Exactly twenty years to the date, millions of viewers around the world were glued to their TV screens witnessing an event which many thought never would happen. On the lawn of the White House the leaders of two sworn enemies, the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, and the Leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO),Yasser Arafat, shook hands in public and signed a declaration of principles to bring a peaceful end to the tragic conflict between their peoples.
Most observers of this historical day shared the opinion that they were witness to the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Needless to say, we were all wrong. Two decades later these distant memories seems to fade away, leaving behind them a trail of despair, mutual distrust and cynicism about whether peace between the Israelis and Palestinians can ever be achieved.
The Oslo Accords appeared to reinforce the belief that both sides reached a similar conclusion that the cycles of bloodshed and violence did not serve in either of their interests, and should be confined to history. Moreover, there was recognition by both sides that the two-state solution was the answer for a lasting peace between the two people, given that all the core disputes were addressed and resolved as part of the agreement. Twenty years of a rollercoaster-like peace process saw both sides very close to concluding a peace agreement, however failing to do so, resulted in violence, bloodshed and consequently despair.
Begging the question
The recent efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process beg the question whether he and the other interlocutors have learned the necessary lessons from the failures of previous negotiators, before they embark on a new diplomatic effort. One can broadly distinguish 3 approaches in the attempts to reach a final agreement and bring about an end to all demands from both sides.
Most observers of this historical day shared the opinion that they were witness to the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Needless to say, we were all wrong.Yossi Mekelberg
The first one, as was agreed in 1993 in Oslo and signed in Washington, was more about process(es) and incremental progress edging towards a solution. It only implied the nature of the final agreement, but failed to outline its details explicitly and publicly. This approach tried to overcome the lack of trust and fear through confidence building measures leading gradually to a final agreement which addressed all the core issues of borders. These core issues are comprised of future borders (including the swap of land); security for both people; Jerusalem as the capital of both states; settling in a fair and just way the refugees predicament; minimizing the settlements as an obstacle to a viable Palestinian state; and ensuring natural resources are distributed fairly.
When this approach collapsed, leaving a trail of violence and destruction followed by even less trust, it was attempted to resolve it with short but intense US led negotiations in Camp David in July 2000. The underlying assumption was that gradualism leaves the door open for extremists and those who attempt to derail the peace process from both sides. Instead, the new approach favored reaching a less than perfect agreement which addressed all core issues, rather than an illusionary perfect one which might take long time to achieve and thus be exposed to attacks in the process.
Lack of leadership, flawed negotiation techniques, bad planning and wrong timing led to the complete collapse of this approach, and one of the worse cycles of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians during the Second Intifada. Nevertheless, the Clinton parameters left a legacy of solid principles for future negotiations
President Bush’s Road Map for Peace of 2003, was the third approach to revive the peace process. It attempted to incorporate, at least in principle, both previous approaches, suggesting a phased process which contained clear stages and deadlines towards achieving a two state solution, along with an apparent clear endgame.
At no stage did any of the sides involved show great commitment or belief in this attempt, let alone an half-hearted American commitment to push this process ahead. There were more photo-opportunities, such as in Annapolis, than serious negotiations.
The story of the peace process is not only one of failing negotiations, but also one of missing historical opportunities. Allowing the Arab Peace Initiative, initiated by Saudi Arabia, to be rejected by Israel was one the most regrettable ones. It was lost in the raging violence and vitriolic rhetoric, missing a rare historic opportunity for Israel not only to bring an end to her conflict with the Palestinians, but also in addition to reconcile with most of the Arab World.
At that point in 2002, Israel was immersed in the Camp David myth, which still prevails, that Israel offered almost everything that the Palestinians could have wanted and wished for, and they rejected it. The myth continues that instead of accepting the generous offer, they embarked on a deadly suicide bombing campaign.
As vicious as the suicide bombings were at the time, stopping the peace process was exactly what those who committed them wanted. In the same way, the assassin of the Israeli Prime Minister Rabin wanted not only to kill him, but the prospects of peace as well. Under these circumstances Israel was in no state of mind to even consider this initiative and evaluate the merits of the Beirut Declaration, which articulated the Arab Peace Initiative.
Twenty years after the Oslo process started it is not impossible to revive the peace process, but doing so is bound to be hampered by great difficulties. Both Israeli and Palestinian political and social systems are fragmented and consequently do not allow for reaching long term strategic decisions of the magnitude that is essential for concluding a peace agreement.
Another major obstacle is the continuous building of settlements, which leaves the feasibility of a viable Palestinian state in doubt, as well as the question whether Israeli governments have negotiated in good faith. Mutual lack of trust prevails among both sides and the longer the stalemate in peace negotiations continues, the faster the decline in support for a two state solution.
This leaves room for relatively small but determined anti-peace extremist movements to derail the peace process. Those who oppose the right of both people to live in their own independent state harbour not only ideological or security reasons, but also growing economic and political interest in prolonging the conflict for their advantage.
The stalemate also has external roots. It became obvious that the international community is incapable or unwilling to push the Israelis and Palestinians to the finishing line. This derives from a short attention span on the part of the international community in fast changing world and unrealistic expectations for instant results.
The economic crisis over the last few years, among other issues, shifted the priorities in many countries, and also limited their ability to economically support the peace process.
There is also a positive legacy from the Oslo years which should not be forgotten. They left a legacy of direct negotiations, which enabled many Israelis and Palestinians to communicate face to face. Moreover, negotiations yielded understandings on an array of issues including the most complex or difficult ones.
Furthermore, a civil society emerged on both sides engaging in endless efforts to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation. There is still a majority on both sides of the divide who support a two state solution based on mutual recognition of the right to self-determination. Nevertheless, this silent majority needs a courageous leadership, and at the same time has to be more pro-active in pushing both leaderships to take the plunge in making the needed concessions for a final peace agreement. The danger continuing without a just and fair peace agreement outweighs the risks of achieving it.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.