In a daily meeting last Sunday at New York University, a group of practitioners and academics, Israelis and Palestinians, including the architect of the Oslo Return Channel and agreements, Dr. Yossi Beilin, were painstakingly and painfully dissecting what went wrong, but also looking for the positive that can be taken from the peace efforts.
Oslo has failed to achieve its ultimate goal of achieving a lasting peace that is just, fair, and sustainable in addressing all key issues that separate Israel and the Palestinians. However, as a process and an idea, Oslo has left a legacy of engagement, mutual recognition and cooperation ̵
In the early 1990s, few would have imagined that somewhere in Norway behind the scenes – only with the limited knowledge of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat – the only superpower was marginalized – would such a meaningful one Bring breakthrough. Last Sunday, Beilin recalled a number of very important lessons from Oslo. First, the central role of the leadership and, in the case of Israel, the central role of the prime minister was despite the very complicated political system. A determined and visionary prime minister is crucial and irreplaceable. That was no different on the Palestinian side. Another observation from the timeless oracle of the Israeli peace camp was that there is a lucky element or what Machiavelli would call "Fortuna" to create a chance for peace. Such an opportunity must be accepted before it disappears quickly.
Back in 1993, the world was still in a state of euphoria after the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated the rivalry of the superpowers, with either Washington or Moscow, though most likely the latter, playing the spoiler in all Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Another key factor was the weakness of the PLO because of its support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War of 1991. As a result, the Palestinian mainstream body was politically exposed, lacking resources, and urgently needed to regain regional and international legitimacy.
Oslo has failed to achieve its ultimate goal of achieving a lasting peace that is just, fair, and sustainable in addressing all key issues that separate Israelis and Palestinians. However, as a process and an idea, Oslo has left a legacy of engagement, mutual recognition and cooperation – given the right circumstances and the willingness to make a deal.
The White House hosted a new, young and ambitious President, Bill Clinton, who had no achievements so far. The policy statement, which was the result of the negotiations and signed in Washington, gave him his first diplomatic breakthrough, though he did very little to earn it. Finally, the new government in Israel was chosen with the promise that it would bring peace within its first year of office, while the opposition, which is still recovering from its electoral defeat, would hardly be able to oppose such a development. This was an extraordinary situation that played into the hands of those who had the vision, the desire, and the courage to seek peace.
There are no two other conclusions from the Oslo process. First, the return channels are still the best diplomatic method to make meaningful progress. The outcome of such negotiations must certainly be the subject of a public debate, but ongoing public speaking negotiations will likely bring the entire effort down to the lowest common denominator, leading to stalemates and, even worse, conflict. The other conclusion is that it is too risky to conclude a provisional and non-permanent agreement. The Oslo Treaties were about gradualism and incremental measures that led to a "perfect" agreement. This proved to be both a satisfying illusion and a convenient way of avoiding dealing with the most basic issues that were at the heart of the conflict.
It is understandable why the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were reluctant to even attempt to reach an agreement that would explicitly recognize the two-state solution with Jerusalem being the capital of Israel and a newly formed Palestinian state. This would have been a leap of faith to which neither side was capable or willing, especially as it should have included the issue of a just and equitable solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees, border demarcation and deportation of Jewish settlements in both the West Bank as well as in Gaza. In retrospect, however, it would have been the right path and probably the only way to achieve peace.
It could be that the expectations of a mere DOP were too high; After all, it contained hopes and good intentions for a complete settlement in five years, but no clear details of the solution itself. The difficulties in making progress, which proved more difficult than planned, led to frustration and a weakening of the peace camps in both societies.
Nevertheless, Oslo left a legacy of negotiating the most sensitive issues and agreements of some of them – the formal mutual recognition of others' right to self-determination, the building of Palestinian institutions and international financial and diplomatic support, to name just a few achievements. It is not a legacy that should be left out of hand. It will not comfort those who are victims of violence or who are still living under oppressive occupation. However, when the stars redirect, peace negotiators do not have to start from scratch; There are enough lessons from Oslo that can be used constructively in future peace efforts.
- Yossi Mekelberg is Professor of International Relations at Regent's University of London, where he directs 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 international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg