By Uri Avnery
13 July, 2007
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
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 Palestinians.
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
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 one sweep.
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 territories.
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.
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