Why Oslo failed, 25 years on

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It’s been 25 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, presided over by US President Bill Clinton, stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 1993 for a handshake that promised daring hopes of a monumental breakthrough agreement. A quarter of a century later, and in fact much earlier, the dream never came true, turning the moment of high drama and anticipation into a miserable failure.

There has been much finger pointing as to what or who dashed what could have been a lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. The process started well enough. Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho were placed under the control of the PLO as a first step. The Palestinians recognized Israel’s right to exist, and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Israel’s intention to eventually withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip were other unprecedented developments.

The steps were part of a gradual procedure that was intended to lead to the resolution of all the outstanding issues between the two sides. And that was probably a fatal mistake.

Because of decades of hostility and suspicion between the two sides, which would not allow for a quick settlement, it was thought best not to delve immediately into the core issues. In good faith, the Palestinians gave Israel space to remain ambiguous, assuming that when the time came to settle the core issues, Israel would be ready to make concessions, which it might not have been ready to make at the outset.

Thus, the accords did not address any of the key issues in the dispute: Jerusalem, the right of return of 1948 refugees, the status of Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land or the borders of a Palestinian state. Oslo did not promise or even mention an independent Palestinian state. All these "permanent status" issues were deferred for negotiations towards the end of a five-year transition period.

In hindsight, the Palestinians’ big blunder was agreeing to deal with the biggest issues of the problem at the end of the talks, not tackle them head-on from the start. Pushing the issues to the side not only gave Israel plenty of time to do nothing, but called into question the very name of the agreement. The Oslo Accords became a misnomer, for there was no actual accord; only a deal to talk to reach one.

Israel took advantage of Palestinian goodwill. Seeing that it did not need to address the fundamental issues during the interim period, its settlement activity continued unabated, with the number of settlers increasing from 110,000 on the eve of the accords in 1993 to 185,000 in 2000, during the negotiations over a final status, to 430,000 today. That increase seriously undermined the notion that Israel was sincere about making way for a Palestinian state. As a result of settlement expansion, also known as land-grabbing, the area available for a Palestinian state steadily shrunk to the point where a state was barely recognizable.

In trying to understand what went wrong with Oslo, one must find who made it go wrong. The person primarily responsible for the killing of Oslo was Benjamin Netanyahu. After Rabin’s assassination in 1995 the right-wing Likud returned to power under the leadership of Netanyahu, who made no secret of his deep antagonism to Oslo, denouncing it as incompatible with Israel's historic right to the whole land of Israel. He spent his first years as prime minister doing everything in his power to subvert the accords concluded by his Labor predecessor.

Likud’s platform simply never allowed for a Palestinian state. Oslo faltered and eventually failed because Israel negotiated in bad faith. It reneged on its side of the deal.


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