Peace Confounded

Avi Shlaim

Index on Censorship, 1 (2001), 50-55.

The signing of the Declaration of Principles on Palestinian Self-Government, on 13 September 1993 at the White House, marked the end of one chapter in the history of the Palestinians and the beginning of another. By signing the agreement and shaking hands with Itzhak Rabin, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat turned his back on the armed struggle and embarked on the quest for a peaceful settlement to the hundred year old conflict. Rabin, for his part, accepted the PLO as a partner to the talks and acknowledged the Palestinians as a people with national rights. Mutual denial was replaced by mutual recognition.

The historic reconciliation was based on a historic compromise: acceptance of the principle of the partition of Palestine. Both sides accepted territorial compromise as the basis for the settlement of their long and bitter conflict. Each side resigned itself to parting with territory it had previously regarded not only as its patrimony but as a vital part of its national identity. For the Palestinians the compromise they had to make was particularly painful. But by giving up their claim to 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine they hoped to secure an independent state over the rest. The two sides, by accepting the principle of partition at the same time, seemed to be setting aside the ideological dispute over who was the rightful owner of Palestine and to be turning to the task of finding a practical solution to the problem of sharing the cramped living space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The shape of the final settlement was not specified in the Declaration of Principles but left to negotiations between the two parties during the latter part of the transition period of five years. The declaration was completely silent on such vital issues as the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the borders of the Palestinian entity, the status of Jerusalem, and the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Both sides took a calculated risk, realising that a great deal would depend on the way the experiment in Palestinian self-government worked out in practice. They assumed that the experience of working together during the transition period would generate the trust necessary to tackle the most difficult issues and to forge a viable peace settlement. Although the Declaration of Principles did not state specifically that there will be an independent Palestinian state at the end of the interim period, this was the clear intention of the leaders who signed it.

Not every one on the Palestinian side shared these optimistic assumptions. Some Palestinian groups, secular as well as religious ones, rejected the very idea of compromise with the Jewish state. Others were more specific. Farouk Kaddumi, the ‘foreign minister’ of the PLO, argued that the deal compromised the basic national rights of the Palestinian people as well as the individual rights of the 1948 refugees. Hanan Ashrawi’s first reaction was one of shock. It was clear to her that the PLO officials who negotiated the Oslo deal had not lived under occupation. She was deeply concerned by the gaps in the accord, the ambiguities, and the lack of detail. She drew attention to the fact that the accord did not commit Israel to cease all settlement activity, that it postponed the question of Jerusalem, and that it said nothing about human rights.

Edward Said, the leading Palestinian intellectual, lambasted Yasser Arafat for unilaterally cancelling the intifada, for failing to coordinate his moves with the Arab states, and for introducing appalling disarray into the ranks of the PLO. ‘The PLO’, wrote Said, ‘has transformed itself from a national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government, with the same handful of people still in command.’ For the deal itself, Said had nothing but scorn. ‘All secret deals between a very strong and a very weak partner necessarily involve concessions hidden in embarrassment by the latter,’ he wrote. ‘The deal before us’, he continued, ‘smacks of the PLO leadership’s exhaustion and isolation, and of Israel’s shrewdness.’ ‘Gaza and Jericho first ... and last’ was Mahmoud Darwish’s damning verdict on the deal.

The Oslo accord was greeted with dismay in nationalist Arab quarters: it was peace without justice or honour charged the critics. But it fell to the Arab world’s most popular poet, Nizar Qabbani, to express the wide-spread opposition to the agreement. He did so in a prose poem, ‘al-Muharwiluun’(those who rush or scurry) which he wrote in London and published in 1995. Qabbani’s bitter disappointment, and his anger with the PLO leaders who signed the accord, were given free reign:

After this secret romance in Oslo
we came out barren.
They gave us a homeland
smaller than a single grain of wheat
a homeland to swallow without water
like aspirin pills.
Oh, we dreamed of a green peace
and a white crescent
and a blue sea.
Now we find ourselves
on a dung heap.

The history of the implementation of the Oslo accord has been one of endless delays on the Israeli side and of bitter disappointment on the Palestinian side. Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, the Israeli architects of the accord, were sidelined after the signing ceremony. Their place at the negotiating table was taken by army officers who were critical of the security aspects of Oslo and who seemed intent not on ending the occupation but on repackaging it. They were willing to redeploy their troops from the big cities to the rural areas where resistance was more difficult to organise and clashes were less likely. But they were determined to retain as much control as possible for as long as possible in the occupied territories. And they managed to impose their own conception of the interim period: specific steps to transfer limited powers to the Palestinian Authority without giving up Israel’s overall responsibility for security.

An Interim Agreement was signed by Rabin and Arafat on 28 September 1995, popularly known as Oslo II. It provided for elections to a Palestinian council, the transfer of legislative authority to this council, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Palestinian centres of population, and the division of the West Bank into three areas-- A, B, and C.  Area A was placed under exclusive Palestinian control, area C under exclusive Israeli control, and in area B the Palestinian Authority exercised civilian power while Israel continued to be in charge of security. Area A amounted to only four per cent of the area of the West Bank, area B to another 25 per cent and the rest was area C.

Oslo II, like Oslo I, was based on the assumption that the enmity between the two warring tribes would subside during the transition period, paving the way to an equitable final settlement. This did not happen. On the contrary, the extremists on both sides did everything in their power to undermine the agreement. There was a serious drop in living standards on the West Bank and Gaza, partly as a result of frequent Israeli border closures. Moreover, there was no significant gain in human rights to compensate for the rise in unemployment, poverty, and material hardship. Human rights were continually sacrificed in the name of ‘security’ by both Israel and the PA. Worst of all, Jewish settlements continued to be built on Palestinian land in palpable violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Oslo accord.

In the Gaza Strip, home to just over 5,000 Jewish settlers, Israel controlled a third of the land and most of the water resources desperately needed by its one million Palestinian inhabitants. In the West Bank, Israel retained control over the water resources and the lion’s share of the land. The building of settlements throughout the West Bank and especially around East Jerusalem continued unabated, and a network of bypass roads seemed designed to preempt the possibility of Palestinian statehood. In all these different ways, the Oslo process actually worsened the situation in the occupied territories and confounded Palestinian aspirations to a state of their own.

Disappointment with Oslo and distrust of Israel deepened in the wake of the Likud’s electoral victory in May 1996. For Binyamin Netanyahu, the new prime minister, was an ardent Jewish nationalist and an unreconstructed proponent of the strategy of the iron wall. Netanyahu was fiercely opposed to the Oslo accord because it recognised the PLO, because it conceded that the Palestinian people had a legitimate right to self-government, and because it began the process of partitioning western Palestine. In the lead-up to the election, opinion polls showed that the majority of Israelis continued to support the policy of gradual and controlled withdrawal from the occupied territories, and that they were much less troubled by the prospect of a Palestinian state alongside Israel than the politicians of the right. Consequently, Netanyahu promised that, if elected, he would not renege on any of the country’s international commitments.

But this was precisely what Netanyahu did after being elected by the narrowest of margins. His three years in power consisted largely of broken promise, deception, shabby maneouvers, provocative acts like the opening of the tunnel under the al-Aqsa Mosque and the building of housing units on Arab land at Jabal Abu Ghrneim (Har Homa), and endless delays. Netanyahu kept lecturing to the Palestinians about reciprocity and acting unilaterally. He treated the Palestinian Authority not as an equal partner but as a sub-contractor that was failing in its duty to uphold Israel’s security. Most galling of all to the Palestinians was Netanyahu’s failure to transfer to the PA 13 per cent from Area C in accordance with the Wye River Memorandum that he himself had signed on 22 October 1998. The one message that came across loud and clear was that the Likud government was not prepared to end the occupation and that it could not be trusted to keep agreements.

Ehud Barak won a decisive victory in the May 1999 election and with it went a clear mandate to resume and continue the peace process with the Palestinians. But the difficulties and delays on the Palestinian track persisted. Barak did not end Israeli violations of the Oslo accords. Under his leadership, settlement activity was intensified, especially around Jersualem. Palestinian prisoners were not released as agreed. The airport at Gaza and the so-called ‘safe passage’ between Gaza and the West Bank were opened but under strict and intrusive Israeli control. Jerusalem remains closed to most Palestinians and travel between Palestinian towns is restricted by Israeli checkpoints. Seven years after the Oslo accord was signed, Israel retains full control over 61 per cent of the West Bank and 20 per cent of Gaza.

Negotiations on final status resumed but all the deadlines agreed by Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat fell by the wayside. The basic problem was Barak’s reluctance to proceed to a final status agreement in small steps, as envisaged at Oslo, and his preference for dealing with all the issues in one fell swoop. This is what Barak set out to achieve at the Camp David summit which Bill Clinton convened in July 2000 at his request. At the summit Barak presented Arafat with a package which included a demilitarised Palestinian state on 90 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, nominal concessions on the refugee issue, and Palestinian sovereignty over certain parts of East Jerusalem. Arafat rejected the package because the price tag attached to it was a formal renunciation of any outstanding Palestinian claims against the State of Israel. Arafat did not have the authority to accept this package even if he had wanted to. Thus, by insisting on a formal end to the dispute on terms that did not satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, Barak himself caused the collapse of the Camp David summit.

The collapse of the Camp David summit put the two sides on a collision course. Palestinian bitterness and frustration steadily mounted. Boycotts and closures of the Palestinian territories meant rising unemployment with disastrous social and economic consequences. Ariel Sharon’s tour of Haram al-Sharif in the Old City of Jerusalem, on 28 September 2000, put the match to the barrel of gunpowder. By allowing this provocative tour against the advice of his security chiefs, Barak also assumed responsibility for the consequences. The most immediate consequence was violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops. In its first ten weeks, the al-Aqsa intifada resulted in about 280 Palestinian dead and over 8,000 wounded. The peace process may not be dead and buried as some observers claim, but it is certainly on hold until the guns fall silent.

It is not difficult to see why disenchantment with Oslo is so prevalent among Palestinians. Nor is it difficult to appreciate why, in retrospect, so many Palestinians feel that Arafat made a bad deal at Oslo. Arafat has made many mistakes, the most serious of which was the failure to make negotiations conditional on the cessation of settlement activity. But it is wrong to conclude, as some prominent Palestinians have done, that Oslo is the problem, not the solution. Oslo, for all its limitations, provided a framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The framework was based on a PLO commitment to put an end to the violence and an Israeli commitment to gradual withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO kept its side of the bargain. Israel did not. That is the real reason for the breakdown of the peace process.