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Oslo was a colonial tool which was never going to end Israel’s occupation

Iconic handshake between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli President Shimon Peres during the Oslo accords [Council on Foreign Relations/YouTube]
Iconic handshake between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli President Shimon Peres during the Oslo accords [Council on Foreign Relations/YouTube]

On the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, it is an appropriate time to consider what has been called “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” That’s what the late Edward Said wrote in his essay, “The Morning After”. Hopeful that the Palestinian leaders had sobered up from the euphoric and intoxicating signing ceremony on the White House lawn, Professor Said applied his scalpel-like mind to the agreement.

What good is Palestinian self-determination, he asked rhetorically, if there was no real freedom, sovereignty and equality? “Perpetual subservience to Israel,” is the goal of the Oslo peace process, he observed. Mystified by the number of Palestinians thrilled merely to be recognised by Israel as a people, Said lamented that the Zionist state had conceded nothing while being handed the “second biggest victory in the history of Zionism.” He was right. Oslo was a colonial tool which was never going to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories; it was never intended to.

It’s a sobering indictment of Oslo and a great testament to the foresight of Said — and, it should be mentioned, quite a few like him — that he could see the dire implications of the Faustian bargain being struck. A century of sacrifice, dispossession and heroic struggle had finally come to nought, he thundered, and for what?

Despite Israel’s expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians in 1948 and, Said recalled, “the conquest of their land and property; the destruction of over four hundred Palestinian villages; the invasion of Lebanon; the ravages of 26 years of brutal military occupation [now 51 years] … it was the victims of Zionism, the Palestinians [who] were characterised before the world as its now repentant assailants.” It was as if “these sufferings had been reduced to the status of terrorism and violence, to be renounced retrospectively or passed over in silence.”

While Said’s unique understanding of the way that power maintains its grip on society made him deeply suspicious of Oslo, the international community viewed the agreement as a vehicle for Palestinian self-determination in the territories occupied by Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War. Its supporters claimed that, after Oslo, Israel would gradually relinquish control over territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the newly established Palestinian Authority eventually forming an independent state there.

It wasn’t to be. Instead of using the interim period to carry out negotiations over the major issues –refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements — Israel used that time to annex in all but name as much Palestinian land as it could. It’s a colonial process that is ongoing.

Attend our conference: Oslo at 25 – A Legacy of Broken Promises

A quarter of a century after the famously hesitant handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinians are no closer to their goals, while Israel has further entrenched its colonisation by quadrupling the number of illegal settlers spread across occupied Palestinian land. The territory envisaged for a Palestinian state has been taken over to house some of the most extreme elements in Israeli society; religious Jewish fundamentalists view the conflict as a cosmic war between good and evil.

Much of the debate about Oslo has been centred on its failure. A blame game has been played out over the past few years to determine whether Israel or the Palestinians are more culpable for the collapse of the peace process. However, it is reasonable to ask, did Oslo fail because it was not implemented properly or because it was inherently flawed?

Palestinians involved directly with the Oslo process admit to the futility of the negotiations. “Demanding that Palestinians — living under Israeli military rule — negotiate with their occupier and oppressor is akin to demanding that a hostage negotiate with their hostage taker,” said Diana Buttu, one of the legal experts in the Palestinian team. “It is repugnant that the world demands that Palestinians negotiate their freedom,” she insisted when commenting on the structural flaw of the Oslo process which viewed the occupier and occupied as being morally equivalent.

In entering into negotiations with Israel before it agreed to commit to ending its occupation, the Palestinians had in effect given up their unilateral and internationally acknowledged claim to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian leadership, as Said observed, had awarded Israel equal claim to Palestinian land with a single handshake. Territory that was recognised as inherently Palestinian, overnight became “disputed territories”, as though international law, under which the acquisition of territory through war is illegal, did not apply in Palestine.

In the many inquests held over the death of the Oslo Peace Process, the notion that it was never intended to achieve its stated goal of ending the Israeli occupation and giving birth to a Palestinian state deserves greater attention. It’s the explanation that looks the most logical and suggests the true reason why there has been a constant regression of Palestinian rights while Israel has been allowed to carry on with its aggressive land-grab. Contrary to the assumption which led the two parties to enter into negotiations, the conflict over Palestine was never over “disputed territory”; it was all about the Zionist claim for exclusive control over the historic land of Palestine. This fact and this fact alone is why Oslo failed.

The so-called peace process is now denounced universally as nothing but a political ruse that served as a “fig leaf to consolidate and deepen Israeli control over Palestinian life.” Two fundamental ideals of Zionist ideology were at play in its formation, noted historian Ilan Pappé: control of Palestinian land and the reduction of the number of Palestinians living within it. Zionists stuck to these two principles “religiously,” wrote Pappé in a critical assessment of the Accords. Israeli leaders decided to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians because they were convinced that they had found a new formula that would enable them to secure the territories they had coveted without annexing the Palestinian population as well as the land.

In retrospect, the Oslo process has been a great success for Israel and a tragic failure for the Palestinians. That handshake in Washington has served its intended purpose; it has granted Israel everything it wanted and denied Palestinians every right they had and should still have.

The Israeli government, as others have noted, used Oslo selfishly to serves its own aims; it never wanted peace. “By reducing the Palestinian struggle to the process of bartering over slivers of land, Oslo ideologically disarmed the not-insignificant parts of the Palestinian political movement that advocated continued resistance to Israeli colonialism and sought the genuine fulfilment of Palestinian aspirations,” wrote Adam Hanieh in 2013.

Moving forward into the post-Oslo era, a path to a peaceful resolution will need to avoid the faulty assumptions that blighted its progress. The conflict is between an occupier and the occupied; it is not about Palestinians trying to destroy Israel. The Zionist state is the occupier and aggressor; it is morally and legally obliged to end its belligerent occupation. Palestinians are the victims of Israeli occupation; they are neither morally nor legally obliged to concede any aspect of their historic and very legitimate rights, or enter into negotiations until Israel ends its occupation. The Palestinians, especially their leaders, should remember the words of Edward Said and never forget that appeasing Israel only brings misery and humiliation. They also need to remember that Israel was forced into negotiations only after the Palestinians gained some leverage through the first intifada. While violent resistance would be unwise and counterproductive at this time, they need to find new leverage from somewhere against Israel’s largely cost-free occupation.

No solution, least of all a solution dubbed “the deal of the century” that unilaterally throws out key pillars of the Palestinian cause — notably Jerusalem and refugees – has any chance of succeeding. The challenge for Israel is to find a leader that recognises the Palestinian right to full self-determination and agrees to abide by international law, before it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions; religious ethnocracy and democracy cannot exist side by side forever. Given the current trajectory, with the growing ascendency of the extreme right wing and fundamentalist Jews within the country, such a leader may not be obvious anytime soon.

The challenge for the international community is to ensure that Israel’s occupation and the new realities that have been created — settlements, displacement, closures and state-sanctioned racial discrimination — will not be allowed to continue with impunity. It will require courage and determination to treat Israel like any other country which is in constant violation of international law; Israeli exceptionalism cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Rewarding Israel’s aggressive, lawless behaviour with preferential trade deals and indulging its disregard for international laws and conventions that the rest of the word is obliged to abide by is a recipe for disaster, leading to even more decades of conflict and even global instability.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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