Oslo is dead, long live the peace process

Reimagining peace in Palestine-Israel beyond the zombie process that refuses to die.

Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands at the White House in 1993.
US President Bill Clinton watches Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands at the White House in 1993 upon the signing of the Oslo Accords [Reuters]

The Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, reached in Oslo and signed in Washington, DC in 1993, aimed to achieve peace within five years. However, after failing and resurging several times, the process ultimately led to a more violent occupation and culminated in a more entrenched system of apartheid. This prompts three critical questions: Why did it fail? Why has it been resurrected, repeatedly? And, what is the alternative 30 years later?

Five primary factors were behind the failure of the Oslo process.

First and foremost, Oslo failed because it yielded a “hegemonic peace” that privileged the Israeli occupiers, discriminated against the occupied Palestinians, and paved the way for more instability and violence. It allowed Israeli leaders to dictate the peace timetables, deadlines and overall implementation of its interim agreements to the detriment of Palestinian security and independence. From the outset, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was forced to recognise Israel as a fully-fledged state occupying 78 percent of historic Palestine. Israel, however, refused to recognise the Palestinian state on the remaining 22 percent of the land and merely acknowledged the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. While Israel said it accepted Washington’s “vision” of a two-state solution, on the eve of the 2003 United States war on Iraq, it did so with numerous debilitating reservations and only to help keep up the appearance of pax Americana.

Second, the process failed because the US was not a fair or credible sponsor for it. Washington has been for decades Israel’s foremost patron, and remains so today. At times it did play the role of “good cop” against Israel’s “bad cop” in negotiations, but its goal has always been to ensure a compromise was reached between the US and Israel, not necessarily between Israelis and Palestinians. The latter had to accept any outcome graciously or get reprimanded.

Third, it failed because Israel’s illegal settlements continued to expand unabated after 1993. On occasion, the US registered its displeasure, but Israel merely rolled its eyes and continued building. By 2003, the number of settlers had doubled, and by 2023 it had more than quadrupled. Today, more than 700,000 settlers, many armed, live in 279 illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. This has “necessitated” greater Israeli military presence in the occupied territories, and led to greater incitement, friction and violence.

Fourth, under the guise of Oslo, Israel connected its many illegal settlements through bypass roads, development projects and security networks, rendering its occupation irreversible and a two-state solution practically unworkable. In the process, it created two legal systems in the occupied territories: a superior one for the Jewish settlers and an inferior one for the indigenous Palestinians. Within 10 years of the signing of the first Oslo Accord, Israel had already divided the Palestinian territories into 202 separate cantons, diminishing the Palestinians’ access to employment, health and education.

Fifth, Israel refused to engage in any meaningful discussion about the five important “permanent status” issues: settlements that have kept on expanding; refugees who remained stranded away from their homes; borders that were de facto erased; security that Israel refused to relinquish; and the future of Jerusalem, which Israel annexed.

Long story short, after seven long years of inconsequential interim agreements, unhindered settlement expansion and violent repression followed by the failure of a hastily convened summit at Camp David, the Oslo process came to a dead end and led to a second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.

But there seems to be no letting go of the Oslo addiction. Despite all its follies, fantasies and failures, Israeli, Palestinian, American, Arab and all the other leaders with a stake in the game are holding on to Oslo’s phantom. Why?

Well, the Israelis have every reason to not let go of a process that has served only to strengthen the Jewish state and legitimise its illegal colonial activities while weakening and dividing the Palestinians. For example, from 1995 to 1999, Israel’s gross domestic product (GDP) rose by almost 50 percent, while its population rose by only 10 percent. Today, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s leading the most extreme and racist government in Israel’s history, reckons Israel needs the Oslo-produced Palestinian Authority, which has been tasked with keeping the Palestinians silent and the Israelis safe.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his cohorts in the Palestinian Authority are also reluctant to give Oslo up because the disastrous peace process is their very raison d’être. Unelected, unpopular, and illegitimate, they’ve used the Oslo process to gain international support and hold onto power.

As for the US, continuing to sponsor the peace process is a way of ensuring lasting influence over the region and maintaining the charade of pax Americana.

For Arab autocrats, the charade of the peace process absolves them from doing anything for Palestine, which remains the most important regional cause on the Arab street. It also provides them with a pretext to normalise relations with Israel in return for greater American support.

The same may be said of the Europeans and other world powers, who’ve been using the peace process as a pretext to do nothing that upsets the Americans. Although they have invested billions in the peace process only to see Israel destroy it, the Europeans continue to shy away from confronting the “Jewish State”.

But 30 years on, it is doubtful the charade of Oslo can continue much longer; certainly not after apocalyptical fanatics have taken power in Israel and are doubling down on Judaising every corner of historic Palestine. But apartheid cannot be the alternative to the two-state solution; certainly not in the long run.

That’s why Israelis and Palestinians seeking peace must realise, as I wrote 20 years ago on Oslo’s 10th anniversary:

“One state answers the requirements of true peace that were hardly addressed, let alone resolved, in the Oslo peace process. The differences over the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, the Palestinian minority in Israel, the settlers in Palestine, Israeli security, borders and water could all be resolved in the framework of one shared state based on citizenship and the constitutional protection of the religious and national identity of its inhabitants.

“This could be achieved in the framework of federalism, as in Belgium, Switzerland or Canada, or it could be done in the framework of a one-man one-vote system, as in South Africa. Historically, Israelis have preferred the first while Palestinians have advocated the second.

“Either way, a one-state solution would mean the Palestinians accept Jewish settlers as legitimate neighbors and Israelis view the Palestinians as fellow citizens. The state would provide equal rights and privileges for both populations. Both would have the right to immigrate; “audah” for the Palestinians, “aliyah” for the Jews. For both, Jerusalem would be one open capital.

“Automatically, the new state would have friendly and peaceful relations with its neighbors, and it would serve as an example of reconciliation and coexistence.”

It is high time for a fresh start, after 30 years of failure and a century of conflict. Most Palestinians and Israelis have come of age after Oslo. It is up to them to chart a new way forward, free from the illusions of their parents.