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Oslo has become a tool for Israeli expansionism — it's time to let go

The Oslo Accords have been manipulated for the unspoken goal of Jewish annexation of West Bank land. So long as both governments adhere to this failed system, they will be unable to pursue a real peace agreement.

By Nathan Hersh

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (C), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) in Houghton House at the Wye River Conference Center, during the Wye River Memorandum talks, October 16, 1998. (US Gov photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (C), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) in Houghton House at the Wye River Conference Center, during the Wye River Memorandum talks, October 16, 1998. (US Gov photo)

The Oslo Accords are the banner accomplishment of the Israeli peace movement. But their impact on the West Bank is no longer to orchestrate a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces, which they intended to do. Instead, the leadership in Israel has become increasingly populated by settlers and their sympathizers, and it has used the Oslo Accords for its own ideological pursuits.

The lasting accomplishments of the Oslo Accords—the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C; the cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and the creation of the Palestinian Authority—have different uses under Netanyahu’s premiership. Ministers and MKs from coalition parties frequently call for the annexation of Area C instead of withdrawal from it; Palestinian police forces maintain order in the areas Israel does not want to operate in and the Palestinian Authority is implicitly cosigning all of it. The Oslo Accords have been manipulated to strengthen the occupation, not dismantle it.

I first recognized the political utility of the occupation for Israel as a soldier in the West Bank. My unit was protecting Israeli civilians, preventing Palestinian violence directed at Israeli settlers and containing Palestinian protests. As soldiers, our concerns were not meant to extend beyond those objectives, and questions about the direction our actions were leading our country were irrelevant; such thoughts were dangerous distractions from the imperative to keep our country and our people safe.

The army’s objectives are simple and its mission is clear: security above all else. But the military occupation of the West Bank does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a context of official Israeli rejection of Palestinian national self-determination and sustained, illegal settlement expansion. A military occupation in this context is not purely about security; it is meant to protect the behaviors of the state.

This blindness ignores the Israeli policies that instigate violence. The growth of settlements, the refusal to negotiate with the non-violent Palestinian Authority and the current coalition’s rejection of the two-state solution makes any serious reference to the Oslo Accords’ potential for peace profoundly out of touch. And while the Accords remain an example of each side’s past willingness to make peace, that does not translate into an increased willingness to do so since then.

That’s because the army, by upholding the occupation, subtly protects and advances the settler ideology. In the winter and spring of 2011, my unit’s daily and nightly operations were exhausting and failed to procure tangible results. We had dealt with very few serious security threats. One soldier finally publicly told our commander, “Enough! What are we doing here? Let the Arabs police themselves!” One week later, Palestinian terrorists massacred the Fogel family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, and the sentiment that soldier expressed vanished.

Constant exposure to Palestinian violence combined with a systemic inability to see Israel’s role in the conflict has propelled it away from an agreement. As generations of Israelis were introduced to the conflict with the Palestinians through the lens of security, without any acknowledgement of the Israeli government’s behavior, the problem morphed from a complex and often violent conflict between national narratives, ethnicities and religions, to a singular problem of security from violent Palestinians. Israelis, the occupying force, felt they lost their agency.

This has not only produced an Israeli society that rarely acknowledges its own behavior, but it has impeded the work of Israeli peace activists and their allies abroad, too. Oslo is widely seen in Israeli society as a failure because the agreement was not able to hinder Palestinian violence. The two most prominent examples the Israeli right wing uses in rejecting the peace process are the withdraw from Gaza, which gave way to Hamas rule and thousands of rockets, and Oslo, which legitimized the Palestinian Liberation Organization, up until then considered a terrorist organization.

For the past 15 years, the Oslo Accords have been manipulated to hold the Palestinians accountable for the unspoken goal of Jewish annexation of West Bank land, and the P.L.O. has collaborated with it. That tacit alliance will severely undermine the possibility of serious peace negotiations between leaders from either side going forward.

So long as both governments adhere to this failed system, they will be unable to pursue a real peace agreement. The Palestinians — and the possibility for a two-state solution — do not have to be bound to the Israeli government’s expansionism.

Nathan Hersh served in a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces from 2009 to 2011 and has an MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation from Tel Aviv University. He is the former managing director of Partners for Progressive Israel. Follow him on Twitter: @nathanhersh.

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    1. been there

      The Oslo accords were negotiated in secret, behind the backs of Palestinian lawyers expecting to negotiate in Washington. They were recognized immediately as a disaster for the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Another inconvenient IDF soldier speaking out. Breaking the silence. Speaking the unvarnished truth. Who among you now is going to tell Nathan Hersh to mind his own business and stop collecting welfare and go busy himself elsewhere? What are you gonna tell yourselves about Nathan Hersh?

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Yeah Right! O-S-L-O!!!

        I was all for it at the time. Pity it turned sour very quickly. Why? One word again…

        A-R-A-F-A-T!

        He did not really want a peace deal with Israel that’s why he played a double game. He tried to get as much as he could, using Oslo and give as little as possible in return. One thing he did give us though. An escalation in terrorism. The ink hardly dried on the signed accords and terrorism against us escalated instead of diminishing. That is why Baruch Goldstein lost his head and went berserk. He was a doctor and he treated so many victims of Arab terrorism that he swore and carried out vengeance. Of course he was wrong to do what he did but he was a symptom rather than a cause of what happened to Oslo.

        And one more thing. Contrary to pro Arab propagandists such as Benny, Oslo was never about withdrawing drom 100% of the West Bank. It’s agenda was based on UN SC Resolution 242 which required Israel to withdraw to SECURE AND RECOGNIZED BORDERS. The 1967 boundary lines which were nothing but the 1949 armistice lines certainly did not qualify as secure borders.

        Reply to Comment