Why Oslo’s legacy should not be dis­missed

Arab News - - OPINION - YoSSi mekel­berg | Spe­ciAl to ArAb newS

The 1993 agree­ment may have failed to achieve its ul­ti­mate goal of a last­ing peace be­tween Is­rael and Pales­tine, but it cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity for en­gage­ment, mu­tual recog­ni­tion and a wish to co­op­er­ate given the right cir­cum­stances and will­ing­ness to reach a deal.

THE 25th an­niver­sary of the Oslo Ac­cords, which it was hoped would be the be­gin­ning of the end of the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict, will be marked later this year. It will be marked more than celebrated. For many, the ab­sence of peace af­ter a quar­ter of a cen­tury of a peace process is a cause of great re­gret and leaves much to be lamented. What is left are fad­ing mem­o­ries of the sign­ing on the White House lawn, with much fan­fare, of a Dec­la­ra­tion of Prin­ci­ples be­tween the Is­raeli and Pales­tinian lead­ers in front of world lead­ers and mil­lions of TV view­ers across the globe.

In a day con­fer­ence last Sun­day at New York Univer­sity, a group of prac­ti­tion­ers and aca­demics, Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, in­clud­ing the ar­chi­tect of the Oslo back chan­nel and ac­cords, Dr. Yossi Beilin, were painstak­ingly and pain­fully dis­sect­ing what went wrong, but also look­ing at the pos­i­tives that can be taken from the peace ef­forts.

Oslo failed to achieve its ul­ti­mate goal of reach­ing a last­ing peace that would justly, fairly and sus­tain­ably ad­dress all the core is­sues that di­vide the Is­raelis and the Pales­tini­ans. How­ever, Oslo as a process and as an idea has also left a legacy of en­gage­ment, mu­tual recog­ni­tion, and a wish to co­op­er­ate — given the right cir­cum­stances and will­ing­ness to reach a deal.

Back in the early 1990s, few could have imag­ined that, some­where in Nor­way, be­hindthe-scenes meet­ings — with only the limited knowl­edge of Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin and the Pales­tinian Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion leader Yasser Arafat, while marginal­iz­ing the sole su­per­power, the US — would yield such a mean­ing­ful break­through. Last Sun­day, Beilin re­minded the au­di­ence of a num­ber of very im­por­tant les­sons to take from Oslo. First was the cen­tral im­por­tance of lead­er­ship and, in the case of Is­rael, how piv­otal the role of the prime min­is­ter is, de­spite the very in­tri­cate po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

A de­ter­mined and vi­sion­ary prime min­is­ter is cru­cial and ir­re­place­able. This was no dif­fer­ent on the Pales­tinian side. An­other ob­ser­va­tion, from the time­less or­a­cle of the Is­raeli peace camp, was that there is an ele­ment of luck, or what Machi­avelli would call “for­tuna,” in cre­at­ing an op­por­tu­nity for peace. Such an op­por­tu­nity must be em­braced be­fore it quickly dis­ap­pears.

Back then, in 1993, the world was still in a state of post-Cold War eu­pho­ria. The col­lapse of the Soviet Union elim­i­nated su­per­power ri­valry, whereby ei­ther Wash­ing­ton or Moscow, although most prob­a­bly the lat­ter, might have played the spoiler in any Is­raeli­Pales­tinian peace ef­fort. An­other cru­cial con­trib­u­tory fac­tor was the weak­ness of the PLO as a re­sult of its sup­port for Sad­dam Hus­sein dur­ing the 1991 Gulf War. This left the Pales­tini­ans' main rep­re­sen­ta­tive body ex­posed po­lit­i­cally, de­prived of re­sources, and in dire need of re­gain­ing some re­gional and in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy.

More­over, in the White House there sat a new, young and am­bi­tious pres­i­dent, Bill Clin­ton, who up to that point had no achieve­ments to his name. The Dec­la­ra­tion of Prin­ci­ples, which was the prod­uct of the ne­go­ti­a­tions and was signed in Wash­ing­ton, gave him his first diplo­matic break­through, even if he did very lit­tle at this point to merit it. Lastly, the new gov­ern­ment in Is­rael had been elected on the prom­ise that it would bring peace within its first year in power, while the op­po­si­tion, still re­cov­er­ing from its elec­tion de­feat, could hardly op­pose such a de­vel­op­ment. This was an ex­tra­or­di­nary set of cir­cum­stances that played into the hands of those who had the vi­sion, the de­sire and the courage to pur­sue peace.

There is no es­cap­ing the draw­ing of two fur­ther con­clu­sions from the Oslo process. One is that back chan­nels are still the best diplo­matic method to achiev­ing any mean­ing­ful progress. The out­come of such ne­go­ti­a­tions must cer­tainly be sub­ject to pub­lic de­bate, but on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions in the glare of pub­lic­ity are likely to drag down the en­tire ef­fort to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor, re­sult­ing in stale­mate and, worse, con­flict. The other con­clu­sion is that embarking on an in­terim agree­ment, in­stead of a per­ma­nent one, is just too risky. The Oslo Ac­cords were all about grad­u­al­ism and in­cre­men­tal­ism, lead­ing to the “per­fect” agree­ment. This proved to be both a sat­is­fy­ing il­lu­sion and a con­ve­nient avoid­ance of deal­ing with the most fun­da­men­tal is­sues at the heart of the con­flict.

It is un­der­stand­able why the Is­raeli and Pales­tinian ne­go­tia­tors were re­luc­tant to even con­tem­plate try­ing in one stroke to reach an agree­ment that would ex­plic­itly rec­og­nize the two-state so­lu­tion, with Jerusalem as the cap­i­tal of both Is­rael and a newly es­tab­lished Pales­tinian state. This would have been a leap of faith that nei­ther side was ca­pa­ble of, or ready for, es­pe­cially since this would also have in­volved ad­dress­ing the is­sue of a just and fair so­lu­tion for the plight of the Pales­tinian refugees, the de­mar­ca­tion of borders, and re­moval of Jewish set­tle­ments both in the West Bank and Gaza. In hind­sight, how­ever, it would have been the right way for­ward, and prob­a­bly the only way to reach peace.

It might be the case that the ex­pec­ta­tions from a mere DOP were too high; af­ter all, it con­tained hopes and good in­ten­tions for a full settlement in five years, but no clear de­tails on the so­lu­tion it­self. The hard­ships in mak­ing progress, which proved to be more dif­fi­cult than en­vis­aged, led to frus­tra­tion and a weak­en­ing of the peace camps in both so­ci­eties.

Yet Oslo left a legacy of ne­go­ti­a­tions on the thorni­est of is­sues and agree­ments on some of them — of for­mal mu­tual recog­ni­tion of each other's right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, of build­ing Pales­tinian in­sti­tu­tions and of in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial and diplo­matic sup­port, to men­tion just a few achieve­ments. It is not a legacy that should be dis­missed out of hand. It won't con­sole those who are the vic­tims of vi­o­lence or who still live un­der an op­pres­sive oc­cu­pa­tion. How­ever, when the stars align again, the peace ne­go­tia­tors won't have to start from scratch; there are enough les­sons learned from Oslo that can be con­struc­tively em­ployed in fu­ture peace ef­forts.

Yossi Mekel­berg is pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Re­gent’s Univer­sity Lon­don, where he is head of the In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and So­cial Sciences Pro­gram. He is also an as­so­ciate fel­low of the MENA Pro­gram at Chatham House. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the in­ter­na­tional writ­ten and elec­tronic me­dia. Twit­ter: @YMekel­berg

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