Ten Reasons Why Oslo Failed

I recently found this piece I wrote for TIME.com in October of 2000, trying to come to grips with the reasons for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This was two months after Camp David, just as the Israelis were cranking up the spin machine to pump out the line that it failed simply because of deceit on Arafat’s part.

Rereading it now, a lot of it holds up, I think.


1. The Balance of Power

Throughout the peace process the Israelis metaphorically called the shots, because they literally called the shots. Their military and economic dominance and continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is almost as total today as it was when the Oslo Accord was first agreed in 1993 — as is the Palestinians’ absolute military weakness, diplomatic disadvantage and economic dependence. Arafat’s only real leverage has been to appeal to Washington, which has made no secret of its partiality to Israel. So, when the Palestinian leader found himself pushed by the U.S. to accept a deal on Jerusalem he regarded as political suicide, he simply hit the rewind button, restarting the intifada in the hope of changing the diplomatic odds…

2. History, Honesty and Might

The imbalance of power meant that Israelis and Palestinians weren’t forced into an historical reckoning. Israel’s military superiority allowed it to dictate terms that shielded Israelis from confronting the real price of a lasting peace with the Palestinians. And the denial and obfuscation of that reality by Yasser Arafat meant that ordinary Palestinians were never fully apprised of the terms of the deal he was making. Thus, until June this year Israel was insisting that its control over all of Jerusalem was non-negotiable, while Arafat was blithely telling everyone who’d listen that he was on track to get his coveted Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Something was going to have to give.

Ehud Barak once remarked that if he’d been born Palestinian, he too would have joined a guerrilla organization. This is a profound observation on the part of an Israeli leader, and Israel has, to its credit, revised its high school history curriculum to examine some of its own history through Palestinian eyes, introducing young Israelis to the fact that the price of the birth of a Jewish state amid Arab hostility was almost 1 million Palestinian refugees. And after the conquests of 1967, a further 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were ruled by Israel as an occupying army. Sadly, there’s little sign that the Palestinian leadership has done much thinking about how they might have responded to the circumstances the Jewish leadership encountered in 1948….

3. Is There a Referee in the House?

From the time the Oslo Accord first landed on his desk in 1993, President Clinton has made himself the exclusive mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the U.S. was never a disinterested adjudicator of the conflict; it was deeply and openly committed to the Israeli side and hoped that by serving as both referee and coach to both sides it could conjure a paradigm-shifting agreement. But once both sides were forced to confront their most intractable differences at Camp David, Washington’s ability to mediate simply fell apart….

4. Weak Palestinian Leadership

Yasser Arafat’s unsentimental opportunism is probably the single most important factor in his political survival over three decades, and speaking out of different sides of his mouth comes naturally to a man who could go from Saddam Hussein’s town crier to feted White House guest in three short years. From the outset of Oslo, Arafat took in what he wanted to take in — and told his people what he thougt they wanted to hear — insisting to the end that he was on track to get all of the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as his capital. Not that his people were listening — despite the tawdry baubles of sovereignty flaunted by Arafat, the daily reality of the occupation was ever-present in the lived reality of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, even after the Israelis withdrew to the edge of town. And the rampant corruption, cronyism and authoritarianism of Arafat’s administration simply deepened his people’s alienation from the peace process. Having failed to honestly relay the content of his negotiations with the Israelis to his own people, Arafat’s ability to deliver them for the peace process was always in doubt. The aging, ailing Arafat may have managed to hold the reins through a period of Palestinian despair and passivity, but if Palestinians are once again risen, as they have been in recent weeks, it’s unlikely that his leadership will survive — unless he completes yet another of his signature U-turns.

5. Weak Israeli Leadership

Unlike Arafat, the Israelis have to answer to an electorate — pity the Palestinian leader if he had to do the same! — and a sharply divided one. And that fact has bedeviled the peace process almost from the outset. …unlike his predecessor, who saw the need to bolster Arafat’s standing among his own people, Netanyahu was happy to humiliate the Palestinian leader at every turn. Three crucial years in which the Oslo framers had hoped would build the mutual trust necessary to tackle the most intractable “final status” issues were instead given over to continual crises and breakdowns.

Barak became the last hope for the peace process, but he had only a year in which to deliver; in addition, his predecessors hadn’t prepared Israelis for the scale of compromise required to conclude a deal. So once Barak broached the inevitable topic of compromising on Jerusalem, he found himself without a parliamentary majority. Regardless of his own leadership abilities and vision, simply surviving in power right now may force Barak to make common cause with Netanyahu’s party. Democracy, ironically, can be a major handicap for peacemakers.

6. Weak U.S. Leadership

It has to be said: President Clinton’s intentions have been good, but they may also have helped pave the road to an unhappy place. Measured by the standards of parenting, the President was all indulgence and not enough tough love….

7. Delaying the Hard Part

The architects of Oslo believed it was premature, in 1993, to try and reach agreement over questions such as the future of Jerusalem, the shape and nature of a Palestinian state, the status of Palestinian refugees abroad, the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and even water rights. Instead, they designed a series of incremental steps toward peace, in which the Israelis would make three troop withdrawals — handing over certain powers to a Palestinian Authority that would guarantee Israel’s security — and in the process build up sufficient trust to go the hard yard. This assumed political continuities and an upward curve in goodwill. The size and scope of the withdrawals and nature of security arrangements were left to be negotiated along the way, and once the initial goodwill gave way to suspicion — and then when Israel elected a leadership openly committed to sabotaging Oslo — the open-ended, discretionary and incremental nature of the agreement meant that instead of building trust, it built resentment and suspicion, and turned almost every step in the process into a crisis or a showdown….

8. Vulnerability to Hard-liners

….Each side, in its own way, has brought the hard-liners back into play, diminishing the prospects for a revival of the peace deal.

9. Arab World Dynamics

…President Clinton has been able to rely on support from moderate Arab regimes when pressing Arafat to make concessions on issues of land and security. But Jerusalem is different. None of those Arab regimes has a particularly strong social base, and each faces a mounting challenge from Islamist elements who oppose any peace with Israel. Being seen to be endorsing Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Islamic holy sites in East Jerusalem may have been political suicide for President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family. And so when Clinton urged them to press Arafat to compromise on Jerusalem, they instead warned him against making any concessions….

10. Trust, Love and Hatred

OK, Israelis and Palestinians were never going to love each other, given their shared history. But the peace process was predicated on their ability to build mutual trust by exchanging land for peace. But the latest violence has revealed a level of mutual hatred that may ultimately paralyze both sides. Whether in the shooting of children, the lynching of unarmed prisoners, the sacking of religious shrines or the shelling of buildings, the level of violent mutual contempt suggests that these two peoples are incapable of anything more than a cold cease-fire; a bitter pill swallowed by each side in recognition of their inability to destroy the other. The “peace of the brave” hailed by Rabin on the White House lawn seven years ago was not born of the necessity of having fought to a standstill; it was an invitation to both peoples to reimagine themselves and their relationship to each other. But the hard realities of history and power precluded that. Now, they may once again be shaping up to fight themselves to a standstill.

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8 Responses to Ten Reasons Why Oslo Failed

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  4. Samuel Tororia says:

    Everything rises and falls on leadership. Therefore, whether it is in the Middle East, America, Europe, Carribbean, Asia or Pacific it is the leadership that determines the success or failure of any peace process and its implementation.

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  7. Kanafani says:

    This is a reasonable summary but makes a couple of errors and underplays a most important point.

    First it repeats the rather tired myths that Arafat ‘decided’ to restart the intifada. The record shows this not to be the case (some might say he chose to ride it once it began but that’s a different matter). If anyone made a conscious decision to allow violence to play a part it was Sharon, who went to the Haram al- Sharif with over 1,000 police/soldiers knowing full well that violence would likely occur.
    Second it says Arafat didn’t have to answer at the ballot box. Wrong too: in the PA Presidential Elections he won 88% of the votes and the PLO candidates the majority of the seats (and you’ll notice how the results of fee and fair elections in 2006 were denounced by both Israel and the US because they didn’t like the results – so much for democracy).
    Finally one has to accept that if two parties sign an agreement each is entitled to assume the other will adhere to its terms. But the Palestinians found that while they had a binding agreement with the State of Israel the government of Israel openly boasted of ignoring and breaching its terms and of “burying” the Accords. Little wonder the Palestinians were both angry and subsequently much less willing to sign new agreements when their ‘partner in peace’ had proven to be a lair and a cheat.

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