September 8, 2023 – כ״ב אֱלוּל
Thirty years ago, the world watched as archenemies did the unthinkable – the meticulously choreographed photo-op in the Rose Garden of the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands after decades of rivalry, violence, and enmity. It was a moment of hope despite its surrounding cynicism. But before we launch into the failures of the Oslo Peace Process and where we are today, let it be said that the accords constituted a historic breakthrough in the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs. It was the first stage towards a peace agreement ever to take place between the two principal parties to the conflict: Israelis and Palestinians.
Critical to the architecture of Oslo was the notion of gradualism. Its incremental implementation was meant to lead the way towards addressing the main issues around which the accords tip-toed.
The Declaration of Principles (the actual name of the agreement known as “The Oslo Accords”) did not address any of the key issues in this dispute: Jerusalem; the right of return of 1948 Palestinian refugees; the status of Jewish settlements / the borders of an eventual Palestinian state/security guarantees / and access to water. All these “permanent status” issues were deferred for negotiations towards the end of a five-year transition period. Basically, establishing a Palestinian Authority (PA) was a modest experiment in Palestinian self-government, while Israel maintained what it deemed to be necessary and precautionary security measures.
The Oslo plan divided the West Bank territory into three areas (A, B, and C) moving gradually from more Palestinian self-rule to more Israeli control. Area A constitutes approximately 18% of the West Bank and includes the major Palestinian cities and towns, such as Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Bethlehem, and the Jericho area. Area B constitutes approximately 22% of the West Bank and comprises all the other Palestinian heavily populated areas there –450 towns, villages, refugee camps, and hamlets – in which the PA controls all public order and civil affairs and Israel controls internal security in coordination with the PA. Area C is defined as all West Bank territory not allocated as Areas A or B. Accordingly, Area C comprises about 60% of the West Bank and includes all the Jewish settlements (populated by 450,000 Israeli Jews who live in dozens of towns, settlements, neighborhoods, and illegal outposts), Israel Defense Forces (IDF) camps, and military installations, areas of security importance, and other non-inhabited areas.
The failure of the Oslo agreements can be ascribed to the same reasons that are usually the cause of most agreement failures: both parties felt that Oslo had not delivered what they had expected from it.
Oslo was, from the start, meant to be an interim five-year agreement. It was to be a prelude to the expected difficult negotiations toward a final agreement. An important component of it was the assumption that peace could be spread by goodwill on the part of the leadership of both peoples.
Therefore, it might be said in hindsight that Oslo ultimately failed because while its fashioners set in motion a process that could potentially lead to trust and confidence, they did not establish mechanisms for monitoring violations or ensuring that claims of violations could be arbitrated and corrections could be guaranteed. Without such safeguards, the dynamic of the Oslo process fell prey to longstanding sentiments of mistrust and anger between Palestinians and Israelis. One might also point out that what began as an incremental and gradual process ended by driving a car into a brick wall. In July 2000, PM Ehud Barak, who had genuinely good intentions, tried to go for broke, shoot the moon, bet the house (or whatever metaphor you prefer), and solve it all in one fell swoop at Camp David in the closing weeks of the Clinton Presidency. This was too much for Arafat, who knew that, on the one hand, he could not deliver his people, and, on the other hand, he turned out to be a lifelong resistance fighter and not a peacemaker or state-builder.
Now there is talk about normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia but success today depends on learning and applying the lessons of the failures of Oslo.
In his most recent column, NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman suggested:
“The deal they should insist on should stipulate that in return for normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Israel must freeze all settlement building in the West Bank in the areas earmarked for a Palestinian state, if it can one day be negotiated; not legalize any more illegal wildcat Israeli settlements; and, most important, insist that Israel transfer territory from Area C in the West Bank, as defined by the Oslo Accords, to Areas B and A under more Palestinian control.”
This deal would close the loop on a thirty-year process that had never truly been implemented. Friedman’s prescription is likely the best scenario that President Biden and Co would be able to achieve in a deal that creates a defense treaty with the Saudis (a la NATO) in order to fend off regional and global threats from Iran, giving Biden a shot of electoral credibility. Such a deal would pressure both the Saudis and Netanyahu – neither of whom particularly care for the Palestinians or their cause – to significantly include the Palestinians, bringing the left-wing American flank along, and could be just the right impetus to pour a bucket of water on the anti-democratic judicial overhaul being promoted by the current extremist Israeli government.
The inclusion of the Palestinians in the American-Israeli-Saudi deal likely would alienate the Religious Zionist and Otzma Yehudit parties and send them packing out of the coalition. This would either force new elections or provide the window of opportunity to bring in a national unity government with Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar (most likely, the latter knowing that Netanyahu will be extremely hesitant to give up his position as PM).
The thing is, in all the pundits’ musings, no one has mentioned any compromises and concessions the Palestinians should have to make, such as renouncing terror and recognizing Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people.
On the one hand, who cares? If, and this is a big ‘if,’ a US-Saudi-Israel deal can be hammered out, this would revive talks with Palestinians which have not moved in any meaningful way since 2014. Much of the Palestinian street has not seriously thought about a Two-state solution in ages and it knows that all hell could break loose once the octogenarian Abu Mazen croaks his last speech. Speaking of which, just this week he delivered a masterclass in a Der Sturmer-esque conspiracy theory-laden anti-Jewish diatribe, pontificating on the baseless claims that Ashkenazi Jews are not Semites, and that Hitler fought European Jewry because of their usury, money dealings, and social class issues – classic anti-Jewish canards.
The American-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian play is, to paraphrase a popular saying, “so crazy, it just might work.” But it probably won’t. What will likely happen is that Netanyahu will spin several plates on several sticks with the goals of:
- Achieving the feather in the cap of his career by achieving a normalization deal with the Saudis;
- Securing an invite to the White House with a subsequent signing ceremony at some future point;
- Presenting what seems like a good deal for the Palestinians, when it is not, and having no intention of actually implementing it – which is the case for most promises he makes;
- Continuing to upend the Kerry doctrine as he did with the Abraham Accords (named for former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry), which insisted that the road to the Persian Gulf ran through Ramallah, which is a nod to the Republicans;
- And doing all that without having to dismantle his coalition, risk the fallout of new elections, and going to jail on corruption charges.
Netanyahu would like to figure out a way to do away with the “ultras” (Nationalists and Orthodox) and quell the protest movement, but hey, let’s not get greedy.
Thirty years since Oslo has taught us that shooting the moon often means that we shoot ourselves in the foot. Not much has changed in the Palestinian camp. Israel has moved on (naturally) from its founding generation of grandfather-type leaders, but the Palestinians have not. What they need is a pragmatist who is generally interested in improving Palestinian life and less interested in continuing the resistance. And what we need is an Israeli leader who is courageous and forward-thinking.
Wherever Netanyahu shows up in NY in two weeks, he will be met with the most ferocious protests that we have seen, possibly since the racist right-wing Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich showed up in Washington D.C. to attend the Israel Bonds dinner. These will be a reminder that Bibi and Bibi alone can control the future by making peace, putting an end to the spiraling anti-democratic legislative agenda, and avoiding an all-out constitutional crisis.
As the past was (literally) in the hands of Rabin, Clinton, and Arafat, the future is in the hands of Netanyahu, Biden, MBS, and a Palestinian leader who has the courage and vision to do what is necessary not only for his people but for the sake of peace.