The logic of the Olso Accords still continues

During the first Palestinian Intifada, a spontaneous uprising in the West Bank and Gaza that started at the end of 1987 and caught the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership in exile by surprise, any display of the Palestinian flag — or even just showing its colors (green-red-white-black) — was severely repressed by Israeli troops. It was a shooting offense.

At peace talks launched at an international conference in Madrid in 1991 after the Cold War ended — and just a few months after the U.S.-led Desert Storm coalition forced Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, amid much Arab commentary about U.S. double standards in the Middle East — the Palestinian delegation had to participate as members of the Jordanian delegation. The Palestinian participants were supposed to be “independent” and not members of the PLO — though the delegation members made it clear during the talks that they deferred to the PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who was in based Tunis at the time.

Arafat was, as always, operating on at least two tracks. When the Madrid talks dragged on — even the U.S, government at the time blamed Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for dragging his feet — Arafat authorized his senior aides, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmad Qurei’a, to engage in secret contacts with Israeli envoys backed by Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

These talks, conducted in total discretion over several months with Norway’s facilitation and hospitality, turned out to be successful, and the Oslo process went public with an agreement on the mutual exchange of recognition between the Government of Israel and its former nemesis, the PLO, signed on 13 September 1993 in a blaze of publicity during a formal ceremony hosted by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.

The start of the Oslo process ended the first Palestinian Intifada that had erupted, to the surprise of the PLO in exile, in the occupied Palestinian territory in late 1987. Palestinians took a deep breath and swallowed hard before accepting the Oslo process because it seemed the best way to realize their goal of an independent Palestinian state.

Nowhere in the thousands of pages of negotiated Oslo agreements is there any mention of an eventual Palestinian state. But, Palestinians point out, neither is it ruled out.

The Oslo process then, in turn, ground to a halt following years of increasing Palestinian frustration capped by the dramatic failure of Camp David at the end of July 2000 — leading to the outbreak of the second and much more violent Palestinian Intifada.

In recent years, various writers – Palestinian and Israeli – have skeptically styled the Oslo process in 1993 as “all process, no peace”, or “peace and quiet – but not real peace”, or even “a piece of land here and a piece of land there”.

What Oslo did was to leave Israel in ultimate control of the West Bank and Gaza, but one step removed, while the financial burden for maintaining the occupation shifted from Israel to international donors.

Disparaged and even reviled though it is, by some in both sides, the logic of Oslo has created a structure or mechanism that nevertheless remains in place, as diplomatic power brokers search for a new way forward. Palestinians insist this must include an end to the forty-year belligerent military occupation and the ability to live normal lives of human dignity.

Oslo provided:
– mutual official recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
– agreement, importantly, that West Bank and Gaza form a single territorial and political unit
– establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza
– authorization for the Palestine Legislative Council, with provisions for elections (but only those Palestinians living inside the occupied territory could participate, and the diaspora was marginalized)
– provisions for the one-time return of between 133,000 and 170,000 exiled Palestinians who worked for or were allied with the PLO and its security forces
– freedom for members of all religions to visit all religious sites
– agreement on customs and value-added taxes – financial transfers from Israel to the PA which were supposed to fund the PA activities
– for an international airport in Gaza, which worked for a while, and flew to regional places like Istanbul, Cairo, Amman, and Larnaca, and for a deep sea port in Gaza
– for a safe-passage corridor between Gaza and the West Bank
– agreement on Palestinian maritime space – giving 20 nautical miles off Gaza for fishing/economic activity, in a zone where commercially-exploitable quantity of natural gas was discovered in undersea wells. This agreement was accompanied by an official map signed by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and witnessed and signed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Oslo also:
– divided the West Bank into areas A (supposedly of exclusive Palestinian control), B (of mixed control), and C (Israeli control), which has lead not to gradually increased Palestinian autonomy but instead to separation and control that resembles apartheid, where there are roads that Palestinians are forbidden to use, and over 600 military checkpoints restricting their movement.
– left the settlements in place and made no provision to curb the settlement project
– Israeli control of the border crossings with Jordan (and Egypt – they asserted the right to monitor by video link but in real time all passage through the Rafath crossing)
– Israeli control of the population registry, and control of decisions over who can live in Palestine, and who can enter Palestine (even those who come in through Israeli international airport at Ben Gurion). Israeli approval required for the issuance of all passports issued by the PA
– Israeli approval required for hiring of all personnel in every PA Ministry
– a privileged personal legal status for Israelis and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, reminiscent of the Capitulations that European powers imposed on the Ottoman empire.

What’s gone:
– Coordination mechanisms stopped working during the second intifada, and have been replaced by something resembling the civil administration of the pre-Oslo occupation
– Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem – including the Orient House, PLO Palestinian Statistics Bureau, The Chamber of Commerce – which were permitted until the Second Intifada, when they were closed down. The argument then given by Israeli officials was that PA institutions are only authorized to function in areas under direct PA control — and East Jerusalem is not one of those areas.

The Annapolis negotiations, by focusing on a two-state solution that seemed to promise the emergence of a Palestinian state, with U.S. involvement as a facilitator/mediator, were supposed to provide a political-diplomatic correction to the Oslo process that emerged in 1993 after secret Israeli-Palestinian contacts hosted by Norway appeared initially successful.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was deeply involved in the Oslo negotiations, and is one of Israel’s longest-standing contacts. He explained, as he faced mounting criticism during the faltering Annapolis process, that one of his main goals is to prevent the outbreak of a third Intifada.

Oslo has been declared dead many times, now Annapolis is said to have failed — so what’s up?

During the current inter-regnum between Israeli governments, and as the Obama administration works through its first 100 days in office, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is dead – long live the peace process.

Before leaving office, the Bush Administration made sure that the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1850 in support of the Annapolis process and “the irreversibility of the bilateral negotiations”. Israel has always said it prefers to deal directly with its Palestinian interlocutors.

The Annapolis process was launched by the Bush Administration in November 2007, with just over a year left in office. Short on time, they had a stunning sales pitch: to promised to engage with the parties to push for the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 (or, at the very latest, by the time a new U.S. Administration was sworn into office on 20 January 2009).

But, in its final days, the main achievement that could be cited by Bush administration officials was the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after a seven-year pause.

On 18 February, Dutch diplomat Robert Serry, the United Nation’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, told the UN Security Council with unusual bluntness that “The approach taken since Annapolis — to secure implementation of Road Map commitments to freeze settlement activities, including natural growth, and remove outposts — has not worked”.

In the UN, and for diplomats, those are strong words.

Serry also told the Security Council that “the inconclusive results of last year’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and unmet Road Map obligations, especially regarding settlements” are realities that must be faced, and “squarely addressed”.

Before and throughout the Annapolis process, Palestinian leaders have said that the continuation of the Israeli settlement project is destroying any prospect of an eventual independent Palestinian state.

Both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have, nevertheless, alluded to some progress made in the Annapolis negotiations, but they have declined to make public.

But former deputy national security adviser Eliot Abrams stated in a recent interview that “little progress was made in 2008, and if anything conditions are worse now … I am unaware of the achievement of any actual agreement on any important issue”.

Abrams indicated in the interview that he was among those in the Bush Administration who had opposed the Annapolis plan. He also declared that “one is free to wonder as well whether Palestinian ‘statehood’ is the best and most sensible goal for Palestinians. When I served under Secretary of State George Shultz in the Reagan administration, we were expressly opposed to that outcome and favored some links to Egypt and Jordan”. This interview can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, the man initially asked by Israel’s State President Shimon Peres – one of the architects of the Oslo Accords — to try to form a new governing coalition, following recent general elections, is Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. During the electoral campaign, Netanyahu repeated his objections to the Oslo process (although when he previously served as Prime Minister he did negotiate two Oslo agreements – which remain unimplemented). Since the elections, Netanyahu has also expressly refused to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

Hamas, too, has opposed the Oslo accords — but did agree to run candidates in January 2006 elections that were specifically authorized by the Oslo accords, for one of the main institutions created by the Oslo process, the Palestine Authority’s Legislative Council.

What Oslo did, as Palestinian analysts readily explain, was to leave Israel in ultimate control of the West Bank and Gaza, but one step removed, with the financial burden shifted to international donors. Some have called it “occupation on the cheap”.

Overall control still remains in the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces and Border Police.
Last August, the Jerusalem Post quoted IDF Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of Israel’s “Civil Administration” (that was supposed to have been dissolved according to the Oslo agreements), as saying that “The control of the IDF and security forces in Jericho is absolute”. One of the first Oslo documents signed in 1994, was the one called the “Gaza and Jericho First” agreement.

The day-to-day policing of Palestinian inhabited areas was assigned to the Palestinian security forces – though at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002 Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield that targeted any armed Palestinian including the security forces. The IDF reoccupied West Bank cities – and has still not fully withdrawn to their previos positions. And the IDF surrounded Yasser Arafat in his Muqata’a government compound in Ramallah where he remained, under periodic threats by various Israeli Government ministers to kill him, until his deathbed evacuation in 2004.

In the spring of 2002, Israel’s massive Operation Defensive Shield against Palestinian security forces in the major cities of the West Bank caused considerable regional agony, at a time when the U.S. preferred to focus on Saddam Hussein, and George W. Bush suddenly had a “vision” of a two-state solution.

Speaking recently to a small group of Egyptians and international journalists, invited to an unusual gathering at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo of the sort that has not taken place for the past seven or eight years, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar of Haaretz recounted that he had once asked Shimon Peres, the architect of Oslo, why he had supported the launch of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002 – the largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 war – and Peres replied: “Because the Americans supported it”. Eldar said he then asked U.S. officials why they had supported it, and the answer was “Because Shimon Peres, the hero of Oslo, had supported it”.

Bush reportedly said during a brain-storming session with his advisers at the time, “If we’re talking about a state, why don’t we call it a state?” Bush’s “vision” of a Palestinian state was endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1397 that, it was hoped, would help to stop the second Intifada.

A year later – just after the American occupation of Iraq, when there was much public discussion of a double standard in the Middle East – the Bush Administration drew up a “Road Map” it believed would show the way to the state.

The Road Map speaks of “the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty”, and this was foreseen for the end of the second phase of the Road Map in December 2003. This moved the issue of the Palestinian State forward — rather than leaving it out entirely, as the Oslo Accords had done.

This is not, however, a proposal for a provisional state — it simply refers to provisional borders (Mahmoud Abbas, for one, is not happy with this), but final borders were supposed to be defined by the end of the third phase of the Road Map, by December 2005.

The Quartet (the U.S., Russia, European Union, and United Nations) was formed to stand behind the Road Map, which was then “carved into stone” in UN Security Council Resolution 1515. The Road Map envisaged a “permanent status settlement” by the end of 2005.

The sullen disappointment expressed by Palestinians as the clock wound down on the Annapolis promise to create at least the conditions for a state in 2008, without positive results, has been overtaken by an awful pall in the region, after the ghastly 22-day Israeli Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, followed in quick succession by Israeli general elections, both dominated by triumphant right-wing and explicit anti-Palestinian nationalism. At the same time, there appear to be massive Israeli measures underway to demolish over a hundred Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and to expand settlements in many areas around Jerusalem.

Some hope – at least, among Palestinians – is pinned on the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy, reporting directly to the President. Mitchell previously headed a commission that looked into the causes of the second Palestinian intifada which issued a report in 2001 recommending, among other things, a freeze on all Israeli settlement activity.

Israeli peace activist and analyst Gershon Baskin wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post that “Every [Israeli] government since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in September 1993 has negotiated with the Palestinians while continuing to build settlements … No US administration since Oslo has exerted any effective pressure on Israel to cease its settlement activities. Each administration has made sharp and direct statements, including Bush, against the settlement building. No Palestinian will ever believe that Israel has any real intention of making peace while settlement building continues. What is the chance that the next government will cease settlement building on its own? None. The exact same chance that existed with all of the governments since Oslo”. This article can be read in full here.

Unless, as almost all Palestinians hope, the new U.S. Administration will now exert some effective pressure.

As visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton just said during her just-concluded visit to the region, “Time is of the essence. We cannot afford more delays or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made in the past. The Obama Administration will be vigorously engaged in efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and all of the Arab neighbors”.

When Clinton met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his Muqata’a headquarters in Ramallah, she apparently gave a letter (or a message) to the Palestinian leader from President Obama. President Abbas said the letter contained Obama’s assurances that he is fully committed to the peace process, that the United States supports the Palestinian (National) Authority, and the Road Map, and the Arab Peace initiative – a proposal in which Arab nations have proposed to fully normalize relations with Israel if Israel fully withdraws from Palestinian lands it occupied in the June 1967 – including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

If Abbas’ take on this letter/message is correct, the Obama administration’s position on the Arab Peace initiative is new — and may account for the statements that Clinton has been making about working toward a Palestinian state that is at peace with Israel — and its Arab neighbors (something that has always previously simply been taken for granted.

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