October 26, 2013
This article originally appeared on Al-Ahram.
Have the Oslo Accords been a success or a failure? Are they dead or alive? Is the Oslo experience still worth revision after having had its fill of criticism during the past 20 years? What are the results of those 20 years since the agreement was signed? What use is there in discussing it after all this time and after the many peace "processes" that failed to put it into effect? Is there something we can learn from this experience?
From the Palestinian standpoint, many believe the Oslo experience was a failure. It severely damaged the cause of the Palestinian national liberation movement and forfeited the opportunity to capitalise on the results of the first Intifada that had altered balances of power on the ground. They also hold that the most salient manifestations of the failure of the accords were that they served as Israel’s cover for doing whatever it wanted and not doing what it had no intention to do. In fact, Israel effectively cancelled whole sections of the agreement after its incursion into the West Bank in 2002.
From the Israeli perspective, the agreement was undoubtedly a great success. In fact, it is no exaggeration to describe it as one of Israel’s greatest strokes of genius. Through Oslo, the Israelis harvested the reversal of the results of the grassroots uprising, the Palestinian recognition of the State of Israel without, moreover, specifying the 1967 borders, a severe rupture in Palestinian national ranks, the effects of which continue to plague the Palestinians, the marginalisation of the Palestinians in the diaspora from their national liberation movement, and the replacement of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the leader of the national struggle by the Palestinian Authority (PA) which has been forced to rely increasingly on foreign aid and which is shackled by an endless list of restrictions, from the Paris economic agreement to security cooperation conditions. All the Palestinians received in return was Israeli recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Clearly, there are many negative features that not even the architects and supporters of Oslo can deny. We need to identify these precisely, now, in view of the new negotiations and especially given Israel’s — and possibly the US’s — determination to reproduce the Oslo experience, regardless of the fact that its validity date has long since expired. The means towards this end is a new partial interim agreement, as laid out by Terje Roed-Larsen, a sponsor of the first Oslo Accords, during a seminar held in Oslo several days ago.
The first defect of the Oslo Accords was that they enabled Israel to delink the core issues. This is Israel’s preferred way of altering realities to suit its purposes. Thus, the territories that are deemed occupied under international law became disputed territories, and essential issues such as the status of Jerusalem, borders and Palestinian refugees were assigned separate tracks and deferred indefinitely.
The second problem was that the agreement was an interim transitional one that did not define its ultimate aim. It was a roadmap that led to an unknown destination. As a result, the peace process became an activity aimed to lead the Palestinians into a void where they would roam endlessly in the wilderness of Israeli procrastination. The Oslo Accords accomplished more for Israel than Shamir had ever dreamed of. Shamir had said, "We’ll waste 10 years in endless negotiations while continuing to expand settlement construction." Shamir’s dream became the Palestinians’ nightmare. The 10 years dragged on to 20 and is still continuing, as is settlement construction.
Thirdly, the agreement was concluded without a Palestinian national consensus and without a unified Palestinian strategy. The mechanism for discussing, approving and signing it was a form of secret speculation whose speculators had imagined that they had grasped a golden opportunity only to discover that they grasped thin air and that they, along with the Palestinian people, had been fitted with a straightjacket.
The internal division that has so debilitated the Palestinian liberation movement (by division, here, I am not referring to the rift between Fatah and Hamas, but to the organic division between the Palestinian people) has its roots precisely in the Oslo Accords. It was this document that, for the first time, shattered the national common denominator that bound the majority of the Palestinian people, whether the aim was to liberate Palestine and establish a single democratic state, as was the case in the first phase of the liberation struggle, or to establish an independent, fully sovereign state with its capital in Jerusalem while securing the right of return for Palestinian refugees, as became the case in the second phase.
Fourthly, the agreement was incomplete and left many issues pending. It offered no guarantee for the release of political detainees in Israeli prisons at the time it was signed. Some of these have lost 20 years of their youth, for which nothing can compensate even if they were released today. Nor did the agreement furnish a mechanism to prevent Israel from persisting in its policy of arbitrary arrest and detention, in violation of international law and human rights conventions. As a result, more than 5,000 Palestinians languish in the prisons of the occupying power today.
The fifth and worst flaw of the Oslo Accords is that they failed to guarantee a halt to Israel’s illegal settlement expansion. Palestinian negotiators had refused to heed the exhortations of the late Haidar Abdel-Shafi who had cautioned them to insist on linking all progress in negotiations to a complete and comprehensive halt to the Israeli settlement drive. The West Bank, inclusive of Jerusalem, has had to pay the toll. The number of Israeli settlers there has soared from 160,000 at the time that Oslo was signed to more than 650,000 today while the Israeli demand to annex the settlements through a land swap ploy is now on the discussion table. Had negotiators insisted on a halt to settlement construction, Palestinians would have been spared a lot of wasted time and Israel would not have had a key to alter realities on the ground with every passing hour of every passing day.
By one of the sly twists of fate, negotiations have resumed today without a halt in Israeli settlement construction. The precedent had been set when negotiators forfeited what had been a demand on which there is a unanimous Palestinian consensus. To let settlement expansion continue while the so-called peace process is in progress makes one think of a team of doctors who have a patient that is haemorrhaging on their operating table but whose attention is focussed on other limbs as the patient bleeds to death. To agree to endless negotiations over the creation of an independent state while settlement expansion continues is to allow the haemorrhage to continue until it kills the very idea of an independent state before negotiations near an end.
The foregoing flaws have made it possible for Israel to use Oslo to turn the longest colonialist occupation in contemporary history into an apartheid system worse than that which had prevailed in South Africa. Instead of serving as a means to end the occupation, Oslo became the instrument for entrenching it further. This was attained through four dangerous operations:
- The severing of Jerusalem, in its entirety, from the rest of the occupied territories.
- The separation of Gaza from the West Bank.
- The partition of the West Bank into areas A, B and C, which made it possible for Israel to establish a fully fledged apartheid system and to prepare to isolate and slice off 61 per cent of the West Bank (the so-called Area C) for settlement expansion and eventual annexation to Israel.
- The construction of the apartheid separation wall as a new component of the processes of annexation and Judification.
To ward off the accusation of bias, I should point out that the Oslo Accords were not without some positive points. For one, it allowed thousands of people to return to the occupied territories, which is not an insignificant matter. In addition, no Palestinian can be refused re-entry into his homeland under any pretext. However, the moral and psychological impact of this was limited as it practically applied to political leaders and a small portion of the people, while millions of refugees remain ignored. The aim of this aspect was to weaken a segment of the Palestinians by setting them apart from the rest of their people. A similar process occurs when Israel grants VIP identity cards to certain officials and businessmen whose privileges then isolate them from the people they are presumed to represent or help. Ultimately, this weakens the influence of such individuals and stirs resentment against them.
There are lessons from this experience that we should not overlook. The first is that negotiations are not separate from the conflict; they are an arena of conflict, fought by other means. One of the aims of the negotiators is to use negotiations as a means to weaken the other party before the negotiations reach an end.
In this regard, Oslo was a loss for the Palestinians and a strategic victory for Israel because one side had minimised the importance of the strategic dimension of the conflict, having imagined that it could overcome strategy with tactics. Perhaps the most telling indications of this was the total absence of international law from the negotiating process, the total disparity between the two sides in their negotiating expertise and capacities, and the complicity with Israel on the part of international parties that had sponsored, promoted and window-dressed the Oslo process, even though they understood the magnitude of the disaster that drove the Palestinian negotiators to it.
Legal expert and negotiator Yoel Zinger offers an idea of the extent of the disparity. Speaking on behalf of Yitzhak Rabin, he said: "When we submitted dozens of written questions to the Palestinian side during the final hours of the negotiations, what surprised me was not just that I received answers that I had used to formulate the features of the agreement in a manner that served Israel’s interests, but also that I did not receive a single question along with the answers."
Simply for the sake of comparison, we can consider how the Vietnamese used the negotiating space to their advantage precisely because they did not let the negotiations become an alternative to the actual conflict that was taking place on the ground.
The second lesson we should draw is that the balance of powers is what ultimately determines the outcome of negotiations, not eloquence, tactics or brilliance. When the balance of powers is skewed against one side, the responsible behaviour is to focus on shifting the balance of powers, not to fragment one’s own forces, weaken oneself and undermine the unity of the people through futile negotiations.
It is time we come to grips with the fact that the Palestinian cause is not a question that can be solved by "autonomous rule", an interim agreement, a system of Bantustans or a state that is anything less than sovereign, even if it is called an empire. The Palestinian cause is the cause of a people that was colonised, displaced and occupied and that is still oppressed under a loathsome apartheid system. This people will not attain happiness, progress and development until it passes through a particular door — the door to freedom — regardless of how great the cost and how heavy the sacrifices. This is not a call to take risks. It is an appeal to bear responsibility as did Charles De Gaulle when his country was occupied, Gamal Abdel-Nasser when Egypt was the victim of the tripartite aggression, Mahatma Gandhi who rejected the humiliation of colonisation, and Nelson Mandela who became the greatest man of his times because he refused to bow his head to the warden and refused to separate his own fate from that of his people, even after 27 years in prison.
As for the fourth lesson, it is that realism does not mean surrendering to reality. To do so is to invite the reality of surrender. Realism needs to be proactive, which is to say engaging one’s wits and skills in the tasks of changing reality and improving it in ways that will work to the advantage of the people and their aims and aspirations. Therefore, to claim that it is impossible to promote the aims of true liberation because Israel will never allow it is equivalent to surrendering one’s weapons and throwing in the towel before the battle has even begun.
No people, from Algeria to India to South Africa, has ever succeeded in liberating themselves by setting their ceiling at what the colonist or occupier would accept. Freedom has never been a gift for which one can beg; it is a prize for which one has to struggle and fight.
Mustafa Bargouti is a member of the Palestinian parliament and secretary-general of the Palestine National Initiative.