It was meant to be the handshake to end all hostilities. When Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the back lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993, it seemed that the world had finally taken heed of Arafat’s call, two decades earlier at the United Nations, not to let the “olive branch fall from my hand“.
“The peace of the brave is within our reach,” then-US President Bill Clinton said on the momentous occasion of the signing of the so-called Oslo Accords, reflecting the relatively more optimistic mood of the time.
Yet, two decades later, this hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave. Even the life-support system to which the United States had hooked up the Oslo process gave up the ghost when Secretary of State John Kerry’s 13th-hour shuttle diplomacy came to nothing.
“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers,” a crestfallen and defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the UN last week. “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”
So what went wrong over the past 22 years?
One major problem was the flawed nature of the Oslo Accords themselves, which set out clear and present demands of the Palestinians, but left Israel with vague future commitments. And as the adage informs us, tomorrow has a tendency never to come.
However, these flaws were possibly surmountable with the right leadership, and this shaky framework agreement could have been shored up and redesigned with sufficient supplies of goodwill and vision.
But just as the two former warriors and adversaries, Rabin and Arafat, were warming to their themes, tragedy struck. Rabin, who had started the first Intifada with a “break their bones” attitude, became more committed to peace when he realised it was in Israel’s own economic and social interest.
Sadly, Rabin’s life was cut tragically short, 20 years ago next month by an Israeli extremist, before he could fulfil his new-found potential as a peacemaker. Poignantly, this occurred at one of the largest peace rallies in Israeli history.
Rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.
Palestinian extremists, including the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, also played their part in derailing the tentative process through a concerted, high-profile wave of suicide bombings. This pincer movement helped propel Benjamin Netanyahu to the premier’s office in 1996.
It was around this time that Hamas and Netanyahu began their long-standing anti-peace “partnership”, for want of a better word. Though they rejected compromise and had a maximalist view of the conflict – which was the main aim of their violence – both Netanyahu and Hamas’ Sheikh Yassin couched their bloody and vengeful sabotage in terms of retaliation for past grievances.
Exploited by extremists
This led to a situation in which, rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.
The supposedly temporary Oslo Accords became an enduring reality which enabled Israel to wash its hands of responsibility for the Palestinians living under its occupation. The status quo also facilitated the unprecedented expansion of Israeli settlements, which housed about a quarter of a million settlers in the early 1990s to some three-quarters of a million today.
For the Palestinians, the Oslo charade entrenched the temporary Palestinian Authority (PA) as the de facto government that was unable to govern. Just as Arafat had wanted the trapping of statehood – even without a state – many in the PA elite had vested interests in maintaining the status quo, while Hamas preferred the status quo of perpetual conflict over compromise.
Whether unwittingly or not, the billions the international community has sunk into upholding the myth of the peace process has helped let Israel off the hook. One European diplomat I know described the situation as “a frozen conflict, and we pay for the freezer”, reflecting on the widespread disillusionment in aid and diplomatic circles.
Mandy Turner, the director of the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem, has been researching how aid to the Palestinians functions as a “counterinsurgency” tool, seeking to prevent “the emergence of a Palestinian political movement with widespread support that is opposed to the Oslo process, and/or extreme poverty and political instability”.
This might explain why Abbas demanded at the UN that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power”, bowing rhetorically to widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel has outsourced chunks of the occupation to the PA, while Western donors pick up the tab.
“What is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation,” Abbas urged, clinging helplessly onto the old paradigm.
Instead, what is required is for Abbas to abandon Oslo and persuade the public and the other factions to unleash the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal: its people.
The true “bombshell” would be to abandon the two-state illusion and replace it with a nonviolent, popular civil rights struggle for equality and equal rights.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at www.chronikler.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.