Missed opportunity is legacy of Oslo accords
25 years later, promise for Mideast peace is unfulfilled
JERICHO, West Bank — When the Oslo peace accords were signed a quarter-century ago, residents of Jericho celebrated. Their dusty, 11,000-year-old desert city was given autonomy before anywhere else on the West Bank. Palestinians saw it as a foothold for what they trusted would become their own new state.
But nothing has turned out as they expected.
A shiny new casino, opened with great fanfare in 1998 to entice Israeli gamblers, has been empty since 2000, when they were barred from entering the city. The two-decade-old public hospital finally just got an elevator thanks to a donation from Japan. Perhaps the best-known institution of selfgovernment in town is the jail, widely feared as a dungeon for political prisoners.
The brilliant Palestinian future conjured by Oslo has instead become a bitter trap.
The Oslo accords, first unveiled on the White House lawn with a handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on Sept. 13, 1993, culminated in mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel had long banned as a terrorist organization, and the first formal agreements in a phased effort to resolve the century-old conflict.
They called for a comprehensive peace agreement by 1999, which was widely expected to lead to statehood for the Palestinians, and for Israel, realization of the long-held goal of land for peace.
Today, however, the Oslo process is moribund, having produced neither a peace agreement nor a Palestinian state.
About its only lasting substantive achievement is the Palestinian Authority, established as an interim self-government but still going two decades after its expiration date. The authority has made strides in providing basic services and created jobs for roughly a quarter of the workforce, but it has grown increasingly autocratic and has been plagued by accusations of corruption.
Oslo made the Palestinians responsible for policing themselves in the West Bank, which has led to vast improvements in Israeli security from terrorism in recent years at little cost to Israel. It gave the authority responsibility for providing services like sanitation and hospitals that would otherwise cost Israel, as the occupying power, hundreds of millions of dollars. And it has allowed Israel to postpone, seemingly indefinitely, a broader withdrawal from the West Bank.
If Oslo has failed the Palestinians, part of that failure is selfinflicted. An increase in terrorist attacks after Oslo’s signing, followed by the deadly Second Intifada that erupted in 2000, soured many Israelis on peacemaking and eventually led Israel to sideline the process.
Palestinians have been left in a depressing limbo: Even as their leadership has consistently failed to establish a coherent, united front for independence, the authority’s bureaucrats have become steadily more effective at administering, and controlling, the lives of West Bank residents.
Stateless still, the Palestinian people are in deep trouble, their prospects as dim as ever. The body politic is divided, perhaps irrevocably, between the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction, on the West Bank, and the Islamic militant group Hamas — which opposed Oslo and seeks the eradication of Israel — in the Gaza Strip. Reconciliation efforts keep failing.
In Israel, the peace camp that backed Oslo has withered from waves of violence. The dominant right wing debates whether merely to manage the occupation in perpetuity or to declare victory and annex much of the West Bank.
The number of Israeli settlers there, in what much of the world considers a violation of international law, has more than tripled, to about 400,000. An additional 200,000 live in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Despite the leadership’s failures, many Palestinians still accept the authority as the least-bad option — although, given its longevity, it is the only reality many of them know.
President Bill Clinton looked on as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands during the signing of the Oslo peace accords on Sept. 13, 1993, in Washington.