What Oslo didn’t teach us

Back in September 1993, when the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed on the White House lawn, it was fashionable among many Israeli and international political circles, on both the left and the right, to declare that the Oslo process was "irreversible". That statement betrayed a naive underestimation of both the depth of the real conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the power of negative forces in the region.

Today the Oslo legal framework, embodied in the Palestinian Authority, continues to prevail at least on the West Bank. And the Oslo definition of the issues to be discussed in final status talks still constitutes the agreed agenda of the government of Israel and the PLO in their political negotiations. But "Oslo"–the concept of an agreed solution that creates a Palestinian political entity alongside Israel–seems farther than ever from realization. Its latest permutation, the Annapolis process, is not unexpectedly grinding toward either total failure or a pale anticlimax.

What went wrong? At the broad strategic level, since 1993 the two sides have failed several key tests of maturity and made a number of critical wrong choices. The Palestinians failed spectacularly at state-building: corruption, cronyism, poor leadership and endemic violence have too often characterized the efforts of the ruling national movement. Nor does that movement, Fateh, still control all the territory designated for its state; it must now search for ways to share power with Hamas, which rejects the very premise of Oslo. While Israel’s own mistakes–primarily the settlements, an error of grand-strategic proportions–undoubtedly made a major contribution to this failure at state-building, the Palestinians must confront their own heavy contribution to the fiasco if they are ever to succeed.

Apropos the settlements, a series of leaders since Yitzhak Rabin has been inclined to tolerate them and at times even "feed the beast" in the hope of maintaining sufficient domestic tranquility to reach agreement with the PLO–at which point the ever-aggrandized settlements would be removed. This vicious circle was broken only once, by Ariel Sharon when he evacuated the Gaza Strip. That move ultimately contributed little to tranquility beyond improving the increasingly critical demographic balance.

Sharon may have proved it could be done, but weaker (and better intentioned) prime ministers before and after his tenure have simply made matters worse. The primary explanation for their failure rests with Israel’s electoral/political system, which produces governments structured for brief political survival rather than peace and rarely generates coalitions that reflect the public’s overall support for a two-state solution. The Palestinian issue has brought down every ruling government coalition for the past 20 years; if PM Ehud Olmert resigns because of corruption charges, this will perversely constitute a welcome diversion from the stranglehold that the conflict and its solution maintain over Israeli politics.

There remain two additional strategic misconceptions that were produced or have been nurtured by Oslo and that have hindered its success. One is the notion that "the outlines of a two-state solution are clear; all we need are leaders capable of signing." It’s not true. Indeed, the depth of disagreement becomes clear every time the two sides tackle the final status issues. They do not agree on Jerusalem, and particularly the disposition of the Holy Basin area including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. And they are far apart regarding the right of return of the 1948 refugees. That the roots of these powerful historical narrative issues lie in the ancient past or in 1948 is not surprising: Oslo dealt with 1967 issues, i.e., the outcome of the Six-Day War in the Palestinian context. Yet even the path of the border between Israel and a Palestinian state still defies agreement insofar as the two sides cannot agree on the territorial nature and concept of the settlement blocs and of a Gaza-West Bank land link within the framework of a land swap.

A second strategic mistake that originates with the 1967 occupation and was virtually institutionalized by Oslo concerns the economic approach toward furthering Palestinian independence. Oslo produced the Paris protocol, which advocates economic integration between Israel and the Palestinian territories and reflects the integrative approach associated with Shimon Peres, one of the fathers of Oslo. In contrast Yitzhak Rabin, who actually signed Oslo, saw the ensuing process more as a friendly divorce reflecting Israel’s security concerns rather than a marriage based on the premise that close economic relations would guarantee peace. The Oslo process has suffered grievously because of this conceptual contradiction, with security and economic concerns constantly at odds.

Indeed, every Israeli government for the past 41 years of occupation, confrontation and negotiation has employed economic carrots and sticks–made possible by economic integration–in a vain effort to influence Palestinian political behavior. We see this concept at work today in the sanctions and blockade that are supposed to bring Hamas to its knees in Gaza and the contrasting investment in development in the West Bank that is supposed to constitute a peace-incentive. Neither tactic has had an appreciable effect: this conflict is political, ideological and territorial–not economic.

Today, in our shared frustration, we contemplate radical alternatives to the Oslo-based two-state idea. Palestinians talk more and more of a one-state solution while we Israelis increasingly advocate everything from more unilateralism, via involving Egypt and Jordan "on the ground"–to talking to Hamas.

Yet the two-state solution is still the best. At the very least, Oslo should have taught us that much.