Oslo @25: Reflections and learning

The 13th September marks 25 years since Prime Minister Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed what became known as the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. Initially an interim agreement, both sides committed to resolve final-status issues such as Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, refugees, security and settlements within 5 years.

Over the past 25 years Israeli and Palestinian officials have tried to bridge their differences through bilateral, trilateral, multilateral, open and closed, public and secret discussions. However, the Oslo Process has generally been considered to have been a resounding failure for those who advocate a two-state solution. What was meant to bring both sides close enough to reach an agreement, or at a minimum to show each side that their futures are indeed intertwined, has led to a situation in which Israelis and Palestinians are perhaps further apart than before it was signed.

Next week Fathom, the journal of the Israel and Middle East think-tank BICOM, will launch its 21 issue to mark the anniversary by analysing the successes and failures of the original Oslo agreement with a series of articles and interviews from some of those directly involved in the Oslo process.

There are no shortages of critical analysis on why Oslo has failed and both sides have very different perspectives on its breakdown. Israelis feel that there is no Palestinian partner and that Israeli peace offers have been met with violence. Palestinians believe that while Israel spoke about peace it more deeply entrenched the occupation through expanding settlements. Today, the question of whether each side has the impetus and political will to begin negotiations is particularly relevant. Orna Mizrachi, most recently Deputy Head of Foreign Affairs at the Israeli National Security Council details in Fathom the significant changes that have taken place since the signing of the Accords that make it harder to renew negotiations. She lists, inter alia, the every-changing humanitarian and security situation in Gaza, which has convinced many in Israeli and international circles that a ‘Gaza first’ approach is preferable to bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PLO.

Hussein Agha, who was part of the Palestinian team that negotiated the Oslo II agreements in 1994-5, which handed over West Bank cities to Palestinian rule argues that to be successful you need three things to be right – context, politics, and the ‘moment’ but also believes the key failure of Oslo was structural. Agha contends that the reason Oslo failed was because it assumed 1948 [the Nakba] never took place. As he writes, “Israel were happy to resolve the issue of 1967 and occupation but didn’t want to resolve the ghosts of 1948, namely the creation of Israel.” To overcome this hurdle, Agha believes both sides will be required to reconcile their conflicting narratives of 1948, particularly the narrative of refugees and the right of return.

Contrary to Agha’s more pessimistic reading of Oslo Joel Singer, former legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry who was brought in by Prime Minister Rabin to look over an initial draft of the Declaration of Principles in the summer of 1993, wrote in Fathom about both the mistakes in the accord but also its successes. Singer states that one of the most important elements of Oslo is the mutual recognition document, which was not only a permanent component necessary to begin the process of reconciliation, but also paved a way for other Arab countries to establish or strengthen relations with Israel.

With the US President Donald Trump expected to soon reveal his long-awaited ‘deal of the century’ to entice the sides back to negotiations, it would be easy for his team to disregard the Oslo Process in their own matrix. However, future successes in peace talks might not necessarily be completely detached from the Oslo mind-set. Yair Hirschfeld, one of two Israeli academics to begin informal discussions with Palestinians in Oslo (the other being the late Ron Pundak) recommends the sides adopting several components first enshrined in Oslo to advance peace-making today. Gradualism, which will allow the transition of the PLO from a revolutionary movement to a government of a sovereign state; Palestinian empowerment and transformation through state-building; Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and reconciliation through grassroots groups; continued security cooperation; and embedding peace in a wider regional context. Any new version of Oslo, Hirschfeld says, should also include a new framework for political activism that can pass what he calls the “Triple C Test”: the political ‘concept’ that can be shared by a majority amongst both peoples; a supportive internal, bilateral, regional and international ‘coalition’ around the concept; which subsequently creates the ‘capacity’, to bring about the needed change.

The new Fathom issue which focuses on Oslo is published next Wednesday. For now, it’s worth concluding with a quote from Joel Singer, “Until the time is ripe for a final deal, the parties should not lose hope but continue to address and overcome the many challenges to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. If that can be accomplished, peace will come, even if it takes much longer than expected.”