Picture: AFP – US President Bill Clinton, centre, observes as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, second from left, and PLO Chairperson Yasser Arafat shake hands after signing an accord for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank during ceremonies at the White House in Washington DC, September 28, 1995.
By Ishaan Tharoor
It’s one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. On a sunny day outside the White House, then-US president Bill Clinton stands open-armed before then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The latter duo – representatives of two national movements that by definition were existential threats to the other – clutched palms for the first time.
The handshake that shook the world happened on September 13, 1993. It followed months of complex, clandestine back-channel negotiations between the two parties in Oslo, the Norwegian capital. The “declaration of principles” that came that day at the White House was the first of a series of interim agreements clinched in the 1990s aimed at building co-operation between the Israeli government and Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation.
What was dubbed the Oslo Accord (to become plural after subsequent agreements) provided for the creation of the Palestinian Authority, among other things. That political body, the thinking went, would enable the expansion of Palestinian self-rule throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip while “final status” issues were ironed out. The concept of the “two-state solution” – separate sovereign Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side – was not explicitly enshrined 30 years ago, but the Oslo Accords became its driving logic and laid out a roadmap for a lasting peace.
At the time, the diplomatic breakthrough seemed a landmark moment after years of strife and bloodshed in the Holy Land. “The children of Abraham … have embarked together on a bold journey,” Clinton said with biblical solemnity. But three decades later, invoking “Oslo” in the context of the Middle East conjures up a feeling of defeat. A viable Palestinian state seems even more improbable now than it may have been in 1993.
In violation of international law, Israeli settlements have expanded throughout much of the West Bank, carving up Palestinian lands with new roads and jurisdictions maintained for Jewish settlers. Below ground, aquifers are being diverted to the settlements, imposing chronic water shortages on Palestinians. East Jerusalem, the putative capital of a future Palestinian state, became home to more than 200,000 Jewish settlers; many Palestinian residents there face a tacit campaign to evict them from neighbourhoods where they’ve lived for generations.
Israel’s entrenched military rule over millions of Palestinians shows little sign of abating and has prompted the world’s leading human rights organisations in recent years to determine that conditions of apartheid prevail over the occupied West Bank. The flaring of the second intifada in 2000 and spikes in Palestinian terrorist attacks soured the Israeli public on the project of peace. Then, the steady political victories of the Israeli right – which always baulked at Rabin’s initiative – put further distance between the spirit of Oslo and the realities on the ground.
The current far-right Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasts members in its ranks who subscribe more to the ideology of Rabin’s extremist assassin than the Labour Party prime minister himself. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is weak and increasingly unpopular. Far from a temporary body animated by the spirit of the Palestinian national movement, it’s a sclerotic institution, riven with corruption. Its leader, Arafat’s ageing successor Mahmoud Abbas, has presided over his rump of a fiefdom like other Arab autocrats in the region, stifling civil society and repeatedly dodging calls for fresh elections.
Arrayed against his Fatah ruling party is the Islamist outfit Hamas, which holds sway in the beleaguered Gaza Strip and maintains a constant militant threat against Israel. “The conceptual hope for Oslo was that moderates on both sides would engage in reciprocal concessions to expand the political space for further accommodations,” wrote the Washington Institute’s Dennis Ross and David Makovsky – the former once a key US negotiator in these proceedings – in a Washington Post op-ed. “Sadly, the reverse happened, with achievements too slow in coming and extremist actions undermining the process.”
Israel has gained more from what the Oslo Accords ushered in than the Palestinians. The agreements precipitated a flood of foreign investment into the country, helping kick-start the tech boom that pushed Israel’s per capita gross domestic product above that of most European countries. At the same time, under the illusion of an established process for peace, Israel entrenched its de facto control over the Palestinian territories. The Oslo Accords gave us what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently described as “the shared fiction that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was only temporary”.
That fiction was embraced by successive US administrations, which prioritised Israel’s security interests while helping keep afloat the unpopular Abbas, who some Palestinians see as a handmaiden to the occupation. (Netanyahu tellingly stressed to his colleagues in a cabinet meeting this summer that Israel needed collaboration with the Palestinian Authority (PA), but also needed to crush Palestinian aspirations for statehood – the PA’s supposed raison d’être.)
It’s not clear how sustainable this post-Oslo status quo is. There is no current platform for meaningful peace talks, yet there’s little external pressure on Israel to revert to some of the earlier understandings of the 1990s. The diplomatic opening to a handful of Arab states – and potentially a normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia – may be the most significant chance yet to move the needle, but most analysts aren’t convinced that such a breakthrough can take place given the pro-settler proclivities of Israel’s hard-line government.
And so, the Oslo illusion churns along, buttressed by the international community. “To this day, European governments and institutions pour money into the fabled ‘people to people’ component of the Oslo paradigm,” wrote Israeli analyst Dahlia Scheindlin. “While Palestinians and Israelis talking isn’t bad in itself, the idea that this feel-good dialogue could withstand the juggernaut of Israeli expansion, the grinding daily injustices of occupation, or tidal waves of military campaigns, was dead wrong.”
But a tipping point may be around the corner. “Thirty years on, it is doubtful the charade of Oslo can continue much longer; certainly not after apocalyptical fanatics have taken power in Israel and are doubling down on Judaising every corner of historic Palestine,” wrote Palestinian commentator Marwan Bishara.
This article was first published in The Washington Post