25 Years After Oslo Accords, Mideast Peace Seems Remote as Ever

25 Years After Oslo Accords, Mideast Peace Seems Remote as Ever

Written in 2018, 25 years after the US-brokered Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this lengthy New York Times article examines the failure of the peace deal, which was supposed to be an interim agreement on the way to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Placing much of the blame on Israel, the authors claim that the agreements were relatively helpful for Israel, increasing security and relieving responsibility over the Palestinians, yet useless and disappointing for the Palestinians, except for the creation of the slightly effective, yet internally corrupt Palestinian Authority. 

25 Years After Oslo Accords, Mideast Peace Seems Remote as Ever

JERICHO, West Bank — When the Oslo peace accords were signed a quarter-century ago, residents of Jericho celebrated. Their dusty, 11,000-year-old desert city was given autonomy before anywhere else on the West Bank. Palestinians saw it as a foothold for what they trusted would become their own new state.

But nothing has turned out as they expected.

A shiny new casino, opened with great fanfare in 1998 to entice Israeli gamblers, has been empty since 2000, when they were barred from entering the city. The two-decade-old public hospital finally just got an elevator thanks to a donation from Japan. Perhaps the best-known institution of self-government in town is the jail, widely feared as a dungeon for political prisoners.

The brilliant Palestinian future conjured by Oslo has instead become a bitter trap.

The Oslo accords, first unveiled on the White House lawn with a handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on Sept. 13, 1993, culminated in mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel had long banned as a terrorist organization, and the first formal agreements in a phased effort to resolve the century-old conflict.

Today, however, the Oslo process is moribund, having produced neither a peace agreement nor a Palestinian state. About its only lasting substantive achievement is the Palestinian Authority, established as an interim self-government but still going two decades after its expiration date. The authority has made strides in providing basic services and created jobs for roughly a quarter of the work force, but it has grown increasingly autocratic and has been plagued by accusations of corruption.

Nearly three of four Palestinians believe conditions are worse than before the accords were signed.

“The Oslo agreement was a catastrophe for the Palestinian people,” said Ahmed Daraghmeh, 26, a clerk from Tubas, in the northern West Bank, who was in Jericho to pick up a friend being released from an Israeli jail. “There is no work. I work for the Palestinian Authority, even though I am against it.”

That the Palestinian Authority has endured and the peace process has collapsed attests to how much Israel has gained. Oslo made the Palestinians responsible for policing themselves in the West Bank, which has led to vast improvements in Israeli security from terrorism in recent years at little cost to Israel. It gave the authority responsibility for providing services like sanitation and hospitals that would otherwise cost Israel, as the occupying power, hundreds of millions of dollars. And it has allowed Israel to postpone, seemingly indefinitely, a broader withdrawal from the West Bank.

What the Palestinians have to show for these 25 years, however, is a much more muddled ledger — and a cautionary tale of how statehood delayed can harden into statehood denied.

If Oslo has failed the Palestinians, part of that failure is self-inflicted. An increase in terrorist attacks after Oslo’s signing, followed by the deadly Second Intifada that erupted in 2000, soured many Israelis on peacemaking and eventually led Israel to sideline the process.

Palestinians have been left in a depressing limbo: Even as their leadership has consistently failed to establish a coherent, united front for independence, the authority’s bureaucrats have become steadily more effective at administering, and controlling, the lives of West Bank residents.

Stateless still, the Palestinian people are in deep trouble, their prospects as dim as ever. The body politic is divided, perhaps irrevocably, between the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction, on the West Bank, and the Islamic militant group Hamas — which opposed Oslo and seeks the eradication of Israel — in the Gaza Strip. Reconciliation efforts keep failing.

Mr. Abbas, in his 80s and ailing, has no clear successor. Elected just once, in 2005, he is now in the 14th year of what was to have been a four-year term. Having cast out his critics, he is increasingly repressive of dissent, even on Facebook. He rules his dwindling domain by decree.

In Israel, the peace camp that backed Oslo has withered from waves of violence. The dominant right wing debates whether merely to manage the occupation in perpetuity or to declare victory and annex much of the West Bank. The number of Israeli settlers there, in what much of the world considers a violation of international law, has more than tripled, to about 400,000. Another 200,000 live in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.

With the Arab world largely uninterested in coming to the Palestinians’ aid, President Trump has been overturning the fundamental axioms of everyone who has tried to broker peace. He boasts of having taken Jerusalem “off the table” by recognizing it as Israel’s capital, is working to minimize the problem of refugees by trying to strip their descendants of refugee status, and has refused even to endorse the two-state solution, the goal that led the Palestinians to Oslo in the first place.

All of which leaves the Palestinians stuck, having pursued the Oslo dream as far as an antechamber only to conclude that the cramped room has no exit.

Oslo’s security arrangement — which gave the Palestinians responsibility for internal security and, in coordination with Israel, fighting terrorism — undergirds that trap. The deal reduced the need for Israeli soldiers to patrol hostile areas of the West Bank, and protected the authority’s leadership against Hamas.

But it also cast the Palestinian security forces, and leadership, as collaborators in the eyes of many Palestinians who see little gain from having helped Israel protect itself. Seven in 10 Palestinians want to stop security coordination, according to a new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Economically, too, the current arrangement serves Israel’s interests: The authority’s foreign donors subsidize government services on the West Bank, relieving Israel of the obligation. Palestinians exist on Israeli goods, food, fuel and electricity. And rising consumer debt is only cementing the status quo, experts say.

“You have a whole group of Palestinians in the West Bank who are dependent on P.A. jobs for their car payments and their mortgages,” said Nathan Thrall, the director of the Arab-Israeli Project at International Crisis Group, “and they look with real fear at the possibility of Oslo, which is to say the P.A., collapsing.”

It was a right-wing Israeli extremist who massacred 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994, setting off a first wave of bombings, and another who assassinated Mr. Rabin in 1995, gravely imperiling Oslo. It was Israel that halted agreed-upon withdrawals from occupied territory, leaving itself in full control of 60 percent of the West Bank. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was so abrupt that critics say it contributed to the Hamas takeover.

And Israel has expanded settlements, not only seizing more land but also demoralizing its Palestinian neighbors, said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel. “On one side of the road is a Palestinian village, and on the other side is a brand-new Israeli town with red-roofed houses, swimming pools, greenery and trees, and on a commanding hill,” he said.

But there is also much for the Palestinians to rue in their own decisions and actions.

Whatever the justification, Palestinian violence crippled the peace process and led to other lasting setbacks: Israel’s re-invasion of West Bank cities in 2002, when it destroyed much the authority had built, and its construction of a barrier wall that bred resentment, entrenched some land grabs, and — in achieving the laudable goal of reducing terrorist attacks — allowed Israelis to largely tune out the Palestinians and the occupation altogether.

In hindsight, many analysts say, it was a mistake for the Palestinians to let the Israelis defer talk of core issues of the conflict — permanent borders, the fate of the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian demand for a capital in Jerusalem — until final-status talks. It was a mistake not to insist on an explicit clause in the interim agreements freezing further Israeli settlement expansion where the Palestinians envisaged their state. And it was a mistake for the Palestinians to bargain away recognition of the state of Israel’s right to exist, and a renunciation of violence, for little more than Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

“What they got,” said Mr. Kurtzer, who remembers a sinking feeling evident on the faces of some Palestinians at the 1993 ceremony, “was poorly negotiated.”

Others question the wisdom of entrusting the P.L.O. with any counterterrorism responsibility early on. “Arafat didn’t do enough to stop terror,” said David Hacham, who represented the Israeli defense ministry in the Oslo process. “Either because he couldn’t, or because he didn’t see it as important enough at the time.”

The Israelis also soon realized that the Palestinians were not ready to bend on their principles and even denied Jewish historical claims in Jerusalem. At the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, made what most Israelis considered a generous offer for a final agreement, but the talks collapsed.

“There was really a feeling we were beginning a new chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Mr. Hacham said of Oslo’s beginnings. But by 2000 it was “a dialogue of the deaf,” he said. “Arafat was not ready to cross the Rubicon.”

Some Israelis argue that the Palestinians have still not tempered their ideology sufficiently to persuade them that Palestinian statehood need not threaten Israeli identity. “What is the reason Netanyahu views a Palestinian state as a security risk?” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at Crisis Group. “He thinks Palestinians will continue to teach their children that Zionism is unjust and that the state next door should not exist as a state for the Jewish people.”

Despite the leadership’s failures, many Palestinians still accept the authority as the least-bad option — although, given its longevity, nearly equaling the 26 years of pre-Oslo occupation from after the 1967 war until 1993, it is the only reality many of them know.

Propped up with around $500 million a year in foreign aid, about 12 percent of its budget, the authority is the biggest Palestinian employer, providing livelihoods for around 150,000 workers and their dependents, roughly a quarter of the population. After the chaos of two uprisings, many credit it with restoring law and order.

“If it weren’t for the Palestinian Authority, people would be killing each other, left, right and center,” said Tariq Halabi, 18, as he sat with friends in the hardscrabble Jalazoun refugee camp near a memorial to residents killed by Israeli fire.

Many trace the authority’s governance problems to Mr. Arafat. As he siphoned off funds to buy loyalty and build militias, Israel and the United States vainly hoped he would prove at least a capable strongman, only to watch as he failed to suppress violence by Hamas and other militant factions.

Beginning in 2002, Salam Fayyad, an American-educated former International Monetary Fund official, began to turn things around, instilling transparency and accountability as finance minister and then prime minister. By 2011, the United Nations declared the authority’s government functions ready for statehood — to no avail.

Palestinian Authority officials blame Israel for many of its problems, including the absence of democracy and economic progress. “The Israeli occupation controls the air we breathe in the West Bank or Gaza,” said Jamal Rajoub, the deputy governor of Jericho. “The P.A. wants to improve the lives of the people, but everything is tied up with the Israeli occupation. The Palestinians are not free. We cannot open our wings and fly unless we are blind to reality.”

And the authority’s supporters say that for all its faults, it has improved life for most Palestinians.

“Most people, including me, will say that after 25 years of Oslo we have nothing politically,” said Dr. Nasser Anani, the director of Jericho’s public hospital, which was built and equipped mostly with Japanese and American funds. “But life is better.”

Government health insurance is $22 a month, dozens of schools have been built, and a driving license can be had in about 10 minutes. “I now have a Palestinian passport,” Dr. Anani said. “Even the United States recognizes it.”

“What Oslo created,” said Mr. Tartir of Al-Shabaka, “was a clear benefit for some Palestinians and the political elite. Everyone else has to live with the consequences, but doesn’t really have a say.”

That voicelessness has grown more acute as political divisions have distended Mr. Abbas’s stomach for repressing opposition. Palestinians have been arrested for criticizing him; civil-society groups linked to his rivals have had their bank accounts frozen. Unauthorized demonstrations are brutally broken up.

“It’s a jungle,” said Ahmed Rashid, 22, an unemployed Jalazoun resident, who said he spent time in an Israeli prison in 2015 for throwing stones, then in the authority’s Jericho jail in 2017 on vague security charges. “The strong eat the weak.”

Half of Palestinians view the authority as a burden, the new survey found. Those aged 18 to 22 tend to have no trust in the elite and are more supportive of a one-state outcome than a two-state solution, seeing a corrupt and authoritarian state as “not worth having,” said Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Ramallah-based polling center.

“It’s all lies,” said Firial Qarawil, 53, a nurse from Awarta. “They promised us a state. Where is the state? All the agreements and all the authorities, including ours, have taken us back more than 60 years.”

“Ultimately, the question is how many people on the ground are represented in the political system, and today that’s few,” said Sam Bahour, a Ramallah businessman. “Without giving the youth an opportunity to breathe, politically, they will remain in the streets. And that will lead to something negative.”

In Jericho, resignation, more than anger, seemed the prevailing mood. “We sleep with our doors open,” Said Hamis Ermalieh, 52, a school bus driver, said as he looked out over the city from his hilltop home. “But life is difficult.”

His wife, Kamayil, 48, said of the Palestinian Authority, “It’s better than nothing.”

It was twilight, and the neon lights on a Ferris wheel flickered on at an empty amusement park in the distance, twinkling like the Las Vegas that Jericho had never become.