The slow, tragic death of the Oslo Accords
28 Sep 2023|

Peace processes tend to be riddled with uncertainties, especially when conflicts are protracted and each side’s intentions, willingness and capacity to comply with any agreement remain unclear. The significant political costs associated with making concessions to a mortal enemy often doom negotiations before any agreement is reached.

This is evident in the recently declassified protocols of the 1993 Israeli cabinet meeting that approved the first Oslo Accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The records reveal that the signs of eventual failure were apparent from the very beginning.

At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin hoped that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat could stem the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and assist in quelling the intifada that had been raging in the West Bank and Gaza since 1987. But Arafat, wary of being perceived as a ‘collaborator’, refused to become Israel’s security subcontractor. Rabin’s fatalistic foreign minister, Shimon Peres, warned that ‘the whole PLO business’ could ‘fall apart’ and that an ‘Iran-like Hamas’ could take its place. Meanwhile, Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of General Staff Ehud Barak famously remarked that the agreement had ‘more holes than Swiss cheese’.

Nevertheless, the 1993 accord represented a historical shift, symbolising the mutual recognition of two national movements that had been fighting for control over the same piece of land for more than a century. It also served as an interim agreement, establishing Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel since 1967. And it provided a roadmap for addressing the conflict’s core issues, including borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the plight of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the 1948 war.

Alas, 30 years after its signing and 29 years after Rabin, Peres and Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Oslo process is largely remembered as a prime example of diplomatic deception. Israel’s land grabs and settlement expansion, which have increased the number of Israeli settlers from 115,000 in 1993 to roughly 700,000 today, have rendered the establishment of an independent Palestinian state unfeasible. The entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is now effectively a single state where segregated Palestinians are systematically denied fundamental human rights.

Jerusalem, whose eastern neighbourhoods had once been envisioned as Palestine’s future capital, has expanded under Israeli control from 10,000 acres in 1967 to roughly 32,000 acres today. In this densely populated city, Jews and Arabs live under separate legal systems. While an independent Palestinian state remains the preferred solution among international stakeholders, it increasingly looks like a pipe dream.

To be sure, the Oslo Accords were not so much about realising a political vision as they were the product of despair. Rabin accepted the previously unthinkable step of shaking hands with Arafat only after failing to reach a peace agreement with Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad. The political costs of managing two peace processes simultaneously, he realised, would be unacceptable.

Arafat, for his part, was just as desperate as his Israeli counterparts. The Palestinian leader misjudged the geopolitical implications of the Cold War’s end. By supporting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he alienated the PLO’s wealthy supporters in the Gulf, resulting in the PLO’s bankruptcy and international isolation. Arafat’s strategic miscalculations mirrored the colossal error made by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem who sided with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Moreover, the first intifada, the most intense Palestinian uprising since the PLO’s establishment, was neither initiated nor led by the organisation. Arafat desperately needed to reassert control over the Palestinian national movement, and he was determined to establish a presence in the occupied territories at any cost. This momentary vulnerability explains why the PLO was willing to settle for minor bases in the West Bank and Gaza without assurances that the Palestinians could exercise their right to self-determination. Oslo didn’t even include an Israeli commitment to halt the expansion of settlements, let alone dismantle them.

Against this backdrop, a vicious cycle of Palestinian terrorism and harsh Israeli reprisals took root during the Oslo years. Palestinians endured collective punishment, economic decline and the expansion of Israeli settlements, a trend that persisted even under Rabin. When Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 by a Jewish extremist who viewed him as a traitor for ‘selling out Eretz Israel’, he was already politically weakened by a series of devastating suicide bombings.

The Oslo process sowed the seeds of its own demise by maintaining ‘constructive ambiguity’ regarding the nature of the final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. The accords were complicated, were riddled with gaps, and reflected the power imbalance between the occupied and the occupiers. They raised expectations that were destined to collide with conflicting national narratives and domestic political considerations.

By the time negotiations on a final peace agreement began, no Israeli peace proposal—even the comprehensive ones made by prime ministers Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008—could meet the Palestinians’ unrealistic expectations. By pushing the boundaries of Israel’s capacity for compromise, these proposals and their subsequent rejection set the stage for the rise of Israel’s annexationist far right, epitomised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current proto-fascist coalition.

The 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalised diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—are a testament to Oslo’s failure. The prevailing wisdom during the Oslo era was that peace with the Palestinians would serve as a stepping-stone to peace between Israel and the broader Arab world. Ultimately, geopolitical considerations prevailed, and Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be edging closer to diplomatic normalisation. Meanwhile, as the Arab–Israeli conflict increasingly seems like a relic of the past, Palestine remains occupied.

The United States, as the main architect of the Abraham Accords, must leverage this regional realignment to mitigate the mistreatment of Palestinians. Any normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia should be conditional on meaningful progress on the Palestine front. But an agreement that failed to dissolve Netanyahu’s coalition of messianic settler zealots would merely represent a cosmetic adjustment orchestrated by an astute political tactician.