Twenty years ago this week, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the first substantive agreement to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
It surprised everybody. Lo and behold, secret negotiations had been taking place in the Norwegian capital and – away from the limelight – negotiators reached a deal. The agreement became known as the Oslo Accords. It was a framework for peace, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied land and the establishment of a self- governing body that would build a new Palestinian state from the bottom up.
This new body, created in 1995 in what became known as Oslo II, would administer an area of land and govern the population according to democratic principles. It became known as the Palestinian Authority. All this, it was envisaged, would be a temporary arrangement, but it would lead to a permanent peace, the negotiations for which would start no later than 1996.
Twenty years later, hopes of peace are at rock bottom. In the intervening years Rabin was assassinated, Jewish settlers built as much housing as they did ill will, the Palestinians returned to violence and all subsequent negotiations stalled, stumbled and stuttered.
Yet Oslo remains hugely important, not least because it is arguably the closest we have come to peace in our time between Israel and the Palestinians. This week we look back at what was and what has since been.
OSLO HAS LEFT A LEGACY OF DIRECT NEGOTIATIONS.
YOSSI MEKELBERG. Director, International Relations & Social Sciences, Regents University, London
Yitzhak Rabin receiving his Nobel Peace Prize
Most of those witnessing the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians 20 years ago thought it was the beginning of the end of the conflict.
The expectation was that within a few years all core issues between the two sides – including borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and water – would be resolved. But the absence of peace two decades later leaves a legacy of failure for both protagonists and the international community. Despite catching everyone by surprise, it quite quickly became obvious that the negotiators in Oslo and a substantial majority in both communities shared the desire to put the conflict and its bloodshed behind them by accepting a two-state solution.
Three main approaches have been taken since the early days. They have all failed. The first was the Oslo approach, which focused on incrementalism. It tried to overcome the mutual mistrust through confidence-building measures, to create a more conducive environment for later agreements on the core issues. When this approach collapsed, many thought gradualism had left the door open for extremists and spoilers. As such, Camp David favoured a less-than-perfect agreement that addressed all core issues, rather than an ideal agreement that could be endlessly deferred.
This approach was undermined by a lack of leadership, flawed negotiation techniques, bad planning and poor timing. The Clinton parameters left a legacy of solid principles for future negotiations, but instead of peace, the Second Intifada and years of violence followed the collapse of the Camp David summit. The third approach was President Bush’s 2003 “roadmap”, integrating the previous approaches into a phased process with clear deadlines and an obvious endgame. But this was more about photo opportunities than serious negotiations. All of these approaches failed and left a tragic legacy of broken agreements, unilateralism and a lack of statesmanship, preferring parochial interests to long-term strategic necessities, not to mention resorting to violence when negotiations failed to deliver. On the other hand, Oslo left a legacy of direct negotiations, reaching agreement and understanding on most issues. Moreover, it encouraged civil society on both sides of the divide to engage with one another to promote peace. Time will tell which kind of legacy will prevail and determine the future of both nations.
I WAS SO EXCITED AND FELT, FINALLY, WE’D FOUND PEACE.
HAGIT OFRAN. Runs the Settlement Watch scheme for Peace Now
It was September 1993, and I was at the beginning of my military service in the Israel Defence Force, when the commanders stopped our course and took us to watch a historical moment on television: the signing the Oslo Accords at the White House.
I was very excited and felt that, finally, we’d reached peace. For Israelis, peace meant that the Palestinians would stop shooting at us. For Palestinians, peace meant the Israeli occupation would end and that they would establish a state of their own. But none of this happened.
The Oslo Accords wasn’t peace, but it was an interim agreement setting the road to peace. During this interim period, which should have ended with a final status agreement by May 1999, the opposition on both sides managed to torpedo the process. In Israel, a right-wing extremist assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. Benjamin Netanyahu was then elected leader and he managed to stop the process. On the Palestinian side, Hamas continued to attack Israelis, sending the message that it didn’t want peace.
Looking back, one of the biggest mistakes of Oslo was that it didn’t touch on the settlements during the interim period. As a result, Netanyahu and the following Israeli leaders continued to build settlements. On the eve of the agreement, there were 110,000 settlers in the West Bank. Today they are 341,000. The message to the Palestinians is clear: Israel doesn’t want peace and is not planning to leave any room for a Palestinian state.
The ‘good’ news is that although the number of settlers is high, a two-state solution is still possible. Half of the settlers (114,000) that were added in the two decades since the Oslo Accords are living in three settlements only: Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and Maale Adumim, which may be swapped in an agreement. Another 34,000 settlers are living within the official land swap line of the Geneva Initiative. The settlers’ plan – to bring thousands of Israelis deep into the West Bank in order to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state – failed. The price of peace will not be low, and many settlers will need to leave their homes. But peace is still possible.
A TYPICAL SUMMER, UNTIL RABIN’S BOMBSHELL.
URI DROMI. Spokesman for the Israeli Government
August 1993 was drawing to an end and things at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem seemed pretty slow. Negotiations in Washington between the Israeli and the Jordanian-Palestinian delegations seemed to be lingering on forever, the first Intifada was running out of steam and people were leaving for vacations abroad (including Eitan Haber, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s closest aide). In short, it was a typical Israeli summer.
That was, until on 30 August, when Rabin dropped a bombshell. In the weekly cabinet meeting, he announced that for months there had been secret talks between Israel and Palestinian officials. To the amazement of his ministers, he then outlined the comprehensive agreement reached between Israel and its arch-enemy up to that point, the PLO. I remember the face of Eli Rubinstein, who had led the fake talks in Washington, when he realised that he had been misled by Rabin and that his efforts were just a ruse to distract attention from the real talks in Oslo. Poor Eli, like a loyal servant he swallowed his pride. Others, however, were more difficult.
Ehud Barak, who had just retired as the IDF’s chief-of-staff and had joined the government as Minister of the Interior, raised security objections which, in a hindsight, turned to be quite correct. However, bowing to Rabin’s authority as Mr Security, the ministers complied, and I had no problem in mobilising them to the PR campaign we had launched in order to generate public support for the agreement. Some journalists smiled when I stood in press conferences at the Government Press Office, introducing the ministers. They remembered the pre-Oslo Uri Dromi, vowing that Israel would never speak to the PLO terrorist organisation.
I had no problem with that. I have always been fond of the formula devised in the 1970s by Aharon Yariv and Victor Shemtov, that Israel should speak with the PLO once it abandoned terror and recognised Israel. The PLO did recognise Israel, but had it truly changed? Yasser Arafat, the nemesis of both Israelis and Palestinians, talked peace while turning a blind eye to Palestinian terrorist attacks. This was much harder to explain to the Israeli public. The rest is history. Sad history.
With all my reservations (I once called myself an “Oslo disappointee”) I still think it was important step in reconciling between the two peoples. I hope there is another secret, groundbreaking agreement percolating as we speak. If that happens, I’d be very happy to give peace another chance.
WHY OSLO WAS ONE OF ISRAEL’S WORST MISTAKES.
DANI DAYAN, Yeshava Council of Israeli Communities in Judea and Samaria
Israel will mark two grim anniversaries this month: 40 years since the Yom Kippur War and 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The decision not to mobilise the IDF reserves and launch a pre-emptive strike in 1973 and the decision to believe Yasser Arafat’s good intentions in 1993 are two of the gravest strategic mistakes Israel has ever made.
The withdrawal from Gaza, forcibly expelling its Jewish inhabitants, completes the unfortunate trio of follies. Today it seems incomprehensible how the late Yitzhak Rabin trusted the word of a man that wouldn’t abandon his gun and military uniform even when appearing at the UN General Assembly.
Like the Yom Kippur War 20 years earlier, it was the people of Israel that had to pay the heavy price for its leaders’ short sightedness. The Oslo Accords created a hostile political entity in our midst. The creation of the Palestinian Authority and the retreat of the IDF from the major cities of Judea and Samaria granted the Palestinians freedom and impunity, paving the way for a wave of atrocious terrorist attacks against Israelis that culminated in the Second Intifada.
When not using terror, the Palestinian Authority is engaged in leading the worldwide effort to delegitimise Israel, an alternative way to undermine our existence. Today, both tactics are used simultaneously: terror from Gaza and diplomatic warfare from Ramallah.
However, the terrible consequences of Oslo did not and will not deter the Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria. In spite of international hostility, we’ve grown threefold since Oslo. Our presence on the strategic mountains that overlook 70 percent of Israel’s population is the best guarantee that Judea and Samaria will not become a launch pad of terror like Gaza. Twenty years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, it is time to admit our failure and move on.
JERUSALEM, THEN AND NOW.
DANIEL SEIDEMANN, Founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem
In 1993, Jerusalem – already a bi-national city – was recovering from the inter-communal skirmishing of the first intifada. The Palestinians were then 28 percent of the population. Since 1993, Jerusalem has grown by more than 42 percent. But while the Jewish sector grew by 25 percent, the size of the Palestinian population has almost doubled. Today Jerusalem is 37 percent Palestinian, a more emphatically bi-national city, and becoming more so.
Since 1993, two new large settlements have been built in East Jerusalem: Ramat Shlomo and Har Homa, today with 37,000 residents. These areas are not fatal to the two-state solution, but they do complicate things. In 1993, plans for E1 and Givat Hamatos – both of which can be fatal to the two-state solution – were but a twinkle in a planner’s eye.
Today they are on the brink of implementation. As never before, the geographical and demographic balkanisation of the city threatens to make any political agreement almost impossible. In 1993, there were about 1,200 Jewish settlers living inside existing Palestinian neighborhoods, in and around Jerusalem’s Old City. Since then, their number has doubled, but the presence of 2,500 ideologically-motivated settlers among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians can hardly be viewed (by the settlers) as an achievement.
Today, extreme settler organisations do have an unprecedented stranglehold on the public domain in one of the most sensitive places on the planet: the “national parks” – the archeological sites, in and around the Old City and its holy sites. Today, Jerusalem is becoming an arena in which a solvable political conflict is morphing into an unsolvable holy war.
In 1993, Jerusalemites were clueless about how to resolve the city’s conflict, but believed peace was possible. Today they know what it will take to reach such an agreement but are sceptical that it will happen in their lifetimes. Since 1993, Jerusalem’s culture, cuisine and bar scene have flourished. At the same time, Jerusalem – East and West – has become a more impoverished, fundamentalist and filthy. Some of its beauty has worn thin, but it remains the world’s most charismatic city. Today, just like 1993, if you don’t love Jerusalem, you won’t like her.
TWO-STATES STILL FEASIBLE ON ALL FOUR KEY ISSUES.
SHAUL ARIELI, former IDF commander in the Gaza Strip.
As head of the interim agreement administration under the Rabin government, Arieli was responsible for the preparation of the official negotiations with the Palestinians. He was also head of the peace administration under Ehud Barak.
Change is the result of spiral progress combining three components: formative and supportive processes, leadership and plans for implementation.
Over a period of 20 years, the Oslo Accords failed to secure a permanent agreement between Israel and the PLO, mainly because of the failure of the leadership on both sides to take the “leap of faith” that is needed in order to implement support processes and execute feasible plans relating to the two-state solution.
The two-state idea, essentially, has two tests: political feasibility and physical feasibility. However, a better way to examine the issue is by reference to the vision of each side and the alternative options. The two-state solution remains feasible in terms of all four key issues, enabling the establishment of two nation states.
1) The settlements only create Jewish dominance in blocks accounting for up to six percent of the West Bank. The remainder of the area is dominated by the Palestinians in all fields – population, roads, agriculture and so forth. In other words, a new border can be drawn on the basis of the 1967 boundaries, with minor land swaps.
2) In Jerusalem it is still possible to separate the Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. In the Holy Basin, a special arrangement is needed that will preserve the religious status quo that has been maintained for centuries.
3) Israel’s security will be assured, among other steps, by ensuring that Palestine is a demilitarised state, together with additional security arrangements.
4) The refugee issue will be solved through the five options outlined by Bill Clinton in December 2000.
The one-state option, on the other hand, does not refer to a binational state that could legally secure the Jewish nation, but rather a single state that will presumably have an Arab majority and character. This option is not feasible, since the Israeli economy cannot absorb a Palestinian economy that is 15 times weaker than itself. The one-state solution does not solve the refugee issue either. The Jews will be unable to prevent Palestinians returning to the one state. This option creates the risk of violent disagreement regarding the nature of the army, and completely ignores the existence of the Gaza Strip with its two million Palestinians – most of whom are refugees. The two-state option is, therefore, the only option that protects the Zionist and Palestinian vision of political independence and a distinct identity. Accordingly, both peoples should support their political leaders to adopt this solution to ensure it becomes feasible as part of current efforts.
PROMPTING FRESH DIALOGUE.
RABBI LAURA JANNER-KLAUSNER Senior Rabbi, Movement for Reform Judaism
I can never quite believe it happened. As part of the Oslo process, the European Union established something called a “People’s Peace” to parallel the political process.
At the time I was working at Melitz, an informal Zionist education organisation, and was asked to lead dialogue between Israeli Jews living within the Green Line and Palestinians in the occupied territories.
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Together with a co-facilitator from Ramallah, we trained Israelis and Palestinians to lead dialogue between peoples in conflict, leading facilitator training sessions in Tel Aviv, Jericho, Bethlehem and Ramallah. I remember taking a bus full of rambunctious Israelis into Ramallah the day after a terrorist attack in Israel. There is nothing quite like that to bring home the corrosive and pervading effects of the conflict.
Equally, there is nothing like negotiating travel permits (with very varying levels of success) for 20 Palestinians to bring home the physical effects of the occupation. And there is nothing like hearing stories of brutality and bravery on both sides to humble you into quiet silence and prayer. Leading these groups was undoubtedly the hardest challenge of my career. It was frightening and took more emotional and professional concentration than anything I did before or since.
I learned that we are the same: terrorised and terrified, brave and resilient, scarred by conflict but stubborn, still open to repair.
I learned the power of possibility of redemption, and to reject the mantra that this war would never end. If every other conflict (including the Hundred Year War) ends, so this one has to. Please God, let it be sooner rather than later.
MEMORIES THAT DEFINE MY RELATIONSHIP WITH ISRAEL.
HANNAH WEISFELD Director, Yachad
I was 12 years old when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat stood on the White House lawn and shook hands. By then the country was already imbued on my consciousness – in 1993 I’d only left the UK twice, and both times had been on family holidays to Israel. And in 1995, just over two years later, I remember exactly what I was doing as the news broke of Rabin’s assassination. Those two memories came to define my teenage relationship with Israel. Only now, with hindsight, it is clear how significant both those moments were. It was only nine months earlier that Israel repealed a law banning talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of which Yasser Arafat was chair.
Now Rabin was not only shaking hands with Arafat, but agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. Who knows whether the Oslo Accords would have succeeded had Rabin not been killed. Some say the Accords were buried with Rabin, but unlike in 1993, Israelis now talk about a two-state solution, and the majority of Israelis (polls suggest around 70 percent) understand this to be the only solution to the conflict. Sadly, the failure of the Accords, together with renewed violence and scepticism, has led many Israelis to think that while this is the only solution, peace will never be reached. Perhaps this is the real legacy of Oslo.
RICHARD FERRER Editor, the Jewish News
There have been so many false starts between Israel and the Palestinians that, today, only the historically naive still believe peace is possible. From the Lausanne Conference in 1949 to the virtual diplomacy spearheaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry, both sides have endured decades of disappointment and deceit.
Of all the false starts Oslo was, perhaps, the most tragic – the Olympics of missed opportunities. The glow of mutual respect kindled at the White House in 1993 was extinguished before it had a chance to ignite. Today, 20 years and 1,600 murdered Israelis later, peace no longer seems an achievable ambition and Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton’s optimism seems inexcusably naïve.
Back then, amid a fanfare of hollow goodwill, they allowed themselves to dream the Palestinian Authority was capable of investing in coexistence. For the first time, two states seemed more than a foolish dream. Today we know the terrible truth. Oslo led only to suicide bombers and the assassination of its Israeli author. It led to terrorists viewing compromise as weakness and an excuse to increase their slaughter.
Two decades after Oslo, hope has been replaced, perhaps irrevocably, by the brutally hard fact that peace and progress are ambitions that have never been fully shared by both sides.