Twenty Years After Oslo, Trying It Again

09/14/2013 10:32 am ET | Updated Nov 14, 2013

Twenty years have passed since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in Washington, DC on September 13, 1993.

On the White House lawn, where the signing took place, there was a sense of euphoria. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands, Arab Americans and American Jews, who had long been combatants in the public sphere, turned to each other to embrace and celebrate the moment. Two days later, in an effort to build on this positive sentiment, President Bill Clinton invited 150 leaders of both communities to the White House urging them to work together as a "constituency for peace."

In Israel and the Occupied Territories there were also celebrations with leaders on both sides expressing optimism about the way forward. Appearing on my live call-in TV show just days after the signing, Nabil Sha'ath the chief Palestinian negotiator was questioned about whether the fledgling Palestinian government would be able to restrain perpetrators of acts of violence against Israelis. He responded:

If the agreement works, and I believe that it will, two years from now our farmers will be cultivating the land that has been liberated, our young men will be working at jobs that have been created, and we will be building the infrastructure of our new state. If, in the midst of all of this, someone were to commit an act of violence, the people would turn to us and say, 'stop them, because they are threatening everything we've won.

There were also Israelis who looked confidently to the future. Israel's deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said, "Israel is another Israel, we are ready to change many of our ideas from the past to adapt ourselves to a new reality. The PLO is no longer the same PLO. Things can be done in the Middle East."

But not everyone was pleased. Israeli critics accused Rabin of surrendering to and giving legitimacy to Palestinian terrorists, while Palestinian critics charged that the Oslo documents had too many loopholes and would only prolong the Israeli occupation.

By any measure, the Accords were incomplete. They were full of ambiguities, areas where the parties fudged over differences because they could not find agreement. And resolution of the most critical issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees and security arrangements were put off until after a five-year transitional period. One observer, at the time, described the Accords, more like "a cry for help" than a peace agreement. It was as if Israelis and Palestinians were saying "this is a start -- as far as we can go. We need help to get to the finish line."

But even with the flaws and the ambiguities, what was undeniable was that Israel and the PLO had taken unprecedented steps, breaking taboos and shattering myths.

In the first place, Israelis and Palestinians formally recognized each other as national communities. While Palestinians had committed themselves to a two-state solution in 1988, signing an agreement with the Israelis that recognized the legitimacy of an independent Israeli state represented a dramatic breakthrough. Israel also had an issue with recognition. Until Oslo they had refused to acknowledge the existence of a Palestinian people. And they refused not only to talk to the PLO but had insisted that others shun the group, as well. In 1985, speaking at a Washington event, Rabin was quoted as saying "whoever agrees to talk to the PLO means he accepts in principle the creation of an independent Palestinian state" and this he said, was "unacceptable." In acknowledging the PLO, Israel not only opened the door to the inevitability of a Palestinian state, it also shattered the anti-PLO taboo (that it had established). For years, the heavy-handed political clout of American supporters of Israel had tormented Arab Americans and others, punishing them for "contact" with the "forbidden" group.

The Oslo Accords also shattered the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was insoluble, the result of an "age-old" conflict that was "in the genes" of both communities. Oslo did not provide a solution, but it demonstrated a willingness of both sides to finding one.

There were other breakthroughs resulting from Oslo. While no Palestinian state came into being, the locus of Palestinian authority and decision-making would move for the first time to the Palestinian territories. And while the occupation remained an oppressive fact of life for most Palestinians, even the limited pullback of Israeli forces from most West Bank cities and towns, gave Palestinians welcome respite.

The Oslo Accords provided for an initial Israeli limited deployment that would lead to a five-year transitional phase, during which negotiations would continue. It was at the end of this five year period that the parties would begin work in earnest to resolve the so-called "final status" issues. The operative assumption behind this approach was that with five years of peaceful relations sufficient trust would have developed giving the negotiators the space to tackle the thorniest issues.

For the process to play out, as it was envisioned, several things had to occur:

  • The role of the US had to shift from being an observer, with an inclination to support one side, to a fully engaged balanced participant. As the Accord made clear, Israelis and Palestinians could go no further on their own. They needed someone to heed their cry for help and shepherd them through to the end;
  • The parties had to move quickly. In drawing up their timetables, the architects of Oslo did not factor in the ability of a suicide bomber, settlers on a rampage or excessive force by Israeli occupation forces to unravel the process. Violence from Palestinians and Israeli settlers who opposed Oslo eroded public confidence in the peace process, making it politically difficult for the negotiators to complete their work; and
  • Provisions had to be made to bring the benefits of peace to both sides in order to sustain their confidence in a five year process. The problem was that while Israel's economy grew quite quickly after Oslo, the Palestinian economy contracted. Because of unrestrained Israeli behaviors, in the first two years after Oslo: settlements grew at an unprecedented rate; and because of restrictive Israeli policies, Palestinian unemployment doubled, income fell, and businesses closed because they could not freely import or export.

In the end, the flaws of Oslo proved fatal. Today, the number of Israeli settlers has tripled; the Palestinian economy remains dependent on Israeli good-will and international largess; and thousands have died, victims of acts of terror, disproportionate military assaults and settler violence. As a result, confidence and trust is at a low point.

After a long hiatus, the parties have once again reopened negotiations. One can only hope they have learned lessons from the Oslo experience:

  • An interim, phased approach won't work. The opponents of peace will take advantage of an interim period to attempt to sabotage any agreement;
  • The US can't be an observer. The Palestinians are too weak and have no leverage. Pressure must be applied on the Israelis to help level the playing field; and
  • There must be immediate signs of improvement in the daily life of both peoples. Israelis must feel more secure, and Palestinians must feel more free and they must see clear signs that their future will be prosperous and just.