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
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
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 you want?
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
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 today.
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
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
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.