Oslo:  1993-2015 - RIP

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
The Oslo Accords and its attendant peace process came into the world with a bang 22 years ago. This past week they exited with a sad whimper. 

Once a focus of the world's concern, at this year's United Nation's General Assembly opening session the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was, at best, an afterthought. Neither US President Obama nor Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin even mentioned the issue in their speeches. Worse still was how the question of Palestine was mangled and abused in speeches delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.  

Netanyahu, forever the showman, put on a bizarre performance in which he touched only briefly on the conflict in his backyard. Eighty percent of his prepared remarks were devoted to denouncing and demeaning the UN for its support of the Iran deal (including an eerie 44 seconds in which he silently stared at the assembly scolding them for their silence in the face of Iran's threats against Israel). He then launched into an embarrassingly boastful discourse in which he claimed that Israel was the "innovation nation" that had invented or "perfected" pretty much everything from smartphones to the cherry tomato. 

Only at the very end of his speech did the Israeli PM turn to the Palestinian issue disingenuously announcing that he was "prepared to immediately resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever". Two sentences later, however, Netanyahu imposed his first two preconditions by stating that his commitment to a two state solution meant "a demilitarized Palestinian state [that] recognizes the Jewish state". 

Like Netanyahu, PA President Abbas remarks were also predictable. Where Netanyahu can be counted on to be arrogant, self-serving, and dishonest, Abbas' remarks were a long sad litany of woes culminating in empty threats. He reiterated the Palestinian demand for their just rights and then listed all of the ways that Israel has impeded the realization of those rights.

Abbas had promised a "bombshell" announcement, but it was delivered in such tortured language that observers listening carefully to the PA president's words were left wondering what he was really saying:

"We declare that as long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreement signed with us...we will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements...while Israel continuously violates them."

Was he, in fact, dissolving the Palestinian Authority and ending security cooperation with Israel? Was he endorsing a nationwide movement of non-violent resistance demanding an end to the decades' long occupation? Or was he making just another hollow threat?

The US response was also tragically predictable, lamely calling on all parties to take no steps that would endanger an eventual "two state solution"—as if oblivious to the realities that continue to be created that are making that very outcome impossible: 570,000 Israeli settlers living across the Green Line, an obscene barrier/wall that snakes in and out of the West Bank chewing up almost ten percent of the Palestinian territory, provocative Jewish-only housing projects being established in East Jerusalem and Hebron in a continuing effort to change the character of both cities, and now a dangerous effort to change the status quo at the Haram ash Sharif.

Arrogant and dishonest bullying from the Israeli side, weak and visionless whining from the Palestinians, and timidity and neglect from the US—that was how the Israeli/Palestinian issue played out at this year’s UN. And it was how Oslo and its peace process were unceremoniously buried.    

This was not the way it was to have been.

I was on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993, together with hundreds of other Arab Americans and American Jews as we watched PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sign the Accords. Back then, there was excitement and hope.

The Accords were flawed, to be sure. The parties had gone as far as they could in an effort to find agreement, but in doing so they left some terms vague and subject to divergent interpretations. Further progress, therefore, would require a firm balancing hand. Nevertheless, what was clear was that Israel and the PLO had recognized each other's national rights and agreed to negotiate an end to their decades-old conflict. It was understood that the way forward would not be easy. But there was optimism that there was, at last, a beginning.

That was then.

The intervening years were not kind to the Oslo process. The US "peace team" failed to recognize that the Israelis and Palestinians both had to be sensitive to their publics and would need external support and pressure to complete the effort. Instead of a balanced approach, Israel got the support and Palestinians got the pressure.

Not only was little progress made in the critical first few years, but Israeli settlements increased, Palestinians became poorer, more unemployed, less free to move about, and, in the end, they lost confidence in the peace process. Efforts to sabotage Oslo made by the Israeli right-wing and the Gingrich-led Congress were matched by a series of hideous terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas, who also sought to destroy Oslo.

After Rabin was assassinated on the heels of a right-wing campaign of incitement against him and as Hamas stepped up its campaign of terror, Israelis elected Benjamin Netanyahu who campaigned on a platform of ending the Oslo Accords. By placing new hurdles in the way of the process while dramatically expanding new settlement construction, Netanyahu did his best to deliver on his promise.  

By this point, despite the fact that Oslo was on life support, no one was willing to recognize that without dramatic third-party intervention, Oslo would surely die. The years that followed witnessed a series of ups and downs—with the "ups" never as high as some political opportunists would claim they were, and the "lows" were lower than anything the worst pessimists might have imagined. For example, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barack's "best deal ever" was mostly disingenuous hype - it wasn't very good and it wasn't even "a deal". And then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "generous offer" was equally bogus since he offered it while facing an indictment for corruption, which only days after making the offer resulted in his being driven from office. 

During all this time, pathologies played out on all sides. Israeli politics continued to become more hardline and aggressive seeking to establish their control of all of Eretz Israel. Palestinians, divided and absent visionary leadership, floundered. Hamas' violence and Israeli disproportionate and massively destructive violence played off of each other, with victims (mainly Palestinian) all around. Meanwhile the US, inhibited by domestic political concerns played a weak hand, in effect, enabling the Israelis to continue their subjugation of the Palestinians and further destroying the peace process.

In a real sense, Oslo has been dying for years. What happened this week was the final burial rite. Unless there is a dramatic challenge to the status quo (which may occur if the Israelis continue their provocation in Jerusalem), the Israeli/Palestinian situation will continue to deteriorate with no good end in sight.

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