Geirge Giacaman: Why Did Oslo Fail?

By George Giacaman

It has been oft repeated that had Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Bill Clinton stayed in power, the 2001 Taba talks would probably have led to a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.

The point here is not to cry over spilt milk, but to note that the so-called Moratinos Document summarizing what the parties achieved at Taba remains for most European countries and for the Palestinian Authority a benchmark. Any future agreement will not succeed if it regresses from Taba.

To say this, however, occludes the main reason for the failure of the Oslo process and the lesson to be drawn from this failure.

Two main reasons need to be mentioned for that lesson to be clear. The first is that Israel got what it wanted from the Oslo agreement: recognition by Palestinians and the establishment of a civil authority (the PA) to administer the affairs of Palestinians in the form of limited self-rule. It rid itself of the burdens of occupation, both financial and administrative, and the burden of policing the Palestinians, which, as a result of the first intifada, was becoming onerous.

The late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat got part of what he wanted: he was salvaged from political exile in Tunis and he got a foothold in Palestine. Among ordinary Palestinians the hope was raised, but no more than that, of achieving a two-state solution (as they understand it) at the end of the process. But since there was no agreement on the end-result of the process, even in broad outline, since Israel refused to freeze settlement construction as part of the agreement, and given the balance of power between the two sides and the support Israel enjoyed from the US at crucial turns, the process was doomed.

The second main reason for the failure has to do with the success of the state of Israel in neutralizing outside pressure, thanks to its influence on US policy in the Middle East and regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. This is not a new development, but its main result was that the conflict with Palestinians has become almost completely a domestic Israeli issue, captive to internecine Israeli politics. The short-term interests of Israeli politicians are a priority, and everyone else is transformed into onlookers, observing one Israeli election after the other, hoping against hope that a "peace coalition" will finally emerge.

It should be clear that if Israeli politicians are left to themselves, peace cannot be achieved with the Palestinians. But the lesson has not been learned in Washington. We are now told that the Olmert government is too weak for any "progress" on the peace front, in spite of the Washington’s strategic need for such a peace, in the context of its failing policies in the Middle East.

It is clear that incrementalism has failed. It is also clear that "negotiations" as the sole mechanism for progress within the present balance of power between the two sides (political no less than military) will repeat that failure and prolong the conflict.

For negotiations to lead to a credible and stable peace, agreement must first be reached on the broad outlines of the solution. This includes borders, resources, and sovereignty, among others. The recent calls by many Palestinians for the PA to be dissolved have not emerged in a vacuum. Direct occupation is seen as the lesser of two evils in the absence of a serious peace process. Such a process ought to begin at the end. Incrementalism has no credibility.

-George Giacaman is a political analyst and teaches in the MA program in democracy and human rights at Birzeit University.
© BitterLemons, 30 October. 2006

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