It has become conventional wisdom in certain circles that the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which was signed 25 years ago Sept. 13 on the White House lawn, was simply a failure.
There is no doubt that the great hopes of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation engendered by Oslo have not been realized. Twenty-five years later not only is there no peace, but the parties are not even talking to each other and the Palestinians themselves remain irreconcilably divided.
Moreover, not only was peace not accomplished, but soon after Oslo was signed, Palestinian terrorism surged, leading many on the right to argue that ceding territory to the Palestinians and the general show of perceived weakness by Israel at Oslo had emboldened the terrorists.
While this reading of the cause of terrorism was too monolithic – there have been surges of terrorism during periods of stagnation and frustration with the status quo – it did speak to the uncertainties surrounding Palestinian extremism and terrorism and the simplification by some on the left about Palestinian behavior and thinking.
At the same time, in certain left-wing circles, it is assumed the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist opposed to the peace process was the main reason the hopes of Oslo never came to fruition. If only Rabin had lived, the argument goes, there would be Israeli-Palestinian peace.
There is no doubt that Rabin’s unique credibility as a defender of Israel’s security, together with his willingness to take a bold initiative with Israel’s longtime enemy, the PLO, was not easily replicated. The loss of Rabin at that critical moment not only was one of the saddest days in the history of the nation, but also hurt the chances for peace.
Rabin’s death was a disaster in many ways, but whether it was the major factor in the stalling of peace efforts remains questionable. Indeed, in addition to the outbreak of suicide terrorist attacks at that time, there is no real evidence that had Rabin lived there might have been peace. The Palestinians had not made the qualitative leap toward accepting Israel’s legitimacy that was necessary for an agreement. When twice later on, at Camp David in 2000 and at Annapolis in 2008, Israeli leaders offered far more than Oslo for the actual creation of an independent Palestinian state and the dismantlement of many settlements, the Palestinians couldn’t bring themselves to say “yes.”
Still, there is reason to look back at Oslo as an important step forward in the painfully slow process of legitimizing Israel in the Arab world and in establishing a framework for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
Let’s remember that before Oslo, Palestinians of all stripes simply spoke the language of rejectionism, of denial of the right of Israel to exist. It’s not to say by any stretch of the imagination that that way of thinking has disappeared – Hamas is the most blatant example of this – but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself and other members of the P.A. engage at times in such rhetoric.
But it is vital to recognize that since Oslo, with all the disappointments that have followed, there is an alternative narrative, reflected in the words of Abbas, but also in public opinion polls among Palestinians. This is a language, however grudging, of accepting Israel’s existence and the need to find a solution based on two states.
One can question Abbas’ sincerity when he talks about two states for two peoples, or when he condemns terrorism, or when he cooperates with Israeli security forces, but at least it is now part of the public dialogue and rhetoric — something that was not true before Oslo.
And from the Israeli side, Oslo concretized the concept of Palestinian self-government, through the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the aspiration of a two-state solution, which until that point had been considered purely theoretical or unrealistic. There is enduring cynicism among the Palestinian leadership and its structures, and polls today show little drive for or expectation of a two-state solution among both the Israeli leadership and public. However, the framework established at Oslo remains to be built upon or adjusted at a time when conditions are more conducive for direct Israeli-Palestinian engagement.
The challenge going forward is not simply to reject Oslo but to move its conceptual breakthroughs into the practical realm. In this regard, there are responsibilities on all sides. After the terrorism following the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit and the conflict following the withdrawal from Gaza, Israelis have every right to be concerned about security. These concerns, however profound, need not stifle conversations and initiatives by Israel that could strengthen forces within the Palestinian community toward actualizing the concept of Israel’s legitimacy.
Nor should steps be taken that would make an ultimate two-state solution a practical impossibility. And Palestinians, following in the path of Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister, need to take practical steps to build up Palestinian institutions and infrastructure to help convince Israelis that the ideas embodied in Oslo are not dead.
Twenty-five years after the White House lawn ceremony, cynicism about Oslo is understandable. However, it could still be celebrated as a watershed moment in the eternal conflict if its conceptual breakthroughs are reinvigorated and translated into steps that could create movement for a secure peace on both sides.