Terra Incognita: 25 years later- the poisoned chalice of the Oslo Accords

For the last 20 years, both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have been going through the motions to please foreign countries that are invested in the peace deal.

Yasser Arafat (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yasser Arafat
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Oslo period has now lasted longer than the British Mandate for Palestine officially lasted. The Palestinian state-in-the-making has therefore been in the making for almost as long as the Jewish leaders in British-run Palestine were in the process of building their own state under British tutelage. And yet, the Palestinians do not seem to be much closer to achieving their state. At the same time, Israel’s leaders and the Israeli public are more skeptical than ever that there will be a “two-state” solution.
The Oslo Accords that began with the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements were symbolized by that famous photo-op in Washington with US President Bill Clinton looking on as PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on September 13, 1993. A second agreement was signed in September 1995. The original Oslo Accords were supposed to last for a “transitional period” of five years. There was supposed to be a “permanent settlement” based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
Conveniently buried in the text was Article V, part 3, which said that “It is understood that these negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors and other issues of common interest.”
Quietly, both sides probably knew that these issues, being put off for “later,” would be impossible to deal with. But the 1990s was an era of hope. Anything was possible. The Cold War was at an end. Saddam Hussein had been ejected from Kuwait. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Democracy was sweeping the world. In South Africa, the negotiators of the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum had gathered to form the Transitional Executive Council to plan full democratic elections. Apartheid was ending.
THE OSLO ACCORDS developed out of the context of the 1990s when they were signed. They were a response to a world in which the Moscow patrons of the Arab states that opposed Israel had retreated inward and in which the Palestinian desire for “revolution” was meeting with reality.
It is often forgotten today that Arafat spoke at the UN in 1974 wearing a gun holster. “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat, do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” It was a threat at a time when Palestinian “freedom fighters” received an open welcome in the Soviet bloc, when hijackers and terrorists roamed freely across borders.
By 1993 that had changed. Israel had also changed. Twenty years between the 1967 war and the 1987 intifada had led policymakers to conclude that running the West Bank and Gaza forever might not work. “Breaking the bones” of the Palestinian protesters, which was the initial response, couldn’t go on forever.
Today one can still see the old turnstile at the entrance to Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem on one of the main roads leading into the city. During that First Intifada, started in 1987, the IDF built a giant fence around the camp and the turnstile was the main entrance. It was to keep the youth of the camp from attacking the IDF and Israeli cars driving along the road.
Today all of that has been bypassed by Israel, a product of the Oslo period. Bethlehem came under the control of the Palestinians. The tunnel road to Gush Etzion and Hebron for Israeli traffic was built.
But those who signed on to the Oslo Accords were misleading themselves about what would come next. The Israeli leadership thought that the terrorism would end or at the very least be reduced. They thought there would be a peace dividend. The Western powers believed that both sides wanted peace and that there were just a few “extremists on both sides” that were sabotaging peace.
THE EUROPEANS especially thought those extremists could be sidelined. They even invested in programs to influence Israelis, to make them support peace. They didn’t understand that one bus bombing made all of the “peace” investment, from “peace journalism” to “coexistence,” a sunk cost. People can’t be bribed to make peace. They don’t want to die in a bus bombing just so other people can be peacemakers.
The Palestinian leadership saw benefits. A state would be born, probably one step in a process of then demanding equal rights in Israel so that there would be one-and-a-half Palestinian states: one in the West Bank and Gaza, an Israel trending toward a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state, and then eventually agitation for Palestinian rights in Jordan and Lebanon.
If there is any question about the flawed logic that underpinned the assumptions and dreams of the Oslo period, one has only to look at the career of Knesset member Ahmed Tibi. In 1984 he had met Arafat in Tunis, eventually becoming an advisor to Arafat after the accords were signed. In 1996 he ran for elections with the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al) and entered the Knesset in 1999 in short alliance with Balad, which was led by Azmi Bishara at the time.
Bishara is also symbolic of the poisoned hallucinatory legacy of Oslo. He ran for prime minister – of Israel – in 1999. Stop and consider this. Tibi, today a member of the Knesset, advised Arafat. Bishara ran for prime minister but was later forced to flee Israel after visiting Lebanon and Syria and being accused of aiding Israel’s enemies. No one could imagine today a situation like this, where members of the Knesset recently served as advisors of the Palestinian leadership, or where candidates for prime minister were in Lebanon or Syria praising Hezbollah speaking of “lifting the spirits of the Arab people.”
THE 1990S was a period when Israel was intensely questioning its future. It was a period where the status quo was being challenged. When the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000, the false dreams of the Oslo era melted like the tide receding into the ocean. Little rivulets of extreme optimism remained, often couched in anger at the state and its drift to the national and more religious right. Academics signed petitions against serving in the West Bank and Gaza, a multiplicity of NGOs and human rights organizations popped up to oppose checkpoints and a litany of abuses, from torture to home demolitions.
By 2003, ten years after Oslo, the dreams were all over. The tanks were back in Gaza and the West Bank. The reality of the Palestinian Authority and its Janus-faced leadership was revealed. Israel eventually withdrew from Gaza and built a concrete wall with the West Bank. Between Disengagement and the “Security Fence” the Oslo concepts of a “final status” and “two states” were paved over. But the process went on.
I SAT DOWN with a Palestinian friend recently, a younger man who represents a kind of legacy of the Oslo period. Any Palestinians born in the 1980s have lived most of their lives under the consequences of this agreement, with its neatly defined areas of A, B and C. With its aging Palestinian leadership and lack of elections. With its official “anti-normalization” while the Palestinian economy and security forces are more normally in contact with Israel than ever before.
“The problem with Oslo is that they [the leadership] are not accountable or transparent and Arafat exploited this and was more powerful than the system,” my friend said.
Over the years I met a lot of people who were products of the Oslo Accords. European Union policymakers sent to Ramallah to help plan Palestinian elections that never happened. Police that came to train the Palestinian police. Palestinian students who kept asking me whether the US under Barack Obama was serious that it would pressure Israel. I would show the students a map of Jewish communities in the West Bank and ask, “do you really think these are going to be dismantled? Do you really think the wall around Jerusalem is coming down?”
For the last 20 years, both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have been going through the motions to please foreign countries that are invested in the peace deal. Whether it is the Quartet or various envoys, people talk of a “deal” because they don’t want to admit that it’s a sunk cost. If everyone would admit that a quarter century of Oslo isn’t leading to a “final status,” they would have to admit that it was leading to something else.
Yossi Beilin, MK and former peace negotiator has, several times over the years, rhetorically called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to dismantle the authority and hand the keys back to Israel as a way of forcing Israel to come to an agreement. But that’s not going to happen. The Palestinian leadership needs the illusion of Oslo as much as Israel.
There is an illusion of an agreement about all those “final status” issues such as refugees and Jerusalem. To house those illusions, the Palestinians built a giant hulking brutalist parliament building in Abu Dis in the 1990s. It lies empty today – as empty as the hope for an Oslo-style peace.