Oslo stakeholders reflect on peace process after 20 years

Two decades of talks between Israel and the Palestinians have yet to produce an agreement resolving the conflict

Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Yasser Arafat, right, shake hands before Bill Clinton to mark the start of the Oslo accords on Sept. 13, 1993.
AFP/Getty Images

Al Jazeera asked a number of stakeholders in the peace process to reflect on why it has failed to produce a final-status agreement and what lessons Oslo holds for ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict. 

Aaron David Miller

Connie Reider

A former Clinton administration official who worked in the interagency task force responsible for overseeing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; currently at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

While the Oslo process may have failed in the sense that it was never completed, it must be acknowledged that the accords fundamentally changed the framework within which Israelis and Palestinians pursue their national goals, for better and for worse, and in terms of accommodation and conflict between their rival nationalisms. This is a legacy of huge consequence, to the point that in some ways Oslo is not dead at all.

Oslo marked a breakthrough in mutual acknowledgment by Israelis and Palestinians of the national identity of the other. It recentered the Palestinian story from a refugee population and military assets scattered across a diffuse diaspora to the putative state of Palestine. In that sense, it created an historically unique circumstance of a nation building its administrative, governance and security capabilities even as it tries to negotiate and fight its way out of occupation.

The key flaw of the Oslo process lay in the philosophical conceit that the most intractable differences could simply be deferred to the end of the process while the implementation of interim agreements would build the mutual trust and confidence to be able to tackle the tougher issues. It didn't work that way. By the time the Camp David talks were held to negotiate final status issues, there was less mutual trust and confidence than when the accords were signed.

Click for Al Jazeera's special coverage of Oslo at 20

The key lesson to be drawn is that interim agreements can't be the focus; even if it can't be implemented now, any new process has to forge agreement on the end state. Palestinians don't trust the interim approach because they don't trust that the final-status issues will ever be tackled. Israeli leaders, too, because they want to have an end-of-conflict agreement if they're going to pay the political price. There's no way Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will be able to plausibly stand before their people and say, "We have agreed on borders, security, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state." A conflict-ending agreement is simply not possible now. So the question becomes, What is possible now? And Oslo continues to inform that discussion.

Saeb Erekat

Karim Jafar/AFP/Getty Images

Deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid conference and Oslo accords; a negotiator on the behalf of the PLO in the Annapolis conference in 2007; currently a negotiator in the peace efforts led by Secretary of State John Kerry

Oslo failed because there was no accountability, because some parts of the international community took it as an end in itself. Israel continued to be treated as a state above the law, allowing it to enjoy the benefits of the peace process (more international legitimacy, open markets) while consolidating its settlement enterprise in Palestine. It is just about the international community respecting its own laws and commitments. If initiatives such as the E.U. guidelines on settlements and the U.N. recognition of the state of Palestine had been taken before, the situation now would be different.

Oslo had some important elements, such as a clear time frame (five years) and Israel's acceptance that the endgame was application of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which does not recognize the acquisition of land through the use of force. Israel also had to commit to discuss as final-status issues subjects that they never accepted to discuss before, such as Jerusalem and refugees. It even had to deliver a letter assuring that Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem as well as Christian and Muslim holy shrines would be preserved during the interim period, just as it committed to free all pre-Oslo prisoners and not take any action on the ground that could predetermine the result of negotiations -- namely settlement construction. But none of this worked because of the lack of accountability.  

Accountability is needed. We don't need a peace process, especially if it is interim. What is needed are decisions. Our internationally recognized right to self-determination is not up to negotiations, and Israel must decide whether it accepts that or not. The role of the international community should be to redress the balance of power in order to have a meaningful solution rather than keep the disparity by continue granting Israel impunity.

Alon Pinkas

Mario Tama/Getty Images

A former Israeli diplomat, political adviser to President Shimon Peres and chief of staff for then–Prime Minister Ehud Barak; currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum in New York

Oslo failed in the sense that the principles and agreements were never fully implemented and did not produce a final settlement. It did not fail in that it changed reality and created a de facto and de jure Palestinian Authority that may someday be the foundations of a Palestinian state.

It failed for several reasons: First, the longer the process was stretched, the more exposed and vulnerable it became to its detractors. Every delay or disagreement was magnified to vindicate the opposition.

Second, it failed to provide Israelis with the security they coveted, and it failed to deliver to Palestinians a silver lining. Many in both societies concluded that life pre-Oslo was in most respects better than life under Oslo, so, accordingly, a disincentive to proceed developed.

Third, Palestinian terrorism in 1995 and 1996 and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin created a major trust deficit that both Israelis and Palestinians never really recovered from.

As in any protracted conflict, there is (perhaps unfortunately and at great cost) a point of maturation, an inflection point of ripeness to resolve it. This can happen only when there is goodwill and trust and an understanding that a deal is not a zero-sum game. Before the point of ripeness, major moves should not be made.

Also, both publics should be convinced that they have more to gain than to lose. That was not the case in 1993 through 2003, a decade of terrorism and distrust.

Furthermore, a new process should not be more of the same, since that would be an affirmation of Einstein's definition of insanity. It should be gradual and begin with a Palestinian state in provisional borders.

Dr. Moustafa Barghouti


An independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the secretary-general of the Palestine National Initiative, an alternative to Fatah and Hamas that promotes nonviolent resistance to the occupation

Oslo failed for many reasons. But the two main ones are these: First, it was an interim agreement without specifying the final result. Israel abused that, implementing the parts of Oslo that it liked and not implementing the things it did not like. The Palestinians, meanwhile, were expected to abide by the entire agreement. It was an imbalanced process.

Second, it did not freeze settlement activity. It envisaged a two-state solution but did not stop the main killer of that possibility, which is the steady expansion of Israeli settlements  in the occupied territories. There were 150,000 Israeli settlers in the territories when the agreement was signed; today there are 600,000.

The main lesson is that the peace process was used as political cover for a process that was the opposite of peace. And the same mistake is being repeated now. Israel is again using peace talks to provide cover for ongoing settlement expansion and the consolidation of an unjust, discriminatory apartheid system.

We can no  longer talk about interim agreements that don't address the end point. We have to stop the bleeding, which is the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. If you don't stop the bleeding, you can't save the patient.

Dani Dayan

Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times/Redux

Chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers

The failure of Oslo was inevitable for a number of reasons. First, whoever thought that it was possible to agree to peace with Yasser Arafat -- a person who didn't even take off his military uniform and his gun when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly -- was blind to reality. Second, the Palestine Liberation Organization is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Its aim is to flood Israel with Palestinian so-called refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries. It was evident from the moment this agreement was signed with this person and this organization that it would fail.

The main thing we have to learn from this failure of Oslo is that the so-called two-state formula is unattainable. It's a mirage -- and just like mirage in the desert, every time you get close to it, it turns out to be nothing more than hot air. 

There is no political solution possible that satisfies both the minimum requirements of Israel and the minimum demands of the Palestinians. If former prime minister Ehud Olmert couldn’t convince PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas to make a deal, nobody will.

We need to change course completely, recognizing that a political solution to the conflict is unattainable. Instead, we need to invest in the people on the ground, Israeli and Palestinian. We need to provide for their welfare and freedom of movement, their security, their access to housing and more. Coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is possible in Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank. There's plenty of room here for all.

Hussein Ibish

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine

It certainly failed to produce what people had hoped and accepted it would produce. But it produced something. It produced a change that includes the Palestinian Authority --which is by no means independence from occupation. But it does provide the Palestinians with at least some measure of self-governance and some official presence in Palestine for the first since 1967.

If we want to concede that it was a failure, insofar as that it didn't result in a conflict-ended solution, on the contrary: It was supposed to be a five-year process to getting to a point where you could really negotiate the last issues of the final status.

One of the first reasons it failed is that, from a structural point of view, there's nothing in there to prevent Israeli settlement construction, and that, I think, was the most fatal flaw of the Oslo process -- that Israel never committed not to increasing settlements. And during the five years, the Palestinians expected a withdrawal from all the occupied territories except for military bases, settlement blocs in East Jerusalem. What happened was we got this area A, B and C relationship that continues to this day, long after it was due to expire in 1998. And first doubling of settlers in that period and now well over a half a million.

The other thing is that the basis of the Oslo agreement was the letters of initial recognition: On the one hand, the PLO, representing the Palestinian people legitimately, recognized that the state of Israel it should live in peace and security. The Israelis in return recognized merely the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, but Israel did not recognize and to this day has not recognized either the Palestinian state or the Palestinian right to statehood. So there's a deep asymmetry there, in which you could say the Palestinians played their single biggest card -- recognition of Israel -- in expectation of receiving something reciprocal in the future once the legality has been agreed on. But here we are, 20 years later without that and with more and more senior Israeli politicians dismissing the idea of that.

One thing is that we certainly need a third party (and that would have to be the United States because there isn't an alternative -- as much as people might want one, there isn't one) that can hold the parties accountable to what they have agreed to. That is essential. I really think that a process with an asymmetry of power, like the one that exists between Israel and the Palestinians, requires a third-party guarantor that enforces accountability.  

The second thing is an open-ended process that sort of proceeds with the idea that there will be a peace agreement based on two states and that it will look like whatever the parties come up with might be the wrong kind of modality. An alternative approach, which hasn't been tried but might be, would be to get to a point -- and you have to do this very carefully because of the political difficulties involved with both parties  -- to shift to something that looks a little bit more of like a Keith Dayton model, in which the expectations of the outcome in broad terms are clear to both sides to begin with. You can say the the Oslo proved that the incremental is deeply flawed when you're dealing with a situation of total asymmetry.

Rashid Khalidi

Thomas Good/NLN

Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, a former adviser to Palestinian negotiators and the author of Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

You cannot have a negotiation in which one side is handicapped in what can be discussed, in which one side is not allowed to put issues on the table and in which the mediator is biased in favor of the more powerful party. And all of those were the conditions under which Oslo was negotiated.

The Palestinians were forced by the Americans and the Israelis to negotiate interim agreements and not deal with any of the important issues between them and Israel. The United States laid down the ground rules and was the supposed intermediary while always coordinating every one of its positions with the Israelis. Those are conditions that guarantee that you're not going to have a resolution, when the Israelis are not really willing to consider ending the occupation (which they were not and are not), ending settlements (which they were not and are not) and giving the Palestinians full and complete self-determination and independence.

In those circumstances, when ground rules are laid down by two parties that are coordinating with each other and are opposed to the basic preconditions of a resolution, you're not going to have a resolution. And that's the lesson I would draw.

Unless you have a open negotiation in which international law determines the outcome, in which everything can be discussed and in which the mediator is not biased in favor of the aggressor against the weaker party and the victim, you cannot possibly have a resolution of the conflict.

Avrum Burg

David Shankbone

Speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, from 1999 to 2003; currently a businessman and political activist in Israel

Oslo failed because we didn't do enough to rein in the peace-destroying mechanisms on both sides. The Palestinians had conceded the majority of their homeland; in exchange they expected an end to the erosion and creeping annexation of the little that remains. But the Israelis didn't stop the occupation and the colonial-settlement enterprise for one moment. The Palestinians, for their part, didn't understand Israeli sensitivities to continued incitement and violence, expressed most horrifically in suicide bombings.

The Oslo accords were not meant to live forever. They were temporary scaffolding to support a transition from occupation and control to partnership between equals -- but the fundamental imbalance of power meant the parties never negotiated as equals.

It's time to explore new paradigms that will save us from further humiliation and arrogance, occupation and violence. We have reached a dead end in which there is no freedom for the Palestinian nation and no security for Israelis. We have grown no closer to a just and viable solution of two states for two peoples. We all live under one discriminatory Israeli regime. And many of us lost hope in finding a just solution.

My own hope today lies in our ability to find a solution that is not based on separation. The fates of both nations are inextricably tied together, and the individual rights and equality of all those who live between the Jordan River and the sea, as well as their communal rights, must be recognized. Exclusive privileges for Israeli Jews in land ownership and access to natural resources must be canceled, and the Palestinian refugees' right of return must be recognized, even if implementing that right must be done on the basis of justice on present realities, avoiding the creation of new injustices.

Only mutual recognition based on justice and equality can bring forth an alternative political reality in which memories of exile and expulsions can give way to a post-conflict reality of citizenship and inclusion.

Diana Buttu

A legal adviser to the PLO in negotiations with Israel from 2000 to 2005

Oslo failed because it was designed to fail. The Israelis went into Oslo wanting to remove the stain of being an occupier. They wanted to enter into negotiations because it would improve their economy, and they really got tired of having, one generation after another, Israelis being the ones ruling over the Palestinians. At a certain point, one generation after another begins to question the legitimacy and the necessity of maintaining rule over another people. So for the Israelis, Oslo really worked. They managed to get 45 countries to sign diplomatic relations with them just from the period of 1993 onward. They got a peace treaty with the Jordanians in 1994. That wouldn't have been possible if it had not been for the Palestinians. They got money from Europeans and from the Americans to pay for the Palestinians -- money that they themselves would've had to pay. Basically, they removed the stain of being an occupier, plus they got the ability to build and expand their settlements. From the period of 1993 to 2000, the settler population almost doubled in size.

For the Palestinians, it was just a series of promises -- a promise that there was going to be a process, a promise that there was going to be freedom, a promise that things were going to get better, but none of that really came to issue because nobody was really focused on the Palestinians. Everyone was so desperate to get Israel to sign on to anything that all international efforts went into appeasing the Israelis.

If people had wanted it to succeed, the international community, in particular the United States, wouldn't have been pushing the Palestinians to negotiate their rights. They would've, instead, been pressuring Israel to end its military rule. They could have held Israel to account for all its violations -- for the ongoing settlement construction, for the fact that it didn't release the prisoners, for putting restrictions on movement, for everything it could’ve been held accountable for -- but they didn't, so the conclusion for me is that Oslo failed because it was designed to fail.

The first lesson we should learn is that Palestinians should not have had to negotiate their freedom; rather, the international community should have held Israel accountable. The Palestinians -- or any people who are denied their freedoms -- shouldn't have to negotiate their rights and shouldn't negotiate with their oppressor. The pressure should be coming from the international community on the ones doing the oppressing, not on the oppressed.

The second is that without that kind of sustained pressure on Israel, Israel will do whatever it wants to do, and we've already seen it just in the start of these new negotiations at the end of July. The Israelis have announced 1,500 new housing units in East Jerusalem alone, marking one of the highest rates of settlement growth in Jerusalem since before Oslo.

The major lesson to be learned is that there is a huge power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians. And pretending there is no power imbalance is simply not going to work. This is what the Americans would love for people to believe. They'd love for people to believe that it's just a question of two sides and the two sides' sitting down together and negotiating and meeting and if the venue is good enough, then they're just going to work it out. But what they don't realize is that there is a huge power imbalance between the two sides. Rather than the United States supporting and backing Israel, what it should do instead is recognize this power imbalance and make sure that the powerful party -- i.e., Israel -- be held to account rather than make demands that the weak party -- the Palestinian party, the powerless party -- continue to give in more, to make more and more compromises.

Amjad Alqasis

Courtesy Amjad Alqasis

Legal-advocacy program coordinator for the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights

The Oslo process was doomed to fail from its beginnings for two main reasons:

1. It is important to highlight that the Oslo process did not include large portions of the Palestinian people and in particular the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the millions of Palestinian refugees living in forced exile.

Israel has since its beginnings worked on dividing and fragmenting the Palestinian people in various categories and subcategories. The main categories are the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Palestinians living in occupied Palestinian territory (West Bank–, Gaza Strip– and East Jerusalem–ID holders) and the Palestinian refugees (registered as well as nonregistered) who are living in forced exile.

The Oslo process, which was initiated by Israel, has institutionalized this fragmentation by creating a Palestinian institution, the Palestinian National Authority, which by definition represents only the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza.

2. Oslo failed simply because Israel has continued its colonial practices of forcibly displacing the Palestinian people. This deliberate displacement of Palestinians by Israel from 1948 until the present amounts to a policy and practice of forcible transfer of the Palestinian population -- ethnic cleansing. This process is ongoing -- ongoing Nakba -- and has resulted so far in 70% of the Palestinian population worldwide belonging to the group of refugees or internally displaced persons.

Today more and more Palestinians realize that Oslo was another setback for the Palestinian plight of self-determination and the right of return. Popular initiatives today are calling for a reformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in an attempt to revitalize it, since by definition the PLO is the Palestinian body representing all the Palestinian people, including the millions of refugees.

Palestinian refugees have a solid interest in opposing the Israeli fragmentation of the Palestinian people to highlight and ensure that durable solutions can only be found when taking in consideration the whole of the Palestinian population by disregarding geographical, social or political boundaries created and fostered by the colonial state of Israel.

Ron Pundak

Ron Pundak is the former director general of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel. He played a vital role in establishing the secret meetings held in 1993 that eventually bore the Oslo Accords.

The roots of what is known as the collapse of the Oslo process were planted by its three leaders: Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. All three sought peace, but from the very start each one also played a part in the failure of the accords to achieve their intended aim -- a two-state solution.

Arafat did not make the transition, in terms of mentality and leadership, to the era of diplomacy and statesmanship. He proceeded from there to make a variety of comments that maintained his practice of doublespeak, in a manner that served as "proof" for opponents of the process that the Palestinians were not a reliable partner and had not relinquished their aim to annihilate Israel. All this was compounded by Arafat’s approach of turning a blind eye to some of the terrorist activities of Oslo’s opponents that soon began carrying out attacks against Israel. Although Arafat did issue orders to fight the opposition, these were often vague, thus facilitating a soft policy against Islamic terror. 

Arafat created a reality in which terrorists had the maneuverability to perpetrate an increasing number of attacks. These attacks were then attributed by most Israelis to "all Palestinians," regardless of whether they supported or opposed the peace process, thereby catalyzing growing mistrust as well as Israel’s hardline security policy of indiscriminately attacking both the suspect population and the innocent, peace-seeking Palestinians. The policy of Israel comprised curfews, closures, checkpoints and collective punishment, which compounded the vicious cycle of action-reaction.

On the Israeli side, Peres and Rabin made a big mistake in not communicating to the Israeli and Palestinian publics, immediately upon signing the Oslo agreement, the fact that this new stage manifested a dramatic transformation of Israeli policy aiming eventually at bringing about the unequivocal solution of two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 borders, conditional of course on successful implementation of the interim agreement and satisfactory future security arrangements.

Moreover, the Israeli official apparatuses were not directed to adjust the new approach towards the Palestinians in any real sense, and therefore the various relevant actors within the IDF, police and government ministries did not transform their psychological attitude and practical approach to the new realities on the ground. In practice, Rabin and Peres intentionally left the vision and the intended course of negotiations vague, while simultaneously issuing clarifications that totally excluded a two-state solution. In so doing they generated a roaring dissonance as well as serious practical problems.

The absence of any strategy resulted in an inferior agreement, and in superfluous Israeli "achievements" that were imposed on the Palestinians with the overall aim of denying them the attributes of an emergent state. 

Simultaneously, Israel also continued building and expanding the settlement "enterprise." This was interpreted by many Palestinians as a hint that Israel will never withdraw from these areas. Furthermore, on the ground, the humiliating treatment of all Palestinians as potential and suspected enemies continued. Mistreatment of Palestinians at checkpoints persisted, although most did not constitute a threat to Israel. 

But in spite of the unbridgeable gap between Netanyahu, who is stuck in anachronistic positions, and Abu Mazen, who presents very pragmatic positions, peace is still possible.  The two constituencies are fed up with the current situation and the majorities on both sides will support any agreement that their leaders will bring.

But this time the Americans must establish a dominant presence in the negotiations. The U.S. role is to create a mechanism that will bring about the conditions that allow both sides to advance without conceding their fundamental principles. Thus the Americans should present the vision and principles of a permanent agreement through a U.N. Security Council resolution, which is binding under international law, that in practice will replace Resolution 242. This resolution will eventually serve as a new compass for the entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even if the current Israeli government will announce that it does not accept it.

In parallel, the U.S. should lead a process of negotiations leading to an interim agreement which will bring about a Palestinian state within interim borders, and place a clear timeline for negotiating a permanent agreement, which will probably be negotiated by a different prime minister.

A number of other stakeholders in the peace process contacted by Al Jazeera were unable to comment by time of publication.

Compiled by Ehab Zahriyeh, Tom Kutsch and Tony Karon

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