Quest for peace: Why Oslo still has relevance
The hopes briefly raised by a handshake 30 years ago can be more than a sad footnote to history
A few days after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995, I remember an Israeli acquaintance telling me that however terrible the circumstances of his death, it had established Rabin as a martyr for peace. As a result, the Oslo peace process he had begun, named after the city where it was secretly hatched, had become irreversible.
It certainly seemed that way at the time. I had just arrived as a correspondent in Israel, and an aura of hope still hung over the pair of agreements, signed in 1993 and 1995, which granted the Palestinians a degree of self-government and, more important, started a peace process meant to reach a permanent settlement within five years. The handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 between Rabin, a gruff, chain-smoking warrior-politician who had led Israel in great military victories, and his archenemy, Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization who had dedicated much of his previous life to “uprooting the Zionist entity from our land,” had become something of an icon for how even the most intractable conflict could be resolved.
My interlocutor’s prophecy soon proved tragically wrong. Seven months after Rabin’s death, after a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and a controversial Israeli military operation in southern Lebanon, a 46-year-old critic of the Oslo Accords named Benjamin Netanyahu won the first of his many political victories. In fits and starts, the Oslo process ground to a halt, and the Israeli peace camp that had championed it disintegrated.
Now, in view of the terrible carnage in Israel and Gaza, that handshake 30 years ago seems almost a sad footnote in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I believe the hopes briefly raised by those agreements still hold relevance.
The wisdom of Oslo is a credit to the negotiators, who came to recognize the validity of each other’s guiding narratives: of Israel’s return to a promised land after an unspeakable tragedy and of the Palestinians’ dispossession and humiliating occupation. These narratives could not necessarily be reconciled, but the negotiators were able to escape the zero-sum feuding over who was in the right and acknowledge the other’s yearnings, history and grievances.
Uri Savir, a principal Israeli negotiator during Oslo, described his initial exchange with the chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurei, in his book “The Process.” “I believe we’ve arrived at the root of the problem,” he recalled Qurei, better known as Abu Ala, saying. “We have learned that our rejection of you will not bring us freedom. You can see that your control of us will not bring you security. We must live side by side in peace, equality and cooperation.” Savir and Qurei emerged close friends from the negotiations. (Savir died last year, Qurei in February.)
Oslo was never meant as a final settlement; it did not even make mention of a Palestinian state. It was intended to begin a process in which both sides would gather the confidence and trust to tackle the real obstacles to a settlement: the Palestinians’ claim to a right to return to homes from which they were driven in 1948; how to share Jerusalem, which both claimed as their sacred capital; and what to do about the Jewish settlements multiplying on occupied Palestinian lands.
In retrospect, the absence of an agreement on the ultimate goal — Palestinian statehood, or what is now known as the two-state solution — may have been a fatal error. Arafat was assailed by a broad array of Palestinians, from Islamist groups to intellectuals, for making major concessions in exchange for a vague prospect. Extremist groups reverted to suicide bombings, which Arafat failed to stop, to undermine the agreements.
In the 1996 electoral campaign after Rabin’s death, Netanyahu attacked Shimon Peres, Rabin’s partner and often guide in the Oslo negotiations, for “subcontracting” Israeli security to the Palestinians. Jewish settlements in occupied territories continued to expand, and the peace process was further undermined by provocative Israeli actions such as Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 2000, which contributed to the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada.
By 2002, Arafat was isolated in his headquarters in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli forces; two years later he was dead of a sudden ailment that has never been conclusively explained, leaving the Palestinian Authority in the hands of Mahmoud Abbas, an aging and ineffective leader who lost control over Gaza in 2007 to Hamas. That prompted an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the densely populated enclave, leaving its 2.1 million residents, the majority of them refugees or descendants of refugees driven from their homes after the creation of Israel in 1948, in ever worsening conditions.
The question now is whether the terrifying new eruption of death and destruction in Gaza will harden hatreds on both sides or whether it will eventually lead Israelis and Palestinians back to the realization of Oslo, that occupation and rejection cannot lead to peace. The battle is still unfolding, and the severity of the carnage and destruction will shape much of what follows. If Hamas is driven from power, the Israeli objective, the question is whether the Palestinian Authority would be capable of filling the vacuum, and if not, who then? Much depends also on whether West Bank Palestinians or Hezbollah in Lebanon are sucked into the fray or remain on the sidelines, responding to pressure from the United States and others. Much will depend, too, on the intensive soul searching that is inevitable in Israel when the guns fall silent and whether the Israeli public will allow Netanyahu and the religious-nationalist extremists in his cabinet to stay in office.
However it plays out, the root of the problem identified by the Palestinians and Israelis in what is still the closest they have come to an accommodation remains the same: The Palestinians will gain freedom only when Israelis find acceptance and security, and Israelis will achieve that bitahon, the broad Hebrew term for security that so pervades Israel’s consciousness, only when the Palestinians have sovereignty over their lives.
Serge Schmemann worked as the bureau chief in Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem and at the United Nations, with NYT©2023