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
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.
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.
Foreign Policy: What are Oslo's greatest achievements?
Ahmed Qurei: Regardless of the different views that
were expressed at the signing of this agreement, or the assessment of it today
after two decades, the substantive fact remains: Oslo was the first formal
interim document designed to manage a temporary phase between two sides who
denied each other's existence, who were unwilling to recognize the hopes and
the pain of the other. After decades of bitter struggle, waste of blood, treasure,
and energy, where both saw each other only through a barrel of a gun, they
realized that it is inevitable to overcome hatred, misgivings, denial, and
their own red lines. They sat face to face to test intentions, clarify
misunderstanding, and search for the little common ground that could lead to
squaring the circle of this conflict.
It was the first time
in Oslo where both sides looked at each other face to face, and not in an
interrogation room or a checkpoint. It was around a negotiation table that
started as an experiment exercise that soon turned to a political [one] to achieve
a significant turning point in that bitter struggle. It turned that conflict
from an endless war zone to an open dialogue discussing the horizon of coexistence,
peace, and security, among many other hopes that soon evaporated.
There is almost a
consensus that the Oslo agreement was the historic foundation that impacted the
issues of war and peace in the region, and a lot of hope was pinned to it to
change the face of the Middle East, open the closed pathways, and turn the
pages of hatred in the entire region. There was hope that Oslo would change the
rules of the deadly game and replace the stereotype and perceptions on both
sides -- and above all, to realize a peace strong enough that can defend itself
Both sides attacked
the agreement. Many attempts were carried out to undermine it, defuse it, and
to end it. The enemies of Oslo rose to power on both sides and changed the
political environment. They have vehemently denounced it and tried hard to bury
it. They have publicly renounced its principles, but no one dared to kill the
agreement, which kept surviving. That continuity of the agreement, with the
acceptance of its minimal results and gains, became an inevitable reality.
Despite Oslo's pros
and cons, and the various criticisms, the agreement became the cornerstone of
the political structure that the region witnessed since its signing. It
prepared the ground for the option of dialogue and negotiations as an
alternative to the option of continuing the bloody conflict. Oslo created a
reliable negotiating record and joint expertise, which will allow future
negotiation to build on it. The two sides will not go back to square one, but
they can start the dialogue from their long negotiating experience and mutual
understanding of each other.
Uri Savir: In my opinion, the greatest
achievement of the Oslo Accords is threefold:
One: With the
creation of a Palestinian Authority led by the PLO in Gaza and the West Bank,
it put to an end two radical scenarios that were prevalent on both sides: the
notion of a Greater Israel from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River
based on religious beliefs, which would have meant the end of Israel as a
Jewish and democratic state; and secondly the Palestinian notion of a Greater Palestine
from the river to the sea, based also on historical and religious beliefs that
would have resulted in perpetual war and not in Palestinian statehood.
recognition, which is part of the Oslo Accord, between the Israeli Jewish
national movement and the Palestinian national movement. It was a fundamental
and historical turning point in the relationship between Israelis and
Palestinians. Until mutual recognition, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was of
existential nature. The Palestinian national movement, led by the PLO, did not
recognize Israel's right to exist, and the Jewish Israeli national movement
(the government of Israel) did not recognize the national rights and identity
of the Palestinian people. The mutual recognition agreement turned an
existential conflict into a political relationship.
Thirdly, the creation
of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza under the PLO created
mutual dependency between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on issues of
economy and security, whatever the nature of relations between them are.
achievements and turning points constitute the legacy of the Oslo Accords and
turned them into a platform for future political progress.
FP: What were Oslo's greatest weak points?
AQ: Oslo was an imposed option for both sides when they jointly
discovered the limitation of force and the uselessness of continuing to walk
through a long, dark tunnel with no light at its end. It is possible that one
side or both became fatigued and tired of wars and had to go through a
self-examination that led to new conclusions, as well as thinking outside the
box. All of this probably pushed one side or both to look simultaneously for a
new way to narrow the gaps and overcome fears, concerns, and perceptions. The
two sides seemed to be forced to walk through these land mines in search of
uncharted territories. They both started to argue and take risks, each licking
its own wounds without giving up their mutual fear of the risk taken in this
political adventure that is surrounded with challenges. Among these challenges were
the fear of each other, from extremist groups, and from different forces on
both sides. These groups did not give up yet their own illusion and the
mentality of zero-sum game -- groups that are committed to their ideological and
religious beliefs, which were deeply rooted in the hearts of their people.
The Oslo agreement
was only a declaration of principles. It was more like a general guideline for
two stubborn parties that were suspicious of each other and didn't trust each
other. The old wound made them fight not only over each word and paragraph, but
also fight over the other side's intentions and the deeply rooted beliefs that
existed in the other's constituency and their perceptions, along with very
painful historic memories. All of this produced an agreement that barely
touched the headlines of the issues without in-depth discussions; it brought
the two sides closer on complicated issues without solving them. It clarified
the minimum misunderstandings without fully clarifying them.
Although I was the
one who negotiated Oslo myself and initialed the agreement, I knew from the
beginning it was controversial and could be interpreted differently. I knew it
could lead to challenges ahead, and that is exactly what happened. The rules of
the peace process as they were set by the U.S. with the support of the USSR and
Europe were the ones that forced the Palestinian side to negotiate an interim
agreement and not a permanent-status agreement, as the case with any other country
that participated in such process.
US: The greatest weakness of the Oslo Accords was that they did
not lead to an inclusive process bringing in the two societies. They were
accords made by the leaderships and negotiated on the two sides, and their effects
were translated to important changes on the ground, but they did not trickle
down to their respective constituencies in terms of necessary attitudinal
changes between Israelis and Palestinians. They therefore did not create a
necessary reconciliation process. Furthermore, the accords brought about
economic change only for the elite of the two societies: The high-tech boom in
Israel benefited only the elite, and the fruits of the real estate boom in the
West Bank and Gaza were also reaped by the elite only. Therefore, the peace
process became the revolution of the wealthy, and the "have-nots"
revolted either politically or violently.
FP: Is the two-state solution still
AQ: The Oslo agreement did not mention clearly that it will
lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, the core substance
of the agreement that led to a five-year interim period implied the
establishment of a state. In addition, the starting of the Palestinian
Authority representative institutions became the cornerstone of a strong state which
gradually, and despite Israeli obstacles, started to gain international
recognition and tangible implicit understanding among segments of the Israeli
public, as well as center and left political parties.
The two-state solution
became tangible 10 years after the signing of Oslo when U.S. President George W.
Bush announced it as the U.S. policy. However, that policy failed to manifest
itself into a clear plan with specific mechanisms and timetables known in
advance, which not only allowed the successive Israeli governments to continue
their usual maneuvering, but also work against this policy in every way
possible, including weakening the PA [Palestinian Authority], denying it the
existence as a peace partner, and working very vehemently on expanding
I'll not be adding
much when I say that after a decade of declaring the two-state solution, Israel
has killed it and blocked all roads to achieve it. Israel not only ran away
from previous commitments and understandings, but also accelerated its Jewish
activities in Jerusalem and settlement activities on the ground, making the
viability of a sovereign Palestinian state on the lines of June 4, 1967,
unachievable even with the existence of political will in the future.
Although the only
alternative to the two-state solution is one state for two peoples, Israel
continues to deny both options along with denying the Palestinians legitimate
rights as if it can exist as an occupying power without negative consequences
forever in a world post the era of colonialism. That could lead Israel to
become an apartheid state similar to old South Africa, which will increase its
isolation and hatred in both the Arab and Islamic worlds and the world at
With this background
in mind, I have published last year in the Palestinian media a warning of the
evaporation of the two-state solution, and called on Palestinian public opinion
leaders to revisit this dead-end solution and consider the one-state solution,
believing that what Israel is doing will not lead to anything, and the two-state
solution is a disappearing dream, and the reality of occupation can't go on
US: A two-state solution is not only possible but inevitable;
the one-state solution would have catastrophic consequences for both peoples,
ranging from apartheid to major violence.
FP: How can Israel and the Palestinians
achieve a two-state solution, and what if they can't?
AQ: I think the time allowed before us for achieving the two-state
solution is limited, and it is running out very quickly. That means the time
factor that Israel is using to create new facts on the ground in reality is
working in a strong fashion against the two peaceful independent states living
side by side option. In addition, Israeli society is moving more and more to
the right with a rise of racial trends fueled by a sense of a military
strength. The absence of Israeli historic leaders capable of taking risks for
peace also is an additional element that is preventing the achievement of a
solution based on international legitimacy in the near future.
I will not hesitate
to say that the historic opportunity for achieving the two-state solution was
wasted more than once at Camp David, Taba, Stockholm, and Annapolis at times
when the Palestinian people had a historic leader in the caliber of Arafat. He
was capable of accepting the desired outcome, defending it, and bravely taking on
all internal risks.
Therefore, and since
Israel is the occupying party that possesses the power, it should return the
ball that has stayed in its court for so long. That means Israel should stop
denying the principle of the peace process, giving up its expansion policies,
and stop its plans in Jerusalem and other Palestinian areas. It is unrealistic
that the weak side in this power struggle must take the initiative. The
Palestinians have presented their historic initiative in 1993 when they
recognized Israel and accepted the lines of June 4, 1967, with a strong
commitment to peace as a strategic option. The Palestinians are not asking for
anything more than recognizing their national legitimate rights, including
their right to establish a sovereign independent state with Holy [East] Jerusalem
and the right of return to Palestinian refugees based on Resolution
194 and the Arab
US: Palestinians and Israelis can reach a two-state solution
only through a lengthy negotiation and implementation process, which will not
happen in the current constellation without active involvement of the American administration.
For such a process to be realistic, several elements must be put in place: an
American vision for the ultimate outcome of permanent status based on the Obama
Washington speech of 2011 and along the lines of the Clinton initiative; a
clear timeline for negotiations and implementation; special American assistance
and guarantees for Israel's security, including a NATO force in the West Bank
(possibly an Israeli-American defense pact); American and G-8 economic
assistance package for the creation and development of the new Palestinian
state with its democratic institutions; a regional anti-terrorism pact; a
people-to-people agreement linking the civil societies of the two sides, mainly
the young generation.
The alternative to a viable
peace process is not mere continuation of the status quo, but rather
deterioration to violence, if not a regional war.
FP: What positive and negative changes have
occurred in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
AQ: It is difficult to speak of positive elements in the
political environment over the past two decades that gave momentum to the peace
process. That process was mainly subject to Israeli changes, mostly negative,
as a result of six different prime ministers. Since Oslo and Rabin, the most
positive Israeli PM was Mr. Shimon Peres, who in a short period of time as PM
was able to achieve an Israeli military redeployment in six West Bank cities.
In a region like the
Middle East, where negative expectations are a self-fulfilling prophecy, the
biggest fear was a dysfunctional peace process. That feeling was with us since
the signing of the Declaration
of Principles and before the process became strong enough to sail on its
own. We have experienced that with the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in
1995 and with the complete political Israeli coup with the right under Benjamin
Netanyahu taking over in 1996.
Since our partners
who signed the Oslo agreement with us were no longer in power, the peace
process was subjected to unlimited vigorous attacks, and progress was almost at
a standstill. That continued until the Labor Party under Ehud Barak's
leadership came to power in 1999, and with him we had many fruitless
negotiating rounds. In mid-2000 we went to Camp David, which was the last
useless negotiating round with an Israeli PM, where he wanted to open up all
issues, including those that were covered with agreements previously signed.
This led the peace process to a dead end.
Therefore we see that
the history of the peace process was a mirror image of the changing Israeli
politics and the negative trends it brought with it which put the entire
process in the emergency room, followed by Second Intifada at the end of 2000
and the events of September 11th that changed the face of the entire world. All
of this opened the door wide to a series of downward trends on both sides.
Important among them was Prime Minister Sharon's decision to close the door in
front of negotiations, reoccupying the West Bank in 2002, imposing a siege
around Arafat's headquarters, and unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, leaving
behind an unstable internal situation, especially after the legislative
Palestinian elections where Hamas had won and later carried against the PA in
It is true that after
seven years of no activity on the peace process, the first direct negotiations
took place in Annapolis, but those negotiations met the same fate as previous
ones with failure that led to the land invasion of Gaza and the end of the Olmert
government. With the return of Netanyahu's right-wing government, the process
stopped, and settlements and Jewish activities in Jerusalem flourished. All
attempts by Obama to stop these activities even for a limited period of time to
reignite serious and constructive negotiations failed.
Now we find ourselves
with this history of very little positive elements facing the naked truth: Israel
was not serious in achieving just and honorable peace. It resorted to creating
excuses and facts on the grounds to prevent progress on the peace process. The
latest among these is Netanyahu's demand for the recognition of Israel as a
Jewish state before the start of a new negotiating round that will be a cover
for the acceleration of the ongoing settlement activities, which will undermine
the foundation of peace between the two neighbors and destroy the dream of two-state
US: The most important positive change in the region relating to
Israeli-Palestinian peace is the impact on Arab attitudes towards Israel and
Western attitudes towards the Palestinian state. The Arab world, in which the
young Arab constituency has a very influential voice following the Arab Spring,
is to a large degree shaping its attitudes towards Israel according to fate of
their Palestinian brethren living under Israeli occupation. As we have
witnessed between 1993 and 1995, a change in this reality will affect
positively Arab relations with Israel, regional cooperation, international
support for Israel and Palestine, and strengthen American strategic interest in
the region. The Western world, led by the United States, will engage and
cooperate seriously with the Palestinians on the diplomatic, strategic, and
economic levels only after the creation of an independent, democratic
There are no negative changes relating to
Israeli-Palestinian peace except that both societies, through the fruition of a
real peace process, will have to confront civil strife. Yet the identities of
Israel, as a modern Jewish democratic state, and Palestine, as a modern Arab
democratic state, can only be guaranteed through a peaceful two-state solution
based on the Oslo Accords and its premises.
MANOOCHER DEGHATI/AFP/Getty Images