25 years of Oslo Accords Middle East peace still intangible | Salman Riaz

International, Issue

The historic Oslo Accord has been marked as 25th year on 13 September, 2018. This Accord was signed by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House on 13 September, 1993. Mediator of the Middle East Peace process was US then-president Bill Clinton. They were heralded with a historic handshake on the lawn of the White House. Three of their signatories went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Many Palestinians hoped that they would finally be free of Israel’s then-quarter-century-old military rule and have a state of their own. Under Oslo, Palestinians saw their freedom, their land, and their dreams for an independent state shrink, while Israel deepened its control over their lives. But Middle East peace is in still intangible after 25 year of signing Oslo Accord. This first step towards peace agreement is ultimately failed. This anniversary follows soon after Israel’s Knesset passed the “Jewish nation-state bill,” which formally enshrines in Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws the superior rights that Jewish Israelis enjoy over Palestinian citizens of the state. And it comes the very same week that Trump announced he would close the PLO’s diplomatic office in Washington, DC. Couple of week ago, Israel relaxed the country’s restrictions on gun licenses. This aggressive move that could make up to 500,000 more civilians eligible to carry firearms, provided they have a certain amount of military or security training. The nation-state law, gun law ease, and the closure of the PLO office signal the end of the Oslo era—and the beginning of a new and still more dangerous stage. At the signing ceremony in Washington, US President Bill Clinton welcomed the agreements as “the dawn of a new era”. Rabin declared it an “opportunity for peace”. Arafat declared, “My people are hoping that this agreement, which we are signing today, will usher in an age of peace, coexistence and equal rights.” But the agreements angered many Palestinians and Israelis. Right-wing Israelis were opposed to making a deal with the PLO. They regarded as a terrorist organization. They feared too, that Israelis would lose their claim to land they regarded as a Biblical right. Palestinian reactions were also mixed. Although the accord was supported by Fatah – the largest faction of the PLO, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) refused to recognize Israel, and believed the agreements would betray the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands inside Israel. Hamas statement described the agreement as “only another face in the occupation”.

How did first accords come about?

During the late 1980s, the leaderships of both Israel and the PLO felt besieged. Israel was still paying the price for Operation Peace for Galilee, its disastrous invasion of Lebanon from 1982 until 1985, during which thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, as well as hundreds of Israeli soldiers were killed. Both sides were caught unawares by the start of the First Intifada in December 1987, when young Palestinians across Gaza and the West Bank protested against the Israeli occupation. Israel faced international condemnation for its crackdown on the demonstrations, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.

George Shultz, the US Secretary of State, was keen to build upon the peace process and end the violence of the Intifada. But Shultz and the Americans had one condition: the PLO needed to reject violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Arafat wanted to talk. His position was boosted in July 1988 when Jordan, which had previously laid claim to the West Bank, cut its administrative ties and recognized the PLO’s ambitions so it could focus on affairs within its own borders. That left the PLO as the biggest representative of Palestinian interests in the region with which Israel was potentially ready to negotiate. Speaking in Stockholm in December 1988, Arafat said that the PLO ‘accepted the existence of Israel’ and declared its rejection and condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. But Arafat pressed on. Later that same month, after addressing the UN General Assembly in Geneva, the Palestinian leader officially recognized Israel and renounced the use of terrorism by the PLO. He also accepted UN Resolution 242 and 338, which was passed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Resolution 242, which called for a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from occupied territories, the right of Israel to exist peacefully within secure and recognized boundaries and the need for a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East. Resolution 338, which called for lasting peace in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, also received backing from the PLO.

What was in the first Oslo Accord?

The first accord was intended to create a timetable for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Its key points included:

  • The Israeli military to pull out from parts of Gaza and the West Bank
  • The establishment of a Palestinian interim government, the Palestinian National Authority, to administer areas it controlled
  • Israeli-Palestinian cooperation across energy, resources, trade, finance, communication and social welfare, among other areas
  • The G7 countries to initiate an economic development plan

For the first time, the Palestinian leadership officially recognized Israel’s right to exist. In return, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. After the Israeli army left those parts of the West Bank and Gaza under its control, initially including Gaza and Jericho, the newly created Palestinian National Authority was then to administer the territory. In return, Palestinians would renounce violent resistance.

Oslo was hoped the accord would foster trust on both sides and that this trust would lead to the striking of a two-state agreement. The plan was for the agreement to last for five years, during which there would be discussions on the most contentious issues, including Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the construction of Jewish settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and border security. But the first accord did not make any official commitment to an independent Palestinian state, although it did establish preliminary steps for the creation of one. Arafat was allowed to return to Gaza to lead the PA, which he eventually did in July 1994.

Second accord:

Talks continued between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Gradually they arrived at a series of related interim agreements: These were then wrapped into the second Oslo Accord, which was actually signed in Taba, Egypt, on 24 September 1995. The plan was that it would build upon the first and bring both sides even closer to negotiating a permanent settlement. Aside from reaffirming the commitments made in 1993, it also broadened the idea of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank, including elections, and committed the Israeli army to withdrawing from major Palestinian towns, which were turned over to Palestinian control.

Most significantly, this accord divided the West Bank into areas that would be subject to economic and security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority:

Area A: Under PA control (mostly land centering on major Palestinian cities)

Area B: Under joint Israeli-Palestinian control

Area C: Under Israeli control (East of the West Bank, near the border with Jordan)

Together, areas B and C represented 80 percent of the West Bank. The new arrangements created a fresh set of circumstances for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. But the deal became bogged down, as each side accused the other of failing to implement key aspects of the agreements. In February 1994, a massacre of 29 worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron carried out by an Israeli settler, which fuelled Palestinian anger.

But perhaps the most serious setback was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, less than two months after he had signed the second accord, by Yigal Amir, a Jewish Israeli opposed to the deals. Shimon Peres became prime minister but then lost a subsequent election in June 1996 to Benjamin Netanyahu. He is Israel’s current prime minister and an outspoken critic of the accords.

The Second Intifada erupted in September 2000, and resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 Palestinians and almost 1,000 Israelis over a span of four-and-a-half years. By the end of 2001, in a reversal of the Oslo process, the Israeli military had temporarily reoccupied many of the areas transferred to the PA, under the auspices of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, another right-wing critic of the accords. The Roadmap for Peace, a fresh attempt to restart the process, was attempted in 2003, but also faltered amid further violence.

Why did Oslo not achieve?

The accords were intended only as a precursor to a final settlement, postponing further negotiations to rebuild trust between Israel and Palestine. Some of the accords’ legacies still remain in place, including the existence of the Palestinian Authority as the largest internationally recognized Palestinian body and the division of the West Bank into three zones. But the accords’ ultimate aims were thwarted.

Nadia Hijab, an analyst and board president of the Washington-based Palestinian Policy Network, Al Shabaka, said: ‘The Oslo Accords tied the Palestinians up in a never-ending process of committees and bureaucracy.’ She said, ‘The Palestinians are now at one of the weakest points in their history and the Israelis are even more determined to colonize the whole of Palestine than ever.’

Middle East peace process situation

The Trump plan is based on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stale ‘economic peace’ plan. The idea that Palestinians will relinquish their demands for freedom in exchange for Israel’s lifting some of its suffocating restrictions on the Palestinian economy is an obvious nonstarter, produced by people who think that the dignity of others is for sale. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that it is being drafted by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has close long-standing familial ties with Netanyahu and Israel’s settler movement. He also linked with Jason Greenblatt, the plan’s other main author, and David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel. Trump administration has also been campaigning to strip Palestinian refugees of their legal right to return to lands that they were expelled from by Israel. The administration has also been undermining the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees. The US administration has in fact more openly sided with Israel than any before it. It has adopted wholesale a range of extreme Israeli positions regarding Jerusalem; military occupation; Israeli settlements; refugees; and full Palestinian sovereignty. Given the extensive evidence, it is clear that Trump’s ‘ultimate deal’ will be a plan for Israel to retain indefinite military rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians while continuing to steal their land and resources.

Jared Kushner’s Middle East tour in June was embarked to secure support from regional leaders for reviving the peace process. Dubbed ‘the Deal of the Century’, the details of Trump’s much-delayed plan have yet to be announced. But the current administration’s policies have only heightened Palestinian concerns about a perceived bias in US policy towards Israel. Since Trump assumed office in 2017, the US has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, given thinly veiled support for more settlements, opposed criticism of Israel at the UN and other international bodies, and also cut US support to Palestinian refugees and closed the PLO’s offices in Washington.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, has refused to enter negotiations with Trump’s peace team, saying: ‘He is a dishonest and biased mediator.’ On the Palestinian side, any attempt at peace is also hampered by the split between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has bypassed the PA to discuss an agreement with Israel brokered by Egypt, despite Abbas’s objections. The Hamas-Israel deal, which has yet to be officially confirmed, would reportedly establish a year-long ceasefire and provisions to ease the Gaza blockade in exchange for a halt of attacks from the coastal enclave.

The writer is an independent analyst on international affairs.

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