Building on the Oslo Framework

Despite recent setbacks, the door still remains open to a two-state solution. But the Palestinian leadership must recognize that the Oslo Accords were an opportunity for lasting peace, rather than the destination itself.

Rahm Emanuel
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.Credit: AP
Rahm Emanuel

It was a privilege, both personal and powerful, to stand on the South Lawn of the White House alongside my father, a man who had fought for Israel’s independence before moving our family to Chicago, and witness the historic handshake between the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

In ways both literal and symbolic, the handshake on September 13, 1993, brought two descendants of Abraham together. Like many Americans, it was a moment that bridged generations of my own family history. It was a moment that held out hope for Israelis, Palestinians, and citizens of the world, that peace was possible and age-old divisions could be overcome.

Despite the difficulties and pain of the present, I still believe in the promise of that day. I still believe deeply in what Prime Minister Rabin so frequently reminded us: “To fight terrorism as if there is no peace, and pursue peace as if there is no terror.”

Those words are particularly important to recall now that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to have made a dangerous choice. By rejecting the parameters and cooperation that Oslo established, he has chosen to be a demagogue rather than a historic leader for his people.

His decisions put more than the Palestinian Authority’s political institutions and standing at risk; they put at risk the progress and mutual respect advanced by more than two decades of security cooperation. They endanger the hard-won gains of Israelis and Palestinians alike who worked side by side for their common security and a lasting peace for their children.

While landmark peace agreements like the Oslo Accords did not bring a final end to the threat of terrorism, the recent wave of deplorable violence against Israeli citizens cannot end the larger pursuit of peace. Rather than rejecting Oslo, leaders must build upon its framework, while adjusting for modern realities.

As with many landmark agreements, the Oslo Accords were never intended to be signed and then sealed away in a drawer to collect the dust of history. Instead, they were always intended to be a living foundation upon which to build an enduring peace.

In considering how to build upon Oslo, we cannot ignore how much has changed since the Accords were signed. We cannot be blind to the volatile and dangerous situation in the Middle East, nor the demographic realities that will shape the region for generations to come.

During a time when the region is riven by sectarian violence, where strongmen have fallen and states have collapsed under the weight of their own repression, Israel stands again as the exception. The creative imagination and spirit that gave birth to Israel, the foundation which is responsible for so much of its present strength, must be tapped again in a steadfast pursuit of lasting peace.

Just as every nation in the region has been forced to recalibrate to new political realities, we must reimagine what the path toward peace looks like, with Oslo as our starting point. Ultimately, we must appreciate what both President Clinton and Prime Minister Rabin understood: that during a time when change is the only constant, we must choose to make change our ally rather than our adversary.

I remain hopeful that lasting peace can still be achieved, in part because the alternative is unacceptable. In a world that is more interconnected than ever before, it is also unsustainable.

Israelis recognize how essential it is in a 21st-century economy to be integrated with the world. This is more important than ever before. There will be a greater degree of shared prosperity for Israelis and their neighbors, the Palestinians, when both peoples can live side by side in a way that is integrated rather than isolated.

Despite recent setbacks and continuing violence, I still believe the door remains open to a two-state solution that fulfills the promise of the Oslo Accords. But it requires recognition on the part of the Palestinian leadership that the Accords were an opportunity for lasting peace, rather than the destination itself.

We have seen the progress that is possible when cooperation is chosen over conflict. More than 20 years ago, it led to one of the great diplomatic breakthroughs of our time. By continuing to remember the words and example of Prime Minister Rabin – and by both sides committing to working once again as true partners for peace – I believe that the goals of Oslo will not just be aspirational. They will be attainable.

The writer is mayor of Chicago and was chief of staff during President Barack Obama's first term in office.

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