This year, the Oslo Accords (or what's left of them) will mark their 20th anniversary.
Oslo -- shorthand for a series of Israeli-Palestinian interim agreements done and undone between 1993 and 1999 -- was a heroic but ultimately failed effort to deal with an interminable problem that still eludes a solution: how to reconcile the conflicting national and religious claims of Israelis and Palestinians to a relatively small piece of real estate situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Much will be written about these accords in the coming year, particularly as the Sept. 13 anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House's South Lawn approaches -- an occasion that now seems to me a thousand years and a million dashed hopes, naive expectations, and broken promises away.
Most of the analysis of the Oslo enterprise is likely to be negative, perhaps with good reason. The Oslo framework accomplished many things: It led to mutual recognition between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the state of Israel, enabled Jordan's King Hussein to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, opened up regional cooperation between Israel and a dozen Arab countries, and created the beginnings of Palestinian institutions not in Tunis or Beirut but in Gaza and the West Bank.
But much of this now lies compromised, undermined, broken, and bloodied. The central logic of Oslo -- that through an interim process Israelis and Palestinians could gain the trust and confidence necessary to make the big decisions on the final-status issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees) -- simply wasn't sustainable, if it was ever even realistic to begin with. On the eve of the July 2000 Camp David summit -- the last serious effort by empowered Israelis and Palestinians to reach any agreement -- there was little, if any, trust between PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Still, whatever their failings, the Oslo Accords reflected something critically important and missing from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: a sense of partnership and trust. It is true that this personal element masked to a dangerous degree an underlying clash of national interests and opposing expectations that proved in the end to be quite destructive.
But Oslo was the last time that official Israeli and Palestinian negotiators actually worked together as intimates -- exulted in their successes and mourned their failures and lost opportunities -- or at least as together as they'd ever been. And make no mistake: Even with a robust U.S. role, they will need to engage directly again and return to a place where there's mutual respect and trust if their deal is to get done.
The two principal Israel and Palestinian negotiators in those heady days -- Uri Savir and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa) -- remain close still. Wiser and older to be sure, both men retain the sense of humor, mutual respect and affection, and above all natural talents as negotiators that allowed them to get as far as they did in a process whose odds not even the most dedicated partners could surmount.
In Oslo's 20th year, both agreed to answer five questions about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the problem of what I've called the much-too-promised land. Savir responded to my questions in English; Abu Alaa in Arabic. The translation was done by my friend, the inestimable Gamal Helal, interpreter, analyst, and confidant to American presidents and secretaries of state.