Focus Oslo

Archetype of a Failure

The Oslo process could have succeeded if Israel had made the effort to make its terms acceptable to a Palestinian leadership that had shown a willingness to compromise and had sufficient legitimacy to seal an agreement. This has not been the case, quite the contrary, with Israel continuing its colonial enterprise without encountering many obstacles.

3rd July 2023. Demonstration east of Gaza City after the Israeli attacks on the Jenin camp and the north of the West Bank
Mahmud Hams/AFP

September 13, 2023, marks the 30-year anniversary of the signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles (DOP) on the White House South Lawn. What seemed like an auspicious moment in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and indeed in moving beyond conflict, followed months of intense Norwegian-hosted back-channel diplomacy. The DOP led to a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords which included the establishment of an interim Palestinian self-governing authority (the PA or PNA) in parts of the Occupied Palestinian territories and the redesignation of those territories into areas A, B, and C, which on paper at least still exist to this day.

But this month’s anniversary will be more ignored than celebrated. Oslo is destined to be studied as an example of a failed peace process. Within 26 months of that hope-evoking handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, the former had been assassinated by a Jewish extremist at a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Central Square. Less than a decade after that, Arafat too was no longer among the living, arguably also meeting an unnatural death having been besieged in his Ramallah Muqata’a headquarters by Israeli forces for nearly 34 months.

Circumstances on the ground today are far less conducive to peace than they were 30 years ago. Just one measure is that the number of illegal Israeli settlers residing in the occupied West Bank has quadrupled over this period. The one and only occasion in which Israel withdrew settlers (in 2005), it did so unilaterally, without negotiations and outside of the auspices of the Oslo peace process.

From the Intifada to the possibility of an agreement

The era which gave rise to Oslo – both the local Israeli-Palestinian contextual specificities and the surrounding geopolitics – no longer prevail. The Oslo effort was of an era and that era has passed. Understanding both the context then and the context now is central to any exercise in envisioning what a different Palestinian-Israeli future might look like and in developing strategies for how one might get there.

In the local context, the years immediately preceding the Oslo agreements had witnessed a major popular Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem (which were then two decades under Israel’s occupation) – the Palestinian Intifada. Palestinian underground political factions, women’s movements, unions, and a broad swathe of civil society undertook a wave of strikes, protest actions, civil disobedience and largely unarmed clashes with the occupying Israeli army and its military administration.

Israel’s response was brutal, but it was also a wake-up call. If the occupation had been largely cost free for two decades, that was no longer the case during the First Intifada. Internationally, Israel was coming under an unprecedented spotlight and unusual pressure. But there was also pressure on the PLO, based in Tunis after its exile from Lebanon, with the external leadership appearing to lose ground to the factions inside the OPTs.

The perilous political state of the PLO leadership had been exacerbated by the U.S.-led first Gulf War against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the choice the PLO had taken to support Saddam Hussein against a coalition which included many Arab states. The Gulf War and the Arab support for the U.S. had also to an extent cornered Israel (Arab states demanded some movement on the Palestine file) and led to a multilateral peace process being launched in Madrid. The Palestinian-Israel talks were led on the Palestinian side by local leaders given Israel then insistence on formally excluding the PLO (it was actually a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation at Madrid negotiating with Israel). Those Palestinian leaders and their familiarity with Israel’s system of occupation and rights denial and with the tailwind of the Intifada, proved to be robust negotiators, holding out to achieve significant advances. A sidelined PLO and a nervous Israel both saw advantage in exploring a channel of talks that would circumvent the existing framework.

Just a few years earlier, the PLO had established relations with the U.S., and formally adopted a two-state position (at the 1988 PNC convening in Algiers). The PLO had apparently decided that a deal could be reached which would broach the issues raised by the 1967 War and occupation (and by extension gain a Palestinian state on just 22% of the territory), while decentring or at least postponing the questions raised by the 1948 Nakba, dispossession and partition of the land. Palestinian refugees would pay the price for this 1967 versus 1948 attempt to shrink the parameters of the conflict – their opposition was often vocal.

Even if briefly, there seemed to be a political camp and a leadership in Israel ready to make a deal on those same 1967 issues – primarily borders and territory. The 1992 election in Israel ushered in a government headed by Rabin, consisting of Labour and its left-wing ally Meretz, with support from the outside of the two parties then representing the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel (the ultra-orthodox Shas Party then formally joined the coalition).

A zone of a potential Palestinian-Israeli agreement seemed to be taking shape, just visible on the horizon.

The right moment

The international context was equally distinct. The demise of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War seemed to promise an unparalleled era of unipolarity. America’s success in the aforementioned Gulf War and the coalition it was able to amass being one example. The proposition that unchallenged American power could deliver a Middle East peace deal sounded uncontroversial, even if not quite incontrovertible.

But within a decade, the U.S. had declared a ‘global war on terror’, leading to a second prolonged and self-defeating military intervention in Iraq (as well as in Afghanistan), and to a grossly inflated threat perception, overstretching the U.S., bleeding its power and credibility and generating an internal domestic backlash against such foreign entanglements.

If a window existed for the Oslo moment, it was that decade, the 1990s – indeed, the expiration date for the interim measures put in place under the Oslo process was May 1999.

The U.S. failed to deliver the concessions that would be necessary from Israel even for a minimalist 1967 premised deal, one that would have been hugely advantageous to the Israeli side. It is highly questionable whether American politics was suited to such a task or whether American administrations even tried it.

The Palestinian leadership was certainly not without fault. Criticism tends to centre around their involvement in violence and poor institutional management. Attacks on innocent Israeli civilians undoubtedly undermined peace efforts, and those initially tended to follow Israeli acts of aggression (such as the Baruch Goldstein killing of Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in February 1994). Armed resistance is a characteristic of any liberation struggle – the Palestinians are no exception. To assume all armed Palestinian resistance would end while occupation and settlements continued, was at best another naive Oslo assumption, at worst a premeditated trap.

Perhaps the PLO’s biggest failing lay in its misreading of the intentions of others and of the geopolitical, regional and local political map – a shortcoming which continues to this day – in a debilitating fashion.

Serving Israel’s interests

But the tendency towards equal apportioning of blame is not only incorrect and largely irrelevant, it more fundamentally misses the point. Oslo was premised on terms convenient for, and largely set by, Israel. To have cemented that premise would have constituted a remarkable achievement for the Zionist Jewish State enterprise.

It would have resulted in Israel achieving unquestioned global recognition for its ethnonationalist state in 78% of the historic mandated area, in the Palestinian National Movement relinquishing the rights of refugees and arguably ending claims regarding the Nakba expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. And that is even before one considers Israel’s more onerous demands with regard to a possible political dispensation in Jerusalem and in its Old City, security arrangements and the disarmament of the Palestinian state which were among a host of demands which would have emptied the so-called Palestinian state of meaningful sovereign status.

Despite all the words spilled on the question of what went wrong with Oslo, one observation may suffice – that the only way the Oslo process as an Israeli construct could succeed would be for Israel to have gone the extra mile in making the terms of a settlement minimally palatable to a Palestinian leadership which had already crossed a major Rubicon in its readiness to compromise and which at the time carried sufficient legitimacy to seal a deal.

What that would mean in negotiating terms – overcompensating on land swaps for instance, genuine division and sharing within Jerusalem and its Old City, the dropping of gratuitous security and other demands, conciliatory language, reparations and acknowledgement on refugees – those details perhaps might matter less than the principle. More importantly, they were never tested.

Israel took what was, in objective terms, a too-much too-early Palestinian willingness to compromise and insisted on extracting endless concessions until there was no way back. Rabin’s initial step may have been a short-term improvisation for managing what he perceived as a tricky environment (Arafat too may have been pursuing a tactical manoeuvre). The challenge for Rabin’s successors and the broader Zionist movement was whether it would prove capable of a strategic pivot vis-à-vis the Palestinians – a principled coming to terms and acceptance. It was not. Netanyahu stayed the course, even when engaging in performative peace negotiation mimicry – and he would claim to have been proven right. Pressure would appear to have dissipated.

That, in short, is the story of Oslo. Zionism was too hard-wired to not compromise, to entrench existential positions when it came to the Palestine question. In that respect, it is mistaken to extrapolate from Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt an expectation of any reasonableness Israel might display in relations with the Palestinians.

Within a decade of the Oslo DOP, the game was over. By the time Ariel Sharon was withdrawing from Gaza, he was doing so while explicitly stating his intention to entrench in the West Bank and to place any prospect of peace with the Palestinians in formaldehyde (as his chief adviser and negotiator Dov Weissglas openly proclaimed).

By the time Olmert came to negotiate (and he repeatedly claims to have come closest to a deal), there was both no seriousness to any Israeli claim that an agreement would be politically acceptable at home or implementable, nor could the Palestinian interlocutor any longer claim to carry sufficient Palestinian authority. Not only do the realities on the ground today bear little resemblance to those prevailing at the start of the Oslo era, but both the local and global geopolitical contexts have also shifted beyond recognition.

The language of peace serving illegality

That so many of the structures and the lingua franca of Oslo still remain in place – the notion of an area A, B and C, the Palestinian Authority and its emphasis on security cooperation with Israel – is something remarkable. If one scours the statements from summits between the parties which still take place under the peace process umbrella, or the endless speeches of U.S. and other policymakers, one finds the almost ritualistic incantation of peace process texts and mythologies – calls to return to negotiations, confidence-building measures, economic improvements under occupation, and, of course, always the desire for a two-state outcome.

But none of this bears any real resemblance to reality on the ground. The gaping chasm has been laid bare, it is a Potemkin peace process, bearing all the signs of Gramsci’s morbid interregnum. The words can be absorbed in the text of a State Department spokesperson, but they are devoid of all meaning, zombie-like. That this farce continues, speaks to inertia and also to the convenience that the Oslo Zombie offers to Israel and its American sponsor.

What we have today is the language of peace in the service of illegal actions, disenfranchisement, and apartheid. Thirty years on, this has become the sad legacy of Oslo. In many respects, though, it may not matter – because in the battle for ideas, it is losing. We are in a different era for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for global geopolitics.

One of the more interesting phenomena is what is happening in Israel’s political discourse and body politic. The Oslo camp is no more. Labour and Meretz numbered 56 out of 120 Knesset members in that seminal governing 1992 coalition of Yitzhak Rabin. Today the number has dwindled to just four seats in parliament (that is four for Labour, none for Meretz). Parliamentary Zionist politics is now essentially fought on the terrain of continued gradualist entrenchment of occupation versus an accelerationist ‘victory now’ tilt towards enhanced dispossession and a resumption of ethnic cleansing (Israeli political discourse is replete with warnings of a second Nakba against Palestinians). A battle between out and proud apartheidists versus those who deny apartheid while perpetuating its conditions.

The failure of Oslo created the circumstances in which Israel’s favouring Jewish supremacy over democracy gave rise to an empowered camp now in government and represented by Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and much of the Likud. And it should come as little surprise that the so-called democracy protests in opposition to the judicial overhaul program of the Netanyahu coalition has conspicuously avoided the biggest challenge to democracy of all – the regime of discrimination and occupation against Palestinians.

Apartheid, a shared complicity?

As a recent letter from prominent academics in Israel and abroad entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room’ pointed out, ‘there cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid.’ The flag of genuine opposition and peace is carried by the extra-parliamentary, almost dissident voices of the anti-occupation and increasingly anti-apartheid bloc in Israeli civil society – Jewish and Palestinian-Arab. The peace process lives on in Israeli discourse – but those parliamentary political forces supporting it have aligned with the reality in which it is as an exercise in managing, controlling and dispossessing Palestinians. A peace process as an exercise in equality, restoring rights and dare one say peace, has few takers.

It should also come as no surprise that this reality is increasingly being recognised as legally constituting the committing of the crime of apartheid under international law. This is the finding not only of Palestinian bodies but also of Israel’s preeminent human rights organisations, including B’Tselem, Yesh Din, and Adalah, and since 2021-22 of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It is a question now likely to stand before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) following the referral of the question of Israel’s prolonged occupation to the ICJ by the UN General Assembly and with several states having made submissions to the ICJ establishing the basis in international law for an apartheid designation.

All of which has not left Palestinian politics and organising untouched. Realities on the ground and the spatial-conceptual reframing has placed the Palestinian institutions of self-governance created by Oslo (the Palestinian Authority) in a particularly precarious predicament. Elections to those institutions have not been held for 17 years and are frequently postponed/cancelled. They have long since lost their political salience for Palestinians, their credibility and representativeness.

More devastating is that with apartheid being the frame of analysis, it is but a short journey to interpreting the PA as a part of those apartheid structures, a form of Palestinian Bantustan self-governance serving the apartheid regime. Security cooperation is at the acute end of that co-optation scale, deeply unpopular among Palestinians and increasingly challenged by new, younger generation, resistance forces.

The PLO remains the overarching national Palestinian structure, although over the years it has been somewhat subsumed by the Palestinian Authority. The PLO has itself formally made the apartheid designation and this is increasingly part of its international program of advocacy. It is a tension that will not be sustainable over time. The continued existence of the Palestinian Authority in its Oslo incarnation, and the continued filiality of Palestinian institutional structures to the peace process is perhaps the last brick standing. But it is a hollowed out and deeply unaccountable Palestinian political structure, divided and increasingly reliant on tools of repression against its own public. Organising and mobilising around the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions National Committee (BNC) now has more political consistency and growing salience. Arguments centred around decolonisation and refugee rights are on the ascendancy.

Weakening US dominance

And if the local political context bears no resemblance to the early 1990s, then the geopolitical terrain has been even more radically turned on its head. American unipolarity was a fleeting moment. We are living through an era of relentless geopolitical churn. So-called emerging powers have now emerged. Multipolarity is here, a new non-alignment is becoming visible, with the announcement of an expanded BRICS at the South Africa Summit last month being just the latest exemplar of this trend.

So far, the stuckness of Palestinian national politics has slowed down the application of these trends to Palestinian-Israeli affairs. But as American impunity erodes so too will that of Israel. And as new global structures assert themselves, the Palestinian-Israeli terrain is unlikely to remain disimpacted. If and when Palestinian politics and strategies reunite are reassembled and reconceptualised, changes may be fast moving. Some of the more significant Global South powers have a very different take on Palestine-Israel to that of the U.S., whether for reasons of colonial and apartheid history, domestic politics or unwillingness to accept U.S. selective application of international law. The unfreezing of the geopolitical space comes with risks and gives rise to political trends, not all of which are positive.

The resilience of the Oslo paradigm has been impressive. Its replacement will not be easy. Israel itself is a regional power, considered by many to be a global mid-level power – nuclear-armed, a major military exporter, tech savvy (and an often dangerous exporter of the destructive elements of that tech). It too is a player in the new geopolitics. But Israel’s apartheid regime is not popular and forces Israel to make divisive moves.

The contours of the post Oslo Palestine-Israel terrain are emerging. That is likely to rub up against this multipolar reality, be non-Western-led, centre around the struggle for equality rather than territory. And its goals will have to include not only the liberation of Palestinians from the denial of their rights and freedoms, but also of Jewish Israelis from perpetuating an inhumane, soul-destroying and ultimately insecure regime of supremacy.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.