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
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.