Is Oslo Dead?

The peace process's two top negotiators reflect on the 20 years since their fleeting triumph.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This year, the Oslo Accords (or what's left of them) will mark their 20th anniversary.

This year, the Oslo Accords (or what’s left of them) will mark their 20th anniversary.

Oslo — shorthand for a series of Israeli-Palestinian interim agreements done and undone between 1993 and 1999 — was a heroic but ultimately failed effort to deal with an interminable problem that still eludes a solution: how to reconcile the conflicting national and religious claims of Israelis and Palestinians to a relatively small piece of real estate situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Much will be written about these accords in the coming year, particularly as the Sept. 13 anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House’s South Lawn approaches — an occasion that now seems to me a thousand years and a million dashed hopes, naive expectations, and broken promises away.

Most of the analysis of the Oslo enterprise is likely to be negative, perhaps with good reason. The Oslo framework accomplished many things: It led to mutual recognition between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the state of Israel, enabled Jordan’s King Hussein to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, opened up regional cooperation between Israel and a dozen Arab countries, and created the beginnings of Palestinian institutions not in Tunis or Beirut but in Gaza and the West Bank.

But much of this now lies compromised, undermined, broken, and bloodied. The central logic of Oslo — that through an interim process Israelis and Palestinians could gain the trust and confidence necessary to make the big decisions on the final-status issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees) — simply wasn’t sustainable, if it was ever even realistic to begin with. On the eve of the July 2000 Camp David summit — the last serious effort by empowered Israelis and Palestinians to reach any agreement — there was little, if any, trust between PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Still, whatever their failings, the Oslo Accords reflected something critically important and missing from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: a sense of partnership and trust. It is true that this personal element masked to a dangerous degree an underlying clash of national interests and opposing expectations that proved in the end to be quite destructive.

But Oslo was the last time that official Israeli and Palestinian negotiators actually worked together as intimates — exulted in their successes and mourned their failures and lost opportunities — or at least as together as they’d ever been. And make no mistake: Even with a robust U.S. role, they will need to engage directly again and return to a place where there’s mutual respect and trust if their deal is to get done.

The two principal Israel and Palestinian negotiators in those heady days — Uri Savir and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa) — remain close still. Wiser and older to be sure, both men retain the sense of humor, mutual respect and affection, and above all natural talents as negotiators that allowed them to get as far as they did in a process whose odds not even the most dedicated partners could surmount.

In Oslo’s 20th year, both agreed to answer five questions about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the problem of what I’ve called the much-too-promised land. Savir responded to my questions in English; Abu Alaa in Arabic. The translation was done by my friend, the inestimable Gamal Helal, interpreter, analyst, and confidant to American presidents and secretaries of state.

Foreign Policy: What are Oslo’s greatest achievements?

Ahmed Qurei: Regardless of the different views that were expressed at the signing of this agreement, or the assessment of it today after two decades, the substantive fact remains: Oslo was the first formal interim document designed to manage a temporary phase between two sides who denied each other’s existence, who were unwilling to recognize the hopes and the pain of the other. After decades of bitter struggle, waste of blood, treasure, and energy, where both saw each other only through a barrel of a gun, they realized that it is inevitable to overcome hatred, misgivings, denial, and their own red lines. They sat face to face to test intentions, clarify misunderstanding, and search for the little common ground that could lead to squaring the circle of this conflict.

It was the first time in Oslo where both sides looked at each other face to face, and not in an interrogation room or a checkpoint. It was around a negotiation table that started as an experiment exercise that soon turned to a political [one] to achieve a significant turning point in that bitter struggle. It turned that conflict from an endless war zone to an open dialogue discussing the horizon of coexistence, peace, and security, among many other hopes that soon evaporated.

There is almost a consensus that the Oslo agreement was the historic foundation that impacted the issues of war and peace in the region, and a lot of hope was pinned to it to change the face of the Middle East, open the closed pathways, and turn the pages of hatred in the entire region. There was hope that Oslo would change the rules of the deadly game and replace the stereotype and perceptions on both sides — and above all, to realize a peace strong enough that can defend itself and survive.

Both sides attacked the agreement. Many attempts were carried out to undermine it, defuse it, and to end it. The enemies of Oslo rose to power on both sides and changed the political environment. They have vehemently denounced it and tried hard to bury it. They have publicly renounced its principles, but no one dared to kill the agreement, which kept surviving. That continuity of the agreement, with the acceptance of its minimal results and gains, became an inevitable reality.

Despite Oslo’s pros and cons, and the various criticisms, the agreement became the cornerstone of the political structure that the region witnessed since its signing. It prepared the ground for the option of dialogue and negotiations as an alternative to the option of continuing the bloody conflict. Oslo created a reliable negotiating record and joint expertise, which will allow future negotiation to build on it. The two sides will not go back to square one, but they can start the dialogue from their long negotiating experience and mutual understanding of each other.

Uri Savir: In my opinion, the greatest achievement of the Oslo Accords is threefold:

One: With the creation of a Palestinian Authority led by the PLO in Gaza and the West Bank, it put to an end two radical scenarios that were prevalent on both sides: the notion of a Greater Israel from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River based on religious beliefs, which would have meant the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; and secondly the Palestinian notion of a Greater Palestine from the river to the sea, based also on historical and religious beliefs that would have resulted in perpetual war and not in Palestinian statehood.

Secondly, mutual recognition, which is part of the Oslo Accord, between the Israeli Jewish national movement and the Palestinian national movement. It was a fundamental and historical turning point in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Until mutual recognition, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was of existential nature. The Palestinian national movement, led by the PLO, did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and the Jewish Israeli national movement (the government of Israel) did not recognize the national rights and identity of the Palestinian people. The mutual recognition agreement turned an existential conflict into a political relationship.

Thirdly, the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza under the PLO created mutual dependency between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on issues of economy and security, whatever the nature of relations between them are.

These three achievements and turning points constitute the legacy of the Oslo Accords and turned them into a platform for future political progress.

FP: What were Oslo’s greatest weak points?

AQ: Oslo was an imposed option for both sides when they jointly discovered the limitation of force and the uselessness of continuing to walk through a long, dark tunnel with no light at its end. It is possible that one side or both became fatigued and tired of wars and had to go through a self-examination that led to new conclusions, as well as thinking outside the box. All of this probably pushed one side or both to look simultaneously for a new way to narrow the gaps and overcome fears, concerns, and perceptions. The two sides seemed to be forced to walk through these land mines in search of uncharted territories. They both started to argue and take risks, each licking its own wounds without giving up their mutual fear of the risk taken in this political adventure that is surrounded with challenges. Among these challenges were the fear of each other, from extremist groups, and from different forces on both sides. These groups did not give up yet their own illusion and the mentality of zero-sum game — groups that are committed to their ideological and religious beliefs, which were deeply rooted in the hearts of their people.

The Oslo agreement was only a declaration of principles. It was more like a general guideline for two stubborn parties that were suspicious of each other and didn’t trust each other. The old wound made them fight not only over each word and paragraph, but also fight over the other side’s intentions and the deeply rooted beliefs that existed in the other’s constituency and their perceptions, along with very painful historic memories. All of this produced an agreement that barely touched the headlines of the issues without in-depth discussions; it brought the two sides closer on complicated issues without solving them. It clarified the minimum misunderstandings without fully clarifying them.

Although I was the one who negotiated Oslo myself and initialed the agreement, I knew from the beginning it was controversial and could be interpreted differently. I knew it could lead to challenges ahead, and that is exactly what happened. The rules of the peace process as they were set by the U.S. with the support of the USSR and Europe were the ones that forced the Palestinian side to negotiate an interim agreement and not a permanent-status agreement, as the case with any other country that participated in such process.

US: The greatest weakness of the Oslo Accords was that they did not lead to an inclusive process bringing in the two societies. They were accords made by the leaderships and negotiated on the two sides, and their effects were translated to important changes on the ground, but they did not trickle down to their respective constituencies in terms of necessary attitudinal changes between Israelis and Palestinians. They therefore did not create a necessary reconciliation process. Furthermore, the accords brought about economic change only for the elite of the two societies: The high-tech boom in Israel benefited only the elite, and the fruits of the real estate boom in the West Bank and Gaza were also reaped by the elite only. Therefore, the peace process became the revolution of the wealthy, and the "have-nots" revolted either politically or violently.

FP: Is the two-state solution still possible?

AQ: The Oslo agreement did not mention clearly that it will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, the core substance of the agreement that led to a five-year interim period implied the establishment of a state. In addition, the starting of the Palestinian Authority representative institutions became the cornerstone of a strong state which gradually, and despite Israeli obstacles, started to gain international recognition and tangible implicit understanding among segments of the Israeli public, as well as center and left political parties.

The two-state solution became tangible 10 years after the signing of Oslo when U.S. President George W. Bush announced it as the U.S. policy. However, that policy failed to manifest itself into a clear plan with specific mechanisms and timetables known in advance, which not only allowed the successive Israeli governments to continue their usual maneuvering, but also work against this policy in every way possible, including weakening the PA [Palestinian Authority], denying it the existence as a peace partner, and working very vehemently on expanding settlement activities.

I’ll not be adding much when I say that after a decade of declaring the two-state solution, Israel has killed it and blocked all roads to achieve it. Israel not only ran away from previous commitments and understandings, but also accelerated its Jewish activities in Jerusalem and settlement activities on the ground, making the viability of a sovereign Palestinian state on the lines of June 4, 1967, unachievable even with the existence of political will in the future.

Although the only alternative to the two-state solution is one state for two peoples, Israel continues to deny both options along with denying the Palestinians legitimate rights as if it can exist as an occupying power without negative consequences forever in a world post the era of colonialism. That could lead Israel to become an apartheid state similar to old South Africa, which will increase its isolation and hatred in both the Arab and Islamic worlds and the world at large.

With this background in mind, I have published last year in the Palestinian media a warning of the evaporation of the two-state solution, and called on Palestinian public opinion leaders to revisit this dead-end solution and consider the one-state solution, believing that what Israel is doing will not lead to anything, and the two-state solution is a disappearing dream, and the reality of occupation can’t go on forever.

US: A two-state solution is not only possible but inevitable; the one-state solution would have catastrophic consequences for both peoples, ranging from apartheid to major violence.

FP: How can Israel and the Palestinians achieve a two-state solution, and what if they can’t?

AQ: I think the time allowed before us for achieving the two-state solution is limited, and it is running out very quickly. That means the time factor that Israel is using to create new facts on the ground in reality is working in a strong fashion against the two peaceful independent states living side by side option. In addition, Israeli society is moving more and more to the right with a rise of racial trends fueled by a sense of a military strength. The absence of Israeli historic leaders capable of taking risks for peace also is an additional element that is preventing the achievement of a solution based on international legitimacy in the near future.

I will not hesitate to say that the historic opportunity for achieving the two-state solution was wasted more than once at Camp David, Taba, Stockholm, and Annapolis at times when the Palestinian people had a historic leader in the caliber of Arafat. He was capable of accepting the desired outcome, defending it, and bravely taking on all internal risks.

Therefore, and since Israel is the occupying party that possesses the power, it should return the ball that has stayed in its court for so long. That means Israel should stop denying the principle of the peace process, giving up its expansion policies, and stop its plans in Jerusalem and other Palestinian areas. It is unrealistic that the weak side in this power struggle must take the initiative. The Palestinians have presented their historic initiative in 1993 when they recognized Israel and accepted the lines of June 4, 1967, with a strong commitment to peace as a strategic option. The Palestinians are not asking for anything more than recognizing their national legitimate rights, including their right to establish a sovereign independent state with Holy [East] Jerusalem and the right of return to Palestinian refugees based on Resolution 194 and the Arab Peace Initiative.

US: Palestinians and Israelis can reach a two-state solution only through a lengthy negotiation and implementation process, which will not happen in the current constellation without active involvement of the American administration. For such a process to be realistic, several elements must be put in place: an American vision for the ultimate outcome of permanent status based on the Obama Washington speech of 2011 and along the lines of the Clinton initiative; a clear timeline for negotiations and implementation; special American assistance and guarantees for Israel’s security, including a NATO force in the West Bank (possibly an Israeli-American defense pact); American and G-8 economic assistance package for the creation and development of the new Palestinian state with its democratic institutions; a regional anti-terrorism pact; a people-to-people agreement linking the civil societies of the two sides, mainly the young generation.

The alternative to a viable peace process is not mere continuation of the status quo, but rather deterioration to violence, if not a regional war.

FP: What positive and negative changes have occurred in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

AQ: It is difficult to speak of positive elements in the political environment over the past two decades that gave momentum to the peace process. That process was mainly subject to Israeli changes, mostly negative, as a result of six different prime ministers. Since Oslo and Rabin, the most positive Israeli PM was Mr. Shimon Peres, who in a short period of time as PM was able to achieve an Israeli military redeployment in six West Bank cities.

In a region like the Middle East, where negative expectations are a self-fulfilling prophecy, the biggest fear was a dysfunctional peace process. That feeling was with us since the signing of the Declaration of Principles and before the process became strong enough to sail on its own. We have experienced that with the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 and with the complete political Israeli coup with the right under Benjamin Netanyahu taking over in 1996.

Since our partners who signed the Oslo agreement with us were no longer in power, the peace process was subjected to unlimited vigorous attacks, and progress was almost at a standstill. That continued until the Labor Party under Ehud Barak’s leadership came to power in 1999, and with him we had many fruitless negotiating rounds. In mid-2000 we went to Camp David, which was the last useless negotiating round with an Israeli PM, where he wanted to open up all issues, including those that were covered with agreements previously signed. This led the peace process to a dead end.

Therefore we see that the history of the peace process was a mirror image of the changing Israeli politics and the negative trends it brought with it which put the entire process in the emergency room, followed by Second Intifada at the end of 2000 and the events of September 11th that changed the face of the entire world. All of this opened the door wide to a series of downward trends on both sides. Important among them was Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to close the door in front of negotiations, reoccupying the West Bank in 2002, imposing a siege around Arafat’s headquarters, and unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, leaving behind an unstable internal situation, especially after the legislative Palestinian elections where Hamas had won and later carried against the PA in 2007.

It is true that after seven years of no activity on the peace process, the first direct negotiations took place in Annapolis, but those negotiations met the same fate as previous ones with failure that led to the land invasion of Gaza and the end of the Olmert government. With the return of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, the process stopped, and settlements and Jewish activities in Jerusalem flourished. All attempts by Obama to stop these activities even for a limited period of time to reignite serious and constructive negotiations failed.

Now we find ourselves with this history of very little positive elements facing the naked truth: Israel was not serious in achieving just and honorable peace. It resorted to creating excuses and facts on the grounds to prevent progress on the peace process. The latest among these is Netanyahu’s demand for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state before the start of a new negotiating round that will be a cover for the acceleration of the ongoing settlement activities, which will undermine the foundation of peace between the two neighbors and destroy the dream of two-state solution completely.

US: The most important positive change in the region relating to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the impact on Arab attitudes towards Israel and Western attitudes towards the Palestinian state. The Arab world, in which the young Arab constituency has a very influential voice following the Arab Spring, is to a large degree shaping its attitudes towards Israel according to fate of their Palestinian brethren living under Israeli occupation. As we have witnessed between 1993 and 1995, a change in this reality will affect positively Arab relations with Israel, regional cooperation, international support for Israel and Palestine, and strengthen American strategic interest in the region. The Western world, led by the United States, will engage and cooperate seriously with the Palestinians on the diplomatic, strategic, and economic levels only after the creation of an independent, democratic Palestinian state.

There are no negative changes relating to Israeli-Palestinian peace except that both societies, through the fruition of a real peace process, will have to confront civil strife. Yet the identities of Israel, as a modern Jewish democratic state, and Palestine, as a modern Arab democratic state, can only be guaranteed through a peaceful two-state solution based on the Oslo Accords and its premises.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.
An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.

A New Multilateralism

How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.

The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy

Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.

The End of America’s Middle East

The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.