Yezid Sayigh – Senior Associate, Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut.
Saeb Erekat – The Secretary-General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Contention about the pros and cons of the Oslo Accords, which were signed by Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993, is unlikely to end anytime soon.
But what is incontrovertible is that they created a strategic opening for new forms of Palestinian action from which, ironically, even opponents of the accords such as Hamas ultimately benefitted.
The critical failing, from a Palestinian perspective, was that the energy invested in constructing an autonomous governing order and waging domestic political contests during the interim period was not matched by a systematic mobilisation to mount a sustained challenge to Israel’s unrelenting settlement programme.
Palestinian critics such as Edward Said were certainly not wrong in finding serious flaws in the Oslo Accords, which allowed the Israeli government to reproduce its “matrix of control” – the interlocking systems of military administration, settlements and their connecting road networks, and bureaucratic-legal measures – in the occupied Palestinian territories.
But arguments that the accords precluded any other outcome but failure and complete national submission were based on an excessively static reading of actual and potential political dynamics.
Nor was PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat wrong in believing that political realities on the ground would evolve rapidly beyond the strict letter of the Oslo Accords. But his reading of which political realities needed to be changed, and how to do so, was fundamentally flawed.
During months of talks leading up to the signing of the “implementation agreement” in Cairo in May 1994, for example, he refused to discuss its practical details with his own negotiators (let alone the Israelis). Instead, his one concern was to secure Israeli agreement for Palestinian policemen and a flag to stand at the Jericho border crossing with Jordan, symbolising the “sovereignty” he was certain would soon be realised in full.
Arafat focused almost exclusively on consolidating the PA’s internal political and social control, while Palestinian opponents of the Oslo Accords focused equally single-mindedly on disputing their legitimacy and brandishing their own nationalist credentials.
Arafat was convinced that his Israeli counterparts understood that the entire premise of the Oslo Accords was to lead to Palestinian statehood, and that by signing, they had already consented de facto to this outcome.
So why tussle over practical details like control of the population and land registries, responsibility for infrastructure, public works, and water resources in areas remaining under Israeli control, terms of access and movement for people and goods, or any of the other myriad arrangements governing daily life when these were only temporary and would be superseded automatically once Palestine became independent?
Why invest political capital in contesting Israel’s hyperactive programme of settlement construction and expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories, since, as Arafat thought, settler pullouts and territorial compromise were going to be an inevitable part of a package deal anyway? And why invest time and energy in mobilising Palestinian society, Israeli public opinion, and the international community in the meantime, since statehood was essentially a “done deal”?
The opportunity for contestation and mobilisation was certainly there. The PLO, along with the Palestinian Authority (PA) it established in 1994, enjoyed unprecedented recognition as a legitimate political partner. Palestinian activists and spokespersons could reach every Israeli household through the media – and through face-to-face contact in meeting halls and campuses – an unprecedented advantage for a movement still pursuing national liberation.
In March 1999, the European Union officially deemed the Palestinian right to self-determination “including the option of a state” to be unqualified, neither “subject to any veto” nor contingent on reaching a negotiated solution, joining the majority of countries worldwide that had already declared unconditional support for the same principles.
These were the “golden years” of the Oslo era, during which the PLO and its various factions and political parties – including those in opposition such as Hamas – enjoyed extensive freedom to organise and recruit, launch mass media, and maintain a public presence throughout the autonomous PA areas – including the outlying neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
They could have revived the rich experiences and impressive “people power” of the first Intifada in order to challenge every new site of Israeli settlement activity and to assert the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem through daily demonstrations and mass sit-ins.
Active, nonviolent resistance against further colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories would have been seen as legitimate internationally.
Even more critically, it would have faced the Israeli electorate squarely with a choice between peace or more settlements, giving the Israeli peace camp extra leverage.
Instead, Arafat focused almost exclusively on consolidating the PA’s internal political and social control, while Palestinian opponents of the Oslo Accords focused equally single-mindedly on disputing their legitimacy and brandishing their own nationalist credentials.
The result was a collective failure to confront Israeli policies that were most corrosive of the peace process.
When Israeli bulldozers broke ground to build a major new settlement at Jabal Abu-Ghneim (Har Homa) between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1997, for example, the only Palestinian response (beyond rote denunciations in the media) came from parliamentarians Faisal al-Husseini and Salah al-Ta’mari and a handful of activists who pitched a protest tent at the foot of the hill.
Acting differently would have required a Palestinian leadership that not only understood Israeli society and grasped the need to engage it, but which also saw Palestinian society as an equally critical actor to be methodically mobilised and cast in a central political role, rather than treated as an essentially inert resource to be activated instrumentally when needed for bargaining pressure against the Israeli government.
Consequently, the Palestinian leadership failed to assess correctly the full implications of the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli ultra-nationalist in 1995, and to redouble their effort to engage the Israeli political and security establishments and, especially, the Israeli public.
Nor did the end of the five-year interim period in 1999 prompt a new strategy combining the commitment to negotiations with the sort of state-building measures that the PA subsequently undertook – but only under radically adverse circumstances – in response to the international Quartet’s 2003 Roadmap to Peace in 2003 and in its bid for statehood via the UN since 2011.
Faced with the massive imbalance of power with Israel – institutional and economic, not just military – that Said and others rightly pointed out, the Palestinian leadership should have worked to redress it by ceaselessly mobilising Palestinian society and tirelessly engaging its Israeli counterpart.
Their failure to do so helped set the stage for the militarisation of the second Intifada, the marginalisation of the grassroots movement, and the eventual collapse of the Palestinian political system. Twenty-two years later, when Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly on September 30, 2015, that the PLO will no longer be bound by the Oslo Accords, the conditions no longer exist for the same kind of mobilisation.
But these serial failures were not preordained by the Oslo Accords.
At the end of August 1993, I accompanied Farouk Kaddoumi, The PLO’s foreign minister, to a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Beirut.
At that time, I worked on the “Washington Track” which resulted from the Madrid Peace Conference. I was part of an amazing team including Hanan Ashrawi, Ghassan Khatib, Rashid Khalidi, the late Faysal Husseini and Haidar Abdel Shafi. That day, Abu Lutof, as we call Mr Kaddoumi, told me about an “Oslo track”.
It was difficult for me to believe that parallel to our efforts, there was another, more advanced track with the Israelis. As I travelled to Washington for our last meeting of the Washington track, Akram Haniyeh, President Arafat’s close adviser, showed me a copy of the Declaration of Principles.
Israel’s culture of impunity killed the Oslo concept by tripling the number of settlers, stripping the Palestinian government of its attributes, and implementing various other contravening policies in breach of the agreement.
Two points immediately caught my attention: It was the first time that an Israeli government recognised the Palestinian people, and the first time that an Israeli government had agreed to a solution which included the implementation of UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, emphasising the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war and calling upon Israel to withdraw from the territories occupied in the June 1967 war.
Oslo was supposed to be an interim phase of five years to coordinate Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967, leading to a final status agreement.
Commitments were made to assure us of the sincerity of the agreement, such as maintaining the status quo of the territory and keeping Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, such as the Orient House, open.
A few years later, however, sparked by the brutal assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, all agreements were violated.
In the early nineties, the majority of Palestinians were hopeful that in a few years, a final status agreement would be achieved.
The first years saw the return of 250,000 Palestinians from exile and the beginning of institution-building for our new state. President Arafat led the process with strong determination and reminded us that our struggle would not end until the Palestinian flag was raised in our capital’s Old City.
Twenty-three years later, we are witnessing the opposite. Israel’s culture of impunity killed the Oslo concept by tripling the number of settlers, stripping the Palestinian government of its attributes, and implementing various other contravening policies in breach of the agreement.
Rather than two states, Israel seeks “one-state/two-systems”.
What Israel seeks is apartheid.
Israel killed Oslo while signing new economic agreements with the international community and expanding its trade worldwide.
In order to end the occupation, the international community must ban settlement products, divest from the occupation, and recognise the State of Palestine on the 1967 border.
Our position is international law. Fulfilling the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people is an international responsibility.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in 2004 that the right to self-determination of Palestine is a responsibility for each state. This responsibility is not only about ending the occupation but reaching a comprehensive final status agreement.
Millions still live in the diaspora, including hundreds of Palestinian refugees displaced once more or killed in Syria and Iraq, vivid reminders of the urgency to end Israel’s culture of impunity.
The road to peace can only be paved with justice.