Why the Oslo Accords Failed

What went wrong between the Israelis and Palestinians?

Editor’s Note: Signed in 1993, the Oslo Accords, which were signed in 1993, were designed as confidence-building measures to create trust between Israelis and Palestinians and bring peace to the region. Yet less than a decade after those accords were signed, the region was already mired in war. Following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a former member of Peace Watch, a watch-dog group that monitored the implementations of the Oslo Accords, analyzed what went wrong.

Since the writing of this article, Arafat’s death in 2004 changed the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Israel unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, and soon after the terrorist group Hamas assumed control, sparking two wars. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have returned to the negotiating table, most recently for talks that fell apart in 2014, but the hopes of peace and security that the Oslo agreements offered have still not been realized.

The failure of the Oslo agreements can be ascribed to the same reasons that are usually the cause of most agreement failures: both parties felt that Oslo had not delivered what they had expected from it.

Oslo was from the start meant to be an interim agreement as a prelude to the expected difficult negotiations toward a final agreement. An important component of it was that peace could be spread by goodwill on the part of the leaderships of both peoples.

The Expectations

Palestinian expectations were in the main twofold. The first expectation was that the Oslo process would bring to a halt the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Israeli withdrawals were to proceed according to a fixed schedule leading to Palestinian Authority control over more than 90 percent of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, setting the stage for final Israeli withdrawal all the way to the 1967 borders.

The second expectation centered around increased economic development in Palestinian society, lifting Palestinians out of crushing poverty and narrowing the gap in living standards between them and the Israelis that many Palestinians thought humiliating and enraging.

READ: Why Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Were Like Bitter Divorce Proceedings

Israeli expectations mostly centered on security. Decades of Palestinian terrorism had led many Israelis to fear that relinquishing control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip would leave Israel exposed to hostile Palestinian movements who would use the territories as springboards from which to launch terrorist acts well within Israel.

The Oslo agreements were to assuage these fears by establishing a Palestinian Authority that would consider organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a threat to its own existence, thus aligning Israeli interests in fighting terrorism with the interests of the Palestinian leadership.

Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister when the agreements were signed (who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish Israeli), put it rather inelegantly when he stated that the Palestinian Authority would fight terrorism more effectively than Israelis ever could because it would operate without constraints imposed by “human rights groups and the Israeli Supreme Court.” In that statement, he was expressing the hope many Israelis pinned behind the agreement for an anti-terrorism alliance between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Oslo agreements even established “joint patrols” involving Israeli and Palestinian soldiers patrolling side by side to prevent terrorist attacks.

In summary, the Oslo agreement set up an expected quid pro quo that could be stated as “land and economics in exchange for security.” The unraveling of the Oslo process began with the sense that the quid pro quo was not being implemented as planned.

Expectations Unfulfilled

The implementation of the Oslo agreements started well. The first Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories in the Gaza Strip and in Jericho on the West Bank was conducted smoothly. The establishment of the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat’s installation as its President followed. Then, after a good deal of hard negotiating, a second Israeli redeployment occurred outside of the larger Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank.

Unfortunately, the upbeat mood of confidence-building, in both the Israeli and Palestinian publics, was short-lived, as each side began to perceive the other as violating its agreements.

The Palestinian View

Palestinian spokesmen repeatedly explained that the collapse of the Oslo peace process was due first and foremost to the expansion of Israeli settlements and the disappointing extent of the territorial control of the Palestinian Authority. Polls of Palestinian public opinion indicate that the broad populace shared this view.

Palestinians believed that the Oslo agreements included a firm Israeli commitment to halt the expansion of settlements and even begin dismantling them. While there was no such explicit commitment in the signed agreements, Palestinians maintain that this must have been understood by the Israelis as entirely self-evident, and that such conditions would be a minimally necessary precondition for Palestinian assent to any agreement.

An Israeli “third redeployment” that was expected by 1996 was not been carried out. The West Bank was divided in a complicated arrangement into three zones, labeled Areas A, B, and C, with complete Palestinian Authority control in Area A, complete Israeli control over area C, and “joint responsibilities” in area B, which was intended to provide civilian Palestinian rule alongside Israeli security control. The Palestinian Authority was thus confined to about 50 per cent of the West Bank, far less than the 95 per cent or more that the Palestinians had originally expected.

A “free passage” route connecting the West Bank and Gaza Strip running through Israeli territory was never realized, but Israeli military roadblocks were established on the roads between Palestinian cities. While Israelis cited “security concerns,” these moves were interpreted by much of the Palestinian public as an Israeli attempt to create separate Palestinian cantons without territorial contiguity, in order to strangle any possibility of a viable future Palestinian state.

For the Palestinians this was seen as an ultimate Israeli betrayal indicating that Israel never intended to come to a peace agreement.

The Israeli View

From the perspective of many Israelis, the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations since the signing of the Oslo agreement confirmed their worst fears: that the Oslo process would give a militant enemy the tools and launching areas for bloodthirsty terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Very early on during the establishment of the security services of the Palestinian Authority, it was noted by Israeli observers that the number of Palestinians in arms and the types of armaments being brought into Palestinian Authority territory were significantly exceeding the limits established by the agreements. This led to the suspicion that Arafat was constructing an offensive army rather than a police force.

But the greatest Israeli anger was elicited by the fact that the Palestinian Authority was doing very little to prevent terrorist attacks emanating from its territory. It refused to take steps towards disarming terrorist militias, permitted terrorist organizations to operate open offices in its territory, and either refused to arrest terrorists or would adopt a policy of “revolving door” arrests–placing terrorists in prison for a handful of days and then releasing them.

As terrorist attacks against Israelis exacted a heavy toll in civilians killed and wounded, the entire conception that had been presented to Israelis — of the Oslo process creating efficient Palestinian security teams that would be better than Israeli soldiers in combating terrorism — collapsed. Palestinian explanations that they “couldn’t be expected to be collaborators and fight against their own people” rang hollow to Israeli ears in the face of civilian deaths.

Many incidents caused the Israeli public to wonder whether Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had ever truly intended to lay down arms and seek negotiated peace agreements rather than armed struggle: immense arms supplies to the Palestinian Authority were made public; captured documents indicated Palestinian Authority support for terrorist infrastructures; and Palestinian policemen took up arms against Israeli soldiers. For Israelis, this was the ultimate breach of agreement, rendering it moot.

The Economic View

The economic reconstruction of the Palestinian territories was to be handled by internationally respected Palestinian economists and businesspeople working along with the World Bank and enjoying the financial support of Western donations. Toward this end, as early as November and December 1993, potential donor nations were gathered to commit large sums of money and an organization that was supposed to oversee the new Palestinian Authority economy–the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR)–was  formed.

These plans were halted by Yasser Arafat. Arafat regarded an independent and authoritative organization such as PECDAR as a potential threat to his power. The entire World Bank vision for a modern, Western-style Palestinian economy, built around competitive markets, transparent and accountable public bodies, and solid financial and legal institutions, went against the grain of the methods Arafat had used to run the PLO for decades. Those methods, instead of the World Bank and PECDAR paradigm, were imposed in the Palestinian Authority.

The economy in the Palestinian Authority was since its inception run as if it were a syndicate, with monopolistic control over sectors granted to individuals or institutions in return for “percentage kick-backs” paid to authority figures in a pyramid going all the way to Arafat’s office. These public figures operated under no requirement to make use of the funds at their disposal, whether public money or “kick back payments” in an accountable or transparent manner –a state of affairs generally called “corruption.”

Donor money, instead of being invested in infrastructures that could support future job growth, was used to cover salaries for teachers and police officers, which translated into a potentially never-ending dependency on donations–because cuts in donations could threaten the collapse of the entire system. As the Palestinian Authority lacked any clear legal protections for economic activities, private investors refused to come near it. The more terrorism mounted, the firmer Israel became in sealing its borders to Palestinian job seekers.

The Palestinian economy went into a downward spiral. By the time the second Intifada led to permanent Israeli closures, choking off all trade, it went into a coma. Observers in Washington have concluded that the Palestinian Authority was a “failed state” that can only be helped back to the road to normality by “regime change.”

Summary: No Safeguards for Violations

The success of the Oslo process was predicated on a beneficial spiral of confidence-building measures that would bring Israelis and Palestinians ever closer to trusting in the possibility of peaceful co-existence. In actual fact, Oslo led to a series of claims and counter-claims of breaches of the accords that formed a negative spiral of mistrust and feelings of enmity.

In light of these facts, it might be said in hindsight that Oslo ultimately failed because while its fashioners set in motion a process that could potentially lead to trust and confidence, they did not establish mechanisms for monitoring violations or ensuring that claims of violations could be arbitrated and corrections could be guaranteed. Without such safeguards, the dynamic of the Oslo process fell prey to longstanding sentiments of mistrust and anger between Palestinians and Israelis.

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