Gordon Clubb: The Specter of the Oslo

By Gordon Clubb

It is quite clear that ‘peace’ is back on the agenda for Israel after its ‘convergence plan’ fell to pieces ultimately in light of Qassams and Katyusha’s. What happens from now on insofar as getting the ‘peace process’ back on track is unpredictable however the lessons of Oslo can enlighten the paths towards a new Road-Map to peace.

The once-salient convergence plan was developed in the context of the cynicism that grew from the demise of the Oslo process. Yet the rationale for this paradigm shift has in theory not changed very much for Israel; within the context of the Oslo ‘ideology’ there were no Palestinian partners to negotiate with and accept Barak’s so-called generous offer. Thus if the only apparent solution now for Israel is a negotiated settlement then this inevitably brings us back to square one; therefore it is essential to draw lessons from the Oslo process.

Yitzhak Rabin was primarily encouraged to follow up on the Oslo back-channel because the PLO was in a position of weakness. The utilization of the reality of peace negotiations in the context of maintaining/developing the structures of an asymmetric conflict has been a fundamental part of Israeli policy; Avi Shlaim illustrates this in The Iron Wall. Essentially all peace negotiations within this construct will realistically reflect the interests of the ‘top-dog’ and the Oslo peace-process was drawn upon this basis. This is a significant aspect of the Oslo ‘ideology’ – other constituent elements is the mainstream Zionist narrative and all interests therein; Palestinian autonomy/statehood/Jordanian rule, maintaining United Jerusalem, maintaining the Jewish majority, maintaining power-superiority, maintaining east-west ridges/settlements and a presence in the Jordan Valley. This is ultimately policy since 1967 in the form of the Allon Plan with a few differences. Furthermore, Yossi Alpher, the former director of an Israeli think-tank that influenced Rabin stated in the early days of Oslo that these are fundamental interests of Israel. If this is the basis of a peace settlement would Palestinians ever accept it?

Probably not. Knowing this, is there grounds for ‘compromise’ from Israel on these issues that would be acceptable for Palestinians? – Barak’s ‘generous offer’ does not give much hope if we take it as the best offer a (powerless) Israeli leader has ever offered. Nevertheless, signs seem to be pointing in the direction that discourse is returning to these negotiations under the paradigm of what I refer to as the Oslo ‘ideology’. However, the dominant narrative on Oslo has meant that the perception is that the original process was ultimately okay but partially flawed, therefore these flaws will be removed and negotiations can begin.

This can be seen also in the Road Map which elements of the Israeli government are attempting to modify. George Bush’s Road Map was partially drawn with the ‘War on Terror’ in mind and therefore, to an extent similar to Oslo, had dealing with terrorism being a pre-requisite (although, instead, the Oslo interim stage was susceptible to ‘spoiler’ disruption thus destroyed any trust). Now it seems that the most likely direction is to avoid these issues and deal with mostly likely Abbas. Therefore, whereas once there was no Palestinian leader willing or capable of making ‘peace’ Israel is trying to reach out for one due to the failure of the convergence plan. This involves strengthening one group over the other – Fatah over Hamas. Even if other elements of Israel aren’t reaching for this solution then the international community is seemingly trying to do so. It stems from the notion that all negotiations are good negotiations and even if they fail then there is no harm in trying. However, the failure of the Oslo process radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians with amongst the latter leading to the rise of Hamas. If Fatah once again enter into negotiations – say Amir Peretz’s New Road Map – and thus have a Palestinian ‘state’ but are not able to get m/any concessions then perhaps this will lead to even more bitterness. Such negotiations by elites are precarious and Oslo showed this and if we look at the structure of the conflict then the Oslo ‘ideology’ could also repeat it in any new negotiations. 

It does seem cynical to damn any negotiations to failure before they are even near to commencement, perhaps there can be a solution and common ground reached. Yet again, perhaps the increase of American troops in Iraq will work to bring peace as well. The relationship between the Oslo ‘ideology’ and the outcomes of the Oslo peace process is what brings this gloomy conclusion. Palestinians firing Qassams have not changed Israeli policy to such an extent that they would be willing to return East Jerusalem or remove the main settlement blocs, never mind refugees returning to any extent. Israel ’s goal is still the same and any negotiations in this context will not likely give way to these demands. Even if an Israeli government did want to e.g. return Al Quds then the internal conflict that it would draw would destroy any willingness. Simply put, it is not in Israel ’s interests to negotiate on these issues to an extent that will meet mainstream Palestinian expectations. There is one more hope under the new approach and this lies with the international community.

In asymmetric conflict resolution a third party is usually required to change the imbalanced power-structures. In the new paradigm this will seemingly be the Quartet and therefore it is dependent upon what pressures they put on Israel specifically. Naturally, this also brings even more skepticism. The Quartet is caught within the narrative that has been developed from the Oslo ‘ideology’; ‘the two-state solution is the only solution, refugees is a dead issue but we will pretend it’s up for negotiation and recognition of Israel’s right to exist is a pre-requisite to negotiations. There is no sign of change amongst the international community, just as with Israel , that any of the key issues are more likely to be addressed to an extent that is in line with Palestinian basic requirements.

The specter of the Oslo ‘ideology’ suggests that little has changed and therefore the chances of any peace attempts will amount to little much different from the last time. As long as peace negotiations are trapped within the narrative of the Oslo ‘ideology’ then little will change unless the Palestinians were to accept a deal what Israel tried and failed to impose unilaterally. The fundamental aspect of this paradigm is that there is no means – nor any desire – from the international community to sort the power-imbalance and thus any negotiations will lead to the further dominance and repetition of the Oslo ‘ideology’. If this is the path of peace that the conflict is going down it is quite dangerous, and worryingly, it looks like it is the path of choice for Abbas.

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