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Deconstructing the Oslo Accords 25 Years Later: A Gift or a Curse?

avatar by Josh Hasten / JNS.org


The signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington, DC, Sept. 13, 1993. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – It’s hard to believe that it’s been a quarter of a century. September 13 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1993 signing of the US-brokered Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Known also as the Oslo Accords, the deal signed between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people.

With peace between the two sides the ultimate goal, Israel gradually handed over the governing and security functions responsibility for the Arab areas in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza to the newly-formed Palestinian Authority (PA).

Although the accords themselves didn’t call for the creation of an official Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, subsequent Israeli proposals over the years did, in fact, allow for such an entity to come into being. All of those offers, however, were rejected by the PA leadership.

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The Oslo Accords were meant to foster peace, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at all. According to the Israeli government’s press office, more Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the five years following the first Oslo agreement than in the preceding 15 years. In addition, according to statistics provided by the online Jewish Virtual Library, more than 1,600 Israel civilians and soldiers have been killed from the accords’ signing until now.

Many wonder if the Oslo Accords are still alive, or have been cast into the dustbin of history. JNS spoke to five leaders from all walks of life within Israel and the PA to get their take on where the situation stands 25 years after those well-documented handshakes on the White House lawn.

Likud Party MK and current Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein recalls exactly where he was when the Oslo ceremony took place in Washington. “I was driving through Beit Lechem [Bethlehem] when a group of Palestinians surrounded my car waving pictures of Yasser Arafat. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I felt that this was a celebration of victory over us [Israel], not one of peace.”

Edelstein, who at the time was an advisor to then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, says, “The Oslo Accords failed because of the way they were built; it never stood a chance. It was a fatal mistake from the first moment.”

He adds, “How you can you start by giving away land and calling it a peace process? As I explained to a senior State Department Official when I was a cabinet minister in the first Netanyahu government [in 1996], it’s like the joke about the guy who jumps from the 20th floor, and when he passes the 10th floor, his friends asks him how it’s going, and he says, ‘So far, so good.’ With Oslo, we jumped to the end without first laying the foundations. We shouldn’t go into the business of shaking hands with terrorist leaders and pretending that now we have a comprehensive peace agreement.”

Edelstein says that for 25 years, nobody has had the courage to officially admit that this is a “dead end.” According to him, “there is no Oslo; it’s gone.”

He adds that “as the Knesset speaker, I can say loud and clear that there is no solution to the … conflict. But still we shouldn’t sit on our hands. We should build coexistence in different ways — build a foundation for peace. It’s not about two leaders shaking hands; it’s about collaboration with our neighbors, like Jordan and others in the region who know Israel is part of the solution, not the problem. There won’t be ceremonies, but there can be cooperation on issues involving water, agriculture, and in other fields.”

So while Edelstein says that Oslo is dead, he remains optimistic in the long term.

“For me, one of the main lessons is that there are no shortcuts to peace. It’s a long and painful process with ups and downs. In Judea and Samaria, we can take one industrial zone with Arabs and Jews working together, and see more peace than the whole Oslo process together.”

Zionist Union Party MK Nachman Shai, who serves as the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset from the opposition, says that under Oslo, things got “better and worse.” Better, he says, because “it created a framework and helped Israelis finally accept the paradigm of ‘two states for two peoples.’” He added that it also was an opportunity for the Palestinians to compromise.

However, the situation got worse he says because “it didn’t go anywhere. Twenty-five years later, the process is dead; nothing happened. It feels like it’s all stuck. In retrospect, it was the right thing to do, no doubt [signing the accords], but while there was hope, optimism, and Nobel Prizes, everything vanished.”

Shai says that both sides share in the blame. “The blame is mutual. In Israel, there was significant political change that brought parties to power which were unwilling to compromise, like the government today.”

Even though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan that he was in favor of two states, relates Shai, “it just remains ‘a speech.'”

He adds, “On the other hand with the Palestinians, first Arafat initiated the Second Intifada, which destroyed [Oslo] totally, and Palestinian Authority leader Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is too hesitant. So now, we are unable to move anywhere. This was a missed opportunity.”

In regard to a potential US-backed peace plan, Shai says he doesn’t know what the Trump plan entails, but overall doesn’t see anything realistic. “There is always a chance because this administration and president are unpredictable. But at this stage, it’s hard to imagine [something positive].”

He concludes with “today I am pessimistic. I would like to be optimistic at this stage, but I don’t see any reason for hope. Maybe things will change. I would like to see this government, even Netanyahu, who has the power, to go further [for peace]. And if he does, we [in the opposition] will give him a safety net if he decides to renew negotiations and open a political process again, but so far he hasn’t chosen this path.”

Professor Khalil Shikaki is the well-respected Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah. His center releases in-depth studies on a regular basis about Palestinian attitudes, including their thoughts on peace with Israel.

In regard to Oslo, Shikaki says that “there is doubt that this was a huge disappointment on all levels. This was supposed to be the beginning of something that would be incredible for Israelis and Palestinians, and ended up being another road to further violence and war.”

Shikaki says that Israel shares most of the blame for Oslo’s failure by not fulfilling its obligations under the agreement, since “Israel did not transfer areas to the PA in accordance with Oslo.” He adds that “Israel continued to build settlements and failed to negotiate permanent status issues in accordance with the agreement.” As a result, he says, “the interim nature of Oslo became permanent,” while agreements on final-status issues were postponed.

“Although it is not inevitable, the next 25 years will probably be years of conflict, rather than years of peace,” adds Shikaki. “I doubt very much, based on the lessons of the past 25 years, that the two sides will have common ground. So there will be on and off periods of conflict.”

When asked whether it was a good idea for Israel to revitalize the PLO and allow its representatives to serve as Israel’s address for peace talks, he says: “Guessing what might have happened if the PLO remained outside is highly speculative. Most likely, it would not have made a difference: It was Rabin who was assassinated, not Arafat; it was Netanyahu — soon after his election in 1996 — and not Arafat who froze the implementation of Oslo.”

Shikaki believes that America can play a significant and positive role in the peace process, but only if it acts as what he dubs a “fair mediator.”

“During the past 50 years, the United States played a constructive role in bringing peace to the region,” he relates. “But the US contribution was not enough to overcome domestic [Israeli] constraints,” such as “a lack of incentive on the part of Israel to move forward in ending the occupation, and giving the Palestinians the freedom and independence they desired.”

In other words, Shikaki feels that “the US didn’t use equal leverage on Israel at it did on the Palestinians.”

He says that if he could speak to Donald Trump, he would “ask for an effective mediator. At the moment, the Trump administration is siding with Israel. It is not simply the lawyer for Israel; it has gone beyond that. Trump is strengthening right-wing tendencies in Israeli society and sustaining more extreme elements, rather than resolving the conflict. A mediator has to remove itself from internal politics and be an honest broker. The US is doing anything in its power to destroy peacemaking. The US must stop and behave as any honest broker would do.”

Shikaki’s most recent research shows that the Palestinians also feel that Oslo is finished. He says that two-thirds of Palestinians say that the PA should dismantle Oslo and instead create a sovereign entity without an agreement. A frightening statistic, he says, also reveals that while the majority of Palestinians don’t support the use of violence at this juncture against Israel, that number is increasing.

“We are getting close,” he says, to a majority that favors violence.

Matan Peleg is CEO of the right-wing Im Tirzu movement. He believes that while Oslo was meant to solve the conflict, it started as “a dream which became a nightmare” — one he says that continues to the present, as “our leaders still didn’t wake up.”

Peleg says that Israel must adopt an approach of “victory.” Israel’s slogan under Oslo was “‘You make peace with your enemies.’ That approach is flawed because your enemy will always want to kill you. Peace you only make with your enemies after they are defeated.”

He adds that Israel needs to destroy the terror organizations that seek to annihilate Israeli Jews, while at the same time help implement a new educational curriculum for the next generation of Palestinian children — one that doesn’t call for the destruction of Israel.

Peleg believes that the Oslo “experiment” flopped because of the creation of the Palestinian Authority. “The PA is a corrupt organization that failed in building a promising future for the Arabs in Judea and Samaria. They didn’t have a vision for life. Instead, they chose war, terror, and corruption.”

He says that if the Palestinians had decided to choose a “normal reality” instead, “we could have had a better life on both sides.”

In addition to cracking down on terror, Peleg says Israel has to expose the corruption of the PA if it is to work towards a better future for its people. “The EU and the US invested billions for the Arabs in Judea and Samaria. But where is the infrastructure? The roads? Hospitals? All the money went to terror and corruption. The problem is the Palestinians are trapped in a false narrative. They think Israel will disappear. We [Israel] need to see who the real Arab leaders are who value peace and life, and we should strengthen them.”

Yariv Oppenheimer is the former director of the far-left Peace Now organization and currently an active board member of that group.

Oppenheimer says Oslo failed because of the extremists on both sides who were fighting against its implementation. “The Oslo agreements were like an ill patient transported into the surgery room so that he could be healed. However, people [kept] coming into the room trying to unplug all the machines.”

He says that groups like Hamas and the Israeli right-wing were the ones fighting Oslo. While Oppenheimer sees that in the current reality Oslo remains frozen, he says, “We have made some progress towards a two-state solution. The Palestinians are running their own lives in the West Bank; on the other hand, there is no peace on the horizon.”

Oppenheimer blames both Israel and the Palestinians for not being ready to move towards a final agreement. But ironically, that’s why he believes that “Oslo is still alive and kicking.”

He explains that today’s “reality is closer to what was written in Oslo, so it is a successful agreement. It was supposed to be temporary — for a period of five years — and only then were permanent status issues to be discussed.”

However, Oppenheimer says that “Israel’s current leadership is still not ready for a permanent status agreement. They are OK with the status quo and not ready to move towards a final agreement.”

Fresh off a meeting between Peace Now and Abbas, Oppenheimer says “there is now a willingness on the Palestinian side for a peace treaty, which most Israelis would support. However, there isn’t that same willingness on the Israeli side. What has to change is the leadership in Israel.”

Joshua Hasten is the International Spokesperson for Gush Etzion. He is host of the weekly “Israel Uncensored” radio broadcast on The Land of Israel Network, as well as an international Middle East correspondent in print and on television.

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