Why Oslo’s legacy should not be dismissed

Why Oslo’s legacy should not be dismissed

The 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which it was hoped would be the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be marked later this year. It will be marked more than celebrated. For many, the absence of peace after a quarter of a century of a peace process is a cause of great regret and leaves much to be lamented. What is left are fading memories of the signing on the White House lawn, with much fanfare, of a Declaration of Principles between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in front of world leaders and millions of TV viewers across the globe.
In a day conference last Sunday at New York University, a group of practitioners and academics, Israelis and Palestinians, including the architect of the Oslo back channel and accords, Dr. Yossi Beilin, were painstakingly and painfully dissecting what went wrong, but also looking at the positives that can be taken from the peace efforts.
Oslo failed to achieve its ultimate goal of reaching a lasting peace that would justly, fairly and sustainably address all the core issues that divide the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, Oslo as a process and as an idea has also left a legacy of engagement, mutual recognition, and a wish to cooperate — given the right circumstances and willingness to reach a deal.
Back in the early 1990s, few could have imagined that, somewhere in Norway, behind-the-scenes meetings — with only the limited knowledge of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, while marginalising the sole superpower, the US — would yield such a meaningful breakthrough. Last Sunday, Beilin reminded the audience of a number of very important lessons to take from Oslo. First was the central importance of leadership and, in the case of Israel, how pivotal the role of the prime minister is, despite the very intricate political system. A determined and visionary prime minister is crucial and irreplaceable. This was no different on the Palestinian side. Another observation, from the timeless oracle of the Israeli peace camp, was that there is an element of luck, or what Machiavelli would call “fortuna,” in creating an opportunity for peace. Such an opportunity must be embraced before it quickly disappears.
Back then, in 1993, the world was still in a state of post-Cold War euphoria. The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated superpower rivalry, whereby either Washington or Moscow, although most probably the latter, might have played the spoiler in any Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. Another crucial contributory factor was the weakness of the PLO as a result of its support for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War. This left the Palestinians’ main representative body exposed politically, deprived of resources, and in dire need of regaining some regional and international legitimacy. 

Oslo failed to achieve its ultimate goal of reaching a lasting peace that would justly, fairly and sustainably address all the core issues that divide the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, Oslo as a process and as an idea has also left a legacy of engagement, mutual recognition, and a wish to cooperate — given the right circumstances and willingness to reach a deal.

Yossi Mekelberg

Moreover, in the White House there sat a new, young and ambitious president, Bill Clinton, who up to that point had no achievements to his name. The Declaration of Principles, which was the product of the negotiations and was signed in Washington, gave him his first diplomatic breakthrough, even if he did very little at this point to merit it. Lastly, the new government in Israel had been elected on the promise that it would bring peace within its first year in power, while the opposition, still recovering from its election defeat, could hardly oppose such a development. This was an extraordinary set of circumstances that played into the hands of those who had the vision, the desire and the courage to pursue peace.
There is no escaping the drawing of two further conclusions from the Oslo process. One is that back channels are still the best diplomatic method to achieving any meaningful progress. The outcome of such negotiations must certainly be subject to public debate, but ongoing negotiations in the glare of publicity are likely to drag down the entire effort to the lowest common denominator, resulting in stalemate and, worse, conflict. The other conclusion is that embarking on an interim agreement, instead of a permanent one, is just too risky. The Oslo Accords were all about gradualism and incrementalism, leading to the “perfect” agreement. This proved to be both a satisfying illusion and a convenient avoidance of dealing with the most fundamental issues at the heart of the conflict. 
It is understandable why the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were reluctant to even contemplate trying in one stroke to reach an agreement that would explicitly recognize the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and a newly established Palestinian state. This would have been a leap of faith that neither side was capable of, or ready for, especially since this would also have involved addressing the issue of a just and fair solution for the plight of the Palestinian refugees, the demarcation of borders, and removal of Jewish settlements both in the West Bank and Gaza. In hindsight, however, it would have been the right way forward, and probably the only way to reach peace.
It might be the case that the expectations from a mere DOP were too high; after all, it contained hopes and good intentions for a full settlement in five years, but no clear details on the solution itself. The hardships in making progress, which proved to be more difficult than envisaged, led to frustration and a weakening of the peace camps in both societies.
Yet Oslo left a legacy of negotiations on the thorniest of issues and agreements on some of them — of formal mutual recognition of each other’s right to self-determination, of building Palestinian institutions and of international financial and diplomatic support, to mention just a few achievements. It is not a legacy that should be dismissed out of hand. It won’t console those who are the victims of violence or who still live under an oppressive occupation. However, when the stars align again, the peace negotiators won’t have to start from scratch; there are enough lessons learned from Oslo that can be constructively employed in future peace efforts.
 
  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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