Ten years ago, on the eve of the Oslo signing in Washington on September 13, 1993, it seems that we were all better off than we are now. The first intifada was over. The Madrid multilateral process that linked Israel with most of the region was developing. The Gulf war of 1991 had ushered in an era of high profile American involvement and relative stability; it helped bring the Palestine Liberation Organization to the negotiating table. There were only around 120,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and that problem looked solvable.
The next two years maintained the trend. Rapid progress was made in turning over territory to the PLO. Israel and Jordan made peace. Israel's Arab community for the first time appeared to feel a closer identity with the state. Peace brought economic prosperity. The president of the United States supported the process politically, diplomatically and financially to an unprecedented degree.
In contrast, the current situation needs little elaboration: more and uglier violence between Israelis and Palestinians and inside Israel; an economy in decline; greater alienation between Jews and Arabs inside Israel; an American president whose agenda is consumed by post 9/11 issues but whose constituencies and natural inclinations apparently preclude any serious engagement here.
The danger signs were there, of course. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's parliamentary (and popular) support during the years 1993-95 was fragile. Neither he nor his successors stopped the flow of settlers, particularly to the West Bank. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat continued to make public pronouncements that called into question his commitment to a genuine two-state solution. He imported corruption to the Palestinian Authority. And he still viewed violence as a legitimate means of furthering his goals.
With the passage of time, it is increasingly easy to point out the flaws in the Oslo Declaration of Principles and resultant peace process that contributed to this decline: over-reliance on interim phases as confidence builders; the Israeli presumption that the PLO would and could act as a subcontractor to root out Palestinian terrorism; the failure to stop settlement expansion; bad leadership. Some of the mistakes have been rectified, however painfully, over time. For example, Israel and Palestinian contractual reliance on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 as the framework for final status, even though 242 was not designed as a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace, has been to some extent supplanted by the advent of the Clinton Principles and the Saudi/Arab League Initiative.
The consequences of Oslo's failure for the Israeli Arab community are only now beginning to be seriously recognized. In the words of the recently-published Orr Commission report,
the Oslo agreement and the establishment thereafter of the governmental system of the Palestinian Authority accelerated yet further [Israeli Arab] identification with the Palestinians. . . . [the Israeli Arab sector] became aware that the Israeli-Palestinian agreements ignore their special problems and that the concept of two states for the two peoples leaves them to their fate. . . . the political struggles waged by representatives of the Arab minority in the country underwent a process of escalation. . . . Palestinian identity was no longer merely an expression of solidarity with brothers "outside", but became the basis for struggles "inside".
While the Rabin government dealt forthrightly with this challenge by encouraging greater Arab integration into the Israeli socio-economic fabric, all of its successors neglected it--thereby helping usher in the tragic events of October 2000, in which 12 Israeli-Arabs and one Palestinian were killed by the Israel Police in the course of demonstrations in support of the intifada.
As ugly as the present reality is just ten years after Oslo was signed, and with the awareness of the inevitable mistakes that were made, we now realize how far away we were then from a solution--but how much clearer its outlines are now, thanks to Oslo. The absence in Oslo of clearly enunciated parameters of final status led the parties, however painfully, to begin to come to grips with this lacuna on their own, without a formal process. In contrast with the vision of the Oslo negotiators, the new outlines bespeak far more separation than integration. The Palestinians will get something close to the 1967 lines, and a capital in Jerusalem. But there will be no return and no right of return. And there will be a fence. If we cannot do this through agreement, then it is imperative to invoke Israeli unilateral steps. Beyond this, Israeli Arabs will at some point, and in some way, have to come to terms with minority status in a democratic Jewish state.
The outlines are clearer, yet the solution may not be nearer. The past ten years have witnessed a Palestinian demographic victory (they will soon be a majority between the river and the sea) and Israeli geographic preemption--the inexorable spread of the settlements. The three relevant leaders--Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and US President George W. Bush--have all failed to provide forthright leadership for peace. Hence it is increasingly difficult with each passing day to make good on the two state solution ushered in by Oslo.
Soon it will be virtually impossible.
Yossi Alpher is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former senior adviser to PM Barak, and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.
The irony in examining how the Oslo accords are referred to in today’s parlance is that those who support the accords believe that they were responsible for the only progress to be made in the history of the conflict and that the departure from their text is the reason behind the current peace process collapse. Those who oppose the Oslo agreement, on the other hand, believe that it is largely responsible for the chaos and failure that we are now suffering.
In any case, the debate over how to proceed, as well as political groupings in both Palestinian and Israeli societies, continue to be based on one’s position vis-à-vis the Oslo accords, which means that Oslo continues to be seen as a cornerstone in constructing political positions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The most recent example of this can be found in local and international discussion of the recent appointment of a new Palestinian prime minister. Both here and abroad, the quoted credentials of newly nominated Prime Minister Ahmad Qrei’ include his integral part in negotiating the 1993 Oslo agreement.
In thinking about Oslo, one major characteristic that must be pointed out--and that Israelis often forget or ignore--is that the three years prior to the outbreak of the intifada in the year 2000 marked the only sustained period in the history of the Israeli occupation that was not marred by violence between the two sides, barring a few minor exceptions. The reason was that the Oslo framework offered Palestinians the impression, rightly or wrongly, that it was about ending the occupation, at the same time that it gave the Israeli public the impression that Oslo would bring peace and an end to the conflict. Unfortunately, the politicians did not live up to the expectations of their respective publics. It is impossible, in evaluating what went wrong, to ignore the major turning point that occurred when a Jewish terrorist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was to a large extent responsible for both allowing Oslo to happen, and seriously pursuing its implementation.
Unfortunately, the very same political mindset that characterized that assassin now dominates the Israeli government. The Israeli peace camp, which might be represented by the slain Rabin, remains in the opposition. This situation sums up the essence of the change responsible for the difficulties we face in resuming the negotiations process.
By the same token, the changes that are now happening within the Palestinian political arena are irrelevant to the chances of resuming the Oslo peace process, simply because the major disputes we are seeing are not between the Oslo peace camp and its opponents, but rather within the same peace camp that made Oslo possible. Whether we have Mahmoud Abbas or Ahmad Qrei’ as prime minister, whether we have President Arafat alone in the leadership or alongside a prime minister, Palestinians will remain under the very same leadership that brought us the Oslo peace process and years of quiet.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
The Oslo agreements were not a coincidence of history. In practical terms, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships finally agreed that violence got them only deeper into trouble. In political terms, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasir Arafat needed the legitimacy of a deal. In conceptual terms, the Oslo agreements, signed in September 1993, had been conceived 15 years earlier, in September 1978, when Prime Minister Menahem Begin and President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords.
After twelve years of political stagnation and the unleashing of a steadily growing vicious circle of violence, the concept of the Camp David accords was revived, and was put on the table in a moderate form during the second secret meeting held in Norway.
At the first meeting, in January 1993, heading the very small Israeli team, I made it clear to my Palestinian interlocutors that Palestinian self-government in agreement with Israel would lead to a two-state solution, Israel beside Palestine, and Palestine beside Israel, both committed to good neighborly relations.
Following one hundred years of bitter conflict, none of us imagined that the way to peace would be easy. We also understood that the two-stage concept defined in the Camp David accords of 1978 created two major problems:
First, it was open-ended, i.e. the difficult issues of sovereignty over territories, borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees were all not dealt with and the search for a compromise solution was postponed, by agreement, to the next stage. And secondly, the two-stage approach gave plenty of time for both sides’ spoilers to get organized and to undermine the Oslo agreements.
We knew all of this. We also knew that the most logical way out, to go immediately to a single stage comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, was not doable; no preparatory work had been done and neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership was yet willing to tell the public what the price for peace would be.
We thought that the way out would be to start immediately with the preparatory work and then move very fast from the first interim stage to a comprehensive peace agreement.
This work took 14 months, and was concluded at the end of October 1995. Earlier the same month, Prime Minister Rabin announced in the Knesset that he wanted to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement with Arafat before the next elections, scheduled for October 1996. Rabin informed President Clinton that he had chosen to move along the “Palestinian track”, and hence would not negotiate with Syria. We also knew that by moving towards a two-state solution we destroyed ideological beliefs on both sides--the dreams of greater Israel and of greater Palestine. Those who were committed to these dreams would not easily renounce them.
Today we are in a similar situation to that of 1978. Then we had the Camp David Accords. Today, we have the Clinton proposals, the roadmap and the Arab plan.
Failed negotiations can be of great historical relevance as they often produce concepts and ideas that do show the way for conflict resolution. The Clinton proposals suggested the restitution of 97 percent of the territories of the West Bank and Gaza occupied in 1967, a comprehensive plan to deal with the Palestinian refugee issue and the division of Jerusalem into a Jewish and a Palestinian city.
The roadmap, issued almost two years later and supported by the US government, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, devised a three-stage plan to get there. First, end violence and create stabilization; second, establish a Palestinian state with provisional borders; and third, go for a comprehensive peace deal.
In spring 2002 in Beirut, an Arab summit conference agreed on a complementary plan that could actually lead the way to peace between Israel and all 22 Arab states, in the event that the roadmap and the Clinton proposals were put into practice.
At the moment, every side still fears that the other side is out to trick it. Yet on the Israeli side, most of the taboos preventing a permanent status agreement have been broken. The PLO has been recognized, the majority of Israelis supports the two-state solution, the partition of Jerusalem is no longer a taboo, and the understanding on territorial arrangements is that they will have to be based on the June 4, 1967 line with equal exchange of territories.
It is not certain that the taboos have been broken on the Palestinian side. In order to reach a deal, the Palestinian side will have to recognize that the Jewish people has the right to exercise its right of self-determination in Israel. Regarding the refugee issue, in the common search for a fair and just resolution, both sides will have to recognize that the right of return of the Palestinian people is to their homeland the State of Palestine whereas the right of return of the Jewish people is to their homeland the State of Israel.
Any student of history knows that the moment when both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples have conceptually agreed on the guidelines of a peace agreement, getting there will only be a question of time and political architecture.
In my view, we should all agree that the time has come to redouble our effort and get there as soon as possible.
Yair Hirschfeld is a senior lecturer in the history of the Middle East at the University of Haifa. He was one of the architects of the Oslo process.
bitterlemons: When you remember the time that you spent negotiating the Oslo accords, do you remember it fondly, or is it troubling?
Abu-Libdeh: This is an experience that I am not totally happy with and also not totally unhappy with. After many years of total Israeli blockade on the recognition of Palestinian rights, to come forward--regardless of how--and sit on the other side of the table and start talking with the Palestinians about their rights and aspirations was in itself a serious undertaking, one we got into hoping that we would eventually come to everlasting peace.
Of course, during the negotiations, we had many ups and downs because on the one hand, so many "trivial" issues (from the Palestinian perspective) were met with total Israeli denial. We realized that the Israelis were able to stall the negotiations and delay a lot of progress, just because they are the mighty power and we are a very weak partner.
On the other hand, we came to know more of the worries of the Israeli side, their aspirations for the future, and we managed to pass on to the Israelis the kind of aspirations that we have for our people and the fact that the Palestinians are equally worthy of a state on their own soil, after all.
bitterlemons: Can you give an example of one of these "trivial" issues?
Abu-Libdeh: For example, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, historic Palestine is Palestinian territory. For us and the Israelis to spend so much time discussing whether we have legitimate rights in the West Bank and Gaza, including Jerusalem, from our perspective was a very trivial thing. From the Israeli perspective, on the other hand, it was negotiable. Whenever they questioned the content of [United Nations Resolution] 242, whenever they tried to deny it or give a special explanation to 242, it was for us a triviality used by the Israelis to stall the negotiations.
But we also came to know many Israeli negotiators who, on a personal level, were understanding and maybe in agreement with our aspirations, but on an official level were not able to even come close to recognizing Palestinian aspirations.
bitterlemons: It is now ten years later and in many respects Oslo has been voided. What achievements do Palestinians still cling to?
Abu-Libdeh: The fact that we are no longer discussing whether or not we have legitimate rights, the international consensus that there is a need for a Palestinian state--although with some requirements--are both direct results of Oslo. Some of the relationships that the Palestine Liberation Organization had with some members of the international community were very much conditional, compared to today when members of the international community deal with us on almost equal footing.
bitterlemons: In hindsight, what aspects of the accords have proven to be disastrous?
Abu-Libdeh: There is one fundamental aspect: the fact that the Oslo agreement was based on the principle of good will and good performance. The Palestinians didn’t perform well in terms of realization of the Oslo agreement vis-à-vis their entity and also, the transitional aspect of the agreement has proved to be very seriously defective because there was a lot of bad faith.
I think that the agreement was fully dependent on the good faith of both sides. Each side had its own clock in terms of how to deal with the agreement and the applications of the agreement. When it came to reality, we realized that these expectations and modalities were not necessarily based on good faith.
bitterlemons: If Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had not been killed, would it have worked?
Abu-Libdeh: I think the difference between Rabin and the rest of the Israeli leadership was that he had a fundamental change of direction vis-à-vis his perception of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. He was keen on reaching some kind of an arrangement that would be acceptable to Israelis with minimum harm, and that would be able to provide the Palestinians with the minimum requirements for establishing a state. I cannot say that if he had not been killed, the situation would be fundamentally different. I think that each side had theorized a compromising situation that was not close enough to the other sides’.
Even with Rabin, we would have had problems, but at least the Rabin-Arafat relationship was a little more frank and candid. They could have avoided some of the mishaps that we are seeing now.
bitterlemons: How would you say that the Oslo accords altered the way that Palestinians think about themselves?
Abu-Libdeh: First of all, before the Oslo agreement, we knew very little about what we could really reach with the Israelis. We had the [UN] resolution; the resolution has some very theoretical strategic goals that it wants to achieve.
Suddenly, out of the blue, we have come to realize that an agreement will definitely test what constitutes the Palestinian population. It introduced, probably for the first time, the very real challenge of looking for a potential solution to the refugee issue. The Palestinians have started to realize that the Palestinian state will be a state of the population of the West Bank and Gaza, with some arrangements for the diaspora. The Palestinians, for the first time, have started to look inward to see what compromises they will have to make concerning the rest of the [issues] that have been postponed.
This is why I think that the Oslo agreement has presented a very serious challenge to
the Palestinians in terms of settling some questions that they have avoided: concerning their identity, their relationship to Palestinians outside Palestine, their relationship to Israeli Palestinians in Israel and so on.
bitterlemons: Palestinians often give their prescription for a real return to negotiations: Israel’s demonstration of intent through troop withdrawals and a prisoner release and a halt in settlement construction. But in your mind, how can Palestinians contribute to that transformation of Israeli society? Or can they only wait?
Abu-Libdeh: Palestinians are committing one of their biggest mistakes in not reaching out to Israeli public opinion. I think the Palestinians have a very serious and just cause, but the problem is that they are not demonstrating to the Israeli public, through various mediums, that they mean business and that they have produced the historic compromise of accepting Israel as a neighbor and that much of the violence and fundamentalism that is taking place is due to the harsh realities within Palestinian society and economy and the harsh treatment by the Israeli military of the Palestinian population.
The Israelis have consistently failed to realize that the Palestinians’ experience with Israelis is always one of shame and humiliation. The Palestinians’ first-hand experience with an Israeli is either with settlers or jailers or army officers or employers in Israel. In all these cases, there is a huge inequality in terms of treatment. This is true for the Israelis, too; they typically see a Palestinian in the form of a terrorist or a suicide bomber.
The Palestinians haven’t had their big leap forward in reaching out to Israeli society, and Israelis have not worked hard enough to earn the privilege of being a good neighbor to the Palestinians.
Hasan Abu-Libdeh is president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and participated in the Madrid and Washington talks, as well as the early secret bilateral talks that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords.
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