The Oslo Accords: A Failed Pursuit of Trust

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FILES,- OCTOBER 25: This 13 September 1993 file photo shows US President Bill Clinton (C) standing between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) as he shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin. Rabin and Arafat shook hands for the first time after Israel and the PLO signed a historic agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. Rabin was assassinated reportedly by a Jewish extremist 04 November after attending a peace rally in Tel Aviv. (Photo credit should read FILE/AFP/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, on 20 January 1993, the first secret talks took place that would eventually lead to the signing of the Oslo Accords. Two Israeli academics and three Palestinian representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), met at the home of a Norwegian couple to begin negotiations. The secluded spot away from the public eye afforded the opportunity for discussions and relationship building, in an attempt to cultivate trust between the Israelis and Palestinians.  

After months of talks, the ‘Oslo backchannel’ culminated in the signing of the ‘Declaration of Principles On Interim Self-Government Arrangements’ on 13 September 1993. The formal signing ceremony hosted by US President Bill Clinton, at which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat shook hands, provided the perfect photo opportunity for a world eager to resolve the long standing Israel-Palestinian conflict.  

This historic moment marked a turning point in the relationship by initiating open, direct talks between Israel and the PLO.  Letters of Mutual Recognition were exchanged in which the PLO recognized the existence of the State of Israel and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, while core issues such as refugees, settlements, borders, Jerusalem and mutual security, were to be resolved at some future time by direct negotiation between the two parties. 

Such was the initial euphoria surrounding the signing of the Oslo Accords that in 1994 Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize. Rabin also signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. However, in November 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a disgruntled Jewish extremist.

Leaders on both sides failed to take their people along with them and internal political opposition hindered progress. Commitments were broken and efforts to negotiate final status issues were fruitless. Violent outbreaks undermined trust. The attempt by Clinton at the 2000 Camp David talks, to broker an agreement between new Israeli PM Ehud Barak and PA chairman Yasser Arafat failed and the subsequent outbreak of the Second Intifada further dampened hopes for peace. 

As Yossi Klein Halevi expressed in ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor’, 

The second intifada exhausted my capacity for outreach; I didn’t think I could ever resume that journey in any form. I no longer wanted to hear your stories, your claims, your grievances. I wanted to shout at your hill: It could have been different! Partner with us, and negotiate a compromise! And look at me, acknowledge my existence! I’ve got a story, too

(Halevi, Yossi Klein. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, p.15, Kindle Edition.)

A key factor in the initial hopeful phase of negotiations was recognition of the need to build a relationship of trust. The Norwegians worked to provide an atmosphere that would facilitate friendly relations, where stereotypes could be overcome and the other party humanized. A policy of constructive ambiguity was pursued with the view to remaining ambiguous on key issues until the relationship was strong enough to face difficult decisions. 

Thirty years on, the prospects for peace appear further away than ever. The Palestinian leadership has refused land for peace offers, including the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state in 97% of the West Bank with east Jerusalem as its capital, the dismantling of isolated settlements and land swaps for the remainder. They have rather chosen to pursue a path of demonising and delegitimising Israel with a litany of fabricated accusations, from settler-colonialism to genocide to apartheid. Terrorism has been ongoing. 

Indeed at a recent celebration of the 58th anniversary of the launch of Fatah, which controls the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and is considered more moderate than the hardline Islamist Hamas party in Gaza, the party reasserted its commitment to undertake more terrorist activity in 2023. The Fatah statement expressed commitment to the ‘path of comprehensive popular resistance’, and to ‘striving together with the Palestinian struggle forces to escalate, organize, develop, and expand [the resistance] against all the occupation’s aggressive plots, with all types of resistance remaining open to our people’.

Significantly, the 58th anniversary is counted from Fatah’s first terror attack against Israel in 1965 – two years prior to the Six Day War, highlighting the fact that the resistance to the Jewish state is unrelated to the territory Israel gained in the Six Day War. Palestinian rhetoric and actions point to a stubborn refusal to accept Jewish presence anywhere in the land between “the River and the Sea”. 

When in 1996 Israel followed through with Oslo commitments to pull out of Jenin and Gaza in 2005, these territories became bases for terrorist activities. Rather than engaging in direct negotiations, the Palestinian leadership has sought to internationalize the conflict, the latest example being the UN’s push to have Israel brought before the International Court for Justice. 

Not only is there no indication that the Palestinians are interested in pursuing peace with Israel, the Palestinian Authority has made little progress in setting up the structure and machinery necessary for achieving statehood. 

No legislative or presidential elections have been held in the Palestinian territories since 2005. Abbas’s presidential term was supposed to end in 2009. Twelve years later in 2021, an election was planned, but Hamas was poised to sweep the parliamentary election. This was widely seen as the real reason Abbas postponed the poll, while he cited Israel’s refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem. 

Meanwhile the conflict between Hamas and Fatah has continued, having begun prior to Hamas seizing Gaza in 2007. Fatah faces a severe leadership crisis, charges of corruption and lack of public support. These factors add to general insecurity and the alarming rise in terrorist activity. Palestinian lawyers and other unions staged a series of protests in 2022. They challenged decision making processes, deep-rooted nepotism and corruption among senior officials. 

In addition to the general corruption and incompetence of the PA, Palestinians lack basic human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, the Palestinian leadership goes to extreme lengths in its persecution of journalists and activists. HRW documents more than 80 cases of torture and arbitrary arrests, some for nothing more than writing a critical article or Facebook post, others for belonging to the wrong student group or political movement.

Both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza have in recent years carried out scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism of the authorities, particularly on social media, among independent journalists, on university campuses, and at demonstrations. 

Further, a litmus test in the attitude of the government is what is taught to children. Sadly, Palestinian children are indoctrinated to hatred with a school curriculum that encourages violence, jihad, martyrdom, antisemitism, hate, and intolerance. This is further entrenched in Summer camps where children are encouraged to become martyrs and recruited to become child soldiers, a war crime.  Palestinians are incentivised to terrorist activity with the families of ‘martyrs’ receiving financial rewards. 

Israel for its part has shifted focus elsewhere in the Middle East, normalising relations with other Arab countries, beginning with Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan.

Normalization has opened new opportunities for defense and security cooperation, cultural and economic activity. Just as building trust was considered important in the Oslo process, developing relationships around common interests has been a significant factor in the success of the Abraham Accords. Seeing the others as cousins rather than foes, with a common descent from Abraham has been key in setting the stage for mutual cooperation. In addition, these Arab countries have grown weary of waiting for the Palestinians to progress towards peace and recognise that the Iranian threat is of greater mutual concern. 

While a new paradigm for peace has begun in the Middle East, the Palestinian leadership has remained intransigent, still hoping to purge the region of all Jewish presence. Given that Israel is unwilling to oblige by disappearing from the pages of history, the conflict looks set to continue indefinitely.