Focus Oslo

13 September 1993. Oslo, a Fools’ Bargain

The ‘Oslo process’ has been passed off as one which favours a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; actually, it only benefited one side, Israel, the only ‘negotiator’ to gain any advantage in that fool’s bargain that constituted the different accords that followed the signing of the statement of principles between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on 13 September 1993.

14 August 2023. Ramat Shlomo, a new settlement under construction in annexed East Jerusalem
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

What is known as the ‘Oslo process’ had three important moments: a kick-off in grand style, a long agony of several decades and finally a disappearance with no clear date of death and no burial ceremony. In the exaltation of its beginnings one had the impression that anything was possible, whereas the presuppositions of the accord were only reinforced by the limitations placed on the method chosen for the ‘negotiations.’ The long transition of several decades gave Israel plenty of time to strengthen its administrative and security grip on the Palestinian territories and their populations and extend its stranglehold on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Its authorities took advantage of the Oslo process to modify the terms and conditions of its occupation of the Palestinian territories without fundamentally changing its policies for colonising Palestine.

The initial imbalance

The Oslo declaration of principles signed on 13 September 1993 in Washington by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin under the aegis of Bill Clinton was a subtly devious document because it limited the range of possible solutions while multiplying, within those the conditions laid down for the Palestinians. The autonomy dangled before the Palestinians retreated with each new clause most of which they could either not fulfil or which were not recognised by Israel in the event they were able to fulfil them. The definitive statute of their territories was to be defined later but failing progress on the issue of autonomy it was a horizon that receded further every day.

Already in 1993 there were voices pointing out the imbalance between the commitments made on both sides; on the one hand, the Palestine Liberation Organisation ‘recognises the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security’ and that ‘those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel’s right to exist […] are now inoperative and no longer valid’ while on the other side Yitzhak Rabin merely indicated that ‘in light of the PLO commitments […], the Government of Israel has decided to recognise the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.’ However, the warning voices that pointed out such a flagrant discrepancy were scarcely audible in the chorus of praise that greeted the publication of these letters which for a long while will be abusively described as ‘mutual recognition.’

The ‘declaration’ which came out of Norway in 1993 adhered to the logic inherent in this kind of text since it would essentially guarantee the interests of Israel and Washington. It will be objected that no US representatives were present in Oslo and that the Palestinians had their say in the matter. Future historians will sort it all out one day, but there is no example of any accord in the Middle East which was not preceded by consultations, discussions and exchanges of information between Arab, Israeli and US negotiators and councillors (some with a double nationality), legal experts, military and security specialists… In all logic, once Oslo was made public, texts, teams and concepts were immediately remitted to the US and it was in Washington, on the White House lawn that took place, urbi et orbi, the signing of the Declaration of Principles on 13 September 1993.

The right moment

As a former Labour minister (known as a ‘dove’) told us on condition of anonymity. ‘Arafat accepted Oslo because he knew he was in a position of weakness. Perhaps we should have turned it down even then.’ He was referring to the internal difficulties experienced at the time by the PLO and its leader, regularly accused of corruption, incompetence or authoritarianism by the Palestinian population who demanded greater freedom and sometimes even the departure of Arafat. Get rid of Arafat? Israel was not so sure. Oslo offered an ideal opportunity. Ideal because it pitted the Israelis against a Palestinian leader weakened from below, whom it was assumed could have no choice but a ‘defeatist’ one. From which point there was a step which Israel could take easily enough in 1991 (Madrid) and Oslo in 1993: Arafat had to keep his job.

Israel also knew that it could count on the unwavering support of the USA, no matter who was President or which party held the congressional majority. Washington was not the ‘honest broker’ it claimed to be. Concerned to find a solution in tune with US and Israeli interests, certainly; impartial, certainly not. US diplomacy has constantly clung to two pillars which have never failed it: the refusal of any international conference and the rejection of any solution of self-determination for the Palestinians, two shields well suited to the protection of Israel. The Palestinians had no other solution than to negotiate according to the terms set by the US and Israel, to bow down or rebel.

The temporary and the permanent: two mutually devouring concepts

In the method chosen in Oslo, two dimensions were defined which might have been perfectly logical: a first dimension, meant to last five years – called the interim period – during which would be negotiated the issues thought to be simplest, dealing with the Palestinians’ autonomous statute – and a second dimension devoted to negotiating the permanent statute involving more complex issues, ‘sovereignty, settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements, relations and cooperation with other neighbours, water and other issues of common interest’. It was planned for that second dimension to begin as soon as possible (i.e., in September 1993) but no later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period. As a result of various delays, it was agreed that the interim period should begin on 4 May 1994 and that the permanent statute would take effect on 4 May 1999. These extended calendars were never respected. Countless accords would subsequently complete, perturb and complicate the principles laid down in the original texts. It turned out that the negotiations bore a greater resemblance to horse trading in which it was demanded of the Palestinians that they be the highest and Israel the lowest bidder. Israel dragged its feet, refusing here to respect its signature, demanding there to renegotiate something that had already been agreed upon, constantly demanding that the Palestinians make concessions on Israel’s right – a right laid down as a principle – to Mandatory Palestine. The territories’ autonomy was not in view. Palestinian acts of violence, brutally repressed by Israel (with US weapons of war) attested to the failure of the process.

From roadmap to regime change

The temporary failing to lead to the permanent, Washington (backed in particular by Amman) came up, after the second Intifada in December 20001 with a scheme supposed to guide the negotiators of both parties and lead to the creation of a Palestinian State: the Roadmap. This instruction manual established a direction and a goal (the State) which were accompanied by a set of stages, phases and deadlines and criteria for attaining them. In other words, it was a complex, sequential, and gradual approach in which most of the time Israel was a judge and jury. The quartet (USA, European Union, Russia and UN) was tasked with accompanying the parties in the proper implementation of this machinery. It is enough to point out that the roadmap demanded at the outset, ‘an end to violence and terrorism|…] and that a two state solution to the conflict will only be found when the Palestinian people have a leadership acting decisively against terror and willing and able to build a practising democracy based on tolerance and liberty, and through Israel’s readiness to do what is necessary for a democratic Palestinian State to be established … to understand on which side rests the burden of the success – or failure – of the Oslo process.

The Road Map, a purely diplomatic machinery, would never achieve its objectives, failing any political determination: in Israel (Premier Ariel Sharon expressed “14 reservations,” equivalent to a flat-out rejection); in Ramallah (where Arafat was held captive in his office while a Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas had been forced on him by the international community to limit his powers); and even in Washington where it was Iraq which was increasingly the centre of attention. However, from an Israeli and US standpoint the Road Map will have had the advantage of preventing any other peace initiative, from Moscow, Europe or the Arab countries, and creating the impression that diplomacy was still operative, focalising public opinion and gaining time. The truth, the unspoken subtext, was that the USA (and many others) were hoping for a “regime change” in Ramallah in accordance with a well-established diplomatic tradition in Washington.

Unbridled colonisation

The negotiating process floundered but the colonising process certainly did not! It had free rein, unaffected as it was by the Oslo process because it was among the matters that came under the rubric of the final statute which had not been tackled as yet. Between 1993 and 2022, the number of colonists on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem had been tripled. The distinction made between the temporary and the permanent had thus given Israel plenty of leeway to make the negotiations over the temporary drag out. So long as the negotiations over the permanent statute were not undertaken, the Israelis could claim the right to pursue their colonisation of the Palestinians’ land. The latter considered there was a contradiction between the ongoing negotiations and the simultaneous colonisation, whereas Benyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister for a second time since 2009, never tired of repeating that the Oslo accords did not prevent Israel from building colonies on Palestinian land so long as a final agreement had not been reached; For tactical reasons or to seek accommodation or to indulge Washington where it was thought useful to make occasional concessions in order to move forward, Israel did from time to time freeze the colonisation or agree to slow the pace of constructions or else show how innovative it could be by pretending that certain constructions under way were not new but were merely due to the ‘natural enlargement’ of colonists’ families already settled there. The Palestinians demanded the application of international law and justice measures but they were made to understand that they had to stick to the originality of Oslo. It was obvious that it was in Israel’s interest to stall for time, to see that the negotiations dragged on, to wait for a violent reaction from the Palestinian people (the Intifada al-Aqsa of the year 2,000) was one example) to decide that the Palestinians were not genuine partners for peace2.

State, autonomy, two words with no real meaning

The matter of a Palestinian State was not mentioned in the 1993 text but opinion-makers, politicians and diplomats had latched onto it in the belief that it was inevitably the final destination of the process. The ‘two-State solution’ was rehashed ad nauseam (it still is) when nothing on the ground suggested its imminence (even less so today than in the past); it was soon revealed that the real problem lay with the nature of the State institution imagined by Washington and Israel. And it appeared just as quickly as the Palestinians wanted, first, an end to the colonisation process before thinking about a state.

Now it was never question of a state in the usual meaning of the word, endowed with the universally recognised characteristics – a community, a territory, a population under the authority of an organised power structure, a sovereignty –. Very soon it became clear that ‘Palestinian State’ meant ‘cantons,’ ‘municipalities,’ ‘counties,’ ‘enclaves’ or ‘commons,’ entities closer to the “homelands” of Apartheid South Africa than to any actual State. The word changed its meaning according to the interests of those who spoke it. Rabin, in 1995, meant only an “entity which would be less than a State”. David Bar-Ilan, head of communications in the office of Israeli Premier Netanyahu declared in 19963 that anyone was free to speak of a Palestinian State as he saw fit, could even call it “fried chicken” and this would not be a problem for anyone since semantics could have no effect on Israel’s intentions. In 2009, Netanyahu pretended to accept the prospect of a Palestinian State so long as it was “demilitarised and with a limited sovereignty.” Later, he tried to get the Palestinians to admit that they “recognised Israel as the State of the Jewish people”, recognition with multiple implications, among which that of preventing them from ever having their own state.

The autonomy offered them in Oslo was an illusion but even a real autonomy as Oslo understood it would only, at the end of the day, have given the Palestinians the right to handle matters “of education, culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism” (cf. Declaration of Principles,13 September 1993). What was demanded of them, moreover, since Oslo, was to preserve Israelis’ security by establishing, in the territories a “strong” police force capable of foiling any Palestinian temptation to resist them.

The colonists are also colonising the political and military institutions

The Oslo negotiations will also have made the Palestinian leadership totally irrelevant even under the title “Palestinian Authority.” (Only Hamas will have benefitted from them, but that is another story). Since the formation of the most recent Netanyahu cabinet (29 December 2022) Israel has been racked by other internal torments, having to do with the preservation of its democracy, one of the consequences of which is to have pushed offstage the Palestinian question. It is said that the question could be re-examined in connection with the ongoing discussions between the United States and Saudi Arabia which would like to include some Israeli “concessions” to the Palestinians. Aside from the fact that the term “concessions” corresponds to a variable geometry concept, we can bet that the current situation, one state – Israel – with at its side a rubberstamp Palestinian “system” of government, subject to the whims of its all-powerful neighbour, is very likely to last. The colonists, with soldiers at their side and under the protection of the current ministers, act with total impunity in the occupied territories – always very violently – while the Israelis, pretty much preoccupied by their own struggle against this government’s efforts to revise their judicial system are not paying much attention. However, we must realise that the autocratic drift now affecting Israel has been at work for decades now against the Palestinians and its extension is driven by the same ever more powerful ultra-nationalist and religious forces. Over the last thirty years, the colonists have accomplished the feat of permanently invading the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and of colonising Israel’s political and military institutions.

1Also known as the Intifada Al-Aqsa, triggered by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on 28 September 2000.

2Miguel Angel Moratinos, ‘Qui a peur de la démocratie palestinienne’, Le Figaro, (17-18 août 2002.

3Interview with Victor Cygielman in Palestine-Israel Journal (Vol. 3, no. 3, 1996)