Interview'We knew this all along but couldn't explain it'

Obama’s peace envoy: Israel is carrying out ‘reversed Oslo’ in West Bank

Instead of gradually transferring power to PA, Jewish state is handing it to settlers, says former US State Department representative for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Barack Obama (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, November 9, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
US President Barack Obama (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, November 9, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Amid rising doubts over the viability of US President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-released peace plan, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is speaking out against what he describes as Israel’s “alarming” rejection of previous agreements aimed at moving towards a two-state solution.

Speaking to The Times of Israel last week, former senior State Department official Frank Lowenstein said that Israel was implementing “Oslo reversed,” in which the Jewish state has been gradually transferring power to Israeli settlers in the West Bank rather than to the Palestinian Authority as originally agreed in the bilateral accords of the 1990s.

Earlier this month, The New Yorker reported that it was this realization by Lowenstein in the spring of 2015 that “shocked” Barack Obama into refusing to block UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements.

Lowenstein told The Times of Israel that he’d long been aware of the reality in the West Bank, but had been unable to fully explain it to his superiors until the sixth year of Obama’s presidency when he came across a series of maps that showed how 60 percent of the land beyond the Green Line had become off-limits to Palestinian development.

“We knew this all along. I just couldn’t figure out how to explain it to people until I saw those maps,” he recalled, saying that they were essential in illustrating to then-secretary of state John Kerry and president Obama the reality of Israeli entrenchment in the West Bank.

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, chats with Special Envoy for Israeli Palestinian Negotiations Frank Lowenstein while walking to board a flight on July 19, 2013 in Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

“If I say to Secretary Kerry, ‘Israel has announced 15,000 new settlement units during the negotiations,’ he understands that… but sometimes pictures tell a story in a way that’s easier to comprehend and explain to the public,” Lowenstein said.

Lowenstein explained that Israeli settlements, which take up roughly 1.5% of West Bank land were not his primary concern. Rather, it was the establishment of nearly 100 illegal outposts that has allowed Israel to cut off Palestinians from nearly two-thirds of the West Bank.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

Lowenstein acknowledged that the 60% he had highlighted was equivalent to Area C, which was placed under full Israeli control under the Oslo Accords. However, he pointed out that the goal of the agreement had been to gradually transfer parts of Area C to the Palestinian Authority.

“That’s how this narrative emerged in my head that this was Oslo reversed. Instead of transitioning power to the Palestinians they were effectively transitioning power over to the settlers,” Lowenstein said.

Upon discovering those maps, Lowenstein’s office had a broader presentation of similar illustrations put together drawing data largely from Israeli rights groups that pinpointed — among other things — Israeli outposts and Palestinian home demolitions.

The presentation was circulated among senior White House staff and it was used to help present the “Oslo reversed” realization to both Israelis and Palestinians.

According to Lowenstein, Israeli officials reviewed the maps and did not object to their accuracy, which the former special envoy found telling because “when the Israelis disagreed with something, they let us know.”

View of the Givat Asaf outpost, near the Beit El settlement in the West Bank. (Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

The Kerry confidant said that once the White House was able “to tell the story” with the maps presentation, it went on to offer suggestions for what could be done “to prevent this one-state reality from continuing to unfold on the ground.”

Those suggestions were submitted in the form of the July 2016 Middle East Quartet Report, which included calls for Israel to transfer “powers and responsibilities in Area C” to the PA in addition to curbing settlement growth.

The report, which also criticized Palestinian incitement, was rejected by both Israel and the PA.

But Lowenstein asserted that the Obama administration’s goal was still to present a set of principles that the two sides could use as a basis for negotiations if they chose one day return to talks.

The “Kerry Principles” were introduced by the secretary of state in December 2016 during Obama’s final days in office and recommended a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital for both countries.

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at the U.S. Department of State on December 28, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)

“The maps, the Quartet Report and the Kerry Principles were ‘the one stop shop’ for the next administration or whoever else wanted to take up the issue,” Lowenstein summarized.

But in addition to neither side wholly embracing any aspect of the Obama administration’s three-pronged approach, the subsequent Trump White House has been constructing its own peace plan that is expected to diverge rather profoundly from the “Oslo reversed” narrative.

While Lowenstein wished the Trump administration luck with their own peace push, the former special envoy said the White House faced an uphill battle in bringing the sides to the table.

Moreover, he said his main takeaway from the experience with the map presentation was that the illustrations failed to move any of the relevant decision makers.

“Even when people see those maps and understand what’s going on, they still just shrug and move on,” he concluded.

Most Popular
read more: