The Oslo Declaration of Principles (DOP) was signed more than eight years ago. About three years ago a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian permanent agreement was supposed to take effect. We are as far away from such an agreement today as we were nearly six years ago, in February-March 1996, when the process came to a halt following a wave of terrorist attacks. All attempts made since then to get negotiations back on track and renew the Oslo process have collapsed. Six years appear to constitute a sufficient period of time to recognize that we have failed and to search for alternative approaches.
The first suitable step is soul searching: what was accomplished and what was not accomplished through the Oslo process?
On the positive side, the Oslo DOP was revolutionary. After more than 70 years of zero sum confrontation between the two sides, the two national movements, Zionist and Palestinian, recognized and accepted one another’s right to exist as an independent national unit. The Palestinian national leadership established itself among its people, within the borders of the future Palestinian state. From Israel’s standpoint, the government ceased bearing political and administrative responsibility for the fate of three million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus bringing to an end 30 years of imposed military rule.
On the negative side, the drafters of the agreement made one huge mistake; they tried to put the cart before the horse. The DOP ushered in a process of territorial transfers that pinned hopes on confidence building measures by both sides; these in turn were intended to prepare public opinion prior to initiating final status negotiations. Herein lies the catch: it quickly (and predictably) became evident that a reverse process had commenced. Both sides began feverishly creating new and negative facts on the ground that would enable them to improve positions in anticipation of the final dispensation of each final status issue.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada began 14 months ago. Throughout this time we have witnessed repeated mediation attempts intended to bring about a ceasefire and to facilitate renewal of negotiations. By any standard, 14 months are enough time to conclude that there is no chance for such an initiative to succeed. On the contrary, the violent, persistent and painful struggle has gradually hardened public opinion, to the point where both sides are less and less ready to end the violence without knowing in advance what the political payoff is.
Historical experience teaches us that in nearly all armed conflicts it is not the ceasefire that precedes negotiations but, to the contrary, it is political negotiations and the agreement they produce that facilitate and generate a ceasefire. Indeed, both sides in such a violent conflict take into account that negotiations and a political agreement will clearly express the balance of forces in their armed conflict.
Isn’t it time we learned from the experience of others? Does it still make sense to adhere stubbornly to a failed process and repeatedly renew a sterile effort focused entirely on achieving a ceasefire prior to negotiating? It would be better for all three parties–Israel, the Palestinians and the US–to abandon the Tenet and Mitchell plans once and for all, and to open negotiations even as the violence and armed struggle continue on both sides. Renewing negotiations under these conditions will create a new situation: at a stroke the ground will be pulled out from under those terrorists who enjoy the capacity to torpedo negotiations at any moment by carrying out acts that destroy the “quiet” demanded as a precondition for negotiating.
Indeed, US integrity in mediation is at stake. Palestinians will measure the seriousness of the United States position in talks with the US administration over the nature of its mediation; its understanding of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 and the mechanics of the US role in the negotiating process.
Such an approach is based not only on practical logic. It also constitutes pressure on both parties to accelerate the negotiating process, in the clear knowledge that if they don’t reach agreement and understanding, then the current impasse will necessarily be solved by decisive military action between them.
Major General (res.) Shlomo Gazit was Israel’s first Coordinator of Government Operations in the Administered Territories (1967-1974) and Head of Military Intelligence (1974-1979).