Analysis

Why the Oslo Peace Process Went Into Deep Freeze

Since the Oslo Accords were signed 25 years ago, no Israeli leader has believed strongly enough in them to enable progress toward a final status accord

Then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, signs the Mideast peace agreement in Washington, D.C. alongside then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin,  U.S. President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, on Sept. 13, 1993.
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File

The Oslo accords, signed 25 years ago next week, fell apart first and foremost because they failed to provide Israelis with the level of personal security promised to them by the Rabin-Peres government at the time of the signing. A chain of deadly events – Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, a wave of Hamas suicide bombers blowing up buses, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – sent the vision of Oslo up in smoke. As the number of terror attacks increased, support for the accords dwindled along with Israelis’ support for withdrawal from more territory, without which no final accord was attainable.

In 2000, when Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak made a last-ditch effort to get the process back on track with the Camp David summit and then the Taba negotiations, an even stronger eruption – the second intifada – occurred, and any remaining hope was buried even deeper under the wreckage. The nearly 1,500 Israelis and more than 7,000 Palestinians who were killed in the years following the ceremony on the White House lawn just about completely eroded any trust between the sides, and foiled practically every possibility of resuming meaningful negotiations.

Oslo Accords - 25 years on

To my mind, the articles from the left lamenting the situation, such as are frequently published in Haaretz, tend to minimize the profound importance of the security component of the accords. Rabin chose to go down the Oslo path, despite a good deal of self-doubt, for a combination of reasons. He recognized, possibly belatedly, the moral damage that the continuation of the occupation causes the IDF and Israeli society.

“The IDF needs to stop being an occupying army and go back the being a defense army,” he told journalists a year after the signing of the first accord. At the same time, Rabin saw a strategic window of opportunity – with the decline of Russian influence in the Middle East and before Iran built up its power – and hoped to reap the potential fruits: ending the international criticism of Israel and possible normalization with some of the Arab states.

Oslo Accords 25 years.

But what Rabin sold to the Israeli public, a majority of which supported the agreement in the first years, was primarily the promise of long-term quiet. Combat soldiers would no longer have to chase after young rock-throwers through the casbahs and refugee camps, Israelis could stop fearing knife attacks, which were the main terror threat of the early 1990s. The murder of teenager Helena Rapp in Bat Yam was seen as a key precipitator of Yitzhak Shamir’s resounding defeat by Rabin in the 1992 election.

>> Read more: Rabin’s Man in Oslo Analyzes What Went Wrong – and Right – With the 1993 Accords

Soon after Oslo was signed, the benefits of the process began to materialize. Foreign companies no longer fearful of the Arab boycott opened branches in Israel; the peace agreement with Jordan was signed; and there were budding signs of relations with other Arab countries. But then in the spring of 1994, a wave of suicide bombing attacks began, initially in response to the massacre in Hebron. The double-edged accusations that the left was giving away parts of the homeland and thereby leaving Israelis vulnerable to Hamas attacks laid the basis for the Rabin assassination a year and a half later.

No Israeli leader since then has believed strongly enough in Oslo to enable progress toward a final status accord. Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew from territory in the West Bank, under American pressure, in the Hebron and Wye agreements; Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and part of northern Samaria. But the Oslo process became frozen.

This happened mainly because a significant portion of Israelis became convinced of a clear and simple equation: Whenever Israel withdraws from a piece of territory, that territory is destined to become a springboard for terror attacks against it. The withdrawal from the West Bank cities under the 1995 Oslo accords, Barak’s decision to withdraw from the security zone in southern Lebanon in May 2000, the Gaza disengagement in 2005 – none of these moves led to peace and prosperity (though one could certainly argue that the security burden involved in remaining in those territories may have been even heavier). The terror attacks, especially the dozens of suicide bombings in the second intifada, were a formative trauma for contemporary Israeli society. And time after time, they were also what decided elections.

As I wrote here after the 2015 election, Netanyahu keeps getting elected because he has gained the image of a responsible leader when it comes to security, one who won’t get carried away making dangerous concessions to the Arabs and also won’t rush into unnecessary wars (contrary to his image internationally).

Israel’s contribution to Oslo’s failure

Israel also made a significant contribution to Oslo’s failure. In those years, it was as if the Catch-22 principle was working overtime. When things were going smoothly, Israel was in no hurry to make progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians (“There is no holy timetable,” said Rabin); when the terror attacks resumed, it said it would never submit to threats. And the whole time, Israel continued to settle the West Bank and the Jerusalem neighborhoods east of the Green Line. The presence of more than 800,000 Israelis now living over the Green Line will make it very hard to ever reach a final status accord, even if the vast majority of them are in the Jerusalem neighborhoods and the settlement blocs.

A couple of months ago, the New Yorker magazine described how shocked Obama administration officials were in 2015 upon being shown a map that illustrated how the settlements and outposts have thwarted the possibility of territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian state. This was a very belated awakening. Civil Administration officers had spotted the trend behind the “fingers” of the West Bank settlements spreading eastward many years earlier. Indications of the master plan could also be seen in settlement department documents from the 1990s.

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As Aluf Benn wrote in June 2016, it’s likely that Netanyahu’s true vision is to wage a diplomatic and security war of attrition, with the ultimate aim of quashing the hopes of the Palestinian national movement.

The security situation in the West Bank has stabilized in recent years thanks to close security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority leadership, which views Hamas terror as a more urgent threat to its survival than the occupation. Relations between Israel and Hamas in Gaza are shakier: Every few years, when the humanitarian situation in Gaza becomes unbearable or when Hamas errs in gauging Israel’s forbearance, several weeks of bloody military conflict ensues.

But whenever talk of a new peace initiative arises – the latest being the Trump administration’s promised “deal of the century” – all the experts and analysts have learned that pessimism is the safest bet. Neither Netanyahu nor Mahmoud Abbas really believes in a final status accord and certainly neither one is prepared to make the required concessions to (possibly) achieve such an agreement. If and when a change occurs, the outline that will again be on the table will probably be very similar to the one that was put forward in late 2000 in the waning days of the Clinton administration. But until that happens, a lot more blood is likely to be shed in the Middle East.