The Oslo Accords Are Dead, but There Is Still a Path to Peace

On the 25th anniversary of the landmark Israeli-Palestinian deal, activists and diplomats should focus on recreating the conditions that made it possible.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, center, prepares to give the opening address of the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords signing ceremony on Sept. 13, 1993 at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at his side. (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Bill Clinton, center, prepares to give the opening address of the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords signing ceremony on Sept. 13, 1993 at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at his side. (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton presided over a famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House as they signed the Oslo Accords. Those accords, initiated at secret Norwegian-hosted talks between Israeli academics and PLO officials, set an agenda and a five-year timetable for a full peace deal that would initially allow limited Palestinian self-governance in parts of the occupied territories and entailed mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.

These days, that historic moment is mostly forgotten as Israelis and Palestinians hurl familiar accusations at the other side in order to vindicate their current positions. In some quarters, there is an occasional whiff of nostalgia for an opportunity missed. But finger-pointing or rose-tinted memories of that September day miss the significance of the occasion. In today’s grim reality, what matters most is understanding how the Oslo breakthrough became possible in the first place.

The signing of the Oslo Accords took place in a very specific local and global political context. It was the end of the Cold War; a U.S.-led coalition had triumphed in the first Gulf War; Arafat’s PLO was in crisis; and there was a political shift in Israel when Rabin came to power in 1992. But the prime driver of change was the fact that the status quo had ceased to be cost-free for the more powerful party—Israel. The Israeli government was therefore ready to seriously contemplate compromise. And the key factor behind that change was the first Palestinian intifada.

In the mid-1980s, Palestinians mobilized to demand change, with women often leading what was largely an unarmed uprising. Palestinians sustained a popular struggle for more than five years, uniting political factions better known for their infighting, politicizing those who had previously acquiesced to the Israeli occupation, and teaching self-reliance in order to sustain the mass mobilization. The focus of Palestinian protest was the occupation and its Israeli military enforcers, who were often reservists or teenage soldiers on their first deployment. Occasional attacks against Israeli civilians did occur, but those were the exception, conducted by groups outside of the intifada leadership. Israelis understood that they were facing a civil uprising—and they paid attention. The Palestinians could no longer be ignored, and the hard choices that Israel had for so long avoided were forced onto the agenda.

An occupied people, the weaker party, had finally acquired that one irreplaceable card in any conflict situation—leverage. Once a cost was established for maintaining the status quo, the parties could engage, not quite as equals but with each needing something from the other.

The particular process set in motion by Oslo is dead; it cannot be revived. What is presented today as the peace process is in fact little more than a tag-team bullying effort by the powerful parties—Israel and the United States—against the stateless Palestinians. Indeed, if the Trump administration ever gets around to actually presenting a plan, it is likely to codify an existing reality in which Palestinians are denied rights and freedoms and Israel is relieved of all obligations and accountability.

However, peace itself has not been rendered unattainable. The challenge is to create again the conditions for a breakthrough by rediscovering the ingredients that led, a quarter century ago, to Israeli and Palestinian leaders genuinely seeking common ground.

The First Intifada and the signing of the Oslo Accords marked the end of a system of occupation that had lasted since the conclusion of the Six-Day War in June 1967. The war—and Israel’s seizure of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip—created its own new reality. For the next two decades, Israel imposed a system of control on the West Bank and Gaza (while annexing Jerusalem and surrounding Palestinian villages) that combined direct military occupation with the formation of a civil administration responsible for the provision of basic day-to-day services (health, education, infrastructure maintenance, garbage collection) run by the Israeli Defense Ministry with mostly local employees at the points of direct service delivery.

With the onset of the First Intifada in 1987, that system reached the end of its life cycle. Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority was established with responsibility—severely limited both in its functions and geographical scope—to provide for the basic needs of the population. Subsequent agreements divided the territories into a patchwork of zones ranging from full Israeli control to partial Palestinian oversight; Israel imposed a new system of severe restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement; settlements grew rather than shrunk; and new and more destructive forms of Palestinian armed violence struck civilian targets deep inside Israel. And finally, Rabin, the Israeli leader who had made history on the White House lawn, was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish Israeli extremist following a relentless campaign of incitement from figures on the Israeli right.

As the Oslo-induced hope of ushering in a Palestinian state faded, this new matrix of control for managing the territory and the Palestinian population took hold and has become semipermanent. One major interruption followed the violent Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005 as Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip but then imposed a strict land, sea, and air blockade on the territory. As a result, there are now two distinct systems of control in place for these bifurcated Palestinian territories.

In the West Bank, U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces are now tasked with providing security cooperation for Israel but not with protecting their own people. The international donor community foots most of the bill for Palestinian welfare rather than the Israeli government. (Europe has been the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority alongside significant U.S. assistance until the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw support.)

The premise was that the Palestinian Authority was transitioning toward independent sovereign statehood alongside Israel. The reality on the ground was something quite different as Israel entrenched its physical control on the majority of the land, primarily through the rapid expansion of settlements and further confiscation of Palestinian lands. In 1990, the total Israeli settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was a little over 200,000; today, that number is in excess of 600,000, and some Israeli governmental sources claim the number has passed the 700,000 mark.

Now, after nearly 25 years, this post-Oslo system of managing the occupation is also displaying cracks and becoming unsustainable. The Palestinian Authority is administratively and factionally divided, institutionally corroded, and politically adrift. Having tightened its matrix of control in the West Bank, Israel is now moving to assert a new legal regime to codify the deep pre-existing structural inequalities between Jews and Palestinians in the occupied territories (while also legislating for greater inequality within Israel itself). This shift from de facto to de jure annexation marks the definitive end of the Oslo era.

The omens for the next phase aren’t good. In Israel, hard-liners from within the governing Likud party and allied coalition factions on the right are stronger than ever. They feel further empowered by the Trump administration, intoxicated by the prospect of making Palestinian disenfranchisement permanent, and almost giddy at having become a global market leader in replacing liberal democracy with illiberal ethnocracy. Meanwhile, there is a growing trend on the Palestinian side to seek comfort in the naive notion that Israel will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and tensions—that somehow an Israel at war with itself will inevitably lose support from abroad as its true undemocratic face is exposed and simply implode.

These respective claims are not a recipe for mutual understanding or compromise. Indeed, the more standard outcome when such dynamics are in play is for change to come through a jolt of extreme violence. Over the last decade, Israel and Gaza have experienced several cycles of extreme violence, with mass Palestinian civilian casualties on each occasion. The calm that has prevailed elsewhere is unlikely to hold indefinitely.

Yet the alternative path still exists. It harks back to the simple and universal formula of demonstrating to the powerful and inflexible party—Israel—that the occupation and the new realities that have been created (settlements, displacement, closures, discrimination) will not continue to be cost-free.

That will require the kind of popular and nonviolent mobilization in Palestinian society that has proved largely elusive for the last quarter century, alongside some combination of externally imposed sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and legal accountability—all of which Israel has invested heavily in averting.

Only when Palestinians regain some leverage as they did during the First Intifada will Israel begin to rediscover the need to seek common ground and what it means to think in terms of win-win scenarios rather than zero-sum equations.

Then, and only then, will the space exist for the secret channels, clandestine meetings, and deniable documents that made the Oslo process possible.

On this Oslo anniversary, those who care about Israeli-Palestinian peace should set aside nostalgia for a missed opportunity and think instead about the conditions that once made that tantalizing prospect possible—and which could still be within our reach.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, the previous director of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.