Back in September 1993, when the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed on the White House lawn, it was fashionable among many Israeli and international political circles, on both the left and the right, to declare that the Oslo process was "irreversible". That statement betrayed a naive underestimation of both the depth of the real conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the power of negative forces in the region.
Today the Oslo legal framework, embodied in the Palestinian Authority, continues to prevail at least on the West Bank. And the Oslo definition of the issues to be discussed in final status talks still constitutes the agreed agenda of the government of Israel and the PLO in their political negotiations. But "Oslo"--the concept of an agreed solution that creates a Palestinian political entity alongside Israel--seems farther than ever from realization. Its latest permutation, the Annapolis process, is not unexpectedly grinding toward either total failure or a pale anticlimax.
What went wrong? At the broad strategic level, since 1993 the two sides have failed several key tests of maturity and made a number of critical wrong choices. The Palestinians failed spectacularly at state-building: corruption, cronyism, poor leadership and endemic violence have too often characterized the efforts of the ruling national movement. Nor does that movement, Fateh, still control all the territory designated for its state; it must now search for ways to share power with Hamas, which rejects the very premise of Oslo. While Israel's own mistakes--primarily the settlements, an error of grand-strategic proportions--undoubtedly made a major contribution to this failure at state-building, the Palestinians must confront their own heavy contribution to the fiasco if they are ever to succeed.
Apropos the settlements, a series of leaders since Yitzhak Rabin has been inclined to tolerate them and at times even "feed the beast" in the hope of maintaining sufficient domestic tranquility to reach agreement with the PLO--at which point the ever-aggrandized settlements would be removed. This vicious circle was broken only once, by Ariel Sharon when he evacuated the Gaza Strip. That move ultimately contributed little to tranquility beyond improving the increasingly critical demographic balance.
Sharon may have proved it could be done, but weaker (and better intentioned) prime ministers before and after his tenure have simply made matters worse. The primary explanation for their failure rests with Israel's electoral/political system, which produces governments structured for brief political survival rather than peace and rarely generates coalitions that reflect the public's overall support for a two-state solution. The Palestinian issue has brought down every ruling government coalition for the past 20 years; if PM Ehud Olmert resigns because of corruption charges, this will perversely constitute a welcome diversion from the stranglehold that the conflict and its solution maintain over Israeli politics.
There remain two additional strategic misconceptions that were produced or have been nurtured by Oslo and that have hindered its success. One is the notion that "the outlines of a two-state solution are clear; all we need are leaders capable of signing." It's not true. Indeed, the depth of disagreement becomes clear every time the two sides tackle the final status issues. They do not agree on Jerusalem, and particularly the disposition of the Holy Basin area including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. And they are far apart regarding the right of return of the 1948 refugees. That the roots of these powerful historical narrative issues lie in the ancient past or in 1948 is not surprising: Oslo dealt with 1967 issues, i.e., the outcome of the Six-Day War in the Palestinian context. Yet even the path of the border between Israel and a Palestinian state still defies agreement insofar as the two sides cannot agree on the territorial nature and concept of the settlement blocs and of a Gaza-West Bank land link within the framework of a land swap.
A second strategic mistake that originates with the 1967 occupation and was virtually institutionalized by Oslo concerns the economic approach toward furthering Palestinian independence. Oslo produced the Paris protocol, which advocates economic integration between Israel and the Palestinian territories and reflects the integrative approach associated with Shimon Peres, one of the fathers of Oslo. In contrast Yitzhak Rabin, who actually signed Oslo, saw the ensuing process more as a friendly divorce reflecting Israel's security concerns rather than a marriage based on the premise that close economic relations would guarantee peace. The Oslo process has suffered grievously because of this conceptual contradiction, with security and economic concerns constantly at odds.
Indeed, every Israeli government for the past 41 years of occupation, confrontation and negotiation has employed economic carrots and sticks--made possible by economic integration--in a vain effort to influence Palestinian political behavior. We see this concept at work today in the sanctions and blockade that are supposed to bring Hamas to its knees in Gaza and the contrasting investment in development in the West Bank that is supposed to constitute a peace-incentive. Neither tactic has had an appreciable effect: this conflict is political, ideological and territorial--not economic.
Today, in our shared frustration, we contemplate radical alternatives to the Oslo-based two-state idea. Palestinians talk more and more of a one-state solution while we Israelis increasingly advocate everything from more unilateralism, via involving Egypt and Jordan "on the ground"--to talking to Hamas.
Yet the two-state solution is still the best. At the very least, Oslo should have taught us that much.- Published 15/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The Oslo negotiations, which were conducted secretly in Norway in parallel to the official negotiations in Washington, led to the first ever agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Yet Oslo cannot be analyzed as an agreement but rather must be seen as a process that includes five agreements, their implementation and the complex relations and new realities created.
At the time, the majority of Palestinians perceived the Declaration of Principles (DOP), which was signed in Washington in 1993, positively. This was first and foremost because it involved recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and promised the return of the PLO leadership to the occupied Palestinian territories to establish the first Palestinian authority.
Second, the DOP was perceived by the Palestinian as a transitional stage toward ending the occupation. It stipulated three phases of Israeli army redeployment from all occupied territory except Jerusalem and the settlements, which were to be negotiated together with the refugee issue after three years. Palestinians also saw the fact that Israel recognized Jerusalem and refugees as negotiable issues as an achievement.
But the overwhelming public support for Oslo and the Palestinian leadership that negotiated and signed the agreement did not last long. Soon public opinion polls and other indicators began to show a downward curve in the enthusiasm for both. There were many obvious reasons.
A process that was supposed to be about ending the occupation could not even hide the signs showing that, on the contrary, the occupation was being consolidated. The Israeli insistence on continuing to confiscate Palestinian land and expanding illegal Jewish settlements, under both Labor and Likud-led governments, doubling the number of settlers in the occupied territories, left the Palestinian public and leadership with strong and growing doubts about Oslo.
Meanwhile, the failure of the process to curb the practices of the occupation came in parallel to a poor record of governance by the Palestinian Authority. And along with its poor governance, the way Oslo left the Palestinian leadership economically, administratively and structurally dependent on Israel had a huge effect on domestic politics. These two factors had a particularly negative impact on the support for those who were responsible for the process.
This provided an opportunity that was grasped by the main opposition group, Hamas, who intensified its military attacks against Israelis and its political attacks against the Palestinian leadership. The final outcome was a terminal decline in support for the Oslo process and the leadership behind it. This ultimately led to the radicalization of the public and a shift in the balance of power that culminated in the victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections.
It is true that in the course of the implementation of the Oslo agreement, Israel managed to have its cake and eat it at the same time: it reaped the dividends of peace--improving its international image, normalizing relations with the region to some extent and improve its security--while not rolling back its occupation. It might also be true that Israel managed to co-opt the Palestinian leadership and make it completely dependent on Israel. But this Israeli strategy has backfired since it has only led to the empowerment of Hamas and the discrediting of any moderate Palestinian leadership.- Published 15/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Creating a human infrastructure for peace
by Uri Savir
Fifteen years have passed since the signing of the Oslo accords. In terms of progress and setbacks, the process of peace has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs. As a result, Oslo is frequently overlooked as an historical breakthrough for peacemaking and as the ultimate path to Palestinian-Israeli peace.
Historically, Oslo put an end to the right wing vision of a greater Israel. Without Oslo, the settlement policy would have continued as well as the gradual annexation of the territories to Israel, making us a bi-national state and creating a former-Yugoslavia situation.
Oslo also forced the Palestinians to relinquish their desire for a greater Palestine. Oslo provided the foundation for peacemaking and established a time-line with respect to sharing the land between two people and two states.
The Oslo actors hoped that our process would take less than 15 years, but it is now clear, and it should have been obvious then, that the resolution of a century-long conflict would be a prolonged and gradual process with many hurdles on its way.
Today, Israelis and Palestinians must be determined to pursue this process while learning from the deficiencies of Oslo. Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians saw the peace process as a means for advancing political and traditional targets and not as a goal in and of itself.
Israel aimed to enhance its security by entering a peace process, while the Palestinians endeavored to realize their national aspirations. It has been evident throughout the process that when reconciliation is not a target in itself, even traditional goals will not be reached. Peaceful coexistence and cooperative goals can be achieved in a compatible way, which is actually the true premise of peace.
Issues negotiated included notions of territory, security, the civilian authority of the Palestinian Authority and mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. Common interests were secondary concerns. Yet this myopic attitude undermined what strategically would be the most important issue to be orchestrated--future relations between Israel and Palestine in the political, economic and cultural arenas.
Furthermore, negotiations were centered on a strategic security dogma. The Israeli team made it clear from the outset of the Oslo process that Israel would maintain overall responsibility for security. Whatever authorities, civil or military, were transferred to the PA, Israel would have the overwhelming right to intervene physically if a security threat developed. Today, however, with the proliferation of terrorism, such a doctrine is no longer appropriate. In simple terms, economy not only outweighs security, but provides security. The growth of the Palestinian economy should have been a clear Israeli security interest.
A culture of peace was also never stimulated during the Oslo process. Israelis and Palestinians remained foreign to one another (except on the battlefield) and thus people-to-people encounters of any significance were almost non-existent. The mass media also avoided creating a culture of peace. In times of conflict, the media was virtually recruited to the struggle, but during the peace process mutual demonization in the media continued even during days of relative quiet.
The increased socio-economic gap turned the peace process into a revolution of the wealthy, rather than a means by which to dispense peace dividends equally. Only small elites on both sides of the green line reaped peace dividends. In Israel, the champions of the hi-tech industry acquired capital, while in the PA the higher echelons of the PLO leadership that arrived in the West Bank and Gaza from Tunis enjoyed their international treasure at the end of the rainbow. At best, the middle and lower classes in both societies maintained their standards of living.
The Oslo process was undoubtedly a historic breakthrough that will most likely lead to the desired two-state solution. Without these peace accords, the West Bank and Gaza might have been annexed to Israel, resulting in total turmoil and anarchy. It took courage and ingenuity.
Being from the Middle East, we are confused by our dichotomized identity based both in modernity and antiquity. While the process was politically and morally legitimate and ultimately paved the right road, the implementation of the Oslo process was overburdened by the inertia of the past.
A new model for peace that involves the populations on the ground across all sectors must be embraced. Such a model is based on creating a human infrastructure for peace that breaks down the psychological and social barriers between former enemies.
The Oslo accords began a process of peacemaking. This process continues to evolve and to reach the people who will ultimately create peace.- Published 15/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Uri Savir was director general of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Israel's chief negotiator for the Oslo accords. He established the Peres Center for Peace as well as the Glocal Forum, which encourages intercity diplomacy around the world. He is the author of "Peace First: A New Model to End War".
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
There can be no comparison between now and Oslo
an interview with Hasan Asfour
bitterlemons: Fifteen years on, how do you look now at Oslo?
Asfour: The problem for the Oslo process was that it was seeking agreement between two peoples that had been in conflict for tens of years during which each of the sides had denied the existence of the other in one way or another.
The nature of the conflict, however, forced both sides to come to terms with the fact that you cannot cancel out the other. Therefore a framework was designed to create a new relationship and a new atmosphere in the region according to what could realistically be done and not according to absolute values. I believe we might have reached an historic solution if some of the ground rules at the time had been allowed to run their natural course.
The agreement itself came during the first intifada, which had contributed to changing the attitude among Israelis and the world toward the Palestinian people to such an extent that it became evident the occupation could not continue forever. It also came in the context of a changing strategic regional environment and the first Gulf War.
The goal of the agreement was to go through a transitional stage in order to reach permanent agreement. The purpose of this was the continuation of the vision of the peace process as a way of choosing negotiations for a political solution between the two sides over conflict.
bitterlemons: What lessons have been learned, or should have been learned, by Palestinians from Oslo?
Asfour: I think that the main lesson learned is that reaching agreement is not the same thing as implementing agreement. And even if there is the potential and a strong will to commit, that does not mean that we can only partially commit ourselves or not give the negotiations process our full attention. Meaning, the Oslo agreement provided us with a very important concrete start, but we didn't deal with it as we should have, maybe because, as Palestinians, we lived under great pressure, or maybe because this pressure led to negative attitudes toward the process.
There are, of course, many things that shouldn't have happened the way they did. Israel should not have been allowed to stop the negotiating process. We shouldn't compromise international commitments more than necessary. In 1999, I think we missed a very important opportunity when there was talk about unilaterally declaring an independent Palestinian state. I also think that between 2000-2001, we allowed Israel to interfere militarily in the internal situation while we acted between confrontation and irresponsibility. We allowed a duality in the Palestinian Authority to emerge when we allowed weapons to be bought that created an authority within the authority.
Palestinians also failed to realize the true importance of the Arab hinterland. When we were negotiating or after we had reached agreement of some sort, there was no cooperation in any deep sense or coordination with Arab countries, even during the hardest of times. We behaved as if America and Israel were capable of forcing on the Arabs whatever agreements we reached. In other words, the trust in Israel, in some ways and at certain times, went beyond what was called for by the spirit of the agreement. Of course the moment this trust evaporated, Israel started its war against us.
bitterlemons: We are in the middle of the Annapolis process now. Some say this is a very similar process in a very similar situation. Is this something you, as a veteran of Oslo, can recognize?
Asfour: No, I think there is now a drastic change in the political reality and in the political purpose and intentions of Israeli proposals. What is happening now can be traced back to the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit, a failure that in my opinion lies squarely with the Israelis.
That failure put us into conflict, and the Israeli goal from this conflict was to destroy the PA. Since 2000, or to be more precise, since Ariel Sharon's visit to the Haram al-Sharif on Sept 20, 2000, Israel wanted to obliterate the PA. This was not merely an Israeli attempt at pressuring the PA; it was about destroying the PA by destroying its leader, Yasser Arafat.
Once the PA was exhausted, the Israelis and Americans forced an election that they knew would end in one of two ways: either Hamas would win, putting an end to the political process, or Fateh would win, causing Hamas to take to the streets with its many weapons. The result is what we see today.
In other words, Israeli strategy is completely different now than it was under Yitzhak Rabin, who said agreement would lead to the end of occupation. Today, Israel is trying to re-invent the occupation under the cover of agreement. There is a huge difference between now and then.
For example, there is the process of Judaizing Jerusalem and building more settlements. This is all done in order to end the possibility of an independent Palestinian state emerging. By Judaizing Jerusalem Israel is trying to render the Clinton formula---that what's Palestinians should be Palestinian and what's Jewish is Jewish--irrelevant. Israel is also exacerbating and exaggerating intra-Palestinian divisions in order to run away from its own political obligations.
There can be no comparison between now and when Oslo was reached.
bitterlemons: You are not hopeful, then, that agreement can be reached by the end of the year?
Asfour: No, there is no prospect of reaching a full political agreement at this stage. Israel is not even close to accepting a political resolution that respects the basis of the peace process. The peace process considers the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as the territory where a Palestinian state should be built. This is in line with international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
What Israel is doing is revoking the concepts embodied by these two resolutions. Palestinians, Arab countries and the international community are guilty of not putting enough pressure on Israel to abide by international law. But Israel is busy trying to introduce new political frameworks and maybe even definitions. Thus, in my opinion, there is no possibility of any serious political agreement nor is there even a horizon.
bitterlemons: Do you agree then with those, among them your former colleague Ahmed Qurei, who say that time is running out for the two-state solution and Palestinians might have to pursue a one-state solution?
Asfour: Such a move would constitute running away from trying to ensure agreement to the creation of an independent state by staying under Israeli rule. Then we would have to wait for the South African experience to run its course. This means waiting tens of years and enduring racism and discrimination before Palestinians can taste freedom. I think this is a choice of frustration and not one of progress.- Published 15/9/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Hasan Asfour was a member of the Palestinian negotiating team at Oslo.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.