Oslo's Successes and Failures, 20 Years Later

Israelis and Palestinians Both Feel Betrayed by Peace Process

The Handshake: The agreement between Rabin and Arafat has had a troubled legacy.
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The Handshake: The agreement between Rabin and Arafat has had a troubled legacy.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 20, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
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We’re all on anniversary overload lately: 40 years since the Yom Kippur War, 12 years since 9/11, five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed. But there’s another event that requires urgent attention: the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993, the moment known in Middle East diplo-speak as Oslo.

It’s called Oslo because that’s where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met to draft the agreement the leaders signed that day. Their intention was to end nearly a century of bloodshed and set the two peoples on a carefully timed path toward peaceful coexistence.

How is that working out? It’s hard to think of a watershed event in recent world history that draws such contradictory answers. It’s safe to say they’ve hit a few bumps along the road. There’s a widespread sense that the road is nearing an end. It’s not clear how far off the endpoint is, nor whether the road leads to a safe harbor — or a cliff.

Judging by recent commentary, most everyone on both sides seems to agree that the ride has been ruinous. Who got hurt? Israelis commonly say it’s benefited Palestinians but been a disaster for Israelis. Palestinians say the opposite. On one other point they concur: The process died around the year 2000, when the Camp David summit failed and the blood-soaked Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted. It’s now running on fumes.

And yet, surprisingly, the Oslo process — the system established in 1993 to govern Israeli-Palestinian relations — remains very much alive. The Palestinian Authority, created to provide limited, interim Palestinian self-government, still operates, running everything from education to garbage collection, telecommunications and business regulation.

It was supposed to last five years, leading to some sort of permanent arrangement. Palestinians expected two states side by side. Israelis weren’t sure. Each time negotiations got serious, two things occurred: The Palestinians balked and the Israeli government collapsed. The five-year interim structure is now 20 years old, with no end in sight. The State Department promises an agreement on two states within a year. Nobody else believes it.

Everyone says they hate the current arrangement. But nobody wants to let it go. A year ago, in September 2012, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, claiming Israel was flouting its obligations, threatened to cancel the accords and hand the keys back to Israel. Israel panicked and offered a few concessions. Two months later, Israel’s then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to cancel the accords and take over, claiming the Palestinians were breaking their commitments. Now the Palestinian side panicked. So what’s so awful? To Israeli critics, the problem is obvious: Oslo allowed the Palestinians to run wild. Political scientist Efraim Inbar, director of the respected Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, summed up the failure in a September 10 essay: An incompetent Palestinian Authority running what “borders on a failed state” in the West Bank. Gaza controlled by Hamas, “an Islamist organization dedicated to destroy the Jewish state” and intently waging “armed struggle against Israel.” Worst of all, more than 1,500 Israeli deaths since 1993 from Palestinian terrorist and rocket attacks.

It’s a powerful indictment. Hamas control of Gaza means that any statehood pact with the Palestinian Authority would leave nearly half the population untouched and ungovernable. The only way around it would be to bring Hamas into the diplomatic process, and nobody favors that except naïve European leftists (plus a string of former heads of Israeli intelligence — ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy explained why in a fascinating March 6 article in The New Republic).


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