On September 13, 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed on the southern lawn of the White House. The extraordinary and clandestine endeavor that led to this historic event, and to the symbolic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, had actually begun nine months earlier, at a secret meeting in Norway that launched the process.
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Even in our wildest dreams we did not imagine that this meeting might lead to a process that would eventually culminate in the signing of a Declaration of Principles.
During the very first meeting, the messages conveyed to us by Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) on behalf of Arafat were revolutionary: they want peace; they will settle for a state within the 1967 border; they understand that neither side has time to waste; they oppose terror; they approach the Right of Return pragmatically; they are interested in close economic cooperation; they support the regional approach to resolution of the conflict; they advocate meetings between individuals and communities across the Green Line; and they understand that there is no alternative to a solution that shares and divides Jerusalem between the two parties.
In my view, the political process, as well as peace itself, were only intermediate objectives. The ultimate goal was, and still is, to conclude the process of establishing the State of Israel that had begun on November 29, 1947, with the UN resolution that called for partition of the Land of Israel/Palestine − a process that as of today has not yet come to fruition.
The Oslo Accords entailed two major achievements. The first was the historic mutual recognition between two national movements − the Zionist movement in the form of the State of Israel, and the Palestinian national movement in the form of the PLO − two movements that until then had played a zero-sum game, where one side’s gain would be the other’s loss. The second major achievement was the agreement that resolution of the conflict be based on implementation of Security Council Resolution 242 − that is, land for peace: the territorial division of Israel/Palestine into two political entities, one Israeli and the other Palestinian.
The seeds of the calamity
Many factors contributed to the breakdown of the Oslo process, but the root of its collapse and the seeds of the calamity that followed were planted by its three leaders: Arafat, Rabin and Peres. All three sought peace, but from the very start of the process each one also played a part in the failure of the Accords to achieve their intended aim.
Arafat did not make the transition, in terms of mentality and leadership, to the era of diplomacy and statesmanship. The most salient example of this was his arrival at the White House-signing ceremony wearing a military uniform. This was precisely the moment at which he should have changed into the uniform of statesmen − a business suit.
He proceeded from there to make a variety of comments − immediately quoted by Israelis − that maintained his practice of doublespeak, typically using different formulations in Arabic and English, and citing the Koran as well as Islamic traditions in a manner that served as “proof” for opponents of the process that the Palestinians were not a reliable partner and had not relinquished their aim to annihilate Israel. Arafat’s attitude also helped legitimize verbal incitements against Israel.
All this was compounded by Arafat’s approach of turning a blind eye to some of the terrorist activities of Oslo’s opponents, primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad cells that soon began carrying out attacks against Israel. Although Arafat did issue orders to fight the opposition, these were often vague, thus facilitating a soft policy against Islamic terror.
Rather than fighting the terrorists in an unconditional and unequivocal manner, as Mahmoud Abbas did upon his appointment to the position of Palestinian Authority president in January 2005 − when he announced that under his rule there would be only one law and one gun − Arafat created a reality in which terrorists had the maneuverability to perpetrate an increasing number of attacks.
These attacks were then attributed by most Israelis to “all Palestinians,” regardless of whether they supported or opposed the peace process, thereby catalyzing the growing mistrust, as well as Israel’s hard-line security policy of indiscriminately attacking both the suspect population and the innocent, peace-seeking Palestinians. The policy of Israel comprised curfews, closures, checkpoints, and collective punishment, which compounded the vicious cycle of action-reaction.
On the Israeli side, Peres and Rabin made a big mistake in not communicating to the Israeli and Palestinian publics, immediately upon signing the Oslo Accords, the fact that this new stage manifested a dramatic transformation of Israeli policy, aiming eventually at bringing about the unequivocal solution of two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 borders − conditional, of course, on successful implementation of the interim agreement and satisfactory future security arrangements.
Moreover, the Israeli official apparatuses were not directed to adjust the new approach toward the Palestinians in any real sense, and therefore the various relevant actors within the Israel Defense Forces, police and government ministries did not transform their psychological attitude and practical approach to the new realities on the ground.
In practice, Rabin and Peres intentionally left the vision and the intended course of negotiations vague, while simultaneously issuing clarifications that totally excluded a two-state solution. In so doing they generated a roaring dissonance as well as serious practical problems.
The lack of a clear Israeli strategy and vision regarding the endgame created a problem that soon became even more acute with the 1995 Interim Agreement. When the Israeli negotiating team discovered that their instructions were to reach an agreement that would leave all options open − perhaps there will be a Palestinian state, or perhaps not; perhaps Israel will withdraw, or perhaps not; perhaps the Palestinians would only be granted autonomy, or perhaps not − the absence of any strategy resulted in an inferior agreement and in superfluous Israeli “achievements” that were imposed on the Palestinians with the overall aim of denying them the attributes of an emergent state. This situation was a salient and substantive contributing factor in the breakdown and failure of the implementation of the Oslo Accords.
Difficult as it is to admit, Rabin and Peres were the ones responsible for not correctly reading the map. However, Rabin did in fact seem capable of accepting a two-state solution, whereas Peres strenuously opposed the concept of an independent Palestinian state with control over both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Peres aspired to generate conditions under which a Palestinian state could be established only in Gaza, while the West Bank would become an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian condominium.
Until 1998, five years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, he still believed that an agreement implementing some version of the Jordanian option could be achieved, even though this option had been laid to rest 10 years earlier with the Jordanian decision to disengage completely from the West Bank.
Simultaneously, Israel also continued building and expanding the settlement “enterprise.” This was interpreted by many Palestinians as a hint that Israel will never withdraw from these areas. Furthermore, on the ground the humiliating treatment of all Palestinians as potential and suspected enemies continued. Mistreatment of Palestinians at checkpoints persisted, although most did not constitute a threat to Israel. A 13-year-old boy who sees his father humiliated by an 18-year-old Israeli soldier will never forget the experience.
The relations between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated at an ever faster pace under the first Netanyahu administration ((1996-1999. As prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly opposed the Oslo Accords, and although he did the minimum necessary so that Israel would not appear to be violating the agreement, he also did the maximum possible to prevent any political progress that could lead to an agreement aimed at ending the occupation and establishing peace.
The Ehud Barak administration of 1999-2001 also contributed substantively to the deteriorating situation. Suffice it to say that the failure of the Camp David Summit − which, in my opinion, is largely attributable to Barak’s misguided and amateurish approach to negotiations − sparked the intifada that in turn led to mutual violence and loss of confidence in the possibility of achieving peace.
Judaism vs. ‘Israelism’ and New Zionism
The Oslo process was originally intended to bring about the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict − at the heart of which is the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. This would have brought us closer to the strategic goal of a stable state in which one may comfortably carry on with one’s life without asking when the state will cease to exist. The alternative is a course that will permanently entrench the occupation and relegate us to an increasingly violent struggle that could threaten Israel’s existence. This process toward normalization would assist in sustaining, renewing and updating the Zionist enterprise, as well as strengthening the process of “Israelism.”
The question facing Israeli society is how to integrate Judaism and “Israelism.” Israel must encompass Judaism, but without returning us to the days and lifestyle of the Diaspora, when Judaism was at the center of life and “Israelism” was just a dream. The new Israeli Judaism, as publicly represented by right-wing Knesset members, drags Israeli society toward increasing ultra nationalism, chauvinism and racism. The route of Oslo represents the alternative option − of an Israel that is enlightened, inclusive, modern, progressive and egalitarian.
The time has come to do whatever we can − even at the cost of painful compromise − in order to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end, and embark on a journey toward a new form of Zionism that will place new objectives on our society, including addressing the injustices inflicted on the Arab citizens of Israel over the years. This approach may be termed New Zionism.
New Zionism is easiest to define by what it is not. It is not the anachronistic Zionism, whose authority stems from truths that were relevant over a century ago and were realized through the seizure of land. It is not the Zionism of settlers across the Green Line, which derives its authority from rabbis and messianism. It is not the Zionism that reinvented itself after the founding of the state on the basis of “the ends justifying the means,” thereby tolerating a variety of atrocities − beginning with the destruction of different ethnic Jewish identities and cultures that did not comply with the “sabra Israeli” model, and concluding with the historic discrimination perpetuated against Palestinian Arabs who remained under Israeli sovereignty and became second-class citizens in our state.
New Zionism is Zionism in renewal, the Zionism of the 2000s, which will drive us forward. It does not entail turning our backs on the past or denying the foundation on which it was based and from which emerged the legitimate aspiration of the Jewish people to a national homeland in the Land of Israel.
What we now need is to update, modify and successfully implement the concept in accordance with the new reality that has emerged over the course of more than 60 years since the founding of Israel − a state that will ensure equality to all and guaranteeing “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence.
New Zionism must address, for example, the definition of the state not only as that of the Jewish people − an appropriate formulation during the post-World War II period − but as the state of the Jewish people and all its citizens. After all, approximately 20 percent of the state’s citizens are Arab, and at least another 200,000 are Christians who immigrated to Israel from former Soviet states under the Law of Return − which in itself will also have to be reviewed and revised. Not every Christian with a Jewish grandparent has to be granted the automatic right to immigrate to Israel, receive an identity card and vote in Knesset elections upon arrival in Israel.
New Zionism must be receptive to change and dynamic. Modifications along these lines will not substantially transform the nature of Israeli society, but they will enable Arab citizens to feel like full partners, with equal rights and obligations. As it renews itself, society must formulate the broadest possible common denominator in order to facilitate the integration of all sectors within society. “Israelism” comprises not only the experience of the Diaspora and religious Judaism but also, and primarily, Hebrew culture − the language, art and literature that have evolved here since the first Zionists arrived in 1882. All these elements are an essential part of a renewed Israel that looks to the future rather than to the past.
The lack of a peace strategy
In the current reality, it appears that Israel has no peace strategy. Everyone wants peace, but a purely verbal declaration in support of peace and two states does not constitute a strategy. The only strategy that currently exists within the official discourse relates to matters of security and war. Many in Israel have become enamored with the status quo. Proponents of this approach advocate the concept of “conflict management” as an alternative to “conflict resolution,” hoping that the current situation remains as is. Netanyahu cannot reach a permanent status agreement; therefore, he is looking for a state of calm at no or minimal cost.
Having said that, recent declarations suggest that Netanyahu, who strove to undermine the Oslo Accords and sparked incitement against Yitzhak Rabin, has seemingly accepted that the strategy of Oslo is the right approach for Israel. He has recently witnessed how the ground beneath our feet is starting to burn. He understands that the Palestinian people, the Arab world, and most of the states of the world, will not tolerate the continuation of occupation.
Recent European resolutions regarding Israeli control over the West Bank seem only the opening salvo of an anti-Israel campaign that could increase in scope and pose an economic threat to the country, and the transformation of Israel into a pariah state in the eyes of the Western world as well as a significant portion of world Jewry.
The lack of political progress also weakens the moderate Palestinian camp, which has championed the approach of two states based on the 1967 borders. The feeling on the Palestinian street, where most people have concluded that an agreement with Israel is the preferred approach, is that Israel is not interested in a permanent agreement ending the occupation.
Settlements are expanding, illegal outposts are flourishing and Area C lands (60 percent of the West Bank) are barred to Palestinian development and under threat of Israeli annexation. The overall feeling is one of humiliation, with no change on the horizon.
However, the distance that Netanyahu is willing to move in order to actualize what seems to be his new approach still falls far, far short of what is needed to reach an agreement. The critical question, therefore, is how to progress from the current position, toward an agreement that will save us from reaching the point at which full IDF control over the streets of Gaza and alleyways of Nablus is imminent − with all the disastrous diplomatic, political and economic ramifications of such a process.
The secret to success is to define the endgame from the outset. The Palestinians, for example, currently have a strategy regarding the border. At Oslo they gave up the dream of a greater Palestine and are prepared to settle for a state covering only 22 percent of the territory, with Israeli sovereignty over the remaining 78 percent. This was the historic Palestinian concession granted to Israel at the start of negotiations. In their view, a peace agreement must result in two states based on the 1967 borders. They will accept a limited land swap of a 1:1 ratio.
Why does Israel not adopt this equation as a strategy as well, with the question of the border’s location submitted to negotiation? As noted, however, the political pyramid is headed by a prime minister who is incapable of presenting such a position, even though it was already placed on the negotiating table in 2008 by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Accordingly, we must acknowledge that even though a permanent agreement could already be within reach, in terms of the political conditions, at this time the possibility of such an agreement borders on the impossible.
Reality currently offers us an especially adverse combination: an Israeli government that is not prepared to pursue the agenda of land for peace; a coalition whose most vocal faction is situated to the right of the prime minister and objects even to the little that he is willing to offer; an apathetic and skeptical Israeli public; and upheavals in the Arab world that many in Israel perceive as a threat. In the background there is the political weakness of the Palestinian leadership, which suffers from a major substantive division between Fatah and Hamas, as well as between the West Bank and Gaza, further limiting Palestinian political maneuverability.
Toward a one-state solution?
From the Palestinian perspective, the future is looking increasingly bleak. As in other Arab countries, young people are the leading voices of criticism. They oppose violence, but they oppose the continuation of the status quo just as much. The new perspective there is that the option of two states has faded away, and what remains is to act through nonviolent means to establish a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Nonetheless, the PLO − Israel’s official negotiating partner − has not altered its policy of supporting a two-state solution, although Palestinian leaders are concluding that Israel’s policies are undermining the foundation of the two-state solution, and the de facto outcome will therefore be a one-state solution.
Internal Israeli discourse indicates that a single state is also the dream of some of the right wing here − including the extreme and religious right, which relies on a divine promise and an equation that places the land above the people and the state, as well as representatives of the presumably liberal right, who base their stance on the perspective that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.
More and more politicians and right-wing members of the public have recently been proposing formulas reminiscent of Alchemy, whereby Israel would annex the West Bank and continue to exist as a Jewish state, even though the Palestinians would constitute a majority within a short time (there are approximately 6 million Jews in the Land of Israel today, 5.7 million Palestinians, and an additional 300,000 others, mainly Christians and other foreigners registered in Israel).
Other entities have also joined the fray: Israel’s extreme and anti-Zionist left advocates a single, egalitarian state; while some within the moderate left argue that the reality on the ground, the settlements and the right-wing government, have already brought the situation to the point of no return, and therefore the two-state solution is no longer an option.
The significance for people like me − who still believe in the concept of an Israel that preserves liberal Jewish values and adheres to the “contract” with world Jewry, whereby anyone persecuted for being or identifying as Jewish can find refuge here − is simple: a binational state would constitute the end of the Zionist idea and the State of Israel.
But even at the practical, day-to-day level, a single state is a concept that seems objectively impossible to implement and sustain. The differences and divisions between Israel and Palestine are immense: two cultures, two religions, two nationalities, two narratives, two identities. Everything is different and there is almost no common denominator to bridge the enormous gap. Neither side has reached the point where it is capable of shedding its symbols, memories or fears.
There is a view currently gaining ground which holds that it is no longer possible to separate physically into two states based on the 1967 borders. As someone who knows the area, I am of the view that it is definitely possible to draw a new borderline that would be acceptable to both sides, while adhering to the principle of minimal territorial annexation with a maximum number of settlers and minimum number of Palestinians.
The future border should follow a course between that set by the Geneva Accord and the maps Olmert presented to Abbas − namely, with annexation and land swap covering 3-4 percent of the territory. It is important to bear in mind that the built-up lands belonging to settlements in the West Bank constitute only 1 percent of the entire West Bank.
Even in Jerusalem, it is possible to draw a line that would separate the two capitals and enable territorial and transportation contiguity as well as separate sovereignty in each city. The large settlement blocs can easily be linked to Israel through minimal territorial annexation. The number of households that will have to be absorbed within Israel in the context of an agreement varies between 20,000 and 30,000. If properly prepared, Israel will be able to absorb them, with a big financial investment, yet without substantial difficulty.
The problem lies not in the physical division of the land but, rather, in the will and political courage to do so. Emotions will run high, and sadly there might be the possibility of Jews killing Jews and Arabs killing Arabs during the implementation process − though we hope not − but this cost will still be lower than that of any other alternative.
Prospects of an interim agreement
So what can be done? The current initiative led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in combination with Netanyahu’s willingness to take steps toward a two-state solution, provides an opportunity to advance a process that, though complex and intricate, could bring us closer to a two-state solution and move us away from the edge of the cliff where we now stand.
My starting point is that the most Netanyahu is prepared and able to offer does not come close to the minimal Palestinian position, which is synchronized not only with the position of Arab states but also with the Americans and Europeans. However, the prime minister is prepared to reach an interim agreement that would include withdrawal from Area C land and the declaration of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. The Palestinian side will object to any interim agreement that does not clearly contain the elements of a permanent agreement. In other words, Abbas is willing to sign an interim agreement that leads to the declaration of a state within temporary borders, as long as the fundamental conditions of a permanent agreement are clearly announced. However, it is clear that Netanyahu is not prepared to let Israel be part of any declaration of the sort that Abbas would demand.
This time, the Americans must establish a dominant presence in the negotiations. The U.S. role is to create a mechanism that will bring about the conditions that allow both sides to advance without conceding their fundamental principles. Thus, the Americans should present the vision of a permanent agreement through a UN Security Council resolution − which is binding under international law − that in practice will replace Resolution 242, which does not mention the Palestinians. This resolution will eventually serve as a new compass for the entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even if the current Israeli government announces that it does not accept such an international dictate.
A Security Council resolution would stand alone in its own right, with no official connection to the parallel process of negotiations over an interim agreement underway between Israel and the Palestinians under U.S. patronage.
The interim agreement should lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in land covering at least 51 percent of the West Bank (that is, expanding Areas A and B by more than 10 percent), as well as the entire Gaza Strip. The aim would be to create a unified, contiguous, sovereign space, but inclusion of an agreement on Gaza would be conditioned on the Palestinian Authority reasserting control over Gaza and disarming Hamas of its weapons.
The interim agreement would also address relations between the two states; define what is permitted or prohibited regarding settlement construction; facilitate economic independence and the delineation of new trade relations between Israel and the Palestinian state, and between the latter and the rest of the world in the framework of a free trade agreement (FTA); start planning and constructing the territorial link between West Bank and Gaza Strip; revive the process of conciliation and confidence-building between the two populations; and address other issues such as water, natural resources, the environment, etc.
Such a process would prevent deterioration of the situation on the ground, halt the progression toward Israel’s global isolation, help position Israel positively in the Arab world, assist in the renewal of bilateral relations between Israel and Arab states, weaken extreme fundamentalist voices in the Arab world that blame Israel and the U.S. for preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state, reinforce moderate voices in the Palestinian arena, and reestablish trust between Israel and the U.S. government, as well as between Israel and the European Union.
This plan is not ideal. As noted earlier, preference should be given to an accelerated process leading to an unequivocal, clear permanent agreement. From a pragmatic perspective, a two-stage process as described above is preferable to continued deterioration, which will inevitably lead to an explosion that would be detrimental to both sides.
Additionally, the presentation of a plan for a permanent agreement that is recognized and accepted by the entire world will, for the first time, create a new political reality with the potential to produce an Israeli political camp united in support of the new international resolution.
The Israeli public will finally be able to confront the two dichotomous alternatives facing it: Continuation of the Israeli-Arab conflict leading to a threat to the existence of the State of Israel; or a solution based on clear parameters that will complement the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel regional peace as well as diplomatic and economic relations with all Arab states.
This piece is based on a longer article written for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Ron Pundak’s book, “Secret Channel − Oslo, the Full Story,” was published recently in Hebrew.