Twenty Years After Oslo: Is Peace Out of Reach?

In the long wake of the Oslo Accords, adherence to the status quo is eroding the chances for a just and feasible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The year 2013 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords – two decades of a frozen peace process mired in transitional limbo. Long gone are the heady days of the 1990s, when peace seemed possible and a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians was within grasp. However, the Oslo Accords, which were set up as an incremental step towards a sovereign and secure Israel and Palestine, have instead acted as a perpetuator of an all-too-convenient status quo. In my conversation with Yossi Beilin (former Knesset Member, Foreign Affairs Minister, and Justice Minister) this past summer, he reiterated his analysis that Oslo as an interim “corridor,” “might not be a corridor but a living room – the most convenient living room in the world – to continue the settlements or not to divide the land.” In the current political climate, a deep malaise has de-prioritized the peace process and its stale promises as peoples on both sides of the green line have become frustrated with aborted negotiations, continued violence, expanded settlements, and dovish pipe dreams. The present challenge is now to move beyond the ever-theoretical “roadmap” to peace and towards an actual destination.

Obstacles

Of course there are plenty of obstacles on the way to a peaceful solution, with settlements and Hamas standing as the two greatest spoilers to negotiations. The longer these gargantuan elephants in the room are left unaddressed, the more they crowd out the possibility for a two-state solution, threatening the core interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Perhaps most tangibly for Palestinians, settlement expansion represents a daily injustice and corporeal presence of an unabated occupation, as more and more of the West Bank is cantoned off by unofficial outposts or Israeli-subsidized suburbs. Despite the UN Human Rights Council’s recent condemnation of settlements as violations of human rights and international law, there has been no movement to halt the construction of the newly-approved 3000 homes in the controversial E1 zone, virtually cutting off residents of Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem. This rapidly increasing appropriation of land and the sheer number of settlers — a UN estimated 520,000 — are affronts to the idea of a sovereign Palestine while simultaneously threatening the key tenets of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.

Indeed, the situation is becoming untenable for Israel, as noted by National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “Construction in the settlements has become a diplomatic problem and is causing Israel to lose support even among its friends in the West." If the present arrangement cannot persist, Israel seems to only have two paths forward. It could move to annex the entirety of the West Bank, giving Palestinians citizenship and losing its demographic majority, or denying equality and forfeiting both its democratic nature and international standing. As both these options seem odious to many Israelis, the more likely, albeit difficult alternative is to withdraw from the West Bank, reliving the painful process of evacuating hundreds of thousands of settlers from their homes. With the scarring memory of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza still fresh on the minds of many Israelis, it is nonsensical to increase settlement activity if an evacuation is the presumed, and internationally mandated outcome.

At the same time, frustration with a lack of progress, occupation, and a corrupt Palestinian Authority (PA) has created another nightmare for both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Just as settlements obstruct the core Palestinian aspiration for sovereignty, Hamas’ control over Gaza strikes at the heart of Israelis’ worst fears – that Israel does indeed face an existential threat. For many, after generations of persecution and the traumas of the Holocaust, Israel represents the single safe haven of the Jewish people. As long as that safety net is under siege, Qassam rockets fall on Sderot, and Israel’s security is at risk, there will be no movement towards peace. In this way, the militaristic tactics of Hamas and even more fringe elements in Gaza are the worst enemy of Palestinians. While Hamas may provide social services to an impoverished Gazan population, their abominable targeting of civilians strangles any chance for two-states. Not only does the party division damage Fatah’s legitimacy as a negotiating partner, as Israel cannot trust the full enforcement of Fatah agreements in Gaza, but it also provides the perfect Boogeyman to justify continued occupation. Each and every act of terrorism represents an unacceptable threat to civilian life, as well the destruction of the noble work of non-violent Israeli and Palestinian activists striving for peace.

Are Two States a Lost Cause?

In the face of these seemingly insurmountable barriers, some scholars are giving up on the notion of two states entirely. In one slightly bizarre suggestion, Yossi Beilin and Sari Nusseibeh (President of Al-Quds University) have called for the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority altogether. The proposed “handing over the keys” of the Palestinian territories to Israel would be a crucible of sorts – a mechanism to force Israel to either end the occupation or annex the territory as part of a one-state solution with equal democratic rights for all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, settlement leader and Knesset member Naftali Bennett has made clear his unwavering belief in the impossibility of a two-state solution. One of his more flippant and ludicrous campaign ads stated: “There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen: ‘The Sopranos’ are not coming back for another season… and there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.

Although this denigration of Palestinian rights is disturbing, it does shed light on an increasingly held position that equates the peace process with tilting at windmills. In a recent Haaretz poll, only 18% of voters registered negotiations with the Palestinians as a primary concern, with 47% citing socio-economic concerns as the most pressing issue. Considering the recent violence between Hamas and Israel this past November, the declining economy, the threat of Iran, the dispassion of the Israeli public, and the continued power of Likud in forming the coalition government, a resumption of negotiations seems unlikely in the near future.

It is almost quixotic, albeit tragic, that negotiations have failed time and time again, especially considering that any honest, pragmatic politician could tell you what a two-state solution would look like. There would be a sovereign, demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a “Jewish and democratic” Israel based on the 1967 Green Line, with mutually agreed upon land swaps; Jerusalem would be divided and serve as the capital for Israel and Palestine, with a custodial arrangement over the Holy Sites; the right of return would be limited to the new State of Palestine, with a potential symbolic number of returnees to Israel and possible monetary compensation. Although this is an overly simplified explanation, it is also the founding platform for most civil society initiatives, including that of Professor Nusseibeh and former Shin Bet head, Ami Ayalon, in their People’s Voice proposal. Yet, the question remains: if the tenets for a solution are widely known, why have they not been put into place?

The main problem lies both in the lack of political will and political legitimacy. Any actual resolution to this conflict will require a measure of sacrifice – a quality not expedient during election cycles. Therefore, politicians continue to feed the public delusions that will make peace all but impossible. Refugees in Jenin are assured that in this generation of the next, they will return to Haifa, while settlers in Beit El sincerely believe that they will not meet the same fate as the dismantled outposts in Gaza. Unfortunately, in this conflict there is only relative, not absolute justice, and the zealous aspirations of all cannot be accommodated while at the same time attaining peace.

However, popular opinion stands on the side of peace, as a 2012 Dahaf poll noted that roughly 67% of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution and a 2010 poll of the West Bank and Gaza found that 73% of Palestinians wanted a resumption of peace talks with Israel. The hitch lies in the fact that these same constituents do not believe that there is a partner for peace on the “other side.” Thus, it is absolutely vital to build a framework of trust and legitimacy to facilitate a lasting agreement and, in the process, some tough decisions must be made.

Israel must demonstrate that it is serious about reaching a solution, and freeze settlement construction – and this time not the 10-month supposed freeze that allowed construction to continue apace in East Jerusalem and did not apply to pre-approved houses or public facilities. Although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has not shown proclivity to taking decisive action towards peace, the surprise upsurge of Yair Lapid and the new coalition government may provide the domestic catalyst for resumed negotiations. And if not, perhaps President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel will finally provide the push necessary to galvanize action on the part of America’s strategic ally.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority needs to regain legitimacy in the eyes of its public and its potential negotiating partner, Israel. Firstly, the PA needs to combat its long-term and severe issue with corruption, providing a democratic and reliable governing body that is actually capable of serving its people. Additionally, as long as Hamas and Fatah are divided, President Mahmoud Abbas will not be viewed as a credible representative of the West Bank andGaza. A unity government in which Hamas denounces violence as a tactic and recognizes Israel, could be key to a viable Palestinian negotiating body. This possibility is all the more feasible in light of recent unity talks in Egypt, and Hamas Chief Khaled Meshal’s supposed authorization for King Abdullah to convey his acceptance of the two-state solution to President Obama.

However, if Israel is serious about its rejection of a Fatah-Hamas coalition, then it must allow the PA to show its people some successful progress. If Fatah remains impotent to end the occupation peacefully, its constituents will continue to turn to extremists for solutions. While the UN bid gained them some nominal approval, steps by Israel to lift some of the more odious conditions of the blockade in Gaza, a scale back of the military regime in the West Bank, the release of $120 million in PA tax revenues, and a halt of the settlement process will do more damage to Hamas than any military strike ever could.

Perhaps the pundits and political cynics are correct, and a two-state solution is slipping beyond reach. However, at present, it seems to be the only pragmatic possibility left — if an imperfect one at best. Absolutes will be compromised, justice will be incomplete, but peace is still possible. What is needed now is courageous leadership to reach that destination — without the incrementalism that sunk Oslo and left us with twenty years of failed peace.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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