Learn lessons from Oslo’s failure

Israelis have learned in recent weeks of two new initiatives for renewing the political process with the Palestinians. One is a set of understandings drawn up by teams led by Israeli Foreign Minister Peres (including Uri Savir and Avi Gil, former and current directors general of the Foreign Ministry) and Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. These state that a ceasefire will take hold and confidence building measures be instituted within six weeks. Within another eight weeks Israel will recognize a Palestinian state in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, immediately after which negotiations on all outstanding final status issues will commence, to be completed within 9-12 months. The final status agreement will be implemented within another 9-24 months.

The second initiative calls for Israeli President Moshe Katsav to appear before the Palestinian Legislative Council and call for a hudna, or truce. The Assembly will then reciprocate by declaring a hudna for one year, and within a short time negotiations will be renewed. Egyptian and American sources were reportedly involved in developing this initiative, alongside Israelis and Palestinians.

Both initiatives are described here on the basis of press reports and interviews. Few details are known, nor are we familiar with the specific calculations and assessments that informed the various parties in developing these initiatives. We do know that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon rejects their substance, while Palestinian leader Arafat has generally avoided comment, and Peres has also rejected the hudna approach. Indeed, precisely because the leaders appear to have no substantive strategy for peace and are all deeply suspicious of one another, there seems to be little chance that these or any other peace initiatives will take hold in the near future.

Nevertheless, under present circumstances any new political initiative is to be welcomed. Both the Peres- Abu Ala and Katsav plans have much to recommend them. Yet based on what we know about them, both, sadly, appear to reflect a distinct reluctance on the part of the two sides to learn and apply lessons from the failure of the Oslo process. Only if we analyze the weaknesses or faults of the Oslo concept as they emerged over the years, and draw lessons for the future, can we hope to ensure that the next agreement doesn’t suffer a similar fate. Since no political agreement is perfect, let us learn from this one. In the present context, three examples will suffice.

First, it was counterproductive to base the entire Oslo process on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. Israel and the Palestinians do not agree as to whether 242 applies to all or only part of the territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem (“territories” or “the territories”). Moreover, 242 was designed to deal with the consequences of the 1967 war, whereas some key Israeli-Palestinian final status issues, like refugees, are 1948 issues not resolved by 242, or “eternal” issues like Jerusalem that are ignored by 242. Yet the Peres-Abu Ala understandings, in a kind of knee-jerk ritual, once again choose to base a Palestinian state solution on 242. Already we have heard Israeli spokespersons explain that this means the Palestinian state will initially be confined to the 42% of the West Bank and 80% of the Gaza Strip now in Palestinian hands, with the rest up for negotiation–while Palestinians explain that the understandings in principle deliver up all the 1967 territories to the Palestine Liberation Organization, with negotiations centering on the modalities of transferring remaining territories.

This takes us right back to square one. It would be far better to take as a basis for agreement some more clearly defined set of principles, such as “demographic separation within rational borders,” or at least to determine that the first issue for negotiation is an agreed interpretation of 242.

A second drawback of the Oslo concept is its reliance on phasing. In September 1993 there may have been no alternative to a phased interim process; the parties were not ready for final status talks. But we must recognize that the Oslo interim phases were an abject failure: rather than building confidence and economic prosperity, they destroyed them by exposing the process to repeated attack by extremists from both sides. Here again, the Peres-Abu Ala plan is dependent on phasing, while the Katsav hudna plan also involves a risky one year first phase and says nothing about what is to follow.

The objective, then, should be a process that establishes final status arrangements within a minimal time span and with as few phases as possible. Yet even in the best of circumstances a minimum of time and phasing is necessary in order to move from conflict to peace. This brings us to the third lesson of Oslo: it made no provision for mandatory third party arbitration. Consequently, when disagreements arose over interpretation of the Oslo Declaration of Principles or Oslo II, the parties had no obligatory regulatory mechanism to turn to. In contrast, it was only such a provision in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 that enabled the two sides to isolate and then resolve the Taba dispute without jeopardizing the peace. In the Israeli-Palestinian case the extreme power imbalance between the two sides exacerbates their disputes over the interpretation of agreements.

In this regard, both Peres-Abu Ala and Katsav would be well advised to insist that the US or some other agreed third party be stipulated as the arbiter of any disputes that may arise regarding the interpretation of their agreements. That is the least the two sides can do to increase the chances for success under the present very trying circumstances.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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