered, had to decide at the time whether to apply the principle in the accord that forbade entry to those in the car, or to let the issue pass.
He let it pass.
“So the immediate lesson was that the Palestinians can violate parts of the agreement. Right from the get go Arafat learned that he could violate the treaty and not pay a price for it.”
An even bigger lesson from Oslo, said Oren, is that the entire experiment raises the question of whether the Palestinians are capable of establishing, or willing to establish, a state.
“They were offered a two-state solution in 1937 and in 1947, and three times during the Oslo process,” he said. “I don’t see any real discussion in Palestinian society about what the future society might look like, compared to the Zionist model of state building, where we debated this endlessly [until 1948], and are still debating it.”
Oren said that there is nothing in history from which it can be deduced that the Palestinians want a state next to Israel. The main lesson from that, he said, is “there may be some other peace models other than a two-state solution, at least in the short run, that are worth exploring.”
While Herzog, Sher and Oren all supported Oslo in the beginning, Dore Gold – the former Foreign Ministry director-general who is currently head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs – opposed it from the outset.
Yet he, too, said there are lessons to be learned.
The first, he said, is that “you have to be consistent in your diplomacy. People have to understand your position. You can’t be for peace one day, and then be seen fighting the Palestinians tooth-and-nail the next.
You need as consistent a policy as possible. That is the only way you will earn the trust of the international community.”
The second lesson, he said, is that incitement needs to be taken very seriously.
Rather than being understood as a true indicator of Palestinian policy, Palestinian incitement – during the earlier Oslo years – was “swept under the rug and not fully addressed. And that was a huge error,” he maintained.
Gold explained that diplomacy is about understanding not only the capabilities of the other side but also their intentions, and this is determined by listening – and paying attention – to what they say.
He noted that some eight months after the signing ceremony, Arafat went to a Johannesburg mosque, where he called for a “jihad” to liberate Jerusalem and suggested the Oslo accord was a tactical measure that could be reversed.
Arafat’s comments were allowed to pass. “Everybody wanted to advance the process, and no one wanted to be a party pooper by pointing out the inconvenient truth of Palestinian incitement,” Gold said.
And the final lesson of Oslo, he concluded, is the danger of extrapolating from other conflicts onto the Israeli-Palestinian one.
“What underlined some of the thinking of the Oslo advocates was that Yasser Arafat was the Palestinian Nelson Mandela, and that the PLO had gone through the same transformation as the African National Congress,” he said. “A variation of that was expressed in the late 1990s by British officials, Gold recalled, “who said that just as the Good Friday Agreement worked with the IRA, so Oslo will work with Israel and the PLO.”
But all of those analogies were completely false, he argued, “because the PLO never really jettisoned the right to engage in armed conflict. And as a result, areas that came under its control under the Oslo agreement became launching pads for terrorism in the heart of Israeli cities. That is a fundamental breach of the entire agreement, and it was never really addressed.”
As to the lesson in that, Gold said, “Don’t blithely apply the experience from other conflicts here. And don’t learn the wrong lessons.”