Lessons must be learned from fatal flaws in peace process

Lessons must be learned from fatal flaws in peace process

The peace process based on the Oslo Accords was an opportunity for negotiators to try out ideas about conflict resolution on a global stage. Some of the ideas were good ones that did not work in a conflict that involves a direct clash of identity in the context of limited geographic resources, and the Oslo process was unable to change the parameters of that clash enough to find a resolution. 
 
The multiple agreements generally referred to as the Oslo process began with the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords and ended with the 2000 failure of the Camp David II negotiations and the start of the Second Intifada. Various leaders and approaches could not find a way to navigate between the Palestinians’ insistence on a viable, sovereign state and the Israeli refusal to allow such a state to exist. 
 
The complicated, lengthy process had many problems, but four factors presented fatal flaws: The power imbalance, biased mediation, an incremental approach, and spoilers. 
 
The process began with a major imbalance in power between the two sides. Israel held far more cards, with its military and economic power and resulting security and economic dominion over the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Jerusalem. Both sides had an interest in reaching a durable peace deal, but the potential cost of failure was greater for the Palestinians. Throughout the process, mediators demanded more from the Palestinians than from the Israelis.
 
Any future peace process must learn from the Oslo Accords that a major power imbalance, biased mediators and an incremental approach that benefits spoilers is very unlikely to resolve the deep divisions of Israel and Palestine.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
 
The power imbalance also affected a key aspect of any peace negotiations — the mediators. Norway tried to be a neutral facilitator but was unable to address the asymmetry in power. The US was the only actor with the ability to actually tip the scales to address the power imbalance. However, US negotiators — while keen to reach a deal and often believing that they were fair mediators — came from a strongly pro-Israel culture and political environment. They tended to accept Israeli assumptions about the conflict. Furthermore, when the Bush or Clinton administrations actually tried to pressure Israel, the US Congress intervened to Israel’s advantage. 
 
Another fatal flaw was Oslo’s incremental approach, which emphasized building on short-term agreements to create trust through confidence-building measures rather than on determining end goals from the start. The step-by-step approach was not a bad idea. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict involved two hostile groups of people who were intricately linked together and deeply distrusted each other. The idea of incremental steps and confidence-building measures in such an environment was logical, and persuading both sides to agree on final outcomes in 1993 was likely impossible. Unfortunately, the incremental approach created space for spoilers to undermine confidence-building measures; thus eroding rather than building trust. The failure to achieve significant progress within a reasonable time frame also damaged public faith in the process.
 
Spoilers — actors who opposed the peace process and worked to undermine it — took full advantage of the incremental approach. On the Palestinian side, Hamas was the primary spoiler, using terrorism and violence to deepen Israelis’ disdain of Palestinians and fears about a peace deal. 
 
On the Israeli side, violent extremists, the settler movement and sometimes the government served as spoilers. The 1994 murder of 29 Palestinians in Hebron and the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by different Israeli extremists undermined the peace process, as did the intentionally provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to Al-Haram Al-Sharif in 2000. The settler movement ramped up its efforts to grab territory in the West Bank, thus diminishing the opportunity for a contiguous, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and badly damaging Palestinian faith in the peace process. Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership from 1996 to 1999, the Israeli government played an active role in spoiling the peace process, using delay tactics in negotiations while expropriating Palestinian land and violating Palestinian rights on the ground. Under Rabin and later Ehud Barak, the government acted more in good faith but still actively supported settlement construction. 
 
Also, the capabilities and intentions of leaders matter greatly, as does their ability to sell a deal to their public. Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak on the Israeli side were different leaders with distinct abilities and intentions. Yasser Arafat on the Palestinian side was a problematic figure but the only one accepted as the Palestinian leader. 
 
In the end, Israel was never willing to accept a viable, sovereign Palestinian state, which many Israelis saw as a threat to their security and identity. The Palestinians were unwilling to accept a runt state cut into pieces that would be forever subject to Israeli control. These positions and distrust have hardened since 2000. Any future peace process must learn the lessons that a major power imbalance, biased mediators and an incremental approach that benefits spoilers is very unlikely to resolve such a deep division. 
 
  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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