Three decades after the Olso Accords, a two-state solution feels like a distant dream


Three decades after the Olso Accords, a two-state solution feels like a distant dream

“It was a long shot for a possible settlement, or the certainty of no settlement,” recalled Yitzhak Rabin, the Israel prime minister at the time.

13 September 1993, was an appropriately sunny day in Washington.

On the South Lawn of the White House, in front of 3,000 invited witnesses, two sworn enemies stood side-by-side, not as friends but pragmatic partners in a deal that could finally bring peace.

Gathered diplomats gasped and cheered as President Bill Clinton opened his arms and drew Mr Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, together in a handshake that was felt around the world.

That moment, however, was perhaps the closest the two sides ever got to peace.

The Oslo Accord had been negotiated in secret for months at a mansion outside the Norwegian capital; for Palestinians and Israelis wanting peace, it was a chance for hope.

The declaration of principles signed that September day was supposed to be the start of a phased path towards a two-state solution, the beginning of the end of a decades-old conflict that many previously had tried and failed to resolve.

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Oslo didn’t address everything. It left some of the trickier issues – the status of Jerusalem, the existence of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and the designation of borders – to be negotiated at a later date.

Thirty years on, those issues remain unresolved and are at the root of the problems between the two sides today.

The division of the West Bank into three areas – A, B and C – was supposed to be temporary, but Israel still controls at least 60% of the territory and has dramatically increased settlement expansion, further undermining any future peace deal.

Ultimately Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin had different interpretations and visions of Oslo.

Three decades after the Olso Accords, a two-state solution feels like a distant dream

The Palestinian revolutionary believed it was the birth of a Palestinian state, but the Israeli leader saw it as a controlled, phased transfer of power and land, with conditions.

A few years later, the Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland worked on part of the follow up agreement, known as Oslo II.

He is now the UN special co-ordinator for the peace process and explains how the Oslo Accords are still important in his mission today.

“Thirty years after the Oslo agreements were signed, and despite the significant challenges faced, the Oslo Accords remain the touchstone of a two-state vision, which is the only viable way forward to bring sustainable, long-term peace to Israelis and Palestinians. However, this promise is at great risk with key permanent status issues remaining unresolved and being undermined by destructive, unilateral actions and growing violence, pushing prospects for a negotiated solution further away.

“As we approach a point of potentially irreversible damage to the Middle East peace process, we must see some renewed commitment and stepped-up action by the parties as well as a re-invigorated, coordinated, and collective engagement by the international community.”

For the children of Oslo, Palestinians now entering their early thirties, the accords were something for a different generation.

Reem was born in 1993, only a few days before the Accords were signed. She lives in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, a city divided between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

“The generation that lived through the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising) tell me that Palestinians before Oslo had high hopes for the liberation of Palestine, or at least for a free state of their own.

“Oslo came as a sudden shock, and did not fulfil the Palestinians’ demands. It has not only destroyed hope, but also the attempts of our generation to lead the struggle or simply to participate politically. I have hope, but I think we have to deconstruct so much before we can rebuild a collective struggle for freedom.”

Three decades after the Olso Accords, a two-state solution feels like a distant dream

For Lamis, born in 1992, the year before Oslo, the situation now is worse than it ever has been in her lifetime.

“What we are seeing on the ground is a devastating reality and the situation is becoming worse and worse. For example, since Oslo and failed negotiations, there has been even tighter Israeli control over the water resources. We all are suffering from the ongoing escalation by the Israeli occupation and army, so much that we can’t even dream of any hope. However, if we start to think more strategically and strongly demand our rights, then maybe we can hope a more stable situation, rights and a brighter future.”

Despite the hope they brought at the time, the Oslo Accords weren’t without their critics.

Many on the Israeli right were angry because they believed the concessions made to Palestinians were too generous.

On the evening of 4 November 1995, a few weeks after the follow-up Oslo II agreement was signed, Mr Rabin was assassinated by a far-right Israeli extremist, Yigal Amir. The surrender of the historical Jewish heartland was too much for that messianic radical and so he put a bullet in the man who he believed had betrayed Israel.

Mr Rabin’s killing shocked Israel and he became a national icon, but the day he died, Oslo did too.

Three decades after the Olso Accords, a two-state solution feels like a distant dream

Three decades on and the prospect of a two-state solution feels like a distant dream. Israel’s current government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, includes ministers who have actively and publicly supported the annexation of the West Bank.

They have reignited the debate that Israel is an apartheid state, something that most pro-Israelis vehemently deny but a small albeit influential number of commentators are now starting to believe.

“There is an apartheid state here,” Tamir Pardo, a former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, told The Associated Press in an interview last week.

“In a territory where two people are judged under two legal systems, that is an apartheid state.”

Bring up the accords in Jerusalem these days and it is met either with ironic laughter, a dismissive shrug of the shoulders or even bitter anger.

Even though no side dare officially admit they’ve failed, the accords have few remaining defenders, explains Israeli foreign affairs analyst Daniel Seidemann.

“Oslo failed because it failed to advance a way that Israelis and Palestinians could move towards a final status agreement. It failed because it gave terrorists and assassins on both sides the power to prevent forward progress. It failed because it created a new status quo which allowed Israel to pursue occupation while denying its existence, while Palestinian leaders became sub-contractors of Israel, and the Palestinian public was left to despair of a never-ending occupation.”

Three decades after the Olso Accords, a two-state solution feels like a distant dream

However, says Mr Seidemann, it would be unfair to dismiss them as a total failure.

“No other agreement was possible at the time. No Israeli government nor any Palestinian authority has dared to declare Oslo dead. Both peoples fear its collapse. Peace with Jordan and normalisation in the region would not have been possible without Oslo. There will be no forward movement towards a resolution of this conflict that doesn’t build upon Oslo, or its remains.”

The three architects of Oslo, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. None of them lived to see peace in their time.

Mahmoud Abbas, who signed the agreement on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization that day, is now the long-serving and elderly president of Palestine.

He would no doubt argue that Oslo failed Palestinians because Israel failed to keep its promises and instead pursued an ongoing military occupation and settlement scheme that amounts to de-facto annexation.

For its part, the Israeli government would say that Abbas has led an increasingly corrupt government that has had many opportunities to deliver for his people but repeatedly failed, and has tolerated endless terror attacks on Israel from within The West Bank.

Like any conflict, the two sides can agree on little, but no-one since has put forward a credible or workable alternative, and if peace between Israel and the Palestinians is ever to be possible then Oslo will be the framework for those discussions. Perhaps that is its most notable success.

And yet on Friday, the Israeli government will celebrate the third anniversary since the signing of the Abraham Accords, a series of normalisation deals struck between Israel and four Arab states: the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

It speaks volumes that no such celebrations will mark the anniversary of Oslo.


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