Oslo Accords’ gloomy 30th anniversary
We all love a story with a happy ending, but tragically the Oslo Accords is not one of these. Instead, it is one of a great promise that led to a series of missed opportunities for peace, coexistence and reconciliation, to the detriment of the Palestinian people mainly, but also of Israel. However, lamenting the accords’ ultimate failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without dissecting the reasons for it, while ignoring some of the remarkable breakthroughs it did make, would be an exercise in futility. When the next opportunity to strike a peace deal in one of the longest conflicts in recent history presents itself, the lessons from Oslo, and what followed it, might prove to be extremely useful.
Admittedly, the current conditions in Israel, Palestine and the international community do not lend themselves to a peace initiative — and things will probably get worse before they get better. However, those who believe that wars and conflict are not inevitable and irresolvable and that history has shown that eventually all conflicts come to an end should not be stopped from learning from the past, assessing the present and planning for a better and conflict-free future. It is also the case that the lack of any imminent prospect of a comprehensive peace agreement does not mean that steps should not be taken to reduce tensions, improve conditions on the ground and lay the foundations for future peace negotiations.
It was suggested that, to a large extent, the negotiations in Oslo were concluded with an agreement because all the stars happened to be in alignment. In Israel, a new government led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised its voters it would achieve peace with the Palestinians. The First Intifada served as a wake-up call for Israel to recognize that there was no military solution to this conflict, only a political one, and that the Palestinians would never give up their aspiration for self-determination.
After another bloody intifada and round after round of violent clashes, the search for peace has become even more complex
Meanwhile, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader Yasser Arafat were going through ideological changes, acknowledging that the state of Israel was a reality that they would have to learn to live with and recognize. However, their miscalculation in supporting Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait upset most countries in the region, especially in the Gulf, and also Western countries. This forced the Palestinian leadership to search for a ladder to climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves.
Additionally, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ceased being associated with the politics among the superpowers. Instead, a young US president, Bill Clinton, in office for less than a year, with no notable achievements to date and suffering from low approval ratings, was desperate for some international success. And although the agreement was not brokered by Washington, the Clinton administration was delighted to bless and embrace it, as if it were the midwife.
Three decades later, after another bloody intifada and round after round of violent clashes, the search for peace has become even more complex. A number of attempts have been made to revive the process, while the topography and demography of the West Bank changed dramatically as a result of Israelis building hundreds of settlements and outposts. In 1993, the leaderships were ready to take risks for peace but that readiness is now completely missing.
In the case of Rabin, he ended up paying for his commitment to peace with his life, when relentless incitements against him by the far right and religious messianics led to a Jewish extremist shooting him dead following a peace rally. Some of those who led the incitements against Rabin and his government now sit at the heart of the current Israeli government. Consequently, and with an ailing and dysfunctional Palestinian political system, any prospective renewed search for peace will require a radical overhaul of both political systems, bringing to the fore pragmatic leaderships that are open to new ideas.
Any prospective renewed search for peace will require a radical overhaul of both the Israeli and Palestinian political systems
One of the mistakes, at least in my eyes, of those who signed the Oslo Accords was that they refused to clearly state that any lasting and genuine peace agreement required the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as the capital of both, and a just and fair deal for the refugees. By being vague about the nature of the final agreement, they left many Palestinians suspicious about whether they would ever see their wish for self-determination materialize and led Israelis opposing such an outcome to believe that a Palestinian state could still be averted.
To be sure, the disastrous developments in relations between Israel and the Palestinians over the three decades that have elapsed since the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn have left scars and deep distrust in both societies. This distrust underlines one of the main shortcomings of the Oslo process: of failing to build a proactive, critical mass of support among both peoples to resist the small but determined minority that has more of an interest in the conflict continuing than in bringing it to an end. Reestablishing such trust is going to be even more difficult in the current climate, with relations between the two sides as bad as they have ever been.
But when viable peace negotiations do resume, albeit at some unforeseeable future date, they will have to be based on the equality of the rights of everyone on both sides of the Green Line, as well as of the 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees. Today, most Israelis and Palestinians were not even born when the Oslo Accords were signed and, for them, the event is the distant history of an attempt that failed to end the conflict peacefully. They are not aware that the very notion of a two-state solution was not an option that was ever seriously discussed, nor did it produce any significant documentation on resolving the Palestinian refugees issue; Jerusalem as the capital of both nations; or how to ensure that the settlements would not be able to block the road to peace.
Hence, it is left for a new generation of leaders, peace activists and a proactive civil society to take the positives of Oslo, including the belief that obstacles are there to be overcome, and find a new path to peace. This can only happen once a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, led by courageous politicians, marginalize those who advance maximalist partisan objectives and embrace the notion that all Israelis and Palestinians deserve the same human, civil and political rights. The rest then becomes mere detail.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. X: @YMekelberg