Oslo +30: Anatomy of a failure


At the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Palestine Liberation Organization official Mahmoud Abbas, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev signed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, commonly referred to as the Oslo I Accord.

They did so in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clinton.

Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, while the PLO renounced acts of terrorism and acknowledged Israel’s right to coexist in peace. The two parties reached a consensus to establish a Palestinian Authority, tasked with governing the “West Bank” and the Gaza Strip, within a five-year transition period. Subsequently, discussions on permanent status, encompassing matters such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem, were planned.

The Clinton administration invested significant time and resources facilitating the implementation of this agreement. However, when Clinton left office, the peace process faltered, and Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel persisted.

“Even if part of the Palestinian population is tired of the conflict and wants peace and prosperity, the price of the continuous confrontation with Israel has not discouraged Palestinian groups animated by the concept of violent resistance — muqawama — to the Zionist entity,” said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

“Too many lives on both sides have been lost in its wake,” said

John Hannah, of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America in Washington.

Oslo “was intended to lead to a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and yet we seem as far away from peace and stability as we’ve ever been,” he added. “It didn’t come close to achieving what it set out to do and in some ways after 30 years of dashed hopes and expectations, the process it set into motion has arguably left things much worse.”

At the same time, Hannah considered whether Oslo had any redeeming features.

“Despite all the obvious downsides, my view is yes,” he said. “It mattered that the head of the Palestinian national movement, the leader to that point of radical Arab and Muslim rejectionism, stood before the world and declared his recognition of the State of Israel’s national right to exist in peace and security — even if he wasn’t fully sincere in doing so. It broke a taboo. It gave other countries thinking about building greater ties to Israel the license and flexibility to do so.

“Most importantly,” he emphasized, Oslo “dramatically accelerated the king of Jordan’s [Hussein’s] decision to become the second Arab state to make peace with Israel [in 1994]. The resulting Israel-Jordan-US trilateral security relationship and cooperation has, for three decades, been an absolute anchor and cornerstone of regional security that has served US but especially Israeli interests extremely well.”

No turning back


Hannah also noted that “you can never go back in time and play out the counterfactual of different policy approaches.”

“What would have happened if there had been no Oslo?” he questioned. “We’ll never know for sure what alternative outcomes history might have offered up. Some might have been better. But some for sure might have been much worse.”

It is not clear though what could be worse than the situation today, with Oslo leaving hundreds of dead and wounded in its wake, and the continued threat of Palestinian terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians.

According to Inbar, the defining characteristic of a state is its “monopoly over the use of force,” and the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2007, recently lost control of northern Samaria, and now the refugee camps have become “strongholds of armed organizations that do not obey the PA.

“Israel has no choice but to explain to itself and the world that the Palestinians are hostile to Israel and that Palestinian groups act violently against the Jewish state,” he said. “Israel must internalize that it will have to live [by] its sword for a long time.”

Inbar contended that today, “there is a national consensus in Israel that the 30-year attempt to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians has failed — and the common knowledge is that a resolution to the 150-year conflict will remain elusive.”

Although the Palestinian issue has not yet been resolved, “it is clear today that this conflict is not ‘the key’ to stability in the Middle East,” he added. 

He pointed to the 1979 peace treaty between Jerusalem and Cairo, when Egypt “defied the widespread assumption that the Palestinians had veto power over improving ties with Israel.”

“The Abraham Accords of 2020 underscored this lesson,” he asserted.

“However,” Inbar said, “Israel should not fall under the illusion that its acceptance in ever-growing circles in the Arab world is a one-way process. Under certain circumstances, Israel could find itself isolated and threatened by Arab countries again. Therefore, Israel needs to continue investing in a strong IDF, which is the guarantee for the security of the country and its citizens.”

No better alternative


Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said, “Like the Oslo Accords or not, it has become a solid fact which cannot be changed.

“In the last three decades, Israel was ruled by right-wing or center parties and still none of them dropped the 1993 agreement that changed dramatically the strategic status of Israel,” he said.

“All other alternatives, for example taking control over the West Bank chaos, or the Hamas regime, are worse than the current situation,” Milstein added.

“The main problem,” he told JNS, “is that there is no ideological vision or direction on the part of both peoples, just relying on the ongoing status quo that no doubt will be changed someday.” 

Asked if he believed the Oslo Accords were a success, failure or something in between, Milstein said that considering the strategic alternative, “the vision itself was successful.”

He clarified his remark, saying he was referring to promoting a physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Reasons for failure


However, according to Milstein, further implementation of the Accords failed for several reasons.

First, he said, was “the decision to implement the agreement over a long period.”

Second, there was the mistaken decision to focus the dialogue on the PLO leadership and not to promote relations with the more moderate local leadership in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. 

Third, there was the Israeli tendency to forgive Palestinian violations of the agreement, mainly in the “military” arena, which ended with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.

Asked how Israel would look today had Oslo achieved its goals, Milstein said he believes that “as long as Arafat stood at the head of the PA, there was never a chance for full implementation of the agreement, so in any scenario, Israel would find itself at war.” 

He suggested, however, that had a younger leader been chosen from the Palestinian territories, unlike Arafat and his “Tunis Group,” there would have been a greater chance to have two states with a compromise over the refugees and Jerusalem.

Viewing today’s situation and what the future could hold, Milstein said he is concerned “by the quiet situation, not from noisy threats.”

His “greatest fear” is the “ongoing mixture or melting between Israel and the West Bank, a process which is being promoted every day in a quiet manner and will lead us to a one-state situation,” which he considers an “existential threat to a Jewish and Democratic state.” 

Inbar has a different view entirely of the Oslo Accords fallout, what might have been, and what the future may bring.

“The PLO wanted to destroy the Jewish state,” Inbar told JNS. “We wanted peace. Both goals are not achievable.”

Like Hannah, Inbar said the accords failed to bring peaceful relations with the Palestinians “but defied the axiom that they hold a veto on Israel’s relations with the Arab world.”

Looking forward, Inbar said Israel would likely see “more of the same with different degrees of military intensity.

“It is a pity that the learning process required the bloodshed of Israelis,” he said. “At first, the terrorists’ victims were called by Oslo supporters ‘victims of peace.’

“Over time, it was recognized that the casualties resulted from Palestinian terrorism motivated by abysmal hatred of the Jewish state.

“If there is no change in the Palestinian education system, which teaches antisemitic and anti-Israeli content, if the PA continues to pay terrorists and as long as its media persists in broadcasting despicable antisemitic messages, there will be no peace,” Inbar said. “And ‘occupation’ will continue to characterize relations between Israel and the Palestinians.”