SEPTEMBER 20, 2018 – JERUSALEM – Some people see a parallel between the signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords and 9/11. Both took place in the US under sunny and blue September skies, and at the end of the day (figuratively for Oslo), both left thousands dead. But others say the accords were a necessary and beneficial move that showed enemies can indeed sit down and agree to something – even if 25 years on, the long-term goal remains nowhere in sight.
To better understand, perhaps a timeline is necessary, both for the timeline stipulated under the terms of Oslo and for the events that actually unfolded.
At the end of October 1991, the US, together with the Soviet Union (in its last gasps before going belly-up), convened the Madrid Peace Conference. In attendance were Israel, Lebanon, Syria and a joint delegation of Jordanians and Palestinian notables from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Bilateral and multilateral talks followed, but nothing major emerged. Still, it was a start.
After the election of Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin as Israel’s prime minister in 1992, his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, appointed a group of advisers to secretly meet with Palestinians in the Norwegian capital. Their negotiations led to the Oslo Accords, signed on September 13, 1993, on the White House lawn.
While hailed far and wide as a peace agreement, Oslo was merely a framework for negotiating. It called for a five-year interim period in which the Palestinian Authority would arise to take over areas relinquished by the IDF, starting in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho. Talks toward a final agreement, it said, would begin by May 1996.
The accords also resulted in Israel’s stated recognition of the PLO led by Yasser Arafat as the sole representative of the Palestinians, while the Palestinians said they would recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce terrorism. There was no specific mention of Palestinian statehood or withdrawal from Jewish settlements, although it was understood that these issues would eventually come up.
In February 1994, Hebron settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire inside the city’s Cave of the Patriarchs during Muslim prayers. Twenty-nine worshipers were killed and at least 100 others were wounded before Goldstein was beaten to death. While isolated incidents of Palestinian attacks against Jews had taken place since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the post-Goldstein period saw the advent of semi-regular suicide bombings against Israelis, primarily aboard buses, with wide-scale casualties. Most of the bombings were coordinated by Hamas, the Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip.
From there it was mostly downhill, with Palestinian attacks widening to Fatah, the PLO’s militia, and Rabin slowing the turnover of territory. Nonetheless, Israeli right-wingers launched a rabid anti-Rabin campaign, leading to his assassination by Yigal Amir in November 1995.
Both populations were embittered, but the US pressed the sides to consider the Oslo process alive, if not entirely well. Reflecting an ugly national mood despite what was seen as a post-Rabin sympathy vote, Shimon Peres and Labor went down to defeat in 1996 at the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud.
In early 1997, under US pressure, Netanyahu negotiated a partial IDF withdrawal from Hebron, and in late 1998, together with Arafat, he signed the so-called Wye Memorandum, which laid out further peace moves. But aside from fits and starts lasting well into the new millennium under different prime ministers and US presidents, the process came to a halt that lasts to this day.
Israelis who were against Oslo from the beginning, whether due to a lack of trust in the Palestinians or a fear that it would mean an end to the dream of a “Greater Israel,” have long been in an “I told you so” mode. Yet in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Oslo negotiator Yossi Beilin said he regrets nothing.
He mostly blames Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wingers. “Asked if he has any blame for the Palestinians, whose terror attacks turned Israelis against the Oslo Accords, he says ‘of course I’m disappointed with them. But I need a border, because I am worried about my side, not them….’”
Many otherwise pro-peace Israelis have rethought their stance. They have come to feel that perhaps the time is not right or that Palestinian and Israeli leaders are stringing them along or that the two peoples have moved hopelessly apart. In short, they’ve come to accept that the dispute is, at least for now, unsolvable and should instead simply be managed.
Other former peaceniks, though, are now intent on a unilateral move – for example by withdrawing from the West Bank except for the major settlement blocs near the 1949 armistice lines. Even many in today’s Labor Party feel this way, leaving Meretz, the Zionist party farthest to the left in the current Knesset, still calling for peace talks before any moves are made.
Opponents point to the unilateral 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the rockets and mortar shells – and, more lately, the incendiary balloons and kites – still heading toward Israel from the other side. All this is proof, they say, that unilateral moves not only don’t work, they deepen Israel’s danger.
On the ground, though, the end result of Oslo has some 95 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank, and all of those in the Gaza Strip, living under Palestinian rule. This has been a plus for Israel, which no longer has to feed, clothe or heal them, although it has made the job of intelligence gathering harder and allowed the Palestinians to develop rockets and other weapons virtually unimpeded.
On the other hand, Israel’s participation in Oslo paved the way for new diplomatic and economic benefits that continue to this day. So it is what it is: You can view it as a failure or even disaster, especially for the approximately 1,500 Israelis who have died in post-Oslo violence, or you can see it as proving that people who once thought themselves intractable enemies can at least find themselves sitting down and giving peace a try – and doing so to the world’s appreciation.
Clearly, Oslo is a Rorschach test: You see in it what you wish to see, or at least what your mind tells you to see. If Oslo has a legacy, that’s about it.
Lawrence Rifkin is the Journal’s special correspondent in Jerusalem.