Breaking Oslo’s Unmagical Spell

The legacy of Oslo: Cars queue up at the eastern entrance to Qalandiya military checkpoint, where Israel controls the movement of tens of thousands (Maureen Clare Murphy)

At a time in which the Palestinian people are desperately lost between the harsh reality of occupation and the uncertainty of a changing internal political landscape, a sober assessment and restructuring of the foundations of the so-called “peace process” may be our best attempt at reversing, or at least containing, the damage that has beset the Palestinian cause since the (evident) end of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1993.

In a 15 February 1998 interview from what now seems like a distant era, founder, and then-Secretary General, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Dr. George Habash, accurately outlines the shortcomings of the Declaration of Principles of 1993 (also known as the Oslo Agreement). In response to a question by the internet-based “Free Arab Voice” regarding the complete opposition of the PFLP to the Oslo Agreement at the time, Dr. Habash explains the underlying causes of the PLO’s failure to achieve any tangible and long-term strategic political gains by abandoning the Palestinian resistance movement against occupation and engaging in political dialogue with Israel:

“…the Oslo [Accords] were signed under the worst possible Arab, Palestinian, and international conditions for the Palestinian people. Therefore they hinged on a balance of [power] tilting decisively in favour of [Israel]. Wrong are those who believe that the outcome of negotiations is determined by ability and negotiating skill alone, [in isolation of] the balance of [power]! Good negotiators are the ones who know how to use the available cards to obtain the best possible conditions obtainable under the existing balance of power.

In that sense, the mediocre performance of the Palestinian negotiating team diffused away some of the most powerful Palestinian cards. For example:

1) Agreeing to the containment of the Intifada, thus bowing at the onset to a clear Israeli condition.

2) Giving up the legal international framework represented by United Nations resolutions [242, 338, and 194, among others], including those recognizing the rights of the Palestinian people; our right to self-determination, to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital; our right of return; not to mention the natural and inalienable right to resist and not to recognize the legitimacy of Zionist settlement.

As such, this international framework of legal reference was bypassed for one donned by a US mediator well-known for its total bias in Israel’s favour. Thus the negotiations’ point of reference drops to become what the negotiating partners agree to, taking us back once more to the balance of [power], i.e. the law of the jungle.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Palestinian Oslo team stooped down even farther when it agreed to engage in secret negotiations away from any Palestinian popular or institutional oversight. Hence the influence of the Palestinian street was neutralized, and with it all the action and pressure it could have generated to countervail US-Israeli pressures.

In addition to that, isolating the Palestinian issue from its natural Arab depth and milieu just made it so much easier for Zionists to impose the conditions and solutions that best befit their interest. Consequently, the current leadership of the PLO lost its:

1) Arab backing, especially from Syria and Lebanon, and

2) Palestinian backing represented by internal Palestinian unity.

Then this leadership wallowed in a maze of secluded agreements with the enemy drowning deeper and deeper in ever-worsening conditions and concessions that are clearly opposed to Palestinian rights.

To his staunch supporters, the now-retired 80-year-old George Habash is still known by his nom-de-guerre: Al-Hakeem (Arabic for “the wise man”). By merely glancing at the outcome of almost 10 years of negotiations with Israel, under the “bad offices” of the US, who can resist the temptation of acknowledging the validity and accuracy of Al-Hakeem’s prophecy today?

After all, on the ground, the ill-fated Oslo Agreement resulted in 1) the significant expansion of Israel’s illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank (including, and especially in, east Jerusalem); 2) the intensification of Israel’s illegal annexation of the Palestinian territories occupied in the June 1967 War to “Israel proper,” namely through the construction of its Apartheid Wall (which will have stolen 46 percent of Palestinian land in the West Bank once it is completed); 3) Israel’s fragmentation of the Palestinian territories into roughly four isolated Palestinian-populated reservations (the Gaza Strip, and the northern, central, and southern parts of the West Bank); and 4) Israel’s economic, political, and social/cultural isolation of Arab east Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian territories by encircling the city with military checkpoints, settlement blocks, and the Apartheid Wall, let alone by implementing a systematic policy of ‘de-Arabising’ the city through residency (ID) confiscation, land confiscation, state-sponsored Palestinian home demolitions, and the prevention and obstruction of Palestinian institution-building (including the closure of the Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in east Jerusalem, in which, ironically, the very foundations of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are found).

Politically, and most notably, the imbalances of the Oslo Agreement in Israel’s favour, and its imposed defeatist thought upon the PLO, were responsible for paving the way for a complete negation of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to what is now Israel, hence abandoning the nucleus of the Palestinian national struggle.

Why, then, must we accept the reality of Oslo and the further disintegration of our legitimate national aspirations, under the deceptive pretext of the two-state solution? How many more ‘wise men’ will it take before we finally realise that the basis for the current political composition of Palestinian-Israeli-US relations is merely an extension of neo-colonialist ideology, whose ultimate agenda is to legitimise Israel’s artificial existence in the Middle East at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians?

Part of the answer would certainly be found within the logic of your common Palestinian negotiator and/or (still stateless) statesman. Roughly speaking, such analogy would insist that Israel is not only militarily and economically one of the most powerful states in the world, but even more importantly, it is blessed with the US as its main ally (or is it the other way around?). Therefore, it is most feasible to accept negotiations within the framework of the Oslo Agreement before it is too late; before Israel has expanded its territorial boundaries to the extent that there is nothing to negotiate for.

To put it as mildly and as politely as possible, rest assured, Mr. Official, that, with or without Oslo, Israel has expanded its boundaries far beyond the Green Line, leaving your Palestinian Authority with administrative control over some Bantustans and no promise of real sovereignty even to determine your own freedom of movement between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Ultimately, and from that point of departure, the methodology of the Oslo Agreement, and what followed from “secluded agreements with the enemy,” limited the negotiators (the PLO, Israel, the US, and even the Europeans) to the process of peace as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieving a just and durable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Secondly, through the framework of the Oslo Agreement, the Palestinian cause was reduced to crumbs of remotely-contiguous topics which were divisible beyond permanent status issues (Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, and water rights), thereby entrapping the Palestinian negotiators in an endless battle of technicalities (crossings, economic relations, security coordination, among other issues), which consequently clouded their view of the overall picture and distracted their efforts to realise the ultimate objective of negotiating with Israel in the first place; i.e. ending the occupation on the basis of UN Resolution 242 and the land-for-peace equation.

Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, the unwillingness of the US to honour its role as impartial broker between the PLO and Israel transformed the Oslo Agreement into a platform from which Israel could maximise its national interests, unchallenged. It allowed consecutive Israeli governments (both Labour and Likud) since 1993 to sustain and expand Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, to continue its systematic violation of Palestinian human rights, and to unilaterally impose new realities on the ground which pre-empted the outcome of negotiations themselves, without being held accountable for blatantly violating the letter and spirit of the “peace process.” Ultimately, the US failed to fulfil its expected role as “peacemaker” and became a tool for crisis management and band aid diplomacy, as opposed to a driving force through which the causes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be addressed and remedied.

While the occupied Palestinian territories may lack the resources necessary to support a truly independent state, Palestinian society never failed to produce wise men, and women. Equally worthy of mention here are the words of Palestinian leader, intellectual, and human rights activist, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.

In her article “Image and Reality: The Role of the US in the Middle East,” published more than one year after the outbreak of the second Intifada on 28 December 2001, Dr. Ashrawi wrote:

The most glaring fault lies first and foremost in the total subjugation of American decision making to the priorities and policies of the Israeli government-a government that happens to be the most extremist, ideological, hard line, militaristic, and irresponsible since the creation of the state of Israel.

Whether as a result of gullibility, inherent (strategic) bias, or a determined avoidance of any confrontation with major Jewish and pro-Israeli lobbyists and campaign funders, both American executive and legislative branches seem to be bent on pursuing a precarious course that threatens not only to wreak havoc in the region, but also to lay to rest any hope of salvaging the image, influence, and interests of the US throughout the region.

Instead of hiring suspect spin-doctors and Hollywood image-makers, it behooves the US administration to re-examine both its words and deeds (as well as its silence and inaction) when it comes to the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the Arab world.

Given the complete failure of the Oslo Agreement, and in light of the new dynamics governing the current regional and global political stages, what we desperately need is a fully restructured framework for negotiations, based on both the will of the international community (and Israel) to reverse the historical injustice committed against the Palestinian people (first, and foremost, against our refugees), as well as the need to address the so called “security requirements” of Israel; namely a popular Palestinian (and Arab) acceptance of Israel’s existence on 78 percent of historical Palestine.

The composition of this framework is twofold:

1) A holistic approach to the conduct of negotiations which addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within the context of one ultimate objective: ending all aspects of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in the June 1967 War, including the dismantling of all Jewish settlements and Israeli military infrastructure from the West Bank (including east Jerusalem - the lesser post-1948 boundaries of the envisaged capital of Palestine). In addition, an effective and genuine negotiation process must guarantee Israel’s unconditional recognition and implementation of UN Resolution 194, hence the right of return of the 5 million Palestinian refugees to their original homes.

2) A radical/qualitative reshuffling of third party involvement, in which the PLO is politically backed by the wider Arab World, and the US more comfortably (and publicly) assumed its natural role as Israel’s guardian, paving the way for the emergence of what would hopefully be a credible and impartial mediatory role by Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Any alternative to such prerequisites for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will only lead to the continuation and intensification of the current state of hostility, which will inevitably provoke a wider (regional) confrontation at the costly expense of millions of innocent human lives. The price for failing to break the unmagical spell of Oslo is doom.

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    Rami Bathish is director of the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). He could be contacted at