Learning from Oslo

The building of Rawabi, the first new Palestinian city, should be seen as a positive development.

Rawabi 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rawabi 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The clinching of a deal, together with Russia, that forces Syria to dismantle and destroy its chemical weapons provided US Secretary of State John Kerry with a much-needed hiatus. Kerry was finally free to redirect his energies. On Sunday, he paid a lightning visit to Israel and made it clear that he had not lost sight of the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“The road ahead is not easy,” he said as part of a 10- minute statement he delivered after a three-hour meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that including a briefing on Syria. “If it were easy, peace would have been achieved a long time ago. What is clearer than ever today is that this is a road worth traveling.”
But just days after marking the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, it is impossible to escape the impression that Kerry might be repeating some of the mistakes of Oslo and other peace initiatives that have followed since.
Perhaps the most central mistake has been the insistence among American diplomats – representing both Republican and Democratic US governments – on focusing principally on the “peace process” instead of concentrating on real progress on the ground.
This was a lesson Elliott Abrams – one of the most incisive observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – learned, as he notes in his latest book, Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Abrams, who supervised US policy in the Middle East under president George W. Bush, admits that one of the errors the Bush administration made was to direct all its influence “toward the Annapolis process rather than to helping [former Palestinian Authority prime minister] Salam Fayyad make progress in the West Bank.” Abrams relates how everyone in Washington thought Fayyad’s state-building efforts were “terrific,” but unfortunately these efforts never became the focus of policy. “They were marginal, supplemental and never central.”
In contrast, there was an emphasis on negotiations, and the success accorded to them was very often exaggerated.
“The peace process can in this sense become the enemy of progress or even of peace,” warns Abrams.
SIMILARLY, KERRY seems to be devoting too much of his effort to talks and not enough to changing realities on the ground. And this is unfortunate, since the simple truth is that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other PA leaders lack the will and/or the ability to negotiate a final-status peace agreement with Israel.
Instead, much more American energy must be invested in the more modest goal of building a viable Palestinian state that is capable of living in peace alongside Israel.
That means insisting that PA-sponsored media and schools put an end to incitement against Israel.
It also means improving Palestinians’ day-to-day living conditions. The building of Rawabi, the first new Palestinian city, should be seen as a positive development.
The very raison d’etre of the city is to improve Palestinians’ lives by providing them with comfortable middleclass housing and quality municipal services.
Yet the PA, despite being one of the world’s top recipients of international aid per capita, has done precious little during the 19 years of its existence to make Palestinians’ lives more pleasant. Even the smallest steps toward normalization of relations between Israel and the Palestinians should be seen as positive. For instance, The Jerusalem Post’s Sharon Udasin reported in Monday’s paper that the Israeli and Palestinian agriculture ministries agreed to revive some of the joint committees that were formed in the 1990s under the Oslo Accords but frozen 13 years ago with the onset of the second intifada.
Another focus of attention should be the PA’s use of brutality to stifle critics, whether they be journalists, writers, political opponents or university students.
THE VERY existence of a negotiation track can help reduce Arab and European attacks on Israel and provide useful cover for the more substantive work of helping the PA build the basic institutions and infrastructure for a viable state.
But it would be unrealistic and potentially dangerous to raise expectations regarding the prospects for solving major issues such as borders, the refugee problem and Jerusalem any time in the near future. Unfortunately that is precisely what Kerry seems to be doing.