Oslo Revisited

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On these hot, sticky days of the Israeli summer, it is pleasant to feel the coolness of Oslo, even if the visit is only virtual.

Fourteen years after the signing of the Oslo agreement, it is again the subject of debate: was it a historical mistake?

In the past, only the Right said so. They talked about "Oslo criminals", as the Nazis used to rail against "November criminals" (those who signed the November 1918 armistice between the defeated Germany and the victorious Allies.)

Now, the debate is also agitating the Left. With the wisdom of hindsight, some leftists argue that the Oslo agreement is to blame for the dismal political situation of the Palestinians, the near collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the split between Gaza and the West Bank. The slogan "Oslo is dead" can be heard on all sides.

What truth is there in this?

On the morrow of the agreement, Gush Shalom held a public debate in a large Tel-Aviv hall. Opinions were divided. Some said that it was a bad agreement and should not be supported in any way. Others saw it as a historic breakthrough.

I supported the agreement. I told the audience: True, it is a bad agreement. No one looking only at the written paragraphs could stand up for it. But for me, it is not the written paragraphs that are important. What is important is the spirit of the agreement. After decades of mutual denial, Israel and the Palestinian people have recognized each other. That is a historic step, from which there is no going back. It is happening now in the minds of millions on both sides. It creates a dynamism for peace that will overcome, in the end, all the obstacles embedded in the agreement.

This view was accepted by most of those present and has since determined the direction of the peace camp. Now I am asking myself: Was I right?

Yasser Arafat said about Oslo: "This is the best agreement that could be achieved in the worst situation." He meant the balance of power, with Israel’s huge advantage over the Palestinians.

For the sake of fair disclosure: I may have contributed in a small way to the shaping of his attitude. At my meetings with him in Tunis, I advocated again and again a pragmatic approach. Learn from the Zionists, I told him. They never said No. At every stage they agreed to accept what was offered to them, and immediately went on to strive for more. The Palestinians, on the contrary, always said No and lost.

Some time before the agreement was signed, I had an especially interesting meeting in Tunis. I did not yet know what was happening in Oslo, but ideas for a possible agreement were in the air. The meeting took place in Arafat’s office, with Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Abed-Rabbo and two or three others.

It was a kind of brain storming session. We covered all the subjects under discussion – a Palestinian state, borders, Jerusalem, the settlements, security and so on. Ideas were bandied about and considered. I was asked: What can Rabin offer? I asked in return: What can you accept? In the end we reached a kind of consensus that came very close to the Oslo agreement which was signed a few weeks later.

I remember, for example, what was said about Jerusalem. Some of those present insisted that they should not agree to any postponement. I said: If we postpone the solution to the end of the negotiations, will you be in a better or worse situation then than now? Surely you will then be better situated to achieve what you want?

The Oslo Agreement (officially the Declaration of Principles) was based, from the Palestinian point of view, on this assumption. It was supposed to give the Palestinians a minimal state-like basis, which would evolve gradually until the sovereign State of Palestine would be established.

The trouble was that this final aim was not spelled out in the agreement. That was its fatal defect.

The long term Palestinian aim was perfectly clear. It had been fixed by Arafat long before: the State of Palestine in all the occupied territories, a return to the borders existing before the 1967 war (with the possibility of minor swaps of territory here and there), East Jerusalem (including the Islamic and Christian shrines) becoming the capital of Palestine, dismantling of the settlements on Palestinian territory, a solution of the refugee problem in agreement with Israel. This aim has not been and will not be changed. Any Palestinian leader who accepted less would be branded by his people as a traitor.

But the Israeli aim was not fixed at all, and has remained open to this day. That is why the implementation of practically every part of the agreement has aroused such controversy, always resolved by the immense Israeli superiority of power. Gradually, the agreement gave up its soul, leaving behind only dead letters.

The main hope – that the dynamism of peace would dominate the process – was not realized.

Immediately, after the signing of the agreement, we implored Yitzhak Rabin to rush ahead, create facts, realize its explicit and implicit meaning. For example: release all the prisoners at once, stop all settlement activity, open wide the passage between Gaza and the West Bank, start serious negotiations immediately in order to achieve the final agreement even before the date set for its completion (1999). And, more than anything else, infuse all contacts between Israel and the Palestinians with a new spirit, to conduct them "on the eye-to-eye level", with mutual respect.

Rabin did not follow this path. He was, by nature, a slow, cautious person, devoid of dramatic flair (unlike Menachem Begin, for example.)

I compared him, at the time, to a victorious general who has succeeded in breaking through the enemy’s front, and then, instead of throwing all his forces into the breach, remains fixed to the spot, allowing his opponents to regroup their forces and form a new front. After gaining victory over the "Greater Israel" camp and routing the settlers, he allowed them to start a counter-offensive, which reached its climax in his murder.

Oslo was meant to be a historic turning point. It should have put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a clash between an irresistible force (Zionism) and an immovable object (the Palestinians). This did not happen. The Zionist attack goes on, and the Palestinian resistance becomes more extreme.

It is impossible to know what would have happened if Yigal Amir had not pulled the trigger. In Rabin’s days, too, settlements were being built at a hectic pace and there was no serious attempt at starting serious negotiations. But relations between Rabin and Arafat were gradually getting closer, mutual trust was being established and the process might have gathered momentum. So Rabin was murdered, and a decade later Arafat was murdered, too.

But the problem of the Oslo agreement goes far beyond the personal fate of its creators.

Lacking a clear and agreed-upon aim, the Oslo agreement gave rise to a situation that has almost no precedent. That was not understood at the time, nor is it clearly understood today.

Usually, when a national liberation movement reaches its goal, the change takes place in one move. A day before, the French ruled Algeria, on the morrow it was taken over by the freedom fighters. The governance of South Africa was transferred from the white minority to the black majority in one sweep.

In Palestine, an entirely different situation was created: a Palestinian authority with state-like trappings was indeed set up, but the occupation did not end. This situation was much more dangerous than perceived initially.

There was a sharp contradiction between the "state in the making" and the continuation of the liberation struggle. One of its expressions was the new class of authority-owners, who enjoyed the fruits of government and began to smell of corruption, while the mass of ordinary people continued to suffer from the miseries of the occupation. The need to go on with the struggle clashed with the need to strengthen the Authority as a quasi-state.

Arafat succeeded with great difficulty in balancing the two contrary needs. For example: it was demanded that the financial dealings of the Authority be transparent, while the financing of the continued resistance had necessarily to remain opaque. It was necessary to reconcile the Old Guard, which ruled the Authority, with the Young Turks, who were leading the armed struggle organizations. With the death of Arafat, the unifying authority disappeared, and all the internal contradictions burst into the open.

The Palestinians might conclude from this that the very creation of the Palestinian Authority was a mistake. That it was wrong to stop, or even to limit, the armed struggle against the occupation. There are those who say that the Palestinians should not have signed any agreement with Israel (still less giving up in advance 78% of Mandatory Palestine), or, at least, that they should have restricted it to an interim agreement signed by minor officials, instead of encouraging the illusion that a historic peace agreement had been achieved.

On both sides there are voices asserting that not only the Oslo agreement, but the whole concept of the "two-state solution" has died. Hamas predicts that the Palestinian Authority is about to turn into an agency of collaborators, some sort of subcontractor for safeguarding the security of Israel and fighting the Palestinian resistance organizations. According to a current Palestinian joke, the ‘two-state solution" means the Hamas state in Gaza and the Fatah state in the West Bank.

There are, of course, weighty counter-arguments. "Palestine" is now recognized by the United Nations and most international organizations. There exists an official world-wide consensus in favor of the establishment of the Palestinian state, and even those who really oppose it are compelled to render it lip-service in public.

More importantly: Israeli public opinion is moving slowly but consistently towards this solution. The concept of "the Whole of Eretz-Israel" is finally dead. There exists a national consensus about an exchange of territories that would make possible the annexation of the "settlement blocs" to Israel and the dismantling of all the other settlements. The real debate is no longer between the annexation of the entire West Bank and its partial annexation, but between partial annexation (the areas west of the wall as well as the Jordan valley) and the return of almost all the occupied territories.

That is still far from the national consensus that is necessary for making peace – but it is even further from the consensus that existed before Oslo, when a large part of the public denied the very existence of the Palestinian people, not to mention the need for a Palestinian state. This public opinion, together with international pressures, is what now compels Ehud Olmert at least to pretend that he is going to negotiate about the establishment of the Palestinian state.

It is still too early to judge Oslo, for better or for worse. Oslo does not belong to the past. It belongs to the present. What future it may have, depends on us.

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