Israel’s Peace Process Was Always a Road To Nowhere

Two decades after the peace process expired between the Camp David and Taba summits, many look back with nostalgia at the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. But historian Ilan Pappe argues that the failure of Oslo to deliver Palestinian sovereignty was baked into the process from the start.

Two women during the quarantine on the roof of their house in Jabalia refugee camp on August 28, 2020 in Gaza City. (Fatima Shbair / Getty Images)

On September 13, 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government signed the Oslo Accords with great fanfare. The agreement was the brainchild of a group of Israelis who were part of the think tank Mashov, led by then deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin.

Their assumption was that a convergence of factors provided an opportune historical moment for imposing a solution on the Palestinian side: the success of the more dovish Labor Party in Israel’s 1992 elections on the one hand, the drastic erosion in the PLO’s international standing because of Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on the other.

The architects of the accords assumed that the Palestinians were in no position to resist an Israeli diktat which represented the maximum that the Jewish state was willing to concede at that time. The best these representatives of the “Israeli peace camp” could offer was two Bantustans — a reduced West Bank and an enclaved Gaza Strip — that would enjoy some of the symbolism of statehood while in practice remaining under Israeli control.

Moreover, this arrangement would have to be declared as the end of the conflict. Any further demands, such as the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, or changes in the status of the Palestinian minority inside Israel, were excised from the “peace” agenda.

Recipe for Disaster

This diktat was a new version of older Israeli ideas that had informed the so-called peace process since 1967. The first was the so-called Jordanian option, which would mean partitioning — geographically or functionally — control over the occupied territories between Israel and Jordan. The Israeli Labor movement endorsed this policy. The second was the idea of limited Palestinian autonomy in these territories, which was at the heart of the peace talks with Egypt in the late 1970s.

These various ideas — the Jordanian option, Palestinian autonomy, and the Oslo formula — had one thing in common: they all suggested partitioning the West Bank between Jewish and Palestinian areas, with the future intent of integrating the Jewish part into Israel, while keeping the Gaza Strip as an enclave connected to the West Bank by a land bridge that Israel would control.

Oslo differed from the previous initiatives in several ways. The most important one was that the PLO was Israel’s partner in this recipe for disaster. It should be said, though, that the organization, to its credit, has not — to this day — accepted the Oslo Accords as a process that has been concluded.

Its participation, and the international recognition it received, was the one positive (or at least potentially positive) aspect of Oslo. The negative aspect of PLO participation was the fact that a unilateral Israeli policy of incremental annexation and partition of the occupied territories now received legitimacy from an agreement that the PLO leadership had signed.

Another difference was the involvement of an allegedly professional and neutral academic outfit in facilitating the accords. Norway’s Fafo Research Foundation took charge of the mediation efforts. It adopted a methodology which was very advantageous to the Israelis and disastrous for the Palestinians.

In essence, it was a search for the best that the stronger party was willing to offer, followed by an attempt to coerce the weaker party into accepting it. There was no agency for the side defined as the weaker one. The whole process became one of imposition.

A Bitter Pill

We had been there before. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) back in 1947–48 adopted a similar approach. The result was catastrophic. The Palestinians, who were the indigenous population and the majority in the land, had no impact on the proposed solution. When they rejected it, the UN ignored their position. The Zionist movement and its allies imposed partition on them by force.

When Oslo I, the first set of mostly symbolic agreements, was signed, the disastrous lack of any Palestinian input did not come to light immediately. Those agreements included not only mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, but also the return of Yasser Arafat and the wider PLO leadership to Palestine. This part of the agreement created an understandable euphoria among some Palestinians as it concealed well the real purpose of Oslo.

This sugarcoating of a bitter pill was soon removed with the next set of agreements, known as the Oslo II Accord, in 1995. Even the feeble Arafat found them hard to accept, and the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak literally forced him to sign the pact in front of the world’s cameras.

Once again, as in 1947, the international community proceeded with a “solution” that catered to Israel’s needs and ideological visions, while completely ignoring Palestinian rights and aspirations. And once more the underlying principle of the “solution” was partition.

In 1947, the Zionist settler movement had been offered 56 percent of Palestine and went on to take 78 percent by force. The Oslo II Accord offered Israel another 12 percent of historical Palestine, consolidating the status of greater Israel over 90 percent of the country and creating two Bantustans in the rest of the area.

In 1947, the proposal was to partition Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state. The narrative spun by Israel, Fafo, and the international actors involved in the Oslo mediation was that the Palestinians had lost an opportunity for such a state due to the irresponsible, rejectionist position they had adopted in 1947. Thus, didactically, they were offered this time a much smaller space and a downgraded political entity — definitely not a state by any stretch of the imagination.

Geography of Disaster

Oslo II created a geography of disaster that enabled Israel to stretch over additional parts of historical Palestine while enclaving the Palestinians within two Bantustans; or, to put it differently, by partitioning the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into Jewish and Palestinian areas.

Area A was under the direct rule of the Palestinian Authority (PA — with the semblance of statehood, but none of its powers); Area B was jointly ruled by Israel and the PA (but effectively by Israel); and Area C was ruled exclusively by Israel. Recently, incrementally, this zone has been de facto annexed to Israel.

The means of achieving that annexation have included military and settler harassment of Palestinian villagers (some of whom had already left their homes), the declaration of vast areas as training grounds for the army or ecological “green lungs” from which Palestinians are barred, and finally constant transformations of the land regime to grab more land for new settlements or the expansion of old ones.

By the time Arafat arrived at Camp David in 2000, the Oslo map had unfolded clearly and, in many ways, created irreversible facts on the ground. The major feature of the post-Oslo cartography were the Bantustanization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the official annexation of the greater Jerusalem area, and the physical separation of the West Bank’s north and south.

Others were no less important: the disappearance of the right of return from the “peace” agenda, and the continued Judaization of Palestinian life inside Israel (by expropriation of land, spatial strangulation of villages and towns, the maintenance of exclusive settlements and towns for Jews, and the passing of a series of laws institutionalizing Israel as an apartheid state).

Later on, when it proved too costly to maintain a settler presence in the midst of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s leaders revised the Oslo map and logic to include a new method of sustaining it: imposing a land siege and maritime blockade of Gaza for its refusal to be another Area A under  PA rule.

After Rabin

The geography of disaster, very much as in 1948, was the result of a peace plan. Since 1995 and the signing of the Oslo II agreement, more than six hundred checkpoints have robbed the people of the occupied territories of their freedom of movement between villages and towns (and between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank). Life was administered in Areas A and B by the Civil Administration, a quasi-military outfit willing to provide permits only in return for full collaboration with the security services.

The settlers continued their vigilante attacks on Palestinians and their expropriation of land. The Israeli army with its special units entered Area A and the Gaza Strip at will, arresting, wounding, and killing Palestinians. The collective punishment of house demolitions and long curfews and closures also continued under the “peace agreement.”

Shortly after Oslo II was signed, Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995. We will never know whether he would have wanted — or been able — to influence developments in a more positive way. Those who succeeded him until 2000, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak, fully supported the transformation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into two mega-prisons, where movement in and out, economic activity, daily life, and survival all depended on Israel’s goodwill — a rare commodity at the best of times.

The Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat swallowed these bitter pills for various reasons. It was hard to give up the semblance of presidential power, a sense of independence in some aspects of life, and above all a naive belief that this was a temporary state of affairs, to be replaced by a final settlement leading to Palestinian sovereignty. (It is noteworthy that this leadership signed an accord that does not mention anywhere in its official paperwork the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.)

The Camp David Mirage

For a brief moment in 1999, it seemed as if there were a basis for such optimism. The right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu gave way to one headed by the Labor leader, Ehud Barak. Rhetorically, Barak declared his commitment to the accord and its final implementation. However, due to a rapid loss of his majority in the Knesset, he and US president Bill Clinton — embroiled at the time in the Monica Lewinsky affair — rushed Yasser Arafat into an ill-prepared and haphazard summit in the summer of 2000.

The Israeli government recruited a huge number of experts and prepared mountains of documents with one purpose in mind: to impose the Israeli interpretation of a final settlement on Arafat. According to their experts, the end of the conflict would involve the annexation of big settlements blocs to Israel, a Palestinian capital in the village of Abu Dis, and a demilitarized state, subject to Israeli economic control and security domination. The final deal did not include any serious reference to the right of return, and of course — as with the Oslo Accords itself — it totally ignored the Palestinians in Israel.

The Palestinian side recruited the Adam Smith Institute in London to help them in their preparations for the hasty summit. They produced some thin documents, which in any case were not considered relevant by Barak and Clinton. These two gentlemen were in a hurry to get the process concluded within two weeks, purely for the sake of their own domestic survival.

Both needed a quick achievement to boast about (shades here of Donald Trump’s catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 crisis and Israel’s peace with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, sold as a great triumph for his administration). Since time was of the essence, they devoted the two weeks to exerting enormous pressure on Arafat to sign a done deal, prepared beforehand in Israel.

Arafat pleaded with the two that he needed a tangible achievement to display upon his return to Ramallah. He hoped that he could at least announce a freeze on settlements and/or recognition of the PLO’s right to Jerusalem, as well as some sort of principled understanding of the importance of the right of return for the Palestinian side. Barak and Clinton totally ignored his predicament. Before Arafat departed for Palestine, the two leaders accused him of being a warmonger.

The Second Intifada

Upon his return, Arafat — as Senator George Mitchell reported later — was quite passive and did not plan any drastic move such as an uprising. Israel’s security services reported to their political bosses that Arafat was doing all he could to pacify the more militant members of Fatah, and still hoped to find a new diplomatic solution.

Those around Arafat felt betrayed. There was an atmosphere of helplessness until the provocative visit to Haram al-Sharif by the Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon. Sharon’s exercise in coat-trailing triggered a wave of demonstrations to which the Israeli army responded with particular brutality. They had suffered a recent humiliation at the hands of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which forced the Israeli Defense Forces to withdraw from southern Lebanon, and thus allegedly eroded Israel’s power of deterrence.

Palestinian policemen decided that they could not stand by, and the uprising became more militarized. It spilled over into Israel, where trigger-happy, racist police were only too pleased to show with what ease they could kill Palestinian demonstrators who were citizens of the Israeli state.

The attempt by some Palestinian groups such as Fatah and Hamas to respond with suicide bomb attacks backfired as Israeli retaliatory operations — culminating in 2002’s infamous “Defensive Shield” operation — led to the destruction of towns and villages, and further expropriation of land by Israel. Another response was the construction of the apartheid wall that separated Palestinians from their business, fields, and centers of life.

Israel effectively reoccupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 2007, the A, B and C map of the West Bank was restored. After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas took over, and the territory was subjected to a siege that continues to this day.

From the Ashes

Many Israeli politicians and strategies are confident that they have broken the Palestinian spirit. Precisely twenty-seven years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the White House lawn hosted a new ceremony for the Abraham Accords, an agreement for peace and normalization between Israel and two Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Mainstream American and Israeli media assure us that this is the last nail in the coffin of Palestinian obstinacy. They reason that the PA will have to accept whatever Israel offers, as there is no one left to help them if they reject its proposals.

But Palestinian society is one of the youngest and most educated in the world. The Palestinian national movement rose from the ashes of the Nakba in the 1950s and could do so again. No matter how powerful the Israeli military is, and no matter how many more Arab states conclude peace treaties with Israel, the Jewish state will remain in existence with millions of Palestinians under its control within an apartheid regime.

The failure of Camp David in 2000 was not the end of a genuine peace process. There had never been such a process, ever since the Zionist movement arrived in Palestine in the late nineteenth century; rather, it was the official establishment of the apartheid republic of Israel. It remains now to be seen for how long the world will accept it as legitimate and viable, or whether it will accept that the de-Zionization of Israel, with the creation of one democratic state embracing all of historical Palestine, is the only just solution for this problem.