Striving for an Illusion-free Middle East Peace

It's been 20 years since the failed Oslo Accords. Now is the time for a different, piecemeal approach to reducing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. The amount of time that has passed since their signing is the same that passed between the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967. In both cases, roughly a generation's worth of time, although for most people it might feel that the Oslo Accords were only signed yesterday.

Considering the passage of time, now might be a fitting moment to evaluate not just the huge success that was achieved by the agreement but also to confront head-on the failures of the accords.

The establishment of the Palestinian Authority marked the beginning of Israel's realization that it could not control an occupied Palestinian population forever. It also opened the path that would lead us to Palestinian state that could co-exist alongside Israel. Neither of the Oslo Accord's signatories would have thought that nearly 20 years after their agreement, both sides would remain mired in a process that started with the promise of such new horizons. The Oslo Accords, two decades later, have not yielded their pledged fruits.

The people who opposed the accords from the get-go are certainly happy with this outcome. But that doesn't stop those who stood in favor of the agreement from coming to terms with the cruel reality of present. There is no reason to continue our infatuation with yesterday's achievements. It's perfectly warranted to ask today how the vision of "two states for two peoples" could possibly be realized when 20 years after the accords, its results have yet to be achieved. Repeating that slogan of "it's time to get back to the negotiating table" simply isn't enough. The question that must now be faced, head-on, is this: Why have negotiations failed until now?

It's so easy to play the blame game. You can blame Israeli intransigence (especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) or you can blame Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's aversion to returning to negotiations. You can blame the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush for not pushing hard enough or negotiations, or you even blame current U.S. President Barack Obama for some missteps at the beginning of his presidency. All of these reasons are true, but don't offer a complete explanation for the failure.

The Kadima Olmert-Livni government held intensive negotiations with the PA for two years and both sides came to the table with good will and a real readiness to reach an agreement. Both sides also had a personal political stake in success: If he had, indeed, brokered an agreement, Olmert might still be prime minster, and all the scandals that ensnared him since would have paled in comparison to such an historic achievement.

For Abbas, too, executing the agreement created a Palestinian state would have given him a winning hand against Hamas. Abbas could have presented himself to the Palestinians as the man who turned their dream of independence into a reality.

But as the discussions wore on, it was clear that even between the most moderate of Israeli and Palestinian positions, a wide gulf between core issues existed. On the topics of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and Israel's security demands, the two sides couldn't hatch a compromise. It wasn't an issue of not enough time. There was simply too much distance between the two sides.

It's unrealistic to say today, on the eve of elections, that all that we needed to do to reach an agreement was sit down at the negotiating table with the Palestinians. In the four years since that round of negotiations, the gaps have widened rather than narrowed. The number of settlers in the West Bank has increased, altering the equation. Even those opposed to the settlement enterprise can't ignore the fact that it will be harder to evacuate 300,000 Jews from the West Bank than 200,000. Land swaps won't solve the problem.

The proposal to solve the Jerusalem issue by creation a fictive non-sovereign area or by placing the Old City under the jurisdiction of the international community is as delusory an idea today as it was in the past. Palestinian refusal to abandon the right of return is as steadfast today as ever, despite Abbas's assertion that he, personally, would only return to his birthplace of Safed as a tourist. Furthermore, Hamas's stronghold of Gaza and the tailwind the Palestinians received from the UN General Assembly vote to recognize Palestinian statehood don't make an agreement any more likely.

Any post-election Israeli government, regardless of which parties join the coalition, will face a two-fold challenge. On the one hand, it will have to deal with the status quo, in which a lack of peace negotiations will lower Israel's international standing, undermine the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and lead to renewed violence in the Palestinian territories. No responsible government can ignore these dangers.

On the other hand, the idea that simply engaging in negotiations will automatically foster a peace agreement is a fantasy, proven baseless by the experience of the past 20 years.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict isn't unique. It can be held up against the conflicts in Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo and even far-off Kashmir. None of these conflicts are solely about territory. They are all between national movements and about legitimacy, sovereignty and independence as well as the clash of mutually contradictory historical narratives.

They all have the witches' brew of occupation, settlement, refugees, resistance to occupation and terror. None of them are solely conflicts of religion, but they are all tinged with religious aspects that fuel the conflict, stir the pot and make solving it even more difficult.

One thing is true, however: The conflict in our region is more intense. A divided Jerusalem is not the same thing as a divided Nicosia or Kosovar Mitrovica.

None of these conflicts have been solved. The Annan Plan for Cyprus failed because one of the sides, the Greek Cypriots, weren't ready to accept it even though it had the approval of the entire international community, including Greece and Turkey. Kosovo has won independence, but since Serbia refuses to recognize its independence, the conflict continues. As for Bosnia, although the Dayton Accords brought the rape, killing and ethnic cleansing to a halt, the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state that those accords were supposed to help create has yet to crystallize.

But in each and every one of these cases, even in the absence of a final agreement, some progress has been made. We see it through a slew of interim agreements, trust-building exercises, unilateral steps and other mechanisms.

Thanks to proactive management, progress has been made in tamping down these conflicts. It moved forward by the adopting of a dynamic approach that implemented partial solutions to problems likely to become cornerstones for broader future agreements.

We need the same kind of approach in our region, even though it would mean reducing expectations on both sides. There is a long list of steps Israel could take following this model. It could halt construction projects in the territories, ease up on the living conditions of Palestinians, and put a stop to the measures intended to punish the Palestinians for earning UN recognition. On the Palestinian side, such a list would include accepting the idea of two states for two peoples. This would mean a fundamental change in the Palestinian education system and in its propaganda, both of which evince a deep hatred toward Israel.

A creative approach to this option can undoubtedly offer other, additional steps, but would require international recognition that this is the single, realistic option. This isn't a substitute for a final agreement but an alternative way to gradually make progress towards reaching one.

Anyone who believes more American involvement will, by itself, lead to an agreement, is mistaken. The full brunt of American power couldn't bring about a solution in Cyprus, Bosnia or Kosovo. It's important that every effort is made to hold talks with Abbas, but as Dennis Ross, the most experienced of American diplomats to have dealt with the Israel-Palestinian conflict recently said, at this stage it's worth focusing on specific issues rather than trying to reach a final agreement that isn't in the offing.

As someone who supported the Oslo Accords, who felt they were a historic breakthrough, I am aware that what I have just written expresses a sense of disappointment.

But national conflicts are not solved overnight. After 20 years of failed attempts, the time has come for creative thinking, rather than grasping at straws.

President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.Credit: AP

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