Is Oslo Dead? What Went Wrong?

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The Palestinians and the Israelis each signed the Oslo Accord with the realization that it will be a first step in a process leading to an end of the conflict. This process was intended to increase mutual confidence through measures on the ground that would set the stage for a comprehensive permanent status agreement. Each side made a number of specific “gains” that defined, for its public, the parameters of the success or failure of the agreement. The Israeli side, which had hitherto lived under a sense of threat and diplomatic isolation, wanted peace and normality. The Palestinian side, having suffered decades of occupation, wanted gradual control over the Occupied Territories. The underlying goal was the establishment of two states: Palestine and Israel, living together in peace and security within the territory of the Palestine Mandate. I still believe that, fundamentally, this vision remains true.

This obviously begs the question of why we ended with the current crisis rather than the end of conflict we hoped for?

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that both sides made the mistake of assuming that goodwill, trust, and vision- all of which were developed among the negotiators during Oslo- would alone ensure the success of the agreement. This mistake manifested itself in a number of oversights that were to prove detrimental to the process.

First among these, perhaps, was too much reliance on so-called “creative ambiguity.” This meant that most elements of the agreement were subject to further negotiation, often by people who did not share the original drafters’ vision. In addition, no mechanism was put in place to ensure the implementation of even those aspects that are clearly agreed upon. Finally, no mechanism to resolve disputes that might arise between the Parties was created. Under these conditions, the implementation of the agreement on the ground was determined not by the text and spirit of Oslo, but rather by the balance of power, and by the internal considerations of the more powerful party, namely Israel. Accordingly, the impact of the agreement was felt in an asymmetrical manner between the two people.

The Israeli public enjoyed the fruits of the agreements up front. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel soon after Oslo. Many Arab, Islamic and other states established ties with Israel. The Arab boycott was lifted in all but name. Security for Israel was improved, albeit unevenly, to unprecedented levels. It was no surprise, then, that a majority of Israelis felt that the Oslo Accord was a success.

The impact of the Accord on Palestinian daily lives was, to put it mildly, less impressive than it was for Israelis. The economic situation of Palestinians steadily worsened. Movement became increasingly more difficult, whether between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, within these two areas, or into Israel. Access to Jerusalem, whether for worship or commercial purposes, was severely restricted. Yet the development that was most detrimental was the unprecedented rate of settlement expansion. Since Oslo, settlement units increased by 100%, while the number of settlers increased by 70% (both figures well above the rate of urban and demographic growth in Israel.)

The above took place within a context of Israeli non-implementation of the signed agreements: deadlines were systematically missed, release of prisoners became subject to internal Israeli political out-bidding, and the agreed redeployments had to be renegotiated ad infinitum.

The one element that could have sustained Palestinian optimism, namely the hope that a permanent status agreement would be signed, creating a Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, was being visibly eroded. This hope was dealt an additional blow when the permanent status negotiations started in 1999. A mixture of Israeli foot-dragging, inconsistency, and positions that fell short of responding to basic Palestinian needs and concerns further contributed to Palestinian disillusionment.

The way the Camp David Summit was portrayed, and the blame game that followed, all but brought on total despair among the Palestinian people. Israeli boasting of a “generous offer” was not only insulting, but also inaccurate. This “generous offer”, in reality, was simply a number of vague, disjointed ideas that, if accepted, would have created a non-viable, nominally independent Palestinian state. Behind the rhetoric, even President Clinton knew that a coherent proposal was needed, prompting him to present his ideas five months after Camp David. While further negotiations did indeed make progress, the atmosphere had already been poisoned by the Israeli vilification of the Palestinians.

Reflecting on the Oslo Accord can lead to one of two conclusions. The first, which is unfortunately the currently predominant one, is that the process is fundamentally flawed since there is no partner on the other side. This is the easy conclusion that will find currency and applause among many nowadays.

The second possible conclusion, which I and the rest of the Palestinian leadership subscribe to, is that within the course of applying Oslo, a number of valuable lessons for the future can be learned. The most fundamental, perhaps, is that trust, while essential for reaching an agreement, is not enough to make an agreement work. Our conclusion is that even a good agreement, even one concluded between true partners as was the case with Oslo, cannot succeed based solely on goodwill.

This is not intended to discredit our Israeli partners. Instead, it is aimed at ensuring that the next agreement we conclude with these partners, the agreement that will permanently govern our future relations, will avoid the pitfalls of the past.

The permanent status agreement must be a clear one. The obligations of both sides must be drafted in a way that avoids ambiguity. Clear mechanisms for implementation must be put into place, and means of resolving disputes in an objective and neutral manner must be found. What must be avoided at all cost is holding the agreement hostage to the imbalance of power or the internal political vacillations of either side.

Many say that Oslo is dead. And many will regard my focus on a permanent status agreement as misguided or misguiding. Many believe that the ongoing crisis has dealt irreparable damage to any prospect of peace. To those I say that no matter how long it will take us, we will have to go back to the basic premise of Oslo: two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side as neighbors within the 1967 borders. Any other solution (especially ones advocating the annihilation of the other side) is not only immoral, but also impractical. 

We must reach a solution based on the parameters defined at Madrid in 1991, in Oslo in 1993, and repeatedly endorsed by the international community since. The question is how we will do it. We can do it the easy way, by immediately returning to the negotiating table. Or we can do it the hard way, by returning to the negotiating table after more bloodshed and misery. Either way, we will return to the negotiating table.

Mr. Yasser Abed Rabbo is Palestinian Minister of Culture and Information.

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