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It has been 20 years to the day since the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat. On September 13, 1993, on the White House lawn, the two former enemies, flanked by President Bill Clinton, signed a historic "declaration of principles" (DOP) pledging to pursue a peaceful resolution to the nearly century-old conflict between their two peoples. Although both men are now deceased, the process launched with their historic handshake lives on.
Two decades on, the Oslo Accords, named for the secret talks held in the Norwegian capital in the months before the Washington signing ceremony, along with the many successive initiatives derived from it, has defined virtually all aspects of Israeli-Palestinian relations ever since. Oslo also came to define America's approach to the conflict. Yet, its remarkable longevity stands as a testament not to Oslo's utility, but to its failure.
Ultimately, the record of the Oslo process speaks for itself. Three formal rounds of permanent-status negotiations — Camp David in 2000, Taba, Egypt in 2001 and Annapolis, MD. in 2007 — all failed to produce an agreement. Nor did the dizzying array of partial agreements, protocols, memorandums and other micro-initiatives — the Hebron Agreement, Wye River Memorandum, Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum, the Tenet Work Plan, the Mitchell Report, President Bush's roadmap and others.
The 1993 Accords were followed by a series of additional agreements, most notably the Interim Agreement of 1995 ("Oslo II"), which laid out the specific responsibilities and jurisdictions of each party as well as the exact functions of the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA). Under the Oslo framework, the parties agreed to a five-year interim period while putting off negotiations over the most difficult questions — Jerusalem, refugees, borders and security — until the end.
The logic of this deferral rested on the belief that incremental progress on smaller-scale issues, such as security cooperation and improving economic conditions, would build mutual trust and confidence between the parties and enable them to tackle the tougher issues further down the road. The entire process was to have been completed by May 1999; although not explicitly stated in the accords, the goal was understood to be an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the interim, the parties agreed that "[n]either side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations" — the first of many provisions that’s meaning was effectively nullified by Oslo's tradition of "constructive ambiguity." Whereas Palestinians understood that provision to include a cessation of Israeli settlement activity (a view shared by successive U.S. administrations), Israel interpreted it as applying only to the legal status of the occupied territories rather than to the geographic and demographic status quo.
Oslo assumed that the arrangements it created would be temporary, and that the facts on the ground would remain unchanged in the meantime. In the 20 years since Oslo, however, Israel's settler population in the occupied territories has more than doubled — from roughly 270,000 in 1993 to well over 560,000 today — even as the parties were ostensibly negotiating the fate of these areas.
Thanks to Israel's ever-expanding settlement enterprise and other "facts on the ground," the logic of Oslo was effectively inverted; instead of becoming easier, key permanent-status issues such as Jerusalem and borders became more difficult to negotiate by preempting the outcome of negotiations and diminishing trust. Meanwhile, endless delays and missed deadlines, as well as the renegotiation and outright lack of implementation of previous agreements, effectively transformed ostensibly "interim" arrangements into a permanent reality.
The logic of Oslo had presumed that the control of the PA would be gradually expanded and the Israeli occupation gradually rolled back. Even at the height of the Oslo process in 1999, however, the PA never controlled more than 40 percent of the West Bank — 18 percent under full Palestinian civil and security control ("Area A") and 21 percent under Palestinian civil control and joint PA-Israeli security control ("Area B"). The remaining 60 percent of West Bank territory ("Area C") remained under exclusive Israeli civil and military control.
Palestinian territory was further fragmented by the elaborate network of Israeli checkpoints and internal closures that proliferated throughout the West Bank in the wake of the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. The uprising, or intifada, marked a new phase in the Oslo process. The violence associated with the intifada — including numerous suicide bombings that both hardened Israelis and isolated the Palestinian leadership diplomatically — along with Israel's violent response to it, helped to accelerate the PA's demise. In addition to the heavy human toll on both sides, the second intifada witnessed the physical destruction and dismantling of the PA's infrastructure and governing institutions.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration's 2003 "roadmap" fared no better. While key demands on the Israelis such as its call for a total freeze on settlement activity were completely abandoned, its security and "reform" demands on the PA were vigorously enforced.
Even the highly-celebrated "institution-building" program that became the hallmark of the "peace process" in recent years is little more than a figment of the international community's collective imagination. Far from the state-in-waiting envisioned by Oslo, today's PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament and suffers from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Thus, instead of the unitary "democratic Palestinian state" called for in the roadmap, Palestinians have two dysfunctional, autocratic and unaccountable governments.
Despite Oslo's 20-year legacy of failure, however, U.S. policymakers and much of the international community remain loyal to it. Two decades after the famous White House handshake between Rabin and Arafat, their successors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, are back at the negotiating table — thanks mostly to the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry.
While there is much in Kerry's approach that is new, it clings to the hopelessly outdated and dysfunctional framework established by Oslo. Indeed, the proposition that the most pro-settlement government in Israel's history and one of the weakest and most divided Palestinian leaderships in more than four decades can somehow conclude a conflict-ending peace deal is fanciful at best. Moreover, the current process continues to exclude both Gaza and Hamas, which remain unavoidable facts of Palestinian political life.
Ironically, the "peace process" launched by Oslo may have become an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of resolving that conflict, it established a new reality of limited Palestinian self-rule under continued Israeli occupation and colonization. Absent an entirely new approach that confronts these realities, Kerry is likely to face the same outcome as his predecessors.