Two decades after the signing of the declaration of principles (DOP) by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the White House lawn, there is something unreasonable in the world’s continued adherence to the Oslo paradigm, tattered and battered as it is by years of a bloody fiasco. The Palestinian Arab leadership has consistently and adamantly rejected the two-state solution since its first articulation in 1937 by the British Peel commission and has, as consistently, advocated the destruction of the Jewish state. Still, it undertook a successful public relations campaign in the 1980s promoting the notion of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—”the occupied territories.”
Twenty years of Oslo, filled with optimism and enthusiasm and adorned with Nobel prizes, like the ones held here by Arafat, Peres and Rabin (l-r) have delivered no peace for either side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Firmly entrenched in its place, however, is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance written on a grand political scale, as the failed Oslo paradigm is revived again and again.
Over the years and especially in the wake of the DOP, the Palestinian demand for statehood has gained rapid political momentum and international acceptance. A succession of Israeli prime ministers—from Shimon Peres, to Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Binyamin Netanyahu—embraced the idea, as did U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The paradigm for a final peace includes among its primary components Israeli territorial withdrawal and Palestinian sovereignty, political separation with reconciliation, compromise, and coexistence.
Yet twenty years on, the two parties find themselves further apart despite years of diplomatic wrangling. It is thus past time to examine and invalidate the paradigm that has taken hold in the hope that a new and less sanguinary one will take root.
A History of Failure
The concept of a Palestinian state appears just and reasonable. It evolves from the notion of a right to national self-determination for the stateless Palestinian people and their demand to end an Israeli presence in the territories captured in 1967. The terminology of decolonization regarding Jews who have settled in those territories fits this narrative of thwarted native Palestinian rights; ending the “illegality” of Israeli rule over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem is a global political stipulation for conflict-resolution. From the November 1988 resolution in Algiers that called for Palestinian independence to the extensive diplomatic campaign of September 2011 to promote Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the PLO dramatically altered the political parameters of the conflict and its resolution. In sketching the two-state solution of Israel and Palestine as representing complementary rather than contradictory elements in the puzzle of peace-making, values of equality and freedom radiated from both sides.
The Palestinian state idea had been proposed repeatedly in the post-1967 era, and its feasibility, viability, and desirability were analyzed and advocated again and again. The idea was central to the Arab-originated Fahd plan of 1981 and the Fez plan of 1982 and was reintroduced two decades later in 2002 by the Saudis as the Beirut peace plan. On the Jewish side, the nongovernmental Council for Peace and Security founded in 1988 was book-ended by the so-called Geneva initiative of 2003—headed by two failed politicians, Yossi Beilin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak—with centrist Labor and leftist political parties contributing their own details along the way, all promoting a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The two-state solution emerged within PLO circles in 1988 when Bassam Abu Sharif, a political advisor to Arafat, presented a position paper on the theme.
However, when the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO were signed in September 1993, there was no explicit mention that the peace process would culminate in a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had in 1974 rejected the notion of a “third state” between Israel and Jordan, had reiterated this position in an autobiographical work in 1979, contending that a Palestinian “mini-state” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would serve as a stage toward the “secular, democratic state of Palestine” that would rise “on the ruins of the state of Israel.” Four years before concluding the historic agreement with Arafat at the White House, Rabin asserted that a Palestinian state would be a time-bomb for chaos and warfare, and even with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, it remained Rabin’s belief that the final version of the Palestinian entity must be less than a sovereign state.
With that said, Palestinian sovereignty was, nevertheless, anticipated as the end-product of the Oslo process. Israel had acknowledged Palestinian peoplehood and rights in the 1978 Camp David-negotiated framework agreement for Middle East peace. It then recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, agreed to the founding of the PA and its police force in 1994, and implemented territorial withdrawals from towns and rural areas in Judea-Samaria and Gaza in 1994-97. The International Donors’ Committee provided billions of dollars in aid to the PA, which established institutions for what could be termed a state in formation. Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party in 1993, said he would abrogate the Oslo accords, but as prime minister in 1996, he failed to do so. The Hebron protocol of January 1997 and the Wye River memorandum of October 1998 demonstrated that Netanyahu operated within the Oslo paradigm for peace by relinquishing Israeli control over land, which was linked to explicit Palestinian obligations such as combating terrorist organizations and preventing incitement. Soon afterward, the Israeli government cancelled additional withdrawals because the PLO did not fulfill its commitments but not because Jerusalem dispensed with the Oslo idea.
Faith in Oslo did not dissolve even when failure struck over and over again. In July 2000 at the Camp David summit, Ehud Barak offered Arafat Palestinian statehood with control over approximately 92 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and a political capital in the vicinity of Jerusalem. But Arafat spurned the offer, and a reign of terror and suicide-bombing ensued.
Despite the basic breakdown of diplomacy and although U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross admitted that Oslo had failed, he remained convinced—having written eight hundred pages of close text detailing the intricacies, efforts, obstacles, formulae, and setbacks regarding “the missing peace”—that “there is room for creative diplomacy.” Should failure not have brought about a reevaluation and some change in policy orientation?
In January 2002, President Bush called for an “end to occupation and [for] a peaceful democratic Palestinian state” as the prescription for peace, a formula endorsed a year later by the international “Quartet” (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations). Another year later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also hitched onto the Palestinian state bandwagon as did his successors in Jerusalem—Olmert and Netanyahu—a few years hence. Yet negotiations, such as those between Olmert and PA president Mahmoud Abbas in the latter part of 2007, dragged on without results. The plethora of issues—from settlements and prisoners, to Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, to the Fatah/Hamas split—preoccupied and confounded the Israeli-Palestinian discussions without any satisfactory conclusion.
On May 19, 2011, President Barack Obama affixed his name to the distinguished roster of supporters of a Palestinian state by advocating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Netanyahu reacted sharply that the Palestinian state could not come at the “expense of Israeli existence,” affirming that the 1967 borders were “indefensible.” This set the political stage for a dispute between Washington and Jerusalem and assured that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were not likely to renew soon. The Oslo paradigm was frozen: There were to be no negotiations, no Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, and no peace in the offing. The three “nos” on Israel formulated at the 1967 Khartoum Arab summit—no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace—had been transformed and reformulated with their political core unchanged.
Twenty years of the Oslo process filled with optimism and enthusiasm, adorned with Nobel prizes, grand summitry, and historic declarations that peace was “just around the corner” have delivered no peace. Firmly entrenched in its place, however, is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance written on a grand political scale. A final status agreement should have been consummated by 1999, five years following the “Gaza-Jericho First” stage in 1994, but neither Rabin’s assassination in 1995 nor the murder of 1,084 Israelis from September 2000 to October 2010 (along with 250 from 1993 until July 2000) could quash efforts at advancing the process. True believers continue to argue that once a Palestinian state in the territories is established, the Oslo paradigm will be validated. For those afflicted with “Osloitis,” when the evidence counters their utopian paradigm, the bearer of bad news is defamed rather than commended for contributing to an alternative conceptual construct.
Oslo’s Unaddressed Fallacies
At the heart of the failed Oslo paradigm are a core group of fallacies that have been promoted as truths: that the land can sustain two opposing population groups; that the Arab goal of destroying Israel can be appeased through “painful concessions” (rather than defeated by an Israeli victory); and that this is not a conflict based on something as elemental and incendiary as religion. Not one can withstand close scrutiny.
Geopolitical conflict is frequently a function of a dearth of resources and cannot be resolved by a mere wish for human harmony. In this case, both land and water are scarce, and the less than 40-mile width of the land from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River is insufficient to accommodate two rival states with expanding populations and vibrant national ambitions. While there are a few small states living cheek by jowl like the Netherlands and Luxembourg that are not at each others throats, they do not face the other factors that have contributed to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
There is, moreover, a great likelihood that a Palestinian state ensconced in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would evoke a powerful zeal for further land concessions, not only from the Arabs of Ramallah or Nablus, but also among many Israeli Arabs in the Galilee, for example, of whom opinion surveys indicate their belief that Jews are foreigners in the Middle East. Such a state could easily foment an insurgency within Israel, bringing along further disruptions and destruction in its wake. Indeed, the Palestinian belief that Tiberias, Haifa, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa are lost cities of Arab Palestine fuels a deep-seated rejectionism, which is manifested in the leadership’s adamant refusal to recognize Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state.
Finally, the war against Israel is little more than a modern application of Qur’anic hostility toward Jews, expressing the ethos of jihad and the religious definition of Palestine as a sacred waqf (Islamic religious endowment). Buoyed with this faith and ideology, Iran and Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Muslim elements dedicate themselves to destroying Israel once and for all. In this, they are only more obvious than the so-called moderate Fatah leadership, which makes use of religious imagery and imperatives whenever it suits its purpose. A two-state solution is, in essence, a betrayal of Islam although a Palestinian state could become the springboard for the ongoing campaign to undermine, overrun, and eradicate the Jewish state—fi Sabil Allah (in the path of God). All this is so because, as article 15 of the Hamas covenant declares, “the Palestinian problem is a religious problem.”
The irrefutable conclusion is that the Oslo process brought no discernible change in the Palestinian attitude toward Israel. It remains a state that has to be eliminated. In May 2013, Mahmoud Abbas repeated the PLO’s position that the Palestinians would refuse, as they indeed have, to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. Jibril Rajoub, Fatah Central Committee member, declared soon thereafter that the Palestinians were the enemies of Israel, adding that if the Palestinians had nuclear weapons they would use them. No less acerbic was a remark by Jamal Zahalka, Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, who on July 31, 2013, railed against his fellow-citizens and parliamentarians: “We [the Arabs] were here before you [the Jews], and we’ll be here after you’re gone.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (l) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meet at a conference in Washington, D.C., on September 2, 2010. In May 2013, Abbas repeated the PLO’s position that the Palestinians would refuse, as they indeed have, to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.
In addition, the Oslo paradigm founders on the twin rocks of Palestinian factionalism and extremism as Palestinian society is hopelessly fissured by traditional identities and loyalties with extended family and tribal ties enduring despite a narrative of nationalism. The rural-urban split, the settled-refugee dichotomy, and the Muslim-Christian differentiation all confound integral social cohesion. Such a political tapestry, barely holding together despite decades of trying, baffles national unity, complicating the viability of any Palestinian state project becoming sturdy or stable.
These divisions have become further concretized by geopolitical partition. In 2007, Hamas seized control of Gaza after Israel’s disengagement-withdrawal from the strip two years earlier and the Islamists’ electoral victory over Fatah in 2006. The 40-kilometer geographic separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, alongside the ideological and political enmity between Fatah-PA and Hamas, is a powerful obstacle to generating Palestinian unity. The conventional two-state proposal is a misnomer inasmuch as Gaza already constitutes a Palestinian “statelet,” so that another Palestinian state based in the West Bank would actualize a three-state solution. The fathers of the Oslo accords could not imagine in their wildest dream such a bizarre turn of events.
Lastly, an ethic of extremism has been embedded in the culture of Palestinian politics for the last one hundred years, beginning with Hajj Amin Husseini (1897-1974) and continuing through the tenure of Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), with a slew of other noteworthy firebrands such as Izz al-Din al-Qassam (1882-1935) and Ahmad Yassin (1937-2004) throwing fuel on the blaze in between. Five days before the Oslo signing, Arafat told an Israeli journalist that one day there would be “a united state in which Israelis and Palestinians will live together” (without Israel) while in 1996, after Oslo, he forecast Israel’s collapse under the weight of an Arab return to the West Bank and Jerusalem, linked to psychological warfare that would convince the Israelis to emigrate. The Arabs of Palestine have every reason to believe that the country is theirs alone because their leaders have been telling them that from the very beginnings of their own self-awareness as a people. For them, extremism is justified although this mental universe of self-delusion and fanaticism has not led them to a political victory.
Four Insurmountable Oslo Issues
Early in 1993, the Oslo negotiators concluded that a full and immediate resolution of the conflict was an impossible task, preferring instead to conceive of peace-making as a staged process rather than a single, decisive event. The major points of contention would be left to a later phase following the initial and practical launching of the accord. In the final status negotiations, peace would be achieved when the outstanding issues could be settled to the satisfaction of the Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The religious-cum-political issue of the holy city of Jerusalem represented perhaps the most intractable problem to be resolved. Despite the Jewish people’s millennial connections to Zion, Israel’s June 1967 decision to apply its law and administration over the entire united city as its capital was rejected by the Palestinians and their abettors in the international community. At Camp David in July 2000, contorted and repeated efforts were made to formulate an agreement that would accord Palestinians sovereignty over the Arab-inhabited peripheral areas of Jerusalem, jurisdiction over the inner neighborhoods, and Palestinian governance over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. In these plans, the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, would be handed over to a Palestinian administration that claimed it as the al-Haram al-Sharif (sacred precinct). Prime Minister Barak’s negotiating position, although it seemed to waver over the summit days, demanded Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem and the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods around the city but also over the inner Arab-inhabited Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Wadi Joz. He firmly rejected Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount while Arafat apparently called for Palestinian sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. In the end, Arafat spurned the deal, and the world will never know if further Israeli concessions, like recognizing absolute Muslim control and Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, would have perhaps elicited Arafat’s agreement. Palestinian militancy regarding Jerusalem has continued over the years, leading to assaults upon Jews in the Old City area and stoning attacks on the Temple Mount. These attacks have occurred despite an Israeli policy to limit and sometimes prohibit Jewish prayer on the mount. Self-imposed Israeli renunciation of Jewish religious rights merges with and perhaps evokes Palestinian violence.
One of the most intractable issues that the Oslo accord was supposed to resolve revolved around the status of Jerusalem. Despite a number of good-faith efforts to share the city proposed by Israeli negotiators, the Palestinians have spurned all offers. In fact, lines have hardened as evidenced by the confrontation seen here between Palestinians and Israeli police over the presence of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.
An even greater sticking point is the final status of the so-called Palestinian refugees. The unyielding Palestinian demand that the “right of return” be acknowledged and implemented is a call for Palestinian “justice” that carries within it the seed for Israel’s destruction. The “right of return” has become sacred dogma for Palestinians. Perhaps equally fixed is the Israeli rejection of the idea as suicidal for the Jewish state. A growing constituency of Arabs in Israel echoes the “return” theme.
This Palestinian position, sustained by a contrived memory of forced dispossession and nurtured by political rigidity, has been met with an equally steadfast Israeli rejection although Barak was willing to concede a symbolic number of returning refugees in July 2000. The refugee issue proves clearly that the Palestinian intent is to Arabize Israel and obliterate the Zionist enterprise. These are not the building blocks for the two-state solution envisaged by the Oslo negotiators.
Of late, the issue of the “settlements”—Jewish communities—has become the international community’s bête noire. The Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, numbering more than 120 localities with more than 330,000 people, may have begun in part as a perceived security imperative, but early on, it also expressed the immutable right of the Jewish people to live in and control the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River. For the Palestinians however, these communities were concrete evidence of Zionist expansionism and colonial occupation. The Palestinian position has become monolithic, demanding a dismantling of all Israeli communities and the expulsion of all their residents.
Meanwhile, Israeli governments forged a public consensus around those population blocks to be retained in any future agreement, a position endorsed by President Bush in 2004. The Palestinian position hardened further in 2010 when Abbas, encouraged by President Obama, demanded a complete cessation of all construction activity, not only in the territories but also in post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo, which are on the eastern side of the city. In short, the settlement issue brought the sides to political wrangling that froze the already-stalled Oslo process. A Judenrein West Bank, recalling what Menachem Begin did in expelling Jews when handing over the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, and what Ariel Sharon similarly did in the Gaza Strip in 2005, was not the future that many Israelis had in mind when imagining the contours of peace.
The fourth intractable issue is one of borders. A final political map delineating the outline of a Palestinian state is tied to the Arab demand that Israel withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines. No Israeli government ever agreed to such a total retreat, which runs counter to U.N. resolution 242, which established the land for peace formula in the wake of the 1967 war: Barak wavered between 88-93 percent of the West Barak while Sharon and Netanyahu considered withdrawal from perhaps 50 percent of the area. Military control of the Jordan Valley remains of particular importance for Israel to prevent both future smuggling of weapons and terrorists through Jordan into Palestine and to constitute a defensive line for Israel’s eastern front facing the Arab states across the river. Israel would have to evacuate 100,000 residents in the unlikely event that final borders would exclude many smaller Jewish localities dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria beyond the larger population centers such as Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, and the Etzion block. This grim scenario alone would be sufficiently critical to hamper an agreement, considering the national trauma that resulted from the expulsion of 8,000 Gush Katif residents from Gaza in August 2005. This is not the kind of public atmosphere that would generate Israeli support, let alone enthusiasm, for any peace based on the Oslo parameters.
While Israelis consistently poll in support of a Palestinian state, the reasons for abandoning the idea have multiplied over time. Palestinian nationalism with its malignant and rogue features remains committed to destroying Zionism. The Fatah media and school curricula indoctrinate the Palestinian people and youth to disparage Jews as “evil” and Israel as a “cancer.” Palestinian military forces train for the possibility of future fighting with Israeli military forces, and Palestinian diplomacy, like the recent failed attempt to get the U.N. to grant it unconditional statehood, remains the stuff of wily bazaar bargaining in a diplomatic war of attrition. It is clear that the Palestinian public has never really accepted the two-state solution as a final end to the conflict. This was given vivid expression in the last interview by the late Faisal Husseini, the prominent PLO leader, who infamously compared the Oslo process to a Trojan horse that would bring about Israel’s demise. More recently, Abbas Zaki, Fatah Central Committee member, confessed that “it’s not acceptable to say we want to wipe Israel out … It’s not [acceptable] policy to say so. Don’t say these things to the world. Keep it to yourself.”
Obstacles also exist in addressing the practical aspects and nitty-gritty details of a Palestinian state centered in the West Bank. Israel’s security-related conditions regarding demilitarization and control of airspace and military monitoring stations on West Bank hilltops meet with unwavering Palestinian opposition on all counts. A state of Palestine, founded in a moment of desperation and born in bitter acrimony, will lack the space to absorb millions of refugees should the expatriate Palestinian community opt for emigration and be fated for economic impoverishment (discounting the billions of dollars donated to the PA by the international community since 1994). Based on everything a dispassionate observer can testify to since the 1994 establishment of the Palestinian Authority, this Palestinian state, awkwardly sandwiched between Israel and Jordan, has all the likelihood of becoming a failed state—fragile, mismanaged, tending to disorder and civil war.
As such, the two-state paradigm trumpeted by Oslo has been invalidated with the growth of the magnitude of dissonance. There is just no sound political basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. All basic final status issues escape resolution. Yet, there has never been an admission of error, let alone an apology by Peres or Bill Clinton, Bush, Sharon, Olmert, Obama, or Netanyahu in their advocacy of a two-state solution. Speaking of the predominant role played by Peres in the Oslo saga, the contemporary grand master of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, once remarked that Peres had “the trait of French academics who tend to believe that the formulation of an idea is equivalent to its realization.” The same could be said of all those well-intentioned diplomats and politicians who have followed in Peres’s footsteps. Small wonder that, notwithstanding the plan’s abysmal failure and likely calamitous future, the intellectual brainwashing exercised by the Oslo paradigm has not yet loosened its grip over people’s minds as evidenced most recently by John Kerry’s heroic, but ultimately doomed, attempt to resuscitate the “peace process.”
Mordechai Nisan is a retired lecturer in Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at other academic institutions in Israel. His most recent book is Only Israel West of the River (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).
 The Peel commission recommended the incorporation of the Arab part of western Palestine into Transjordan, ruled by Emir Abdullah ibn Hussein, rather than its constitution as an independent state.
 For example, Richard J. Ward, Don Peretz, and Evan M. Wilson, The Palestine State: A Rational Approach (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977); Mark A. Heller, A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel (Cambridge.: Harvard University Press, 1983).
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