The Oslo Accords: One Step Forward and Two Steps Back on a Bridge to Nowhere

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is anchored in the political dispositions and psychological calculations of a discordant and heavily misunderstood history. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent wars of 1967 and 1973, reciprocal animosity among Jews and Palestinians became the sole characteristic of the violently cyclical ethnic conflict. The procession of dual narratives from the Israelis and Palestinians are often overlooked as the consequence of territorial dispute and treated as limiting the scope of reconciliation. New attitudes were prevalent following the dangerous status quo of non-negotiation that later manifested into the catastrophic events of the first Palestinian intifada of 1987. The Oslo Accords ushered in a new approach in how to define territorial integrity for both nations and how to obtain mutual solace in recognizing each other as a legitimate political entity. The birth of a new age peace process gave resonance to how political leaders can stipulate the conditions for negotiation and evaluate the nature of concessions.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 may have not been successful at producing a final status agreement on Palestinian sovereignty, but should not be looked at as an unremitting failure. The Accords helped to set up a framework for the boundaries of mediation and helped to delegitimize the claim made on both sides for divine control over all disputed territory. This outlook currently remains as a realistic and concrete negotiating point for the incremental development of a two-state solution. The recalcitrant mood towards the devolved state of agreements between Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government can be traced back to the inability of the Oslo Accords to be maintained as principle mechanisms in an increasingly polarized and hostile political environment both internally and externally throughout the greater Middle East. The elements within the accords which contributed to persistent stalemate in furthering mediation towards a sustainable resolution are derived from the ambivalence on both sides to how obscure diplomatic language would be realistically implemented, the inherent asymmetry within the scale of negotiation by using tools to diffuse an interstate conflict when one party is a non-sovereign, and the inability of the leadership on both sides to control aggressive and extremist factions within their own societies along with the onslaught of radical actors throughout the region.

The Oslo Accords established a de facto set of negotiated initiatives called the Declaration of Principles (DOP) and began the process of officiating the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the representative sovereign of the Palestinian people. With the PLO as acting governing authority, Israel was recognized as a sovereign nation-state. This document was the product of heavy-handed conciliatory agreements that helped establish what the standard would be for a transitional peace to prevail. Norwegian diplomats in Oslo can attribute the process of negotiation to secret mediation between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under the directorship of Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The contentious divide of popular grievances by both Israelis and Palestinians created tremendous impediments for their leaders to advance in serious peace talks and added the unnecessary psychological hardship of appeasing to the enemy. Nevertheless, the DOP helped provide sustenance to gravely protracted disagreements on land, the use of terrorism, and the essence of mutual recognition. While it is possible to view the DOP as a roadmap for a decisive settlement, much of the document lay fertile with cancerous ambiguities that allow each side to adjust the weight of diplomatic language for one-sided political advancement. For example, Article 1 states that the aim of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the current Middle East peace process is, among other things, to establish a Palestinian Interim-Self Government Authority. [1] How this is to be interpreted for establishing a Palestinian state relies upon the distinct perceptual aptitudes of the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders. The dynamic of gradual cooperation on defining what sovereignty means for both sides is cemented in the willingness of what is to be given up for agreements to be sold as conductive to peace.

For the principles in Article 1 to be fulfilled, the question of legitimacy must be designed to encapsulate both the psychological and political strength of each side to define a minimum and maximum negotiating point for concessions to be maintained. With Israeli recognition of the PLO as the rightful political heirs to a forthcoming Palestinian state, the issue of legitimizing a bitter enemy underscored how much control Israel will have over its own security concerns. This brings up the notion of trust and how abstruse ordinances on what Palestinian governmental authority would look like hinders proceeding advances on issues of borders and refugees. Since the political structure of a Palestinian state was crafted in veiled language with no real strategy for an actual state to exist, Palestinian leaders were able to capitalize on discourse which would appease to popular sentiments on the Arab street concerning the re-capturing of Israel proper. Consequentially, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was able to wield a stronger position in limiting Palestinian autonomy. This ambiguity masked large gaps in each side’s conceptualization of what mutual recognition meant in practice.[2]

The issue of borders was left for further debate in Final Status negotiations. This was an intentional design of the DOP due to the relentless contention towards how much land Israel was willing to give to a new Palestinian state. Article 4 contends that the jurisdiction of an elected Palestinian Interim Government would include the West Bank and Gaza Strip.[3] The DOP does not rationalize what the legal boundary lines of each designated Palestinian territory would look like once negotiations were to begin. It does not clarify the status of Palestinians that live in settlements designated as Israeli territory, nor any initiative that can be granted to Palestinians who have a confirmed record of former citizenship in land controlled under the British Mandate of 1923. Much of this proposition lay within the goodwill of the Israelis to agree with the language set within the accords and cease control over Gaza and the West Bank. However, the political atmosphere within Israel was not conductive to provide a full withdrawal from the territories gained by the Six-Day War of 1967.

Withdrawal was seen as a conditional element of negotiations and was framed as a non-binding product of giving legitimacy to Palestinian leaders. Israel wanted to keep the Territories as a future bargaining chip in order to have more control over both the borders and political character of a Palestinian state. Hence, the agreements gave Israel exclusive control over external defense and foreign relations of Palestinian National Authority (PA) areas as well as providing Israelis with, in most cases, “extraterritorial” rights in PA areas. In this way, the Rabin government was able to portray the Oslo Accords in terms of “redeployment,” “interim phases,” and “Palestinian self-rule” rather than in terms of permanent Israeli withdrawals and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. [4]

The Oslo Accords were interpreted in the context of strategic oversight and acted as a provisional template for territorial partition under the scope of immense insecurity. For the Israeli side, the Accords could not conflict with their supervision of the perceived security threats surrounding existing and future Jewish settlements, the Egypt-Gaza border, and the Jordan-West Bank border. There is much fear in a future Palestinian state being governed by leaders who will use the peace process to get concessions and land from Israel while setting up a launching pad for future terrorist attacks to dismantle international respect for Israeli sovereignty. Conversely, Palestinians have been careful not to relinquish hope in carving out a gradual road to sovereignty by using the opaque language of the accords as the political rallying cry for the unequivocal establishment of a state and a right to return for refugees. The status of refugees was not determined in the DOP and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were forced to build compromises on issues that lacked definitional clarity. Palestinian leaders saw this as an opportunity to endure their political standing among the population by promising a right of return to Israel proper. This grandiose version of a unilateral settlement on refugees hindered a real chance at peace due to Israeli resistance to such a claim and the Palestinian street’s intransigence to giving up such a popular belief.

Furthermore, Palestinian leadership may have agreed to recognize Israel as a state, but did not explicitly state its acknowledgment and acceptance of Zionism as its resounding character. [5] This allowed for a loophole in the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish nation-state, which further eroded the validity of any further agreements. The Oslo Accords did nothing to mitigate the reciprocal belief of each other’s temporary existence and allowed for the obfuscation of prosperous conditions for practical conflict resolution to succeed. The opacity of the agreements, which were viewed by some as their genius, because of the flexibility that they gave the peace process, have turned out to be their greatest shortcoming. [6] Many of the principles, both Israelis and Palestinians, involved in working out the Accords have since defected in their support for Oslo’s opaque and phased structure and have, like Yossi Beilin (one of the architects of the Accords), called for moving forward immediately to Final Status negotiation. [7] Negotiation towards the language within the Accords should have been more focused on blocking future initiatives to circumvent the establishment of binding agreements and should have provided a more controlled timeframe in order for the status quo not to become the central problem. Final Status issues (i.e right of return, East Jerusalem) never made it to the bargaining table. These preeminent issues had the power to establish the true character of Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty and thus were seen as too dangerous to bind into treaty. Both parties wanted to use these issues as a malleable void to bend the political will of the other.

The Oslo Accords were unable to sustain the maturation achieved throughout the negotiating process due to the inherent asymmetry within the scale of negotiation by using tools to diffuse an interstate conflict when one party is a non-sovereign. Legal precedents used to enhance the conditions for implementing the criteria of conflict resolution become hallow when one side does not have institutional legitimacy. The aim of the Accords was to grant a gradual procession towards the implementation of sustained agreements that can lead to a transition of peace. They were unable to integrate all Palestinian units in the West Bank, Gaza, and in Israel as a viable sovereign entity due to the unofficial status of the Palestinian leaders who presided over the outline of the Accords. The balance of power must be seen as sustainable if mutual trust is to be the life force upholding the DOP. The unstable nature of Palestinian governing power led to suspicions over the future political construct and ideological sentiments of a Palestinian government. In times of wavering interests and forced political attitudes, history, no matter how much a failure becomes a powerful tool that guides the judgment of rational self-interest.

The essence of peace becomes a source of misgiving when one actor in the process of conflict resolution is not a conceivable entity. Intergroup or ethnic conflicts are highly complex and lack a uniformity that is essential in creating a workable solution for both sides to gain from. The parties may view themselves as viable states but usually lack a sense of real power over internal and external functionalities. This causes a great divide in the status of a document like the DOP and how power is able to extract a compelling hold over non-binding agreements. The art of peace building then gets stripped of its true prerogatives and actors are coerced to determine alternative ways in which flawed agreements can provide a structure for a resolute settlement.

The disequilibrium of sovereignty also induces a state of disorder due to both the perceived and actual lack of protection from the threat of extermination. Identity politics is one of the chief elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has an insidious effect on peace building. The Accords were unable to incorporate this sentiment due to a lack of awareness in how definitional imbalances can affect long-term attitudes towards peace. This leads each side to evoke maximalist notions of their participants’ security and identity; the difference between combatants and civilians is constantly, and often deliberately, blurred; and they offer ample room for negative outbidding by intragroup entrepreneurs. [8] Interstate conflict allows for the underpinnings of peacemaking to be substantiated by the concrete nature of the parties involved. The disposition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict supersedes the mechanisms stated within the Oslo Accords due to fragmented leadership and shortsightedness of what successive gains would look like once concessions become a concrete negotiating point.

Furthermore, the Oslo Accords was unable to ensure the stability and continuity of the agreements made due to the inability of leadership from both sides to control aggressive and extremist factions within their own societies, along with the onslaught of radical actors throughout the region. Discourse in the form of radical actor (and Western-recognized terror group) Hamas acted as a conduit to the most cynical elements of Palestinian national dialogue. Hamas viewed the signing of the Accords as an exploitation of Palestinian rights and as a formal abdication of Historic Palestine. Yasser Arafat also made use of demagoguery by using rhetoric that contradicted the ideals of the Accords. The force of such popular sentiments catalyzed the dissolution of any moderate commitments that was once a preeminent symbol of the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian Authority was unable to control the growing radicalization of the ideological sentiments of its population. People were becoming more fractured in what was deemed an appropriate mean for obtaining statehood. For example, the onset of rockets protruding into Israeli territory heightened their foresight of the Accord’s unattainable propositions. On the Palestinian side, the use of terrorism was rationalized as an essential tool for national liberation due to the slow pace of reaping rewards from agreements with the Israelis. The weight of the Accords had been ineffective at consolidating the grievances of the Palestinians and was quickly becoming the source of scorn.

Additionally, there was no substantial improvement towards national reconciliation due to the increased presence of Jewish settlements in contested territory for a future Palestinian state. This was viewed from the Palestinian side as a lack of sincerity toward a just expropriation of Israeli conquered land to a rightful Palestinian state. One of the most paralyzing moments of the peace process came in the year 2000 with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and declared it as Judaism’s holiest site. This created much apprehension toward the future of the Oslo Accords because of the lucid political statement this provocation provided to Palestinian Muslims. The Temple Mount is symbiotic towards both Jews and Muslims; jurisdiction remains in Israeli hands but control over population flow is under Jerusalem’s Muslim authorities. [9] This is a reflection of the delicate balance between respect for religious rights and retaining the sovereign ability for control. The Oslo Accords were not postulated to deal with acts of political grandstanding nor are these acts validated by a national uneasiness to appeasing the other side.

The breakdown of the Oslo Accords was also due to the recalcitrance of extremist actors throughout the region. Regional instability is an unconditional element of Middle Eastern affairs where local issues hold powerful sway in the management of power and prestige. The Iran regime, militant organization of Hamas, and Lebanese Hezbollah emboldened their ideological approaches with overt acts of aggression on Israel. These actors do not fit in the boundary of the Accords but hold real influence over the dynamics of Israeli policy and how Israel chooses to defend its sovereignty. Even the peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors are defined by divisive conflict between Arab leaders and their populations concerning the proper way to deal with Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The Israel – Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979 provides a good example of what can be obtained when pragmatic national self-interest is upheld as the centerpiece for making compromises. This landmark deal is the foundation for cross border stability and partnership after an intense period of war that existed between the two states since Israeli independence in 1948. Although the peace deal was (and still is) quite controversial to the average Egyptian, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat understood official state recognition of Israel as a definitive measure for interstate stability. The Egyptian state apparatus had the power to make joint arrangements with Israeli leadership by keeping the formative stages of contact with Israel secret from the Egyptian public.

In contrast, Palestinian leader for the Oslo Accords, Yasir Arafat, did not have the machinery of a unified state to help legitimize a peace deal with Israel. Furthermore, Palestinian independence is used as a platform for political maneuvering by regional actors (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) in order to rally popular sentiment in the Muslim community around one grand savior. But the most decisive blow to the peace deal came not from outside actors, but from within Israel’s extreme right-wing faction. In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. His death marked the partial loss of legitimacy on behalf of the Israeli public’s fortitude in accommodating to concessions that lay within the historic peace deal.

In sum, the Oslo Accords have helped to build esteem for the acknowledgment of a two-state solution but has been unable to provide a carefully crafted set of principles for the establishment of recognized borders and political legitimacy of both Israel and Palestine. Simplified diplomatic language has been unable to provide mutual understanding of essential protocols for the relaxation of distrust. As an ethnic intrastate conflict, the traditional devices used for deconstructing contentious political disputes have been delegitimized. Furthermore, agreed upon dictums set within a non-binding agreement cannot withstand the precarious power of radicalized public opinion.

There was no shared vision for what a final status agreement would look like. A deadlock ensued due to negotiations being used as a tool for narrow interests rather than mutual goals. Implementation of the peace deal was an additional obstacle. There was no mechanism in place that could process real-time events or how to manage a dispute in the fulfillment of agreed upon tasks. The Oslo Accords were designed to be processed through phases and not successive stages that would bind both parties to forcibly engage in concurring actions. Core issues, like the status of refugees and Jerusalem, were left open ended and were never given definitive guidelines for reaching serious points of negotiation. Dismissing final status issues allowed both sides to use time as a pliable political tool for asserting dominion over the direction of the peace deal. End-goals were never formalized and proved to be too dangerous to define for all involved in the process.

It would be nihilistic to say that the Oslo Accords are dead. It may not have produced peace as defined by borders, but it did produce the legal justification for the Palestinian National Authority (PA), now controlled under the banner of Fatah, which regulates security and economic relations with Israel. These are important factors that are overshadowed by the lack of institutionalization of the Accords. The current cycle of violence between the two sides should not be understood as a total break down in the legitimacy of the peace process. The Accords may not have brought about an immediate resolution but can help to provide a new platform for developing the next stage of talks.

For now, the process is at a standstill. The Middle East is in the beginning stages of geopolitical reorganization. The breakdown of the old order as defined by Sykes-Picot of 1916, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and the British Mandate of 1923 is nearing a precarious tipping point. The Middle East is entering new political landscape that is quite dissimilar to the realities of the 1990’s when the Accords were signed. Furthermore, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has favored using the United Nations to help build international legitimacy for recognition of Palestinian independence without the full consent of Israel. In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to give Palestine non-member observer state status. As of this year Palestine has formally joined the International Criminal Court and has seen its flag fly for the first time at the United Nations building. Although these symbols are important, the reality of a unified Palestinian government is in shambles. Abbas stands in front of the international community as informal representative of the Palestinian people but continues to lose control over the West Bank. Gaza, as run by the militant group Hamas, is still a separate political entity. All of these factors will weigh heavily on what will become of a future peace process.

[1] Kristen E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999).

[2] Jonathan Rynhold, The Failure of the Oslo Process: Inherently Flawed or Flawed Implementation?, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, March 2008: 13-17.

[3] Ibid., 120.

[4] Think Tanks at American Jewish University, Unambiguous Ambiguity: The Opacity of the Oslo Peace Process, available from ; (28 September 2011).

[5] Jonathan Rynhold, Liberalism and the Collapse of the Oslo Peace Process in the Middle East, The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, 2009, available from ; (28 September 2011).

[6] Think Tanks at American Jewish University, Unambiguous Ambiguity: The Opacity of the Oslo Peace Process, available from (28 September 2011).

[7] Ibid

[8] Oren Barak, “The Failure of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, 1993-2000.” Journal of Peace Research Vol. 42 No. 6 (2005): 719-736.

[9] Reza Aslan, Beyond Fundamentalism (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010), 37.

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