Two decades have passed since the famous – and for some euphoric – handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House, to the smile of approval from former US President Bill Clinton and the applause of US, Israeli and Arab officials.
That moment was the rationale for a Nobel Peace Prize that was later shared by Arafat, Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Perez. It was also the impetus for the political talks that were conducted bilaterally under the otherwise multilateral umbrella of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
The Oslo Agreements allowed for the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority and later for the return of some of the previously hunted Palestinian leaders to limited parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with the hope of an eventual establishment of a Palestinian state – even if demilitarised and with a capital limited to parts of East Jerusalem.
However, since the euphoria of that handshake very little has been achieved. Today, the hopes of Oslo, by the assessment of no other the Palestinian Authority’s Negotiations Affairs Department (PANAD), amount to nothing but shattered dreams. Political agreements have been stalled by Israeli intransigence. The Palestinian territories have been practically eaten up by aggressive and indeed illegal Israeli colonisation which is leaving little land for the “viable Palestinian state” which the Arab Peace Initiative called for in 2002, while Arafat was held hostage, awaiting an eventual death, at the still-occupied Palestinian West Bank by the Israeli occupation army.
“This year marks 20 years of shattered hopes and unfulfilled obligations; of promises betrayed and of illegal colonisation that not only continues to intensify but has inched us ever closer towards permanently ending any hope for a peacefully negotiated two-state solution,” read a statement by the PANAD.
The sentiment of disillusionment expressed by the PA is shared by no other than its adversary Hamas which also issued a statement to mark the twentieth anniversary of the “ill-fated” Oslo Agreements “which were unilaterally signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation away from any national consensus.”
And while the West Bank-based PA lamented the dwindling life of the Oslo Agreements and the subsequent political process, the Gaza-based Hamas openly describe the Oslo Agreements, as well as other subsequent political deals concluded by the PLO and the PA, as “annulled.”
Arab diplomats, including Palestinians, admit on condition of anonymity that “Oslo is dead” and even that “the entire peace process is dead.”
“It is over, we know it, even if we try to act that there is still hope; when [former Arab League secretary-general] Amr Moussa said it a few years ago, we thought he was just making a metaphorical statement, but yes, it is dead and it is unlikely that it can be resurrected from the ashes of a broken Arab regime and threatened Arab states – threatened either economically as in the case of Egypt or militarily as in the case of Syria,” said a former Palestinian negotiator who asked for his name to be withheld. He added that the “failure” to promptly build on Oslo was the major mistake that allowed for the momentum of Middle East peace-making to be defused.
This is not necessarily the overall sentiment at the Palestinian front. Even away from Hamas and the wider Palestinian resistance camp there is always someone, even from the heart of the PLO, who argues that Oslo was a mistake – it was a mistake because it was done secretly away from any coordination with the Palestinian official negotiating team who was shocked to hear the news in the autumn of 1993 while Hayder Abdel-Sahfi and Hanan Ashrawi were conducting the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli talks under the umbrella of the Madrid Peace Conference.
Criticism of the Oslo Agreements started immediately. Prominent Palestinian commentator Edward Said, in an article printed by the London Review of Books in October 1993, qualified the handshake of Arafat and Rabin as a “degrading spectacle” which was followed by the Palestinian leader thanking an audience of Americans, Israelis and others “for the suspension of his people’s rights.”
For Said, who wrote extensively on the matter, the Oslo Agreements were basically “an instrument of Palestinian surrender” and as admitted by some Israeli commentators “the second victory in the history of Zionism,” following the establishment of Israel in 1948 on Palestinian territory.
According to Said the PLO’s recognition of Israel by virtue of the Oslo Agreements granted Israeli control over the territories it has been expanding towards up to the eve of the 1967 war, and further allowed Israel the right to negotiate on the remainder of the territories that it annexed by power during the Six Day War. Israel did not really give anything in return, and it established its security demands over those of the Palestinians in a way that allowed for aggressive settlement activities and the elimination of reparations for Palestinians.
“And it all proved to be true – and much worse; since Oslo it has been a downhill process for Arab retreat before Israel; Oslo broke the little that was left of Arab unity in the face of Israel – of course this unity was originally broken by the unilateral Egyptian agreement with the Israelis. At the end the Madrid Process stumbled and died and Israeli regional supremacy was underlined,” said a retired Syrian diplomat who was in service in 1993. And, he added, “in the end even the Palestinians did not get what they were hoping for; Oslo failed.”
Hisham Youssef, counselor to the Arab League secretary-general, attributed the failure of the process of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to a much more basic reason than the nature of Oslo or any subsequent agreement or attempted deal: “lack of Israeli political will to make the concessions required to reach a fair and permanent peace deal; Israelis are simply not making the required concessions. They did not make them after Oslo and they were not making them under the umbrella of Madrid or under any of the subsequent titles that attempt to revive the often suffocating peace process.”
Having been party to the multilateral talks that were conducted between Israel and the neighbouring Arab delegations on wider regional settlements including water resources, economic cooperation, environmental issues, refugees and disarmament, Youssef saw no sign of a serious Israeli will to move forward towards reconciliatory deals.
Later, as chief of staff for the Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa who was at the helm of the Arab League from 2001 to 2011, Youssef had first-hand information on Palestinian-Israeli communications and still failed to see a serious Israeli will to make peace.
“To argue that the nature of the Oslo Agreements was the reason for the failure of peace talks is really to assume that Israel had the intention or was at all working to take the path of the two-state solution; I don’t think that this assumption stands,” said Youssef.
Spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry Badr Abdelaty is also still waiting to see a sign that Israel is serious about making peace with the Palestinians under the new initiative for peace talks that was recently offered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and which allowed for preliminary Palestinian-Israeli meetings over the past few weeks.
But now as before, Abdelaty insists that Israel “still has to commit” to a timetable and to a series of steps that could make the talks meaningful and could make a breakthrough possible. “It if does not commit then it is not serious,” he said.
In the analysis of almost every single Arab diplomat who spoke to Ahram Online, Israel is not serious, it will not commit and it has no reason to given current Arab weakness, Palestinian divisions – which in the reading of some were made acute by the Oslo Agreements – and the lack of US interest in devoting time or attention to the matter.
“The US knows that it is not going anywhere, at least for now, and this is why the engagement is not a high level one as was the case under the former US president Bill Clinton,” said one Arab diplomat. This is equally the assessment of the Palestinians who say that they attend the talks to give the world a sign that there is still a Palestinian cause to be settled, not because they are expecting anything out of the current talks. “We know there is no Palestinian state coming our way; we know it but we have to do something at least to improve the quality of the lives of our people under occupation,” said a Palestinian diplomat who took part to the recent Palestinian-Israeli meetings.
Political commentator Wahid Abdel-Meguid argues that there is no serious avenue for the peace process. “The Palestinians are becoming accustomed to the status quo and the Israelis are under no pressure whatsoever to give anything; Oslo is history and the peace process has hit an impasse,” he said.
Like many other Arab and international commentators, Abdel-Meguid does not see a window of opportunity for the two-state solution. He argues that the Palestinians who need to work for the two-state solution have lost what it takes, from territory to political energy, to pursue this objective.
He is also sceptical about another option that some politicians are talking about: the one-state solution.
“As for the one state dual nation solution, it is something that Israel will never agree to.”
For Abdel-Meguid, the Oslo Agreements were just one step in the long and often mismanaged road of the Palestinian cause “that has been firmly marked by the failure of Palestinian leaders to deliver the aspirations of their peoples and of the Arab countries to really champion the Palestinian cause.”
“It is a very sad and unfortunate story,” he states.