ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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AnalysisFour key takeaways from negotiator with a ringside seat

Why the Oslo peace process failed – and what it means for future negotiators

30 years ago, the Israelis and Palestinians signed an agreement many thought was set in stone. Now, as it lies battered and seemingly done for, here are the lessons we can draw

  • Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. (GPO)
    Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. (GPO)
  • Palestinian citizens are celebrating the entrance of the Palestinian police to Jericho, May 13, 1994. It was one of the first cities handed over to Palestinian Authority control in 1994, in accordance with the Oslo Accords (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
    Palestinian citizens are celebrating the entrance of the Palestinian police to Jericho, May 13, 1994. It was one of the first cities handed over to Palestinian Authority control in 1994, in accordance with the Oslo Accords (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
  • Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, second from left, holds his head in his hand during a Mideast accord signing ceremony, September 28, 1995, in the East Room of the White House. From left are, King Hussein of Jordan, Rabin, president Bill Clinton, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)
    Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, second from left, holds his head in his hand during a Mideast accord signing ceremony, September 28, 1995, in the East Room of the White House. From left are, King Hussein of Jordan, Rabin, president Bill Clinton, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)
  • Illustrative: Border Police carry away a member of the "hilltop youth" during an evacuation of an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank. (Credit: Zman Emet, Kan 11)
    Illustrative: Border Police carry away a member of the "hilltop youth" during an evacuation of an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank. (Credit: Zman Emet, Kan 11)
  • Left to Right: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000.
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
    Left to Right: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the signing ceremony recognizing the PLO, September 10, 1993 at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
    Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the signing ceremony recognizing the PLO, September 10, 1993 at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
  • Illustrative: members of the Hilltop Youth try to rebuild a structure demolished by Israeli troops in the West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther, a hilltop site northeast of Ramallah, in May 2009. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
    Illustrative: members of the Hilltop Youth try to rebuild a structure demolished by Israeli troops in the West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther, a hilltop site northeast of Ramallah, in May 2009. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
  • In this July 14, 2006 photo, Lebanese youths gather on a hilltop overlooking the city of Beirut in Lebanon at sunset to watch smoke continuing to billow from a fuel dump at Beirut International Airport, which was hit by an Israeli airstrike. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
    In this July 14, 2006 photo, Lebanese youths gather on a hilltop overlooking the city of Beirut in Lebanon at sunset to watch smoke continuing to billow from a fuel dump at Beirut International Airport, which was hit by an Israeli airstrike. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
  • Left to Right: Gamal Helal, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000.
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
    Left to Right: Gamal Helal, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Illustrative: A member of the 'hilltop youth' rides a donkey at an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank. (Credit: Zman Emet, Kan 11)
    Illustrative: A member of the 'hilltop youth' rides a donkey at an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank. (Credit: Zman Emet, Kan 11)

FPFOREIGN POLICY — Sitting on the South Lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Under a brilliant, cloudless sky, an uncomfortable Israeli prime minister and a beaming Palestinian leader clasped hands in pursuit of peace as an exuberant US president embraced the duo, smiling like a proud parent.

The occasion was the signing of the first agreement of what came to be known as the Oslo Accords, which established an interim framework that, if implemented successfully, might actually lead to final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Even with all the challenges that lay ahead, I was convinced that the Arab-Israeli peace process was now irreversible.

Efraim Halevy, who in just a few years would become the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, would later write to me questioning my faith in that irreversibility and fearing the confrontation that could follow. Halevy’s analysis proved all too prescient. Today, 30 years after that historic day, what remains of the spirit and much of the substance of the Oslo agreement lies bloodied, buried, and betrayed across an Israeli-Palestinian landscape that seems to leave little room for hope and none for illusions.

The most right-wing and fundamentalist government in Israel’s history sits in Jerusalem, committed to the annexation of the West Bank in everything but name only, as well as expanding settlements and enabling settler terror and violence against Palestinians. The Palestinian national movement is deeply divided, resembling a kind of Noah’s Ark where there are two of everything — constitutions, governments, security services, patrons, and even visions of Palestine. In Gaza, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad plan and encourage terror attacks against Israelis, while in Ramallah, a weak and discredited Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is unable or unwilling to control terror emanating from the northern West Bank.

Yet the lessons of Oslo still have some relevance, whatever the future holds for Israelis and Palestinians. Having had a ringside seat during those fateful years, four key takeaways stand out for me personally.

1. Interim can’t be final.

On paper, the Oslo Accords seemed logical and compelling. Territory would be transferred gradually to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for its assumption of security responsibilities. As we’ll see, the perverse dance between the occupier and the occupied would doom this approach. But it might have survived had the two sides been willing to make it clear from the outset what final outcome the interim period was supposed to produce, and then taken mutually reciprocal actions on the ground to prepare for it.

Palestinian citizens are celebrating the entrance of the Palestinian police to Jericho, May 13, 1994. It was one of the first cities handed over to Palestinian Authority control in 1994, in accordance with the Oslo Accords (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

For Palestinians, that final outcome was an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. For Israelis, it was TBD — to be determined. Driven by domestic politics and their own doubts about the Palestinians’ capacity for statehood and what it might mean for Israeli security, neither Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin nor his successor Shimon Peres were prepared to commit to any agreed outcome — even as an aspirational vision. You can look long and hard for the term “Palestinian state” in the Oslo documents, but you won’t find it. It would take another half-dozen years before the idea of statehood worked its way into Israel’s negotiating assumptions. Not until 2001, as US president Bill Clinton left office, did the United States formally and publicly articulate support for a two-state solution.

Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)

With no clear end goal to work toward, the process floundered. By 1999, not a single Oslo deadline had been met.

Negotiations on permanent status had begun three times but produced nothing, and neither Israelis nor Palestinians could see where things were headed. But both had grown weary and wary of a seemingly never-ending interim process punctuated by Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli settlement expansion.

The result was the situation we have now: a strategic cul-de-sac in which the two sides are stuck and the gaps on issues such as borders and Jerusalem are as wide as the Grand Canyon, with no shared vision and no faith that one will ever materialize.

Illustrative: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (C-R) speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018. Abbas said that Israel has ‘ended’ the landmark Oslo peace accords of the 1990s with its actions. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

2. Leaders — and not just their negotiators — have to be willing to yield.

It seems like another world now given the state of relations between Israelis and Palestinians today, but back then, the negotiators for both sides actually worked hard together to solve problems and manage the ones they couldn’t. It was less so for the leaders who had to deal with the politics of the negotiating process and defend what they could — and punt and parry the issues they couldn’t.

In the early Oslo years before Rabin’s murder in November 1995, the Israelis and Palestinians doing the negotiating laughed, yelled, and cried together against the backdrop of a roller coaster environment that included agreements, missed deadlines, Palestinian and Israeli terror attacks, and continuing frustrations and suspicions. They became friends. I saw security officials from both sides — hard men with blood on their hands — engage with one another with respect and even affection. At one negotiating session at the Laromme Hotel in Jerusalem, an exhausted West Bank security chief Jabril Rajoub laid down in the same bed with Israel Defense Forces’ central commander Shaul Mofaz, jokingly pretending to take a nap.

Shaul Mofaz speaking to reporters in 2009 (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Shaul Mofaz speaking to reporters in 2009 (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

For the negotiators, Oslo was not about zero-sum advantage but mutual benefit. That view was best embodied by Oslo’s two lead negotiators, Uri Savir and Abu Ala (both of whom have since died), who would become fast friends. Interviewing them both in 2013 on the 25th anniversary of Oslo, that sense of partnership was front and center. Abu Ala, also known as Ahmed Qureia, opined about the promise Oslo held: After decades of bitter struggle, during which both saw each other only through a barrel of a gun, they realized that it is possible to overcome hatred, misgivings, denial, and their own red lines. Neither man was a dreamer, but both saw the opportunity that Oslo offered to better understand the needs of the other and to humanize the adversary.

Yasser Arafat, right, and director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Uri Savir approach to their meeting in Gaza on February 18 1996. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

I sometimes thought that, had the decision-making been left to Abu Ala and Savir, Oslo would have had a better chance of delivering. But in the hard and cruel world of Israeli and Palestinian politics, leaders had their own personal and political constraints with which to reckon.

For Rabin, dealing with the Palestinian issue was never his first choice. It is true that as defense minister during the First Intifada, Rabin began to understand that the conflict had no military solution, and by the spring of 1993, he had reached the conclusion that no one — not Jordan, not West Bankers, not Gazans — could replace the PLO as an interlocutor. But peace with Syria was his preference because of its strategic character and its avoidance of hot-button issues such as Jerusalem. Then, in August 1993, with the US-mediated Israeli-Syrian channel making progress but with little chance of a dramatic breakthrough, the secret Oslo channel delivered — and suddenly, Rabin was thrust into dealing with the Palestinian issue head-on.

In the Oslo Accords, Rabin made a historic decision with respect to the Palestinians. But translating that to an Israeli bureaucracy and security establishment that held the key to making life better for Palestinians on the ground proved much harder. By 1993, the policies of the Israeli occupation had become deeply entrenched in Israeli politics and day-to-day relations with Palestinians.

Rabin had also locked himself into a public commitment not to dismantle any settlements during the interim period, and to do so only as part of a permanent status negotiations. He would later regret that decision when, in the wake of an Israeli settler massacring 29 Palestinians in Hebron, he resisted pressures from within his own government to remove the 400 settlers living there who required a large Israeli military presence to protect them. Rabin was fearful of the reaction from the right-wing opposition and worried that Yasser Arafat, then the chairman of the PLO, would exploit the crisis to push for an international presence in the West Bank. Yet Rabin’s unwillingness or inability to limit, let alone halt, settlement expansion diminished Palestinian willingness to implement their own commitments under Oslo.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, second from left, holds his head in his hand during a Mideast accord signing ceremony, September 28, 1995, in the East Room of the White House. From left are, King Hussein of Jordan, Rabin, president Bill Clinton, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)

As for Arafat, I was never really sure of his motives for accepting the Oslo Accords. They compelled him, at least for the moment, to recognize Israel without achieving any of the Palestinians’ demands — not self-determination, not statehood, not East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital, not the right of return for Palestinian refugees. My best guess is that for Arafat, Oslo represented Israel’s, the United States’, and the international community’s validation of himself and the PLO as the only legitimate avenue for dealing with the Palestinians. Arafat put up with the interim process because, in essence, the entire world recognized him as the exclusive address for all matters Palestinian. It was the triumph of personal ego over national interest.

But Oslo proved to be the first and last concession that Arafat was prepared to make. In March 2002, during a mission with the George W. Bush administration’s special envoy, Anthony Zinni, we saw Arafat at his headquarters surrounded by Israeli forces. Entrances barricaded, windows blacked out, candles on the table lighting an otherwise darkened conference room, there was Arafat with his black machine gun on the conference table, talking about martyrdom for the cause of Palestine.

He had come a long way, but could never quite make the transition from the mentality of a revolutionary leader committed to armed struggle and the use of violence against Israel to the world of compromise and diplomacy that would have been required, together with a foresighted Israeli leader, to bring about the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2002. (photo credit: Palestinian Authorities via Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Muqata’a in 2002. (photo credit: Palestinian Authorities via Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

3. The occupier and the occupied aren’t equals in negotiations.

The good news about Oslo was that Israelis and Palestinians had managed to hammer out a substantive and complex agreement between themselves directly, face-to-face. It’s like that old adage: In the history of the world, nobody has ever washed a rental car. Why? Because folks only care about what they own. Oslo was an example of authentic ownership. Agreement was reached because the parties themselves had a sense of urgency and a need for their own interests to come together without external pressure.

But the Israeli and Palestinian dual act was also bad news because of the power imbalance between the two parties: one the occupier, Israel, and one the occupied, the Palestinians. Given this reality, it was remarkable that anything got done at all in terms of territorial transfer, economic and security cooperation, and building Palestinian institutions.

The asymmetry of power was clear: As the occupier, Israel wielded the power of the strong—the capacity to impose its will on the Palestinians. This took the form of everything from settlement construction, land confiscation, and housing demolitions to closures of the West Bank cities and towns (preventing travel), and targeted killings. Settlement construction was especially egregious, with 115,700 Israeli settlers residing in the West Bank and Gaza at the end of 1993; by mid-1999, that number had risen to 176,973.

Illustrative: A member of the ‘hilltop youth’ rides a donkey at an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank. (Credit: Zman Emet, Kan 11)

Palestinians, on the other hand, wielded the power of the weak: terrorism. As the weaker party in the negotiations, Palestinian leaders rationalized the use of terror and violence and the armed struggle against Israel as an acceptable instrument to fight back against Israeli occupation and the ongoing settlement expansion. Even though most of the terrorist attacks in the early Oslo years were carried out by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad outside of the Palestinian Authority’s control, Arafat—who never abandoned the use violence as potential tool — could or would not do more to prevent terrorist attacks or arrest the perpetrators.

From Israel’s perspective, land was transferred to the Palestinians, yet the terrorism continued, raising questions about the PLO’s reliability. From the Palestinian perspective, Israel had put Palestinians on probation. Israel was appropriating land that Palestinians believed to be theirs, and any confidence-building measures were only offered in return for Palestinian performance and good behavior. These mindsets produced a barrier that, in the absence of a third party that could help balance the power asymmetry and press each side to implement their commitments, proved insurmountable.

Illustrative: Palestinians celebrate at the welcome reception for released Palestinian prisoners, at the Muqata’a in Ramallah, in the early hours of Tuesday, December 31, 2013. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

4. A mediator must be present — and credible.

In many respects, the early years of Oslo were a US negotiator’s dream. Israelis and Palestinians had finally done what we had been encouraging them to do for years: get together and work through their own problems themselves. Rabin briefed US Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the outlines of the Oslo breakthrough in July, minus the mutual recognition package. But neither Rabin nor Arafat wanted Americans in on the substance — Rabin wanted the United States involved only to pressure the Palestinians but was wary that the Americans might adopt a pro-Palestinian position, and Arafat was concerned they’d side with the Israelis.

And so, in the early years until Rabin’s murder in late 1995, Washington’s role was limited to hosting signing ceremonies, rallying donors, and playing firefighter at critical points when negotiations reached a crisis—such as when a terrorist attack occurred, or when Israeli settlement expansion or other unilateral acts threatened the process. What the United States didn’t — and couldn’t — do, largely because of Israel’s objections, was create the one thing that might have actually given the Oslo process durability: a monitoring mechanism to hold each side to the commitments they had made and, if necessary, impose costs for a breach.

Doing so was a bridge too far. This was partly because of the United States’ traditional special relationship with Israel, which made getting tough with the Israelis, especially on settlement expansion, off-limits; partly because of the Clinton administration’s determination to improve relations with Israel after the stormy years of former President George H.W. Bush; and partly because, when it came to Oslo violations, terrorist attacks were understandably viewed as more lethal than settlement expansion and pushed the United States to side with Israel.

Left to Right: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000.
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/ Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

From Oslo on, with Rabin’s pro-peace successor Peres and especially with Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit, Clinton didn’t want to jam up Israeli prime ministers. Far too often, Americans — myself included — essentially acted as Israel’s lawyer. What this meant in practice was a disposition favoring Israel on process, substance, tight coordination, and no surprises.

I’ll never forget: On the fourth day of the summit, I saw the late Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on one of the walking paths. He stopped and asked when the Palestinians were going to receive the draft of a paper that we were preparing on the core issues. I said it was taking more time to prepare than we thought. Smiling, Saeb replied, “Aaron, you’ve given it to the Israelis first, haven’t you?” I smiled back and kept on walking.

Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

In the wake of Rabin’s murder, the United States tried to take a more active role. From 1995 to 2000, working with Arafat and two Israeli prime ministers — Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak — Americans were able to keep the process alive, broker three interim accords, and strengthen Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, with the CIA working directly with the Palestinians. But the same structural factors that made Oslo a long shot even in the heady days of the fall 1993 — the absence of an agreed political vision, the perverse dance between the occupier and the occupied, and terrorism and settlements—were simply too much to overcome.

And what proved to be an ill-advised and ill-conceived summit in July 2000 at Camp David, however well-intentioned, could not redeem what had already been lost.

In the 30 years since the Oslo Accords, Israeli-Palestinian peace turned out to be anything but inevitable. Looking back, Oslo represented a moment when Israelis and Palestinians came together in hopes of securing a better future.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watch Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, seated center left, and Israeli counterpart Dan Shomron, seated, during the signing of the agreement at the Erez Crossing Wednesday Jan 15 1997, on an accord extending Palestinian rule to most of the West Bank city of Hebron and parts of the West Bank. US envoy Dennis Ross is standing center at rear. (AP Phto/Med Rawas, POOL)

Paradoxically, talk of potential Israeli-Saudi normalization has revived a key concept of the Oslo process focusing on the so-called Area C, which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank and is where most of Israel’s settlements are located. There are credible reports of various proposals made by the Palestinian Authority, the United States, and Saudi Arabia arguing that Israel should agree to transfer a significant portion of Area C to Palestinian control as part an agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem to normalize relations.

Such a proposal will almost certainly be resisted by extremist ministers in Netanyahu’s government, and it’s unclear how flexible Netanyahu—who is desperate for a deal with the Saudis—will be. Still, it would be quite extraordinary if the presumed dead and buried architecture of the Oslo process was resurrected to try to redeem the fast-fading hopes of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

But even with this potential opening, there’s still no clear pathway to end the conflict, and no organizing principle around which a majority of Israelis and Palestinians can rally. Without giving up hope—and we cannot—we also should not succumb to facile illusions and assumptions about silver bullets that can redeem a peaceful future for both peoples. If Oslo demonstrated anything, it’s that even with leadership and partnership, the journey is long, hard, and strewn, more often than not, with failure.

None of this means that the past is inexorably prologue. None of us can see around corners, and abandoning the search for an equitable and durable Israeli-Palestinian peace is neither morally nor ethically responsible — and it’s not in US interests. We need leaders who see peace as critical to their own people and who are prepared to understand and work to accommodate the needs of the other side; a mediator who’s prepared to be reassuring, patient, and tough on both sides when necessary; and an end state that recognizes that a durable and equitable solution depends on a balance of interests, not an asymmetry of power.

None of these things is available now. Yet the United States may someday have another opportunity to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and we should do so without illusion and without believing we can do it alone or abandoning that pursuit if we run into serious challenges. And with right-thinking and courageous Israelis and Palestinians, support from the Arab world and beyond, and a fair amount of luck, one day — who knows — we might just get there.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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