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How The Oslo Peace Process Broke Down


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The violent struggle between Israelis and Palestinians entered its most costly chapter with the failure of the Camp David peace summit in 2000. 3,547 Palestinians and 1,305 Israelis have been killed between September 29, 2000 and June 15, 2006.1 Camp David was a vigorous attempt to continue the peace process that began with the secret Oslo Accord of 1993 and the resulting Declaration of Principles of 1995. Camp David was made necessary by the finite nature of the ‘Oslo period,’ which expired on May 4, 1999. By that time, both sides were responsible for considerable failures that combined to destroy the initial atmosphere of conciliation shared by Israel and the PLO. As for Camp David’s failure, much finger pointing has been done between Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. Barak felt his proposals made extreme compromises, while Arafat felt Israel and America were attempting to force-feed the Palestinians an unjust solution to an unjust situation. The failure to reach an agreement ultimately resulted in the complete breakdown of the negotiations and the vicious confrontation that followed.

To understand the positions held at Camp David, it is necessary to examine the nature of the Oslo process and its consequences for Israelis and Palestinians. According to the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Culture and Information, Yasser Abed Rabbo, “this process was intended to increase mutual confidence through measures on the ground that would set the stage for a comprehensive permanent status agreement.”2 A key objective was also the creation of hope among and between the two parties. Israelis and Palestinians were to make certain gains that would satisfy their respective core anxieties—this would foster better working conditions between the parties. Rabbo defines these positions: “The Israeli side, which had hitherto lived under a sense of threat and diplomatic isolation, wanted peace and normality. The Palestinian side, having suffered decades of occupation, wanted gradual control over the Occupied Territories.”3 In theory, this process was supposed to result in two states, Israel and Palestine, living peacefully together within the borders of the British Palestine Mandate.4

Despite this sunny forecast, the realities for Israelis and Palestinians living within the Oslo framework proved quite different—particularly when compared to one another. Israel, in general, reacted with great enthusiasm, sometimes bordering on a sense of euphoria. Israelis finally had a reason to believe in a future where they would cease to be the targets and victims of random mass-murders aimed at pressuring their government. Palestinians, on the other hand, saw Oslo as an imposed agreement that represented “a wholesale abandonment of basic Palestinian territorial rights.”5 They felt the PLO had betrayed them by finalizing an agreement whose terms were felt to be contradictory to the great sacrifices made during the (first) Intifada.6

Israelis experienced the benefits of the agreement directly. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel shortly after the agreement; other Arab and Islamic states also established official ties. The Arab boycott of Israeli commerce was relaxed and the Intifada’s end meant a less chaotic security outlook. In contrast to these tangible Israeli developments, the conditions of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories tended to worsen. (Although, Palestinian casualties were substantially reduced as statistics will later demonstrate.) Movement between and within the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Israel and even Jerusalem became increasingly more difficult.7 Israeli authorities enforced these heavy restrictions with identity cards, access permits and checkpoints.8 Despite the frustration caused by these measures, the development that most disturbed Palestinians was the unprecedented rate of settlement expansion. Israel built new settlements and expanded old ones in areas under it full control (Areas C), but future agreements were supposed to bring those areas within Palestinian state borders. According to Yasser Abed Rabbo, “since Oslo, settlement units increased by 100 per cent, while the number of settlers increased by 70 per cent (both figures well above the rate of urban and demographic growth in Israel.)”9

Matters worsened for the Palestinians with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister in 1996. His government’s policies represented a stark shift away from Labour’s previous pragmatism to ideological inclinations that smacked of “Revisionist Zionism”.10 Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who similarly—though much more than Netanyahu— felt that the state of Israel should exist in Sinai and on both sides of the Jordan River, inspired Netanyahu’s personal and political positions.11 In short, “Bibi” felt the occupied territories belonged to a Greater Israel. With this in mind, he called for fewer compromises with the Palestinians and quickened the pace of settlement activity in the Territories. These controversial policies, combined with his hard-line response12 to increasing attacks on Israeli civilians, caused a dramatic slowdown in negotiations.

Despite this stagnation, Netanyahu did withdraw most Israeli troops from the largely Palestinian city of Hebron in January 1997.13 He also reached an agreement with Arafat, in October 1998, on the so-called Wye River Memorandum. According to a United Nations Press Release,14 Wye required Israel to withdraw its forces over a three-month period from an additional 13 per cent of the West Bank, with future redeployments to be negotiated in the final status talks. In exchange, the Press Release continues, the Palestinian Authority agreed to combat terrorist organizations, and to prevent illegal weapons distribution and anti-Israel incitement. However, Netanyahu halted the process in December 1998, accusing Arafat of failing to uphold his commitments. Cited were Arafat's refusal to retract his threat to declare unilaterally Palestinian statehood on May 4, 1999, and the PA's consistent failure to crack down on violence and incitement in areas under its control.15

Notwithstanding their own alleged failure to implement the agreements, Palestinians’ sense of frustration was growing. The same UN Press Release mentioned above, states that “full implementation [of the Wye Memorandum], suspended last year …is viewed by the Palestinians as key to the revival of peace talks and final status negotiations”16 By this point, 1999, Ehud Barak had replaced Netanyahu as prime minister and promised immediate movement on the core issues.

Given the conditions perceived by Palestinians during the Oslo period, there was a growing sense of disillusionment, despair and distrust. The delays in addressing Palestinian concerns were, according to US Camp David negotiator Robert Malley, “acutely troubling”17 to a population who felt its patience was running out. He wrote, “Seen from Gaza and the West Bank, Oslo's legacy read like a litany of promises deferred or unfulfilled. Six years after the agreement, there were more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions.”18

Palestinian perception of Barak’s first moves in office only served to reinforce their jaded sentiments. Eager to assess the new prime minister’s priorities toward the peace process, they were deeply offended when Barak’s first initiatives on this front were made toward Syria. While the PLO had eventually recognized Israel as a legitimate and sovereign state, established bilateral communication and continued negotiations, Syria had done none of the above; yet courting Assad was Barak’s first priority.19 Added to Barak’s initial reluctance on the settlement and Jerusalem fronts, this culminated in a deeply held suspicion of Barak and the Israeli political system at large.

Whatever hope Palestinians had left for the Oslo process was quickly hemorrhaging and being replaced by tension and anger. Yasser Abed Rabbo believes that the initial final-status talks dealt a crippling blow to Palestinian morale: He wrote, “A mixture of Israeli foot-dragging, inconsistency, and positions that fell short of responding to basic Palestinian needs and concerns further contributed to Palestinian disillusionment.”20

Arafat approached Ehud Barak, and the Camp David summit in general, with trepidation and distrust. According to one Palestinian negotiator, “Arafat thought everything Barak told him was a trick.”21 Barak, on the other hand, viewed the final status negotiations as meaning just that—a final, permanent agreement. In this context, he believed he was offering a comprehensive package to Arafat, which represented the intersection of Palestinian needs and Israeli limits. Consequently, Barak was disinterested in renegotiating interim deals on issues that a final agreement would necessarily encompass. Robert Malley claims that Arafat saw Barak’s tactics as a way to force him to accept an objectionable deal under the threat of mobilizing public opinion to isolate and weaken the Palestinians.22 He believes this accounts for Arafat’s persistent rejection of proposals and failure to make any counter-offers. Malley wrote: "[Arafat] did not think that [final status negotiations] justified doing away with the interim obligations. For Arafat, interim and permanent issues are inextricably linked—‘part and parcel of each other,’ he told the President—precisely because they must be kept scrupulously separate."23

Arafat’s refusal to accept any proposal at Camp David can be easily understood in the context of the Palestinian narrative. This narrative portrays a morally correct struggle for national liberation against a militarily and politically overwhelming imperialist. In this context, it is viewed that the Israeli ‘conqueror’ is not in a position to ‘offer,’ but must instead acquiesce to the moral axiom of unconditionally providing the Palestinians with absolute independence.

1 Fatality Statistics: 29.9.2000 – 15.6.2006. B’Tselem: http://www.btselem.org/english/statistics/Casualties.asp
2 Yasser Abed Rabbo. "Is Oslo Dead? What Went Wrong?" Online posting. 17 Sept. 2001. Arabic Media Internet Network - Internews Middle East.
3 Ibid
4 Ibid
5 Jens Hanssen. "Silver Lining or Silver Cage?" The Woodstock Road Editorial n.d.: 14-15.
6 Ibid
7 Agha Hussein and Robert Malley. "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors." The New York Review of Books 9 Aug. 2001. <http://www.nybooks.com>.
8 Hanssen
9 Rabbo
10 Avi Shlaim. The Iron Wall. Israel and the Arab World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 565.
11 Yael Zerubavel. Recovered Roots: collective memory and the making of national tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago P, 1995. 25.
12 Gordon Thomas. Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 111-118.
13 "Benjamin Netanyahu." Encarta World Reference Library. Redmond: Bloomsburry Plc, 2001. DVD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation
14 United Nations. Department of Public Information Press Release. Assembly Hears Range Of Views On Question Of Palestine:. 29 Nov. 1999
15 Dore Gold. United Nation Information System on the Question of Palestine. Letter Dated 1 February 1999 From The Permanent Representative Of Israel. 2 Feb. 1999. 6 Apr. 2003
16 UN Press Release
17 Hussein and Malley
18 Ibid
19 Ibid
20 Rabbo
21 Michael Hirsh. "Blowing the Best Chance." Newsweek 1 Apr. 2002: 44
22 Hussein and Malley
23 Ibid

Edit: By Selly.


TRIBE Member
Nice thread SellyCat ... I skimmed it, I'm not entirely certain I agree with it, but I'll have a more careful look later or perhaps on the plane tomorrow.


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~atp~ said:
Nice thread SellyCat ... I skimmed it, I'm not entirely certain I agree with it, but I'll have a more careful look later or perhaps on the plane tomorrow.
It's from the Palestinian perspective. I might include the Israeli perspective in this thread or another...or maybe not at all--I think most people are familiar with it.


TRIBE Member
Interesting debate here: http://www.democracynow.org/finkelstein-benami.shtml between a former Israeli government official who was part of the talks, and Norman Finklestein, author of a new book thats pretty interesting.

Anyway, the debate is quite candid, open, and rather devoid of the emotion and hyperbole on this board. Dont huff and snuff at the source of my link until you hear the debate - it is quite illuminating and worth the listen/read.

Ditto Much

TRIBE Member
praktik said:

I want to say it very clearly, it is because I define myself as an ardent Zionist that thinks that the best for the Jews in Israel is that we abandon the territories and we dismantle settlements and we try to reach a reasonable settlement with our Palestinian partners. It's not because I am concerned with the Palestinians. I want to be very clear about it. My interpretation, my approach is not moralistic. It's strictly political. And this is what I'm trying to explain in the book.

love this paragraph.

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I thought Shlo Ben-Ami's thoughts on Hamas were useful, especially with the debate raging in the thread below. Hearing them from a former Israeli government official should buttress some of the points made by myself and others regarding negotiations with Hamas:

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yes, Hamas. I think that in my view there is almost sort of poetic justice with this victory of Hamas. After all, what is the reason for this nostalgia for Arafat and for the P.L.O.? Did they run the affairs of the Palestinians in a clean way? You mentioned the corruption, the inefficiency. Of course, Israel has contributed a lot to the disintegration of the Palestinian system, no doubt about it, but their leaders failed them. Their leaders betrayed them, and the victory of Hamas is justice being made in many ways. So we cannot preach democracy and then say that those who won are not accepted by us. Either there is democracy or there is no democracy.

And with these people, I think they are much more pragmatic than is normally perceived. In the 1990s, they invented the concept of a temporary settlement with Israel. 1990s was the first time that Hamas spoke about a temporary settlement with Israel. In 2003, they declared unilaterally a truce, and the reason they declared the truce is this, that with Arafat, whose the system of government was one of divide and rule, they were discarded from the political system. Mahmoud Abbas has integrated them into the political system, and this is what brought them to the truce. They are interested in politicizing themselves, in becoming a politic entity. And we need to try and see ways where we can work with them.

Now, everybody says they need first to recognize the state of Israel and end terrorism. Believe me, I would like them to do so today, but they are not going to do that. They are eventually going to do that in the future, but only as part of a quid pro quo, just as the P.L.O. did it. The P.L.O., when Rabin came to negotiate with them, also didn't recognize the state of Israel, and they engaged in all kind of nasty practices. And therefore, we need to be much more realistic and abandon worn-out cliches and see whether we can reach something with these people. I believe that a long-term interim agreement between Israel and Hamas, even if it is not directly negotiated between the parties, but through a third party, is feasible and possible.

Ditto Much

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~atp~ said:
You're full of contradictions Ditto.

Not really ~atp~ I agree with him. I just take a different order of operations.

From the Israeli side I would build the fence around the west bank (same as Gaza) and I would remove the settlements (same as Gaza). For the smaller number of Israeli's actually in the west bank I wouldn't bother to protect them I would tell them to leave by a date offer compensation and explain they will be undefendable by the date.

I think Israel needs to make plans for Israel and stop involving the Palestinians at all.