Marking the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, I decided to re-publish what I had written in March 1998, four and a half years after the signing of the Oslo Accords as a preface to a booklet published 20 years ago titled Post-Oslo.
How I wish the article’s predictions and expectations were not accurate, but unfortunately, twenty years later, they have become an absolute reality.
Negotiations content four years after Oslo
The first question that arises here is: Was there really a peace process and peace negotiations, in the true sense of negotiations, between the Israeli and the Palestinian sides?
Let us go back a bit to look at the beginnings from which this process was launched. On the Arab and Palestinian side, the climate for negotiations and compromises began to form after the June war, as the occupation pushed the Arab countries towards thinking realistically about resolving the problem. The Palestinian side also began forming a willingness to accept a solution based on the establishment of two states for two peoples. On the other hand, the war and the accumulation of military and economic strength by Israel formed the beginning for the establishment of the “superiority complex” within Israel and beginning a process that would later lead to the successive Israeli governments falling into what we can call “narrow strategic horizon”. This sometimes reached the point of the inability to realise limits and the extent for the use of military force, which happened several times in Lebanon.
If the Camp David Accords, then the Gulf War and the collapse of the United Arab camp, contributed to the preparation of the Arab theatre for what happened later, the popular uprising that broke out in 1987 in Palestine was the main factor that forced Israel to reconsider its policy. This is because the intifada embodied four outcomes that cannot be forgotten:
- The main achievement of the Palestinian people in the face of the defeat of June, and contrary to what happened in 1948, was its success in staying on its land, and by doing so it broke the backbone of the traditional Zionist plan of gradually Judaising Palestine and forcing its inhabitants to leave.
- Years of occupation have taught the Palestinian people a lot and systematically produced two parallel processes: self-reliance and self-organisation through thousands of political and popular initiatives and organisational structures.
Thus, the presence on the ground shifted from being mere human presence to a vital resisting presence of a fighting nation that, day after day, established understanding and solidarity given its fight for the values of liberation and dignity; values that we can no longer turn our back on. For the first time ever, Israel appeared to the world as a tyrannical force oppressing another nation, contrary to the image of a modern democratic state and the victim surrounded by a sea of Arab backwardness and terrorism that it presented to the world before and after 1967.
- The intifada revealed the impossibility of continuing the military government that was established since 1967 under various pretexts, such as controlling the Palestinians, and there became an urgent need for a new framework for domination or for a solution that addresses the core of the problem. In other words, by means of its facts on the ground, the Intifada has destroyed the current status quo and the Israeli military agency became pressed by the need for a new solution for the escalating situation. This is perhaps the main explanation for the shift that took place in the positions of Yitzhak Rabin during that period.
- The fourth result of the intifada is that the Palestinian people managed, by means of its uprising, to save the PLO from a fate of isolation and exile, which was being planned for it since it left Beirut in 1982. On top of this, it also systematically thwarted attempts to create an alternative PLO leadership, especially during the Madrid peace negotiations, contrary to the illusions Israel tried to promote.
Perhaps what Mamdouh Nofal wrote in his book The Story of the Oslo Agreement best describes the psychological atmosphere that Israel and the United States tried to create during the negotiation process. They tried to use this as a major factor to pressure the Oslo negotiator to force concessions that could not have been made in Washington.
Without going into the details of the Oslo Accords, which will have decided whether or not the opportunity for peace was created or killed, it is important to note that signing the agreement and implementing it had many results, some of these results, regardless of the intentions, were part of the price paid by the Palestinian side in exchange for the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho, and then in other areas.
Perhaps the first of these results is the loss of the common denominator on which the strong unity of the Palestinian people was based, which was not even disturbed by the activity of Hamas operating outside the framework of the PLO during that period. This common denominator was based on the common national goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state, embodied through the PLO as the legitimate representative of its people. Perhaps the greatest mistake in this area was combining the PLO and the budding Palestinian Authority, which is completely governed by the Oslo Accords.
From this perspective, Israel achieved an important goal by weakening the framework of the Palestinian national movement and causing strategic weakness, the results of which will appear late in the ability of the Palestinian side to negotiate from a position of strength.
Second, the emergence of a separation for the first time on the ground between the two main components of the national movement: the PLO leadership, which has become the PA and the people who represent the public with all its social and popular organisations. This division, which seems natural in any normal state with the presence of a government and people, becomes strange in the Palestinian context for the simple reason that it was established and is undergoing a consolidation process before the Palestinian national movement achieves its tasks by liberating itself from occupation and achieving independence. This is a time when the PLO is needed to act as the largest collective framework more than ever.
It is at a time when most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are under occupation and that most of the PA’s privileges, including freedom of movement between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are governed by Israel’s will.
This phenomenon has deepened the intense overlap between the national and social tasks and the subsequent confusion that the public suffers from. This stems from the conflict between their natural tendency to demand their rights and their share of power, and the realisation that we are all surrounded by a wall of occupation and settlement that never ceases to expand. This situation has been responsible for the deceptive feeling within many that the time for reaping gains has come and created a sweeping tendency towards self-interest and seeking personal interests in the context of the collapse of the values of “striving for the common goal”. Perhaps the most dangerous outcome of the situation is that it harms the possibility of mobilising the energy of the masses in order to improve the balance of power within the negotiations framework and makes the Palestinian leadership hostage to the notion of “no alternative to the on-going negotiations.” This is despite the fact that one of the basics of the science of negotiations is that one should not engage in any negotiations until an alternative is known to them, at least mentally. Otherwise, one becomes a prisoner to the dictations of the other side, whether they like it or not.
Thirdly, what has happened has led to a division between the Palestinian people at home and abroad. This division was further deepened by the growing decline of the PLO’s role and its Arab and international status, with the transfer of the Palestinian decision entirely inside Palestine. Strangely enough, the moment the Palestinian leadership returned to Palestine, which was expected to coincide with the fusion of the Palestinian people’s energies to support the building of the future state at home, has turned into a new and double moment of division. This division was first a separation from the Palestinian communities in Europe and the United States, who were not convinced by the “peace” arrangements. They were always less willing to accept compromises by virtue of their location. Secondly, there was a division from the Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab countries, who felt that the PLO had neglected them and become distracted by building the PA. Of course, they felt bitter that they had been used and cast aside, as they had become a part of the final status negotiations, which would take years of bargaining. An additional division occurred with the separation between the work, budget, and structures of the PLO and those of the PA, which led to a dramatic decline in the potential for activating the capacities of the Palestinian people abroad and use them to improve the balance of power in subsequent negotiations.
The continued preoccupation with the centralisation of the decision-making has perhaps deliberately or unintentionally contributed to undermining such decisions, which has happened repeatedly throughout Arab history.
The fourth effect left by the agreement was opening the door to normalisation between Israel and the Arab states. The Jordanian-Israeli agreement was no surprise to anyone. Then Israel started trying to weave thousands of diplomatic and economic threads with the Arab world. The Oslo Accords were used in this context to accuse the Palestinians of going against the Arab consensus. While Netanyahu squandered many of Israel’s chances for his foolish behaviour, the Palestinian side needs a great deal of effort to make better use of the contradictions between Israel, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries, especially as the US position stands in the way of any unified Arab effort in this direction.
In light of these results, it was not surprising that the negotiation process was transformed from negotiations between two parties to a unilateral dictation process.
After Oslo, the Palestinians went to Taba to translate the Declaration of Principles into details on the ground. They were surprised first by the magnitude of Israel’s preparedness, secondly by the extent of their own unpreparedness, and thirdly by the extent of the difference between wishful fantasies and Israeli intransigence based on force and planning.
Hence, the Cairo-Oslo agreement was born to constitute a horrifying and sad translation of an already truncated agreement. The negotiations began to be transformed from a place of discussion between two parties into a framework for unilateral dictation. The following contributed to this:
- The weakness of the Palestinian side and the urgency and keenness to make achievements it stands for and presents to its people, to such an extent that negotiations have become the main framework for political action.
- The escalating financial, economic and security dependence on the Israeli side, which began with the Paris Economic Agreement, and escalated with each new agreement.
- The total absence of an international mediator that plays the role of the referee between the two parties, or at least acts as a guarantor of the implementation of the concluded agreements. Although the United States succeeded in neutralizing the international mediation element and completely removed Europe and Russia from the context of effective influence in the negotiations, thus turning the sponsorship of the negotiations into an American monopoly, the pro-Israel lobby in the United States succeeded in paralyzing the independent American role as well. Dennis Ross’s monopoly on negotiations was one manifestation of this phenomenon.
Given these elements and factors, the post-Oslo negotiations have become a forum in which Israel tries to impose its own vision for several issues. This was especially confirmed after the digging of the Al-Aqsa tunnel and the ensuing clashes. The popular uprising gave the PA an irreplaceable opportunity to reorganise its cards, but unfortunately this was not invested. Contrary to the Palestinian demands, the Oslo agreement restarted negotiations over Hebron, which was ultimately changed under Israeli pressure and Hebron was divided. 20,000 Palestinian citizens and 20 per cent of the city’s area remains under direct Israeli military rule, in compliance with the needs of 400 settlers who are illegally residing in the city.
The Netanyahu government continued to deal lows to the Oslo Accords when it cancelled the second and third redeployments, cancelled the release of detainees, cancelled the opening of a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, etc.
The impasse experienced in the current negotiation process is a strategic dilemma that cannot be overcome by means of tactical manoeuvres or activities with symbolic content, such as the negotiations on the airport and the seaport. Moreover, the Israeli Prime Minister’s offers on redeployment appear to be more of an attempt to throw dust in the Palestinians’ eyes and avoid the reactions resulting from his deliberate murder of the Oslo Accords. The offers aim to buy time in order to continue the on-going activities on the ground as a means to establish the features of a final solution where Israel annexes the majority of the land in the West Bank.
This concludes the article written in March 1998.
How similar today is to yesterday!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.