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How the US failed Oslo

Sep 25,2023 - Last updated at Sep 25,2023

The breakthrough of the Oslo Accords was not in its details, but rather in its opening sentences in which the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised one another’s legitimacy as representatives of two separate peoples and negotiating partners.

The rest of the Accords did more to lay bare where the parties disagreed, than provide any real roadmap forward. The text identified key issues defining the deep chasm separating Israelis and Palestinians and their admitted inability to find resolution. More than an agreement, it was a cry for help: “This is as far as we could go.”

Almost immediately, it became evident that the US did not hear, or want to hear, that cry. Listening to his “peace team” of advisers, the president said that the US would not insert itself into the process as a mediator. The US left it up to the parties to negotiate solutions. That was the fatal blow that ultimately spelled Oslo’s death.

Many problems were at this failure’s core.

First was the obvious asymmetry of power between the Israelis and Palestinians. After the defeat of the PLO as an external force and the first Intifada, Palestinians in the occupied lands were exhausted and without leverage. The “authority” that the PLO was to establish had no real power, but was dependent on Israel for survival.

The Israelis, on the other hand, had full military control over a captive population. The Yitzhak Rabin government was a fragile coalition, facing a hard-right opposition that continually challenged Rabin’s legitimacy because his majority required the support of Israel’s Palestinian citizens’ parties. In practice, Rabin never stopped deferring to the opposition on anti-Palestinian measures and settlement expansion. As Israel imposed its will on the occupied lands, the Palestinians could only appeal to an unresponsive US.

Still, the problems posed by the US ultimately proved decisive. Former US president Bill Clinton’s “peace team” advisers acted, as one adviser later admitted, more like “Israel’s lawyers” than honest brokers. They saw the unfolding tragedy only through an Israeli lens, insensitive to Palestinian needs. Palestinians were pressed to crack down on those violently opposing the peace process—which they lacked the power to do—or acquiesce to Israel’s often disproportionate responses to Palestinian acts of violence. Then Palestinians were told to understand the Rabin’s internal problems and the leeway he gave to Israeli extremists sabotaging peacemaking.

The passive, or sometimes negative, role played by the US “peace team” was compounded by the US Congress’ obstructionist role. After the Accords were signed, we fully expected Congress to rescind its anti-Palestinian legislation and pass an aid package supporting the fledgling Palestinian Authority. Instead, Congress failed to lift the ban on the PLO and imposed cumbersome conditions on aid and Palestinian relations.

The administration touted its Palestinian aid, but it actually went to USAID which dispensed it to US NGOs for projects without Palestinian input. Oftentimes the funds were not dispersed at all.

Meanwhile, Rabin’s Israeli opposition in the Likud party established a counter-lobby in Washington, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Partnering with the Republicans in Congress, this US lobbying effort began sabotaging the peace process.

After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, the sides were set: Clinton and Rabin versus Republicans and Likud. The Palestinians never stood a chance. Punitive measures were imposed on them, while Israel got a free ride. After Rabin’s assassination and Netanyahu’s election, Israel operated with impunity, culminating in the Republican Congress inviting Netanyahu to a Joint Session of Congress where he made clear his intention to end the Oslo process.

The asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians became amplified. Israel had power; Palestinians had none. Israel received support; Palestinians received pressure. Oslo was dying a slow death.

When I had an opportunity to speak with President Clinton, I told him that since Oslo: Palestinian unemployment had doubled; settlements and seizure of Palestinian lands had dramatically increased; and while Israelis were acting with impunity, Palestinians were losing hope in the future. He appeared deeply troubled and asked me to write all of this in a memo to him. I did, but nothing changed.

How this enabled specific Israeli policies that resulted in the complete unraveling of the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace will be the subject of my next column.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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