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Thirty years on, are the Oslo Accords still relevant?

Even as the vision of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians endures in the talking points of American and European diplomats, few Israelis or Palestinians believe the prospect is realistic

It was a moment that remains emblazoned in the annals of history: Two bitter enemies – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat – shaking hands in a public ceremony on the White House lawn and establishing a future vision of two states for two peoples living side by side in peace, dignity, and security.

While the concept of the “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements,” or, as it is better known, the Oslo Accords, has endured in the talking points of U.S. and European officials and analysts, who still cling to its relevance, for a whole new generation of Israelis and Palestinians, however, that dream of peace remains elusive. Three decades later, the question lingers as to whether the basic premise of Oslo is in any way salvageable or realistic today.

Analysts, experts and even some of those involved in the initial and subsequent agreements interviewed by Jewish Insider agreed that although part of the fundamental and practical infrastructure of Oslo might remain, the underlying goal of a two-state solution, as envisaged in 1993, has more or less failed. In order to move forward and find a possible solution to this intractable conflict, many said they believe it is time to consider a different approach.

“Let’s be clear about this, Oslo was a groundbreaking process,” Dan Miodownik, a professor of political science and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JI in an interview ahead of the Sept. 13 anniversary of that handshake.

“It was an extremely important moment that really filled Israel, Palestine and the region with hope,” Miodownik, whose expertise lies in the field of conflict resolution, continued. “The fact that the agreement failed in the implementation stage is a huge disaster, and while we can analyze why that happened or who is to blame, the fact is that this is where we are 30 years after the signing.”

Samer Sinijlawi, head of the Jerusalem Development Fund for Education and Community Development, a nonprofit that raises greater awareness of Palestinian issues around the world, told JI, “For my generation, Oslo, initially, looked like the beginning of our dreams.”

“Finally, Rabin and Arafat were shaking hands, it looked like we were no longer enemies,” he reminisced. “It was very symbolic and there was a lot of hope.”

“We [Palestinians] were not a very political people, and we were a little bit naïve back then,” Sinijlawi continued, explaining how while the violence of the First Intifada forced the sides to consider reconciliation, the Second Intifada, which sparked multiple suicide bombings, did the opposite. “It killed the peace camp in Israel and the Israeli confidence in the Palestinians.”

And, the former Fatah activist added, “While a lot of people in America believe that the peace process is ongoing… this is the longest peace process in history, and it can’t really be called a process because there is no process, and it can’t be called peace because there’s no peace in it either.”

Historians and experts cite an array of reasons why the political left was unable to implement its vision post-Oslo: Palestinian terrorism during the Second Intifada, which spurred the precipitous rise of right-wing ideas in Israeli society; the significant growth of settlements in the West Bank, on the land earmarked for a Palestinian state; the hopelessness in Palestinians society and the fragmentation of its leadership, which has left Israel with no single partner for peace; and ever-deepening violent radicalization, especially in the Gaza Strip.

While the vision of peace as it was laid out back then may no longer be feasible, Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JI that the basic premise of recognition and much of the infrastructure created in the original Oslo declaration continues to exist today.

“Many people ask me if I think Oslo is a failure and my answer is that there is no simple answer,” said Michael. “One of the most important successes of the process is the idea that Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people and the Zionist project, must be separate from the Palestinians if it wants to continue.”

“There is still a broad consensus, at least among Jews in Israel, about the need to disengage from the Palestinians,” he continued. “Although there are severe disputes about how to disengage and severe disputes about whether there is a partner on the Palestinian side with whom we can reach a disengagement agreement with.”

In addition, Michael pointed out, the Palestinian Authority is an outcome of the Oslo Accords, and the State of Israel, including the current government, still believes that the Palestinian Authority, “as a functioning, stable, and cooperating entity with Israel, is an Israeli strategic interest.”

Add to that, the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, as well as the security and civilian cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and there are many features of Oslo that live on, he said.

Yossi Beilin, Israel’s former justice minister and one of the key architects of the original plan, told JI that the biggest failure of Oslo “is that it is still relevant.”

“It shouldn’t be relevant,” he said. “It should have died 25 years ago, on May 4, 1999, which was the deadline for the permanent agreement between the parties, but, as we know, nothing happened then.”

“We wanted Oslo to be conducive to a permanent agreement, which included the division of the land, assuring that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state,” Beilin highlighted. “For [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [whose first term as prime minister was between 1996-99], however, it was a tool to keep the status quo while increasing the settlements and giving up on Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians.”

“The fact that Oslo is an interim agreement did not matter to the right wing [in Israel], and it has been abused as a kind of permanent agreement,” he explained. “A bridge of rocks became a permanent bridge, which is by definition impossible, and there was a demand that the [Palestinian] side refer to it as a peace treaty forever, despite the fact that it was only 40% of the West Bank and did not include total autonomy.”

On the Palestinian side, Sinijlawi noted that the only Palestinians still interested in talking about this solution to the conflict are “the stakeholders of the Palestinian Authority, some 160 people in Ramallah who live in a bubble…. Those with a red carpet, VIP cards and heavy bank accounts.”

“They don’t want to look at the reality on the ground,” he said, adding that most Palestinians know “that you can no longer have a two-state solution.”

“How can you separate the two communities now?” Sinjilawi asked. “It’s not seven or eight hundred thousand settlers anymore, it’s also the infrastructure that is connecting everything together and connecting all the settlements with Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.”

Aaron David Miller, who was previously deputy special Middle East coordinator and worked on the Oslo process in the 1990s, acknowledges that the framework as it was laid out has not borne out into reality. 

“It’s rational to assume that the two-state solution is dead,” said Miller. But, he added, no other approach besides “separation through negotiation” has provided a realistic, long-term solution.

The two-state solution remains the bedrock of American foreign policy in the region, although President Joe Biden’s decision not to appoint an advisor focused specifically on the peace process indicates that it is not a high priority. Yet it remains a talking point for the Biden administration, and Biden is tying his goal of Israeli-Saudi normalization to gains for the Palestinians. 

“Unless [the Israelis and Palestinians] separate into two polities that are willing and able to live with one another, there is simply no way to address the demographic, political [and] psychological elements, and the proximity problem, the problem of occupation, that drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Miller.  

Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and author of the forthcoming book Thirty Years Since Oslo, One, Two or Three States? said while it is no longer possible to discuss the “scenario of implementing the two-state vision as it was shaped in 1993,” it was still important to find a resolution to a conflict that appears to have no end.

“When I hear Americans or Europeans speaking about the two-state vision, I think they really mean a two-state principle because the two-state vision can no longer be implemented today, yet you can promote the principle of two states or of physical separation between the communities,” he reasoned.

“In 2023, what we have is two choices: The first is the one-state reality, which is not a solution but a reality that will happen because of the melting of the West Bank into Israel,” he explained. Milshtein added that in lieu of a process, Israel now needs to make a hard choice: a country for all its citizens with the possibility of the non-Jewish population overtaking the Jewish one at some point, or a country where the Jewish population maintains control, even if it becomes a minority, he said.  

The other option Milshtein laid out is for Israel to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank, much like it did with Gaza in 2005. “I think the idea that the Palestinians have their own self-determination, even if it is limited, will be a building block for the future,” he said.  

Alternatively, Beilin, along with a group of Israelis and Palestinians, has been pushing for a Holy Land Confederation that would move beyond the Oslo Accords and, he believes, offer a more realistic solution that could be implemented immediately. The proposal, according to its executive summary, would provide “a new framework for the negotiation of a permanent solution between the two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine, and not as a substitute for it.”

Gilead Sher, a former senior peace negotiator, who worked on the subsequent Oslo II Accords signed in 1995, said that while a similar peace process is not “on the cards in the foreseeable future,” efforts should still be made to find a solution.

“I think that what we should look for is a gradual process with several interim and transitional stages that allow us to lower the bar of expectation in order to obtain objectives, on the ground and also diplomatically,” said Sher, who also served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “I am quite aware that the current government is not interested in moving anywhere other than de facto annexation of the West Bank.”

He added that despite the obvious failures of Oslo, a separation of Israelis and Palestinians “is still the very best solution for Israel to preserve its identity as a Jewish, democratic and ethical state.”

“The idea of Oslo has not died yet but suffers from a very severe illness and lessons should be learned from this process,” said INSS’ Michael. “I think it is time to change the approach to the Palestinians; we need to begin behaving towards them as grown adults who are responsible for themselves and who must fulfill their commitments, including an end to supporting terrorism and inciting.”

“At the very same time, Israel must take steps as well,” Michael continued. “I think there is still an option to change the reality although it will not be easy, we just have to work very hard to realize it.”

Washington correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed to this report.

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