From autonomy to sovereignty: The Oslo Agreements and Palestinian statehood

Although Abbas’s demand for statehood is an abrogation of the Oslo Agreements, thus releasing Israel from its contractual obligations, the government of Israel seems unwilling.

Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)
Mahmoud Abbas
(photo credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)
As more EU countries recognize a “State of Palestine” and PA President Mahmoud Abbas appeals for UN recognition, and the government of Israel is under pressure to acquiesce, attention has turned to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s speech (October 5, 1995) when, seeking Knesset approval for the Interim Agreement (known as Oslo II), he said that he envisioned an independent, autonomous “Palestinian entity, not a state.”
What Rabin had in mind, however, is not clear and explicit in the documents he signed. Ambiguity about what was meant and how it was to work has created much confusion and misunderstanding.
Understandably, both sides feel betrayed; assumptions and expectations remain unfulfilled. The Oslo Agreements were the beginning of a slippery slide into ever-increasing, perhaps inevitable frustration.
According to an authoritative source, Rabin did not speak about or support a Palestinian state; neither he, nor Shimon Peres, both of whom were intimately involved in writing the Oslo Agreements, intended them to be the foundation for a sovereign Palestinian state.
That idea was first presented in the road map (2003) to which prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed: “Israeli leadership issues unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state.”
The subtle but all-important insertion of a single word changed the course of the Oslo Agreement and the “peace process.”
A year later, Sharon announced his disengagement plan from Gaza and part of Northern Samaria, and in 2005 he implemented it, destroying 25 thriving Jewish communities.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert pledged to complete the process of withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. The Oslo Agreements had set the course for Palestinian statehood; Sharon sealed it.
Although the Oslo Agreements suggest “Palestinian autonomy” and “an entity, not a state,” these concepts were deliberately kept vague until Sharon made them explicit and entrenched.
According to the Interim Agreement, the government agreed to redeploy in “the West Bank” in two stages; first, from Areas A and B, which include nearly all Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza; and second, from portions of Area C, in which all Jewish communities (“settlements”) are located and which, most important, is vital for Israel’s security.
Article 11, #3/3 of the Agreement was specific: “Area C means areas of the West Bank outside of Areas A and B which will be... gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction...,” implying that the Palestinian Authority would extend its control over Area C, except for security areas (e.g. along the 1949 Armistice Lines and the Jordan Valley) and Jewish communities, which would be determined later as part of a final-status agreement. These communities and their infrastructure (roads, etc.) comprise less than 10 percent of Area C.
Israel alone would determine the timing and scope of its redeployment and would exercise powers and responsibilities which were not transferred, such as security and foreign affairs, not only in Area C, but in A and B as well. Palestinians were given autonomy, not sovereignty.
Regardless of what Rabin and Peres had in mind, therefore, the Interim Agreement is the only international agreement defining the PA ’s and the government of Israel’s commitments.
Unfortunately, that agreement does not condition an Israeli withdrawal, or redeployment, on Palestinians fulfilling their commitments – e.g. ending hostilities, incitement and support for terrorism.
The framers of Agreement hoped that by giving Palestinians autonomy while retaining exclusive control over redeployment and security, and retaining sovereignty, Israel could restrict Palestinian violence and eventually modify Palestinian behavior.
They believed that if the Palestinians do not take effective security control in Area A – to prevent attacks against Israelis and Israel – Israel would not give them more authority over additional areas in Area C.
SIGNIFICA NTLY , neither the Declaration of Principles (Oslo I), signed by foreign minister Shimon Peres, Mahmoud Abbas and secretary of state Warren Christopher, nor the Interim Agreement, signed by Rabin, Yasser Arafat and president Bill Clinton, mention the area as Judea and Samaria, its original and authentic name. By referring to the area only as “the West Bank,” the term used by Jordan during its occupation, the government of Israel signaled its abandonment of legal and historical claims to the area.
Unwittingly, Rabin and Peres painted Israel into a corner. This flaw was exacerbated by subsequent agreements, such as the road map, which touted a “two-state” model, undercutting the Oslo Agreements and encouraging Arab and Palestinian leaders to reject any recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and to continue incitement and terrorism, and move unilaterally toward recognition of sovereign statehood.
Although Abbas’s demand for statehood is an abrogation of the Oslo Agreements, thus releasing Israel from its contractual obligations, the government of Israel seems unwilling to take a more realistic view of its alternatives.
A revaluation of Israeli policy is imperative. Israel’s ambiguity about the status of Judea and Samaria and the Oslo Agreements has led to confusion and has eroded its diplomatic position. There is no logical or legal reason why Israel is obligated to commitments in the Oslo Agreements and the road map while the Palestinian side violates its undertakings.
This offers a golden opportunity to preserve the structure of the Oslo Agreements and benefit Israelis and Arab Palestinians.
Several years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a commission headed by the late High Court justice Edmund Levy and judicial and legal experts, to evaluate issues concerning Area C in Judea and Samaria. The commission issued a report with specific recommendations that would enhance the Oslo Agreements and advance our national interests.
Inexplicably, the prime minister has refused to allow this report to be discussed by the cabinet.
The report can be read here: levy-report-translated-into- english I would like to thank Joel Singer, architect of the Oslo Agreements, for his assistance.