Today marks the 20-year anniversary of the Oslo Accords, the 1993 attempt to set up a framework that would end the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was the first time that a face-to-face agreement had been reached between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). The hesitant handshake between Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, caught on camera, became an iconic image of hope for resolution.
As with anything, the agreement had its positives and negatives. But for all the omissions and drawbacks of the deal, the fact that the parties made an agreement at all was a significant breakthrough. In order for this agreement to be reached, the Israeli government recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and the PLO recognised the state of Israel – for the first time. Both sides agreed to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Taken together, these two developments had the potential to usher in a new phase of co-operation, as opposed to the mutual rejection of the preceding era. Two sides that do not recognise the existence of the other are hardly likely to resolve their differences; supporters of this agreement hoped that this basic recognition would set the stage for a gradual move towards peace.
More specifically, the accords called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and affirmed the Palestinian right to self-government within those areas, through the creation of an interim authority. The interim period was to last five years, and the document essentially delayed all consideration of the major issues underpinning the conflict until this phase was over. Therefore, the document does not mention the right of return of Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948, the ownership of Jerusalem, the status of Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land, or the proposed borders of a sovereign Palestinian state. Indeed, the accord did not even promise an independent state at the end of the five-year period.
Even at the time, there was a mixed response to the accords, both in Palestine and Israel. As a major player in the PLO, Fatah supported the agreement, while Hamas and associated groups, which refused to recognise Israel and were not represented by the PLO, did not. Israeli left-wingers supported it, while right-wingers believed it was a tactical peace agreement that was not sincere. Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, with the settler population growing by around 10,000 per year. Meanwhile, attacks against Israel’s occupation continued.
So despite the initial promise of the historic agreement, the years since 1993 have continued to be coloured by bad faith. The Camp David summit in 2000, which aimed to establish full Palestinian sovereignty while possibly retaining some Israeli settlement blocs, ended in failure. An attempt in 2003 to set out a road map for peace also ended at an early phase, as Israeli prime minster Ariel Sharon would not accept a settlement freeze. In the latest round of talks, which commenced last month after a three year hiatus, the same issues are on the table that the Oslo Accords skirted around 20 years ago: Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
It is depressing, for any observer, that in two decades so little progress has been made on these major issues. The Israeli academic Avi Shlaim, who supported the Oslo Accords at the time, has written an article for the Guardian today explaining why he now believes he was wrong to do so. “The Oslo accords had many faults, chief of which was the failure to proscribe settlement expansion while peace talks were in progress,” he writes. “But the agreement was not doomed to failure from the start, as its critics allege. Oslo faltered and eventually broke down because Likud-led governments negotiated in bad faith. This turned the much-vaunted peace process into a charade. In fact, it was worse than a charade: it provided Israel with just the cover it was looking for to continue to pursue with impunity its illegal and aggressive colonial project on the West Bank.”
While that project continues, it is difficult to see the latest round of talks concluding any more successfully than Oslo or the subsequent attempts.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.