MEMO Conference: the illusive peace the legacy of Oslo 20 years on
The Oslo Accords, now 20 years old, have been a "complete disaster" for the people of Palestine. That was the near-unanimous verdict of the speakers at the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) conference in London on Thursday. "The illusive peace: the legacy of Oslo 20 years on" brought together a wealth of knowledge and experience on the subject, with experts and activists alike on the platform and in the invited audience.
Opening the programme, MEMO's Director, Dr Daud Abdullah pointed out that no public debate or discussion had taken place before Oslo. The conference would be considered a success, he added, if MEMO can stimulate discussion on this important topic.
The keynote speaker for the day was Dr Bichara Khader, who spoke on "Towards a greater political role for the EU in the search for Middle East peace". The Director of the Arab Study & Research Centre at Louvain University in Belgium noted that Europe has been "part and parcel" of the Palestinian question since its beginning. "The EU's forerunner, the European Economic Community," he said, "regarded the Palestinian issue with 'total neglect' in the late fifties; today, however, the EU acknowledges the right of the Palestinians to a state with East Jerusalem as its capital." Sadly, the 1948 Palestinian Nakba [Catastrophe] is regarded as 'collateral damage' of the creation of the State of Israel and so the issue has become one focused on refugees and is treated as a humanitarian crisis, said Dr Khader.
In order to achieve the political goals of the Palestinians, he suggested, the EU must reach out to all sectors of Palestinian society. "It has to reach out and engage with Hamas, for example, as it is a legitimate player on the political scene."
Professor Manuel Hassassian is the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom but was present in a personal capacity as an academic and political scientist. He predicted 20 years ago that the only thing Oslo would do is "legitimise" the occupation of the Palestinian territories: "I was right." The peace process, he said, was set up not to solve the conflict but to solve Israel's acceptance problem in the Middle East. Who is to blame for Oslo's "failure"? He is under no illusions: "Oslo has failed due to Israel's disregard for international law and continued settlement," he insisted, "which has expanded the occupation." Israel's "procrastination" has prolonged the occupation, giving time for ever more "cancerous" settlements to be built. "Oslo was never an agreement between equals in any case; the Palestinians were rushed into creating something in secrecy which only liberated Israel from the responsibility of looking after the people living under its occupation."
The Palestine Liberation Organisation's recognition of Israel turned occupied land into "disputed territory", he added while claiming that "the idea of a two-state solution is dead; it's a fantasy." With supposedly "honest broker" America always on the side of the top dog, Israel, the negotiations "will be futile".
The absence of international law from the Oslo Accords was highlighted by John Dugard. Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, said the South African law professor an acknowledged expert on apartheid, has a clear prohibition on any agreement which prejudices the rights of people; Oslo's Declaration of Principles, he reminded the audience, makes no mention of the Palestinians' right to self-determination or the refugees' right of return. "As such," said Prof. Dugard, "international law is definitely on the side of the Palestinians."
Red lines are in vogue at the moment, he added, but the red lines for the Palestinians are actually international laws and conventions. "We need ways to enforce the law, especially in dealing with the two main violators of international law, the United States and Israel." In his learned opinion, Prof. Dugard said, the situation in the occupied territories meets the criteria for the legal definition of apartheid and should be dealt with as such: apartheid is, of course, a crime against humanity. Israel's "colonialism" and "apartheid" is no more acceptable in the 21st century than it was in the late 20th.
Historian Avi Shlaim, from Oxford University, recalled articles that he and the late Edward Said had written in 1993 for and against Oslo. Said believed that the accord "set aside international legality and compromised the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people". The US-based Palestinian academic called the agreement "an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles."
Shlaim, on the other hand, was optimistic: "I believed that it would set in motion a gradual but irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and that it would pave the way to Palestinian statehood." Twenty years later, he told the conference, "It is clear that Edward Said was right in his analysis and I was wrong." He shared the belief that "Israel is largely responsible for the failure of Oslo". The accord, he noted, did not set out "an ending".
The Director of International Relations for Fatah, Dr Husam Zomlot, picked up on this point. "The peace process is designed to prevent an outcome," he said from his office in Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority, he claimed, provides "comfort" for the Israelis and their occupation.
Speakers and participants alike expressed their dismay that the EU and other donor agencies basically subsidise Israel's "brutal" occupation by relieving the Zionist state of its duty to provide education and health care for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Other speakers, including Daniel Levy and Dr Azzam Tamimi, also pointed fingers of blame at the Palestinian political leadership, whose "paralysis" has "fed and fuelled Israeli impunity" over the years. According to Palestinian exile Tamimi, this highlights the need to reform the PLO "or replace it with another, more representative" organisation.
The other speakers were Dr Salman Abu Sitta, Robert Blecher and Alastair Crooke. The sessions were chaired by Oliver McTernan, John McHugo, Peter Oborne and Clare Short.