Oslo peace accords provide cautionary tale 20 years later
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — With a hesitant handshake on the White House lawn, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat launched the Oslo peace accords 20 years ago Friday. It was a landmark agreement designed to end a century-old conflict, and most predicted there would be no turning back.
Yet two decades later, much of the agreement remains unimplemented, ignored or irrelevant. Israel still occupies the West Bank. Palestinians are no closer to statehood. The stalemate rages on.
In some ways, the fruits of Oslo — which earned Rabin, Arafat and then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the Nobel Peace Prize — still dictate relations between Israelis and Palestinians. It provided for mutual recognition and spawned the Palestinian Authority, which still provides a degree of self-autonomy to Palestinians. Terms of the accords are still used in matters of security and economic cooperation.
But much of the early progress achieved by Oslo was subsequently unwound. And largely due to the deep disillusionment felt on both sides, the accords' failure to result in a final-status agreement in 1999 led to hardened positions, fueling extremism and leaving the situation worse in many ways.
After President Clinton tried and failed to make the elusive final-status agreement a reality during Camp David talks in 2000, Palestinians launched a violent uprising, terrorizing Israelis for years with suicide bombers.
Israel's military response delivered a crushing blow to Oslo. Israel reoccupied parts of the West Bank that it had turned over to Palestinians under the accords and later constructed a massive security barrier to separate the Palestinian territory from Israel.
Palestinian infighting between rival factions Fatah and Hamas, largely over whether to negotiate peacefully with Israel under the accords or resume an armed resistance, divided the Palestinian territories in two, with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas in charge of the Gaza Strip.
Now U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is leading the Obama administration's attempt to resolve the conflict through relaunched direct peace talks.
But as those who helped negotiate, shape and implement the Oslo accords reflect on the 20th anniversary, they note that the agreement was far from the game-changer it was predicted to be and might better serve as a cautionary tale of what to avoid in future talks.
Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin, who forged the secret back-channel communications that spawned the agreement, said Oslo set the stage for 20 years of on-again, off-again direct talks.
"The most important component of Oslo was the mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO," he said.
But Beilin said he regretted not pushing Rabin to accept a permanent, final-status agreement, and instead settling for a phased-in approach that postponed tough issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and refugees to subsequent negotiations that were supposed to be completed by 1999.
"We should have used that very special moment we had, when there was a meeting of interests of all the parties, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans," he said.
As it happened, final Oslo negotiations were never completed after Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli fanatic in 1995.
"Our other mistake was not anticipating the extremists on both sides who would try to spoil it," Beilin said.
Today, he said, Oslo is kept alive by Israeli conservatives who originally opposed the agreement, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but who now see Oslo as a convenient political "umbrella" that provides a measure of international legitimization to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank.
Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei agreed that Oslo's biggest failing was that it included an interim period that allowed Israel to delay making painful concessions on borders and settlements while still claiming to be taking part in an international peace process.
He said Palestinians are keeping that lesson in mind during the renewed peace talks under Kerry. Some in Israel and the U.S. are already predicting that the sides will be unable to carve a permanent deal and instead should focus on reaching another temporary accord.
"Palestinians won't accept another interim agreement," Korei said. "You have to address all the issues. You can't divide them."
Former Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Alpher, who worked on the failed 2000 Camp David talks, said the issues are too divisive to be tackled under a single accord, as the Oslo process attempted to do.
He said Oslo ultimately collapsed under the weight of those issues, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security.
He said Oslo's failure shows that a better approach would be to separate issues that arose from Israel's creation in 1948 — such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees — from those that emerged after Israel seized control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, such as borders and Jerusalem's status.
"Oslo mixed post-1967 issues with pre-1967 issues," Alpher said. "But while you saw some progress with post-'67 issues, like security, borders and Jerusalem, you see zero progress on pre-'67 issues, like holy places and the right of return."
Another mistake that he said arose from the Oslo process was the negotiating-table principle that nothing would be agreed to until everything was agreed to. The concept was intended to allow both sides to take risks and to encourage creative horse-trading. But the principle made talks an all-or-nothing process.
"So with Oslo, not only did you lump undoable issues with doable issues, you declared that they would all be held hostage to the most intractable issue," Alpher said.
Not surprisingly, each side tends to blame the other for Oslo's collapse.
"The Oslo process failed because the Palestinian leadership, and especially the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, never intended for it to succeed," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He said Arafat used Oslo as a ruse to extract as much as possible before launching the 2000 Palestinian uprising.
"The attitude toward Oslo among Israelis today can be summed up in the words of the song by '60s band The Who: We 'won't get fooled again,'" Halevi said.
Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath, who advised Arafat on Oslo's implementation, said Israelis abandoned the peace accords after Rabin's assassination, which he said Arafat described as the day the "peace process died."
Beginning with the election of Netanyahu, who served his first term as prime minister in 1996, Israel has pursued a policy of "selective implementation" of Oslo, Shaath said, observing provisions it favored, such as security and economic cooperation, while ignoring other components.
Shaath also said Oslo was an inherently uneven playing field because it recognized Israel as a sovereign nation whereas the PLO was recognized only as a liberation movement, not a state. As result, he said, direct bilateral talks won't achieve a fair agreement because of the imbalance of power.
"There has to be international involvement," Shaath said.
Despite is flaws, former Israeli negotiator Uri Savir called Oslo a "turning point" that help propel both sides toward a solution, even if it failed to end the conflict.
"It is a mistake to say that Oslo is dead," he said. "A reconciliation process of this kind is a long-term process. But I am convinced that within a decade, there will be two states based on the concepts and principles of Oslo.
"The only things that remain unclear are how much bloodshed and negotiations there will be until then."