September 13, 2018 marks 25 years since the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn. Like many people who have spent these years working for a just and durable resolution to this conflict, I find myself on this anniversary reflecting on the history of the Oslo Accords.
The Accords weren’t really born that day. They gestated over the next two years with a prolonged birth that occurred in stages, as the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994 and the Interim Agreement of 1995 were produced. And that was where my interaction with the Accords began.
Like so many, I was thrilled to see Arafat and Rabin shaking hands. In 1993, this was something almost unimaginable. It was not even five years since the Reagan administration had authorized talks with the PLO and less than two years since the conference in Madrid where the first official, albeit indirect, Israeli-Palestinian talks took place.
I remained optimistic, even though I was concerned by the principled opposition to Oslo of several Palestinian and left-wing figures, most notably Edward Said. The Declaration of Principles (DOP) seemed promising and it was easy to see the absence of any statement of intent for creating an independent Palestine as a political necessity for Rabin. That concession would become the model for many similar ones in the ensuing years.
In 1996, as I entered my second year of college, I convinced a professor to allow me to do an independent study for extra credit. I would read the Oslo Accords, dutifully summarize every article and annex, and analyze, as best I could, the implications and functions of each part of the agreement.
I concluded that there was no chance the agreement would work.
The Built-In Failure of Oslo
By design, my conclusion had nothing to do with the politics of the moment. By that time, Rabin had been assassinated, and the man who had incited that murder—Benjamin Netanyahu—was prime minister. Attacks on Palestinians, most notably the Qana refugee camp in Lebanon, and a wave of suicide bombings in Israel had chilled the enthusiasm for Oslo. But both sides still supported the process and wanted it to continue, albeit now in an atmosphere of severely diminished trust.
What I had seen in the Accords themselves convinced me they could not succeed. The recipe for failure was baked into the Accords. They did not specify a goal of establishing a Palestinian state, and they did not address any questions of human rights, or any other points that might hint at a basic equality between Israelis and Palestinians. The entire structure of the agreement was based on an implication that granting Palestinians their freedom was an Israeli concession, not a moral imperative while, by contrast, the security interests of Israelis—whose civil, human, and legal rights were already protected—were spelled out in minute detail and emphasized above all else.
Twenty-five years later, one of the PLO’s legal advisers at Oslo, Diana Buttu, would articulate perfectly what I felt after reading the Accords. “To demand that Palestinians—living under Israeli military rule—negotiate with their occupier and oppressor is akin to demanding that a hostage negotiate with their hostage taker. It is repugnant that the world demands that Palestinians negotiate their freedom, while Israel continues to steal Palestinian land. Instead, Israel should have faced sanctions for continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom while building illegal settlements.”
There are serious issues that obviously need to be addressed in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But from the first, that point has been used to cynically disadvantage the Palestinians and give Israel such an overwhelming advantage in talks that the only way agreement could be reached is through Palestinian surrender. Sometimes that’s addressed as a power imbalance, but whatever the terminology, it is the inevitable reality when a largely representative government empowered by its citizens sits down with representatives of a powerless, disenfranchised people. One side holds all the chips, and it isn’t the Palestinians. That must be addressed before the sticky details can be discussed.
It Could Have Been Different
That imbalance could have been addressed by ensuring that the negotiations secured the inalienable, equal, human, civil, and national rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. By failing to even imply such a view, the Accords were doomed to fail. Palestinians had already recognized Israel and, in so doing, conceded 78% of the territory that had been Mandatory Palestine, and yet they were still deprived of their rights. Israelis, on the other hand, viewed any concession to Palestinians as a magnanimous gesture on their part to a people who had tried to stop them from creating a desperately needed homeland and whom they saw as a threat. How could such misaligned views lead to the “political will” needed to support the Accords?
In any negotiation, talks succeed when both sides are able to press the other, even if power is not evenly distributed. That is not possible between Israel and the Palestinians, and it’s not a unique situation.
In South Africa, international pressure was indispensable in pressuring the Afrikaner government to a degree the anti-apartheid movement in the country could not have done on its own. That’s why it appealed to the rest of the world for support.
That’s a comparison that Israelis dislike. But whatever similarities or differences exist between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel, they are both examples of a massive power imbalance. It’s also worth noting that what tipped the balance toward meaningful international pressure was that the United States was finally forced, by its own citizens, to stop protecting apartheid South Africa.
The issue of the US as “honest broker” in the Israel-Palestine conflict has been hashed out endlessly for decades. But American behavior has only exacerbated the inherent inequality between the parties that the Oslo Accords failed to acknowledge. The Accords then compounded that failure by setting up a framework that depended on Israel allowing Palestinians their rights not out of moral obligation or even enlightened self-interest, but out of magnanimity. Such generosity is not a characteristic of any country, let alone one that feels constantly threatened and that has always believed it needed to have overwhelming superiority of power just to survive.
A process that generated a very long list of false assumptions, Oslo has produced many lessons. But one must emerge above all the others, and it applies not only to Israel and Palestine but to resolving any conflict. Before an oppressed group can negotiate with its erstwhile oppressor, the international community must ensure two things. First, the disempowered group’s rights must be recognized as inalienable, not as being granted by the more powerful group. Second, there must be pressure on the powerful side. If the less powerful group cannot create that pressure, the international community must do it.
That’s not taking sides. It’s not even ensuring a level playing field. It’s simply creating the only conditions where the more powerful side feels a need to make concessions. I can’t speak for Diana Buttu, but I believe that under such conditions, which were absent from Oslo, negotiators from both Israel and Palestine will find a path to success. The United States is not about to create those conditions absent the kind of domestic mass movement that took many years to develop sufficiently to change policy toward South Africa. But seeds of such a movement are appearing in some corners of the Democratic Party today. The prospects may still seem grim, in some ways even grimmer than ever. But there is no other way forward. That is what Oslo conclusively proved.