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What went wrong? Learning from the mistakes of Oslo

Can Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators learn from their mistakes in order to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict?

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)

New negotiations offer hope like a quarter-drop of water splashed onto scorched and desiccated earth. How quickly such a drop can be absorbed as if it never was, and ground into the dust by the overwhelming forces of failure.

Once, hope went beyond a drop: in 1993, the Oslo Accords were a shining symbol of progress. After years of despair and death, it has become synonymous with failure for many. Yet it is the only model for agreements actually signed between Israel and the Palestinians.

As a service to the negotiating team, it seems worth asking an obvious question: what were the mistakes of the Oslo process? What should the current negotiators learn from them, and seek to avoid? I asked some Israelis and Palestinians close to the issue, and here are their first thoughts. They are not exhaustive, but it is interesting that they are linked and overlapping: the process, the agreement and the implementation all hold potential pitfalls, and the end-goal must set the immediate, short-term course.

1. Stop settlement expansion. Dr. Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza explains that: “When we look at the past 20 years of negotiations, we think the fatal mistake for the Palestinians was signing an agreement with Israel without making sure there is an end to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” That is why many Palestinians are confounded by Mahmoud Abbas’ agreement to open negotiations without assurance of a freeze. He noted that rumors of a new settlement plan inside the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem have reached Gaza (the story aired on Israeli news Monday evening). Abusada views this point as the primary reason for demonstrations in Ramallah and Nablus against the negotiations: “they feel there are no guarantees that Netanyahu is serious about ending the conflict and reaching a viable state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. And a good percentage of Palestinians feel that Netanyahu will use the negotiations to build more settlements.”

Dr. Gershon Baskin, a longtime peace activist who created the back-channel negotiation leading to Gilad Shalit’s release, has a frank suggestion. There must be “no constructive ambiguity – it has to be explicit. [Out of] the six agreements we signed, not one said Israel can’t build settlements.”

2. Address final status issues. While core issues might wait until the end of the negotiations, they must be solved in the current process, says Abusada: “In Oslo they left Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and borders – final status issues open – that was a mistake.” For him, the toughest remaining final status issues now boil down to Jerusalem and refugees. “These are the most complicated. There cannot be an agreement without solving these two.”

3. Shared final status vision. It seems obvious, and the sounds coming out of Washington do appear geared towards final status, but the point is more complex.  Hiba Husseini, a Palestinian attorney who chairs the Legal Committee to Final Status Negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis and has been a legal advisor to the peace process negotiations since 1994, says that the overall final status vision should be hewn from shared perspectives and common needs, not exclusive, zero-sum interests of each side.

Water, for example, is a shared resource with obvious importance to both: “Israel says, I control water. We say, we have right to the water. So we are stuck and Israel is stuck. The end result is that Israel uses water resources and sells our water back to us. But the bottom line is that we couldn’t find joint compromise.”
For her, the Oslo Accords lacked a vision based on common interests (or any coherent, mutually-agreed end-goal at all), and this made the process especially vulnerable to the vagaries of implementation: “The way the conflict permutated into all these crises and schisms and lack of progress and distrust, stems from the fact that we did not have one single vision for the outcome and the end of the conflict.” She sums up: “When Israel placed its interests first and we, ours, we failed to see joint interest in finding a solution.”

4. Peace Authority. Dr. Anat Lapidot-Firilla, the academic director of the Mediterranean Neighbours program and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute believes that Oslo failed to establish a body charged with actually implementing peace – not something run by government ministries, but a body with authority, some measure of independence and, she specifies, substantial funding: “not just to execute things, but to initiate – ways to realize the actual agreements, create projects, tie the strings together, cement the peace.”

5. Watch out for spoilers. As Dr. Yossi Beilin, one of the original architects of the “Track II” process that led to the Oslo accords in 1993, and later a negotiator and minister in Ehud Barak’s government put it to me: “I would strongly advise against murdering [then-Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin.” He did not cite flaws in the Oslo process itself: “If Rabin hadn’t been murdered, 99% we would have reached a final status accord.” Beilin then ceded that perhaps the negotiators didn’t fully internalize how far spoilers would go. “We were going on surveys showing that strong majorities on both sides wanted to reach an agreement and were prepared to pay a price, and we thought it was enough.” By no means should those people be allowed to sabotage the process, he said, but “Make sure you know it’s there, look behind you. We didn’t see Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir. Look behind you, the enemy is not always in front of you.”

6. Engage the disaffected. Lapidot-Firilla speaks of the need to address larger dissatisfied groups beyond just radical or extreme individuals. She recommends engaging those who feel affected, offended or hurt by the agreement. The 2005 Gaza withdrawal included the same mistake: “In the consciousness of many people…it is considered very traumatic, they were mourning, but they weren’t dealt with in a significant way. There was a disconnect between the people who made the agreement and those who are affected by it in a significant way…It’s a peace process, not just an agreement – it’s a process that needs to include reconciliation between [and among] populations.” The “peace administration” she recommended could be charged with this task as well.

7. Oversee implementation, solve problems on the ground. Baskin states that implementation and progress of the accords must be “monitored and verified by a third party,” and that each further stage of progress will be conditional on fulfillment of the previous stage on the ground, not based “declarations.” When disputes inevitably arise, a sub-task (and perhaps a sub-section) of the third party monitoring the accords will be an “effective real time dispute resolution mechanism. ” This mechanism can help resolve small incidents and problems before they fester and loom large.

8. Fast phases or none at all. I will take the liberty of adding the final criticism. Phased processes must be swift or they shouldn’t happen in phases at all. Agreements cannot be isolated from their context, and the Middle East is a place of hot tempers and short fuses; the only predictable thing is the unpredictable. No implementation stretched out over six years can expect to face the same challenges of six years earlier. The phased element of Oslo, I believe, was a result of the fundamentally interim nature of the accords. That halfway approach was a serious mistake according to Husseini.

“From day one, all the policies were set on interim basis, [it was] a course of addressing, not resolving, but managing conflict, a transitional, short-term management basis…rather than long-term end to the conflict…We didn’t see it. We accepted the interim [agreement], we signed, but we did not see that the interim [aspect] was really controlling policy in Israel and we understood a bit too late.”

On a personal note, the Oslo signing was a turning point for me. I was just formulating my dream of moving to Israel. Oslo made me feel that I would be moving to a country on the move, and I wanted to be a part of it. When I landed four years later as a new immigrant, disillusionment hit me like the bomb in a marketplace that had blown vegetables and 18 human beings to pieces a few days earlier.

I’ve heard many Israelis say that peace can’t happen so quickly, it takes time. That’s what I call a mistake.

Talks with Israel might be a good move for Palestinians

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    1. Seth Appel

      Very astute and interesting. Personally if I had to weigh their importance to the failure of Oslo I would have to say it was 99% #2. There really never was agreement on the big issues – and so the small steps of Oslo only created the appearance of actual progress.

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    2. The first election of Bibi was a product of direct election of the PM, creating a plurality Labor Knesset with Bibi as PM. He ran on a platform of mistrust and caution, curtailing Oslo implementation (including, I think significantly, freezing payment transfers to the PA, which limited the latter’s largesse). In 96 Israel had something of a US like split government; such a split often gives the trump to those who would do nothing or dismantle. Nor do I believe Arafat was willing to allow a mini-pluralism which might have absorbed some of the ultimately violent dissent. On both sides an elite of conflict control had evolved; real peace requires, I think, some dismantling of that control, and neither side was willing to risk that, in terms of security, subservience, or loss of local power.

      I suspect the significant immigration of ex-Soviet Jews tilted the election to Bibi. When fighting for a place in a new world, targeting a common enemy is useful; Bibi’s appeal to the Oslo danger sold. By the time of Barak Oslo had been frozen. Although it is now said Rabin had decided to back off as well, I think he may have known that territory produced an endorphin among Palestinians at first, but things would go sour without political and economic expansion. When Sharon went to the mount, frustration was ripe for violent release. If the reports of Israeli sharp shooters taking out “leaders” in mass demostrations are true, that could have removed all social control of the violent. Ever since, the echo of suicide bombing has controlled policy. (I do not believe “all” Palestinians welcomed the bombings; I think, however, that a majority had given up anything else.) But the Wall is not complete and there have been no bombers; somehow, social control has returned; one would like to know why.

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    3. I think you’re doing both publics a disservice by pretending that there is anything serious about these so-called negotiations. They are a charade which is intended to go nowhere, mainly to give Abbas a pretext for not demanding full statehood at the UNGA in September.

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    4. Rebecca

      One item missing from this list is how the internal Palestinian dynamics between those “inside” the territories and those who returned with Arafat distorted the distribution of benefits from the Oslo process. These tensions contributed to Palestinian dissatisfaction with the process and undermined the scope for manoevering and compromise of the Palestinian leadership.

      20 years later the divisions are no longer between inside and outside constituencies, but there is still the obstacle of a fractured and dysfunctional Palestinian political system that will have difficulty making any far-reaching any peace agreement in a credible and sustainable manner.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Philos

      I think the status quo is preferable. This is all an exercise to get the UN and EU off Israel’s back. Kerry said as much in his speech. The next 9-months Netenyahu and his spin doctors will be devising ways to ensure that the collapse of the talks can be pinned on the Palestinians

      Reply to Comment
    6. In a weekly faction meeting Monday, Beit ha-Yehudi MKs were requested to refrain from threatening to leave the coalition because a new understanding on the government’s settlement construction was in the pipeline, Maariv reported on Wednesday morning. Naftali Bennett reportedly told his party colleagues the peace talks that started this week in Washington were not expected to bear fruit.

      Reply to Comment
    7. rowan somerville

      Excellent article…lets ask what went wrong last time and be sure to improve…great idea!

      My instinct tells me that the talks are a sham,my judgement tells me that every single opportunity must be grabbed as if its the last.

      One question from an outsider…do you think there’s any chance that your beloved Bibi (sorry) and allies will really do what is necessary for peace without enormous (I mean in action terms) pressure from the US ?

      Isnt the direction of BN’s government what his direction has always been, since he was involved in the demos against Rabin (where a coffin figured ominously -at least o the footage I saw) …this essentially is a charade where he will play nice on the international stage when needs be -but really he isnt interested in anything except complete subjugation of the Palestinians.

      Just an impression…could be entirely naive …what do you think ?

      Reply to Comment
      • “My instinct tells me that the talks are a sham,my judgement tells me that every single opportunity must be grabbed as if its the last.” That about sums it up for me too, friend.
        As to your other questions: Yes, Bibi will need enormous outside pressure to do anything. That’s probably the only reason he’s in this process now. But too much pressure will also backfire: there’s the rub.
        Yes he was at the demos with the coffins and posters of Rabin in SS uniforms, too (there’s a whole euphemistic expression here for it: “he was on the balcony” – i.e., overlooking Zion Sq during those demos. Is he doing this for a show, to have a process for as long as possible without a solution – it’s quite likely that this is his ideal scenario. Question is whether he’ll get away with it, given other forces at play. If you’re interested, I’ve written about that too 🙂

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    8. rowan somerville

      Ah…trespasser…so well named for your position…you are from the camp who feels secure in believing that the Palestinians are some sort of species apart…not like you or me ,or our children on sisters or brothers…not people who wish for happiness and peace and a decent life just like anyone lese…yours is the view of Meir that Palestinians hate Jews more than they love their children …right ? I am sure its very reassuring to have such a bogeyman…but one, its not true and two, it wont get you anywhere.

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      • The Trespasser

        >Ah…trespasser…so well named for your position…

        I know.

        >you are from the camp who feels secure in believing that the Palestinians are some sort of species apart…

        No, I’m from the camp who knows that there is no “Palestinians” or that the ethnonym “Palestinians” was stolen by Palestinian Arabs.

        >not like you or me, or our children on sisters or brothers…not people who wish for happiness and peace and a decent life just like anyone else…

        Apparently, you do not realize that “happiness”, “peace” and “decent life” for you, or even for me, is not quite the same as it is for an average Palestinian Arab.

        Say, if your daughter would date and Arab, would you kill her? Something tells me that you won’t. Neither you would send your children to explode among civilians of another ethnicity, nor you would marry 9 y.o. girl. Or would you?

        >yours is the view of Meir that Palestinians hate Jews more than they love their children …right?

        Palestinian Arabs had refused to coexist peacefully with Jews at 1919, 1948, 2000, 2002, 2008 and are still refusing until today. Obviously, hatred takes in their hearts much more space than love.

        >but one, its not true

        Prove me wrong.

        >and two, it wont get you anywhere.

        It is not supposed to get me anywhere – merely support status quo until Arabs learn than peaceful coexistence on equal basis pays off better than genocide and oppression.

        Reply to Comment