By Uri Avnery
" -- -- ON THESE hot, sticky days of the
Israeli summer, it is pleasant to feel the coolness of Oslo,
even if the visit is only virtual.
Fourteen years after the signing of the Oslo agreement, it
is again the subject of debate: was it a historical mistake?
In the past, only the Right said so. They talked about "Oslo
criminals", as the Nazis used to rail against "November
criminals" (those who signed the November 1918 armistice
between the defeated Germany and the victorious Allies.)
Now, the debate is also agitating the Left. With the wisdom
of hindsight, some leftists argue that the Oslo agreement is
to blame for the dismal political situation of the
Palestinians, the near collapse of the Palestinian Authority
and the split between Gaza and the West Bank. The slogan
"Oslo is dead" can be heard on all sides.
What truth is there in this?
ON THE morrow of the agreement, Gush Shalom held a public
debate in a large Tel-Aviv hall. Opinions were divided. Some
said that it was a bad agreement and should not be supported
in any way. Others saw it as a historic breakthrough.
I supported the agreement. I told the audience: True, it is
a bad agreement. No one looking only at the written
paragraphs could stand up for it. But for me, it is not the
written paragraphs that are important. What is important is
the spirit of the agreement. After decades of mutual denial,
Israel and the Palestinian people have recognized each
other. That is a historic step, from which there is no going
back. It is happening now in the minds of millions on both
sides. It creates a dynamism for peace that will overcome,
in the end, all the obstacles embedded in the agreement.
This view was accepted by most of those present and has
since determined the direction of the peace camp. Now I am
asking myself: Was I right?
YASSER ARAFAT said about Oslo: "This is the best agreement
that could be achieved in the worst situation." He meant the
balance of power, with Israel's huge advantage over the
For the sake of fair disclosure: I may have contributed in a
small way to the shaping of his attitude. At my meetings
with him in Tunis, I advocated again and again a pragmatic
approach. Learn from the Zionists, I told him. They never
said No. At every stage they agreed to accept what was
offered to them, and immediately went on to strive for more.
The Palestinians, on the contrary, always said No and lost.
Some time before the agreement was signed, I had an
especially interesting meeting in Tunis. I did not yet know
what was happening in Oslo, but ideas for a possible
agreement were in the air. The meeting took place in
Arafat's office, with Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Abed-Rabbo
and two or three others.
It was a kind of brain storming session. We covered all the
subjects under discussion - a Palestinian state, borders,
Jerusalem, the settlements, security and so on. Ideas were
bandied about and considered. I was asked: What can Rabin
offer? I asked in return: What can you accept? In the end we
reached a kind of consensus that came very close to the Oslo
agreement which was signed a few weeks later.
I remember, for example, what was said about Jerusalem. Some
of those present insisted that they should not agree to any
postponement. I said: If we postpone the solution to the end
of the negotiations, will you be in a better or worse
situation then than now? Surely you will then be better
situated to achieve what you want?
THE OSLO AGREEMENT (officially the Declaration of
Principles) was based, from the Palestinian point of view,
on this assumption. It was supposed to give the Palestinians
a minimal state-like basis, which would evolve gradually
until the sovereign State of Palestine would be established.
The trouble was that this final aim was not spelled out in
the agreement. That was its fatal defect.
The long term Palestinian aim was perfectly clear. It had
been fixed by Arafat long before: the State of Palestine in
all the occupied territories, a return to the borders
existing before the 1967 war (with the possibility of minor
swaps of territory here and there), East Jerusalem
(including the Islamic and Christian shrines) becoming the
capital of Palestine, dismantling of the settlements on
Palestinian territory, a solution of the refugee problem in
agreement with Israel. This aim has not been and will not be
changed. Any Palestinian leader who accepted less would be
branded by his people as a traitor.
But the Israeli aim was not fixed at all, and has remained
open to this day. That is why the implementation of
practically every part of the agreement has aroused such
controversy, always resolved by the immense Israeli
superiority of power. Gradually, the agreement gave up its
soul, leaving behind only dead letters.
THE MAIN hope - that the dynamism of peace would dominate
the process - was not realized.
Immediately after the signing of the agreement, we implored
Yitzhak Rabin to rush ahead, create facts, realize its
explicit and implicit meaning. For example: release all the
prisoners at once, stop all settlement activity, open wide
the passage between Gaza and the West Bank, start serious
negotiations immediately in order to achieve the final
agreement even before the date set for its completion
(1999). And, more than anything else, infuse all contacts
between Israel and the Palestinians with a new spirit, to
conduct them "on the eye-to-eye level", with mutual respect.
Rabin did not follow this path. He was, by nature, a slow,
cautious person, devoid of dramatic flair (unlike Menachem
Begin, for example.)
I compared him, at the time, to a victorious general who has
succeeded in breaking through the enemy's front, and then,
instead of throwing all his forces into the breach, remains
fixed to the spot, allowing his opponents to regroup their
forces and form a new front. After gaining victory over the
"Greater Israel" camp and routing the settlers, he allowed
them to start a counter-offensive, which reached its climax
in his murder.
Oslo was meant to be a historic turning point. It should
have put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which
is a clash between an irresistible force (Zionism) and an
immovable object (the Palestinians). This did not happen.
The Zionist attack goes on, and the Palestinian resistance
becomes more extreme.
It is impossible to know what would have happened if Yigal
Amir had not pulled the trigger. In Rabin's days, too,
settlements were being built at a hectic pace and there was
no serious attempt at starting serious negotiations. But
relations between Rabin and Arafat were gradually getting
closer, mutual trust was being established and the process
might have gathered momentum. So Rabin was murdered, and a
decade later Arafat was murdered, too.
BUT THE problem of the Oslo agreement goes far beyond the
personal fate of its creators.
Lacking a clear and agreed-upon aim, the Oslo agreement gave
rise to a situation that has almost no precedent. That was
not understood at the time, nor is it clearly understood
Usually, when a national liberation movement reaches its
goal, the change takes place in one move. A day before, the
French ruled Algeria, on the morrow it was taken over by the
freedom fighters. The governance of South Africa was
transferred from the white minority to the black majority in
In Palestine, an entirely different situation was created: a
Palestinian authority with state-like trappings was indeed
set up, but the occupation did not end. This situation was
much more dangerous than perceived initially.
There was a sharp contradiction between the "state in the
making" and the continuation of the liberation struggle. One
of its expressions was the new class of authority-owners,
who enjoyed the fruits of government and began to smell of
corruption, while the mass of ordinary people continued to
suffer from the miseries of the occupation. The need to go
on with the struggle clashed with the need to strengthen the
Authority as a quasi-state.
Arafat succeeded with great difficulty in balancing the two
contrary needs. For example: it was demanded that the
financial dealings of the Authority be transparent, while
the financing of the continued resistance had necessarily to
remain opaque. It was necessary to reconcile the Old Guard,
which ruled the Authority, with the Young Turks, who were
leading the armed struggle organizations. With the death of
Arafat, the unifying authority disappeared, and all the
internal contradictions burst into the open.
THE PALESTINIANS might conclude from this that the very
creation of the Palestinian Authority was a mistake. That it
was wrong to stop, or even to limit, the armed struggle
against the occupation. There are those who say that the
Palestinians should not have signed any agreement with
Israel (still less giving up in advance 78% of Mandatory
Palestine), or, at least, that they should have restricted
it to an interim agreement signed by minor officials,
instead of encouraging the illusion that a historic peace
agreement had been achieved.
On both sides there are voices asserting that not only the
Oslo agreement, but the whole concept of the "two-state
solution" has died. Hamas predicts that the Palestinian
Authority is about to turn into an agency of collaborators,
some sort of subcontractor for safeguarding the security of
Israel and fighting the Palestinian resistance
organizations. According to a current Palestinian joke, the
'two-state solution" means the Hamas state in Gaza and the
Fatah state in the West Bank.
There are, of course, weighty counter-arguments. "Palestine"
is now recognized by the United Nations and most
international organizations. There exists an official
world-wide consensus in favor of the establishment of the
Palestinian state, and even those who really oppose it are
compelled to render it lip-service in public.
More importantly: Israeli public opinion is moving slowly
but consistently towards this solution. The concept of "the
Whole of Eretz-Israel" is finally dead. There exists a
national consensus about an exchange of territories that
would make possible the annexation of the "settlement blocs"
to Israel and the dismantling of all the other settlements.
The real debate is no longer between the annexation of the
entire West Bank and its partial annexation, but between
partial annexation (the areas west of the wall as well as
the Jordan valley) and the return of almost all the occupied
That is still far from the national consensus that is
necessary for making peace - but it is even further from the
consensus that existed before Oslo, when a large part of the
public denied the very existence of the Palestinian people,
not to mention the need for a Palestinian state. This public
opinion, together with international pressures, is what now
compels Ehud Olmert at least to pretend that he is going to
negotiate about the establishment of the Palestinian state.
It is still too early to judge Oslo, for better or for
worse. Oslo does not belong to the past. It belongs to the
present. What future it may have, depends on us.
An Israeli author and activist. He is the head of the
Israeli peace movement, “Gush Shalom”.
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