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The Oslo Accords: A thirty-year Israeli perspective

Published in: Politique étrangère, Issue 3 (July 2023), pages 73 - 86


ABSTRACT

The Oslo agreements signed in 1993 raised high hopes for peace in the Middle East. But appraising the state of affairs, thirty years on, the picture is bleak. The refusal to make particular compromises, the persistence of terrorism, and the continuation of settlement have plunged the process into a deadlock. Supporters of the annexation of the West Bank have been part of the Israeli government since the end of 2022, while the Palestinian Authority is sclerotic. In this highly uncertain situation, there seems to be no resolution in sight.

The Oslo Accords signed in September 1993 on the White House lawn in Washington were the single most ambitious and significant attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the drama and excitement of the original breakthrough were followed by a protracted, arduous and controversial course of events. [1]

Predicated on the assumption that the conflict was not ripe for resolution, the Oslo Accords were conceived and constructed as an interim agreement for five years, at the end of which a permanent status negotiation was to be launched. The five-year interim period was seen as a transitional period that would help the parties shift from decades of hostility, active conflict and mutual demonization to making the mutual concessions that would make a final status agreement feasible. At the core of the accord was mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO, the establishment of a Palestinian autonomous authority in Gaza and (initially) a small part of the West Bank, and the recognition of Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s leader, as chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Arafat would move from Tunis to Gaza with his troops and security apparatus. As part of the agreement, the PLO committed not to engage in terrorism and to prevent anti-Israeli terrorist activity from territories under its control. The initial accords were supplemented in 1994 by implementation agreements and, in September 1995, by Oslo II, which expanded the PA’s control over a larger part of the West Bank (in fact most of its urban area).

The signing of the Oslo Accords was a major event on the global and regional stages. It generated both great enthusiasm and strong opposition and criticism. The international community led by the US rallied to support what came to be known as the Oslo Process by mobilizing financial support for the PA and by training its security forces. In parts of the Arab world, the recognition of Israel by the PLO paved the way for normalization of relations with the Jewish state.

Among the Palestinians and in part of the Arab world and in Iran, the agreement was criticized as an act of surrender and as a bad bargain. There was some opposition to Arafat within the PLO but the bulk of Palestinian opposition came from two Islamist movements: Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In Israel, there was fierce opposition from the settler movement and the right-wing opposition. The opposition focused on criticism of several aspects of the agreement but, more importantly, on the division of the land of Israel west of the Jordan between a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab one. For the settler movement and its orthodox and secular supporters, the attachment to the land was a supreme value and a religious edict. The partnership between the settlers and the Likud Party created a powerful opposition to a government relying on a small, fragile parliamentary majority.


From Madrid to Oslo

The Oslo Accords were the first (indirect) product of the Madrid Process launched by the Bush administration in 1991, seeking to take advantage of Washington’s position in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the first Gulf War in order to resolve the Arab Israeli conflict. Three tracks of bilateral negotiations were formed between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The Palestinians were denied separate representation due to Arafat’s support of Saddam Hussein and in order to mollify Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who refused to negotiate with the PLO. The members of the Palestinian delegation were nominally independent notables from the West Bank and Gaza, who in practice took their orders from the PLO.

The early rounds of bilateral negotiations in late 1991 and early 1992 showed little progress. The change occurred in the spring of 1992 when the Labor Party under Yitzhak Rabin won the parliamentary elections. Unlike Shamir, Rabin was determined to take advantage of the Madrid Framework in order to transform Israel’s relations with its immediate neighbors. Rabin was critical of the settler movement and of the massive investment by the Likud governments in the settlement project. The Palestinian Intifada that broke out in December 1987 persuaded him that the twenty years of “painless occupation” were over. Israel’s resources should be invested in preparing the country for the realities of a new century. The real threats to Israel came from the two powerful enemies in the East: Iran and Iraq. In order to confront them Israel had to settle its relations with its immediate neighbors. Rabin did not believe in negotiating with an Arab coalition and preferred bilateral negotiations. A breakthrough could happen with either Syria or the Palestinians. Rabin promised during the election campaign to sign an autonomy agreement with the Palestinians but he also explored the prospect of a peace deal with Syria modeled after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt (full withdrawal from the Golan in return for full peace and a satisfactory security regime).

In Rabin’s view, he had to begin the implementation of the peace process by signing an agreement with a single Arab partner; his government could not sustain more than one agreement involving massive concessions, and he had to choose between confronting the West Bank lobby and the Golan one. Despite his promise of an autonomy deal within nine months, Rabin preferred a first deal with Syria. The Israeli-Syrian conflict was simpler than the national conflict with the Palestinians.

Syria was (ironic as it sounds now) a stable state run by a powerful leader. Hafez al-Asad was difficult to negotiate with, but, in Israel’s experience, kept the agreements he had signed. Arafat was a leader not of a state but of a movement, and, in Rabin’s view, unpredictable and unreliable. Rabin was told by US Secretary of State James Baker that Asad was willing to make a peace deal similar to that made by Sadat in the late 1970s; his instructions to his negotiator were to find out whether this was indeed the case. Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians were carried out with a delegation of notables from the West Bank and Gaza, assumed to be independent but who in fact received their instructions from Tunis by fax and telephone. During the first year of negotiations, a breakthrough was not achieved on either track. Negotiations with the Palestinian delegation in Washington produced no progress, and the negotiation with Syria was hindered by Asad’s insistence that Israel commit to full withdrawal from the Golan before he would explain what he meant by “peace”.

At the same time, a secret channel of negotiations with the PLO was opened in Oslo by two assistants of Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, who eventually updated Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Peres in turn updated Rabin. Rabin and Peres were political rivals; Rabin assigned Peres to the Foreign Ministry, keeping him away from the bilateral negotiations of the Madrid Process, and from the Israeli-American relationship. But Rabin was a pragmatic leader, and, when he realized that there was potential in the Oslo track, he authorized and monitored it. In March 1993, Rabin turned the informal Oslo track into a formal one by authorizing the Director General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, to join the negotiations. Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer practicing in Washington and a veteran of the IDF’s legal service, was added to the Israeli team. Rabin knew very well that he was in fact negotiating with the PLO, but, since the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks had been in fact reporting to the PLO, he was willing to make the qualitative leap from an indirect to a direct negotiation with the PLO. By August 1993, the Oslo accord was ready for signing, with Shimon Peres and Abu Alaa representing the two sides for the final meeting.

It is not well-known, but in August 1993 Rabin, who had his doubts about the Oslo accords, made a final attempt to achieve a breakthrough with Syria. He deposited with US Secretary of State Warren Christopher a hypothetical conditional willingness to withdraw fully from the Golan over five years in return for full peace, normalization and a satisfactory security regime. The “deposit” was mishandled by the secretary of state, who brought back a disappointing response from Asad. Rabin realized that he had no choice but to proceed with the Oslo Accords and predicate the whole Arab-Israeli peace process on a Palestinian leg. During August, the draft agreement was presented to the Clinton administration. It was endorsed by the administration and the president decided to magnify the event by having it signed on the White House lawn with himself, Rabin and Arafat on the podium.

During the next few months negotiations were held on the implementation. An implementation agreement was signed in May 1994 in Cairo that stipulated, among other things, that final status negotiations would begin five years later. Arafat, his aides, semi-military forces and security establishment arrived from Tunis and the Palestinian Authority began to function in Gaza and in a small area around the West Bank city of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. In short order, negotiations began on the next agreement that came to be known as Oslo II. It was signed in September 1995 and envisaged the division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C. Area A included most of the urban Palestinian areas and was put under Palestinian administrative and security control. In Area B security control was to be under Israeli authority, while Area C – nearly 70 percent of the West Bank – was under Israeli administrative and security control.

During this period, Israel began to see the benefits of the Oslo Accords. To begin with, Jordan could now afford to sign its own peace treaty with Israel. This was implemented in October 1994, and Jordan became the second Arab state to sign a full peace agreement with Israel. Furthermore, Israel’s acceptance by the Palestinian national movement served to legitimize Israel in the eyes of other Arab governments. Diplomatic and semi-diplomatic relations were established with several Arab states, and a Middle Eastern Economic Conference – the first of three – with Israeli and Arab participation was held in Casablanca, Morocco in 1994. A similar dramatic improvement in Israel’s diplomatic international standing happened as well.

There was, however, a darker side to the Oslo Accord. The most significant challenge was terrorism. There was one instance of Israeli terrorism against Palestinians, when an Israeli settler in Hebron, Baruch Goldstein, perpetrated a massacre in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in February 1994. But more importantly, a massive wave of terrorism and suicide bombings was launched by Palestinian opponents of the Oslo process, which turned a large part of the Israeli public against the agreement. Politically, the opposition to the agreement and to the very idea of a formal partition of the land of Israel west of the Jordan was building up.

14Rabin had a hard time getting the Oslo II Agreement through the Israeli parliament, and massive demonstrations and disruptions took place in the country, particularly during the month leading to the signing of Oslo II. The opposition led by a partnership between the Likud party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the settlers and their rabbis focused their denunciation of the Oslo Accords on Yitzhak Rabin personally. They understood that he was the only leader who had the will and the authority to continue this process. The incitement against Rabin culminated in his assassination on November 4, 1995.

Two important obstacles to successful implementation of the Oslo Accords were Yasser Arafat’s refusal to effectively fight Palestinian terrorism and the continuation of Israel’s settlement policy. Arafat and his security apparatus were familiar with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two Islamist organizations which, with Iranian and to some extent Syrian support, sought to undermine the Oslo process by staging suicide bombing attacks inside Israel. As Islamist organizations, they rejected the very notion of peace with Israel predicated on Jewish sovereignty over lands that used to be under Muslim rule. Arafat declined to root out these organizations, probably because he wanted to preserve them for a potential collision with Israel at a future point. The Israeli government, in turn, continued to allow settlement expansion as if the prospect of a real separation of the two peoples was not an important part of its agenda. What both sides failed to comprehend and act on was the notion that peace-making had to be followed by peace-building.

The period between November 1995 and May 1996 created new challenges for the Oslo process. Rabin’s assassination removed from the scene the leader who could manage the process and potentially conduct final status negotiations with Arafat. His successor, Shimon Peres, chose to continue the peace process not by seeking a final status agreement but by seeking a deal with Syria. The failure of his policy, his entanglement in Lebanon through Operation Grapes of Wrath, and yet another wave of Palestinian terrorism played into the hand of his opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, who won the elections of May 1996. Netanyahu committed to respect the Oslo Accords but he was in fact opposed to the process and to the prospect of Palestinian statehood as its final phase. Netanyahu did implement Israel’s commitment in Oslo II to withdraw from parts of the city of Hebron and agreed at the Wye Plantation Conference to withdraw from another 13 percent of the West Bank, but that agreement was not implemented by the time he was replaced by Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999.

It is a moot question whether Rabin would have been re-elected in the elections planned for November 1996 and whether in that case he and Arafat would have completed a final status agreement. Rabin himself, in his last speech in the Israeli parliament in October 1995, stated that he supported the idea of a Palestinian entity – less than a state – but it may well have been a bargaining position. In any event it was Ehud Barak with whom Yasser Arafat was destined to try to negotiate a final status agreement.


The post-Oslo course of events

The state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the efforts to resolve it, and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were shaped during the past two decades by several trends and developments. With the convening of the Israeli-Palestinian summit in September 2000, the first phase of the Oslo Process came to an end. The new post-Oslo phase was inaugurated by a series of developments between September 2000 and January 2001: the Camp David summit, the publication of the Clinton Parameters, and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in Taba.

The agenda at Camp David was the signing of a final status agreement. The final status issues – statehood, territory and boundaries, security, Jerusalem, refugees (Palestinian claim of return) – were the very issues that had been avoided in Oslo. They were negotiated first at Camp David and in a series of other efforts to achieve a final status agreement. Barak began his tenure by seeking an agreement with Syria but then shifted to negotiations with the Palestinians, convened by President Clinton at Barak’s request, which culminated at the Camp David conference. Arafat was not interested in holding the final status negotiations, went to Camp David reluctantly, and was in fact looking for a way out. The proceedings of the Camp David summit are controversial, but the fact is that, in the course of the summit, Barak made a series of concessions that amounted to a willingness to withdraw from 91 percent of the West Bank as the basis for a final status agreement.

Following Arafat’s departure and a series of recriminations, President Clinton published his parameters, which have since been the most important basis for a potential Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement: A Palestinian state would be established on 96 percent of the West Bank and the whole Gaza Strip with a corridor linking its two parts; Israel would annex settlement blocks and in return would cede to the Palestinians a territory in the south in order to expand the Gaza Strip by a ratio of 1 to 3; the Palestinian state would in fact be demilitarized. Israel would give up its sovereignty in the Jordan Valley but be able to maintain military forces for three years, as well as monitoring stations. Jerusalem would be divided on an ethnic basis, with the Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty and Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty. There would be Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount and Israeli sovereignty over the Wailing Wall. There would not be a Palestinian return into Israel, and Palestinian “right of return” would be implemented in the Palestinian state and through reconstruction and resettlement. There would be a statement of end of conflict and end of mutual claims. Israel accepted the parameters with reservations, while Arafat responded by expressing reservations with regard to most of the components and thereby, in fact, rejecting it.

The presentation of the Clinton Parameters was followed by yet another Israeli-Palestinian negotiation held in Taba, Egypt, and more importantly, by the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Unlike the original Intifada of 1987, the Second Intifada was in fact a war of attrition conducted by the Palestinian Authority against Israel. It was one of the most difficult periods in Israel’s history, and it played a major role in setting Israeli public opinion against the notion of a two-state solution.

It was Ariel Sharon, Barak’s successor as prime minister in early 2001, who defeated the Second Intifada and navigated Israel out of a grave crisis. His success gave him an unusual standing in Israel public and enabled him to go through a surprising change in his own outlook. Sharon had for years been a major architect of the settlement project in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but he decided that it was time to end or at least limit the occupation, and began his new policy by withdrawing the IDF from Gaza, destroying Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, and evacuating the settlers into Israel proper. Sharon did not plan to do the same in the West Bank, but he wanted to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, and in fact dismantled four settlements in the northern West Bank as an indication of his intentions.

He did not believe in negotiating a final status agreement with the Palestinians but believed rather in unilateral Israeli actions. His plan was to withdraw to a line in the West Bank, thereby ending Israeli control over most of its population, and wait for a final status agreement when that became feasible. But Sharon was defeated by his own body, being paralyzed by a brain hemorrhage. He was replaced by his deputy, Ehud Olmert, who eventually ran for office on a platform of a “convergence plan” in the West Bank, and was elected prime minister in his own right.

At the same time, Olmert started a final status negotiation with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat’s successor. The negotiation was fitted into what came to be known as the Annapolis Process, initiated by the George W. Bush administration. In June 2002, before his invasion of Iraq, Bush delivered a speech in which he outlined the principles of US policy toward the notion of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Once the Palestinians had replaced their leadership, namely Arafat, established proper institutions and ceased to engage in terror, the US would support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Subsequently, the Bush administration convened a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, thus launching the Annapolis process as yet another effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Olmert’s negotiations with Abu Mazen actually began before the Annapolis conference and continued in its aftermath. They culminated in 2008, when Olmert presented Abu Mazen with a full-fledged peace plan, calling for a two-state solution, Israeli withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank, territorial swaps, and a corridor connecting the West Bank with the Gaza Strip. To his surprise, and to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s amazement, Abu Mazen did not respond to the offer. When Olmert made his offer he was in fact at the last phase of his tenure. He was forced to resign because of criminal charges he faced in an Israeli court. His resignation was followed by an election campaign. His successor in the party, Tzippi Livni, won the most seats but was unable to form a coalition, and the next government was formed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s return to power coincided with the formation of the Obama administration. Obama, together with his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pressed hard for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution. Under his pressure, Netanyahu delivered “the Bar-Ilan speech” in which he accepted the notion of a two-state solution, but, despite persistent US pressure, negotiations failed.

Yet another effort was launched by Secretary of State John Kerry during Obama’s second term. Obama himself declined to take part in this second effort, and left the stage to his secretary of state. In parallel to the formal negotiations, a secret channel was established through which Netanyahu’s representatives and Abui Mazen’s representative (the Lebanese intellectual, Hussein Agha) pursued a negotiation. Both channels failed.

The last effort to negotiate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made by the Trump administration. The president appointed a three-person team composed of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and two of his lawyers, his ambassador in Israel David Friedman, and Jason Greenblatt. The three took time working with Israel and Arab states in the region, but not with the Palestinian Authority. A series of pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian measures taken by Trump, such as the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the closure of the Palestinian mission in Washington, led Abu Mazen and his people to view Trump as hostile to the Palestinian cause.

Trump’s team came up with a plan that had a strong pro-Israeli slant. The plan was rejected by the Palestinians, and accepted with reservations by the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu and his more radical right-wing supporters opposed the notion of Palestinian statehood, and a swap that was part of the Trump plan. The plan itself remained on the shelf but it served in practice as a catalyst for the signing of the Abraham Accords, normalizing Israel’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and eventually also with Morocco and Sudan. [2]

This course of events reflected two important developments. One was clear fatigue in the Arab world with the Palestinian issue, at least among the political elites if not in popular opinion. The same fatigue was also felt among Israel’s Arab minority; for the first time, an Arab Islamists party joined the government coalition, arguing that it was time to look after the community’s interests. The second development was a strong drift to the right in the Israeli political system, manifested by the expansion of annexationist political parties and the failure of the Israeli center/left to openly advocate for a two-state solution. The leaders of the Israeli centrist parties, while personally supporting the idea of a two-state solution, have refrained from including it in their election platform, assuming that it is not popular among the Israeli public and hoping to attract “soft” right-wing voters disenchanted with Netanyahu.

These developments were brought to a head in November 2022 when the right-wing block, led by Netanyahu and his Likud party, won the parliamentary elections by a small margin (64 out of 120 members in parliament). The November 2022 elections were the fifth election since 2019, reflecting a deep crisis in the Israeli political system. At the core of the crisis was Netanyahu’s position: He has been indicted on four criminal counts and he is in the midst of a trial, and yet he remains prime minister. During four election campaigns it was impossible to reach a decision. For a year and a half, a centrist government ruled, and two centrist leaders, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, tried to steer the country in a different direction, but their fragile coalition was finally toppled by Netanyahu who managed to converge all right-wing parties and factions, including two controversial ones, in an effective camp. The net result of these elections was the formation of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu’s own Likud is now dominated by right-wing nationalists who oppose the idea of the two-state solution, and two of his coalition partners and cabinet ministers, Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, are open and active supporters of the idea of annexing the West Bank to Israel. The most explicit statement of this position was an essay published by Smotrich in 2017 under the title “Time to decide”.

These developments in Israel are matched by a series of negative developments on the Palestinian side. Since 2007, Hamas has taken over the Gaza Strip, is the de-facto sovereign power in that part of Palestine, and, from Gaza and other locations (Turkey, Syria) and with Iranian help, has been trying to topple the Palestinian Authority and take over the West Bank. Abu Mazen himself is well into his eighties, his power and legitimacy in evident decline. The Palestinian Authority is viewed by the majority of the West Bank population, the young generation in particular, as corrupt, inefficient, and too submissive to Israel. The mood in the West Bank, particularly among the younger generation, is somber. Support for the two-state solution has faded and the expectation is that, if the status quo continues, a one-state reality will be established west of the Jordan River. Thus, ironically, the extreme right-wing in Israel and the majority of Palestinian opinion shares a similar view.


***


Seen from this perspective, the Oslo initiative failed. It failed to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the failure is not complete. There is a Palestinian Authority and there is a self-governing entity in the Gaza Strip. Most Palestinians are administered, if not ruled, by their own institutions. Few Israelis would like to return to Nablus and Ramallah in the West Bank or to Gaza, even if they are critical of the Oslo Accord and of the idea of a two-state solution. The individuals and parties in Israel who advocate annexation of the West Bank are a small minority, even if at present they include government ministers. The Israeli public is not focused on the Palestinian issue but rather on the threat to democracy in Israel proper presented by the radical elements in the current government. The future of this government and of Israeli politics in general is uncertain. So is the future of Palestinian politics, when the time to choose a successor to Abu Mazen comes. Real support from the international community can hardly be expected at this time. Leaders like President Biden and others are preoccupied with other issues, and see little prospect of success in yet another effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From a thirty-year perspective, it is clear that, among the numerous difficulties and challenges that have denied the Oslo Accords success, the most prominent difficulty is the discrepancy between an Israeli desire to achieve finality and end of conflict, and the Palestinian refusal to grant it, assuming that ultimately time will be on their side. Once an Israeli government is elected that will seek a return to the quest for a settlement with the Palestinians, it would be wiser not to seek a formal final status agreement but to begin with unilateral action that will change the position on the ground and Israeli control over the bulk of the West Bank population, to lay the foundation for a future bilateral agreement.


Notes

  1. For comprehensive accounts of the Oslo Accord and process, see: I. Rabinovich, Middle Eastern Maze: Israel, the Arabs, and the Region, 1948-2022, Washigton: Brookings Institution Press, 2023; D. Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005; M. Indyk, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2009; A. David Miller, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, New York, Bantam Books, 2008; D. Kurtzer and S. Lasensky, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, Washington, United States Institute of Peace Press, 2008.

  2. For Trump’s policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see: P. Baker and S. Glasser, The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, New York, Doubleday, 2022; M. Haberman, Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, New York, Penguin Press, 2022.

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