Oslo Accords: A Silver Jubilee for false promises

Amir Taheri
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Last Thursday marked the silver jubilee of an event that at the time it happened was hailed by some as a landmark in the use of diplomacy to achieve peace.

If you wonder what we are talking about, don’t worry. Few people remember the event and most of those who do pretend not to remember. We are talking of the so-called Oslo Accords shaped between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital.


At the time, the accord was marketed as the home-run to a solution of the “Palestinian problem” that had haunted the Middle East and generated much violence and many wars for decades. The excitement the “accord” created was so intense that a few weeks later it led to Nobel Peace Prizes for the trio that concocted it: Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and the PLO chief Arafat.

Right from the start, however, the true nature of the “accord” was either kept partly secret or hyped beyond limits of diplomatic double-talk. The Palestinians and their supporters in the West claimed that “Oslo”, as the accord came to be known in shorthand, was a first step towards the creation of a Palestinian state. They chose to ignore Rabin’s repeated statements about a Palestinian “entity short of a state that will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its control”.

Even Peres, who got carried away into a romantic muddle of thinking that he and Arafat could create a “new Middle East” of peace and prosperity, a delusional version of Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” (New-Old Country), didn’t talk of a two-state solution. He excluded a purely Palestinian state; instead, he promoted a Jordanian-Palestinian state, an idea he tried to sell to Americans and Egyptians without success.

Even if one does not believe that the Oslo Accords was still-born, it should be clear by now that the scheme is now all but dead.

Amir Taheri

There was also deception on the other side.

As early as 1988 at a press conference, Arafat had promised to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a state. After “Oslo”, however, he took no steps to transform that promise into political reality. To those who visited him after he had been installed as head of the Palestinian Authority, he played his old tune about a Palestine from “the river to the sea.”

Arafat made it clear that he saw “Oslo” as a transient phase in a long-term campaign to eliminate Israel. When pressed, he would say he accepted the United Nations’ Security Council Resolution 224 which recommends talks between Israel and Arab neighbors to resolve their territorial disputes and make peace.

At the time “Oslo” was unveiled some of us wondered about hidden reasons that produced it. The first reason that came to mind was that “Oslo” was designed to save Arafat from irrelevance.

Arafat had lost much of his credibility with Arab and Islamic states first by siding with the mullahs of Tehran in 1979 and then by hanging to Saddam Hussein’s coat-tail during the invasion of Kuwait. Arafat was running short of money as his latest benefactor Saddam Hussein’s finances were squeezed as a result of sanctions imposed in 1991.

Shadowy figure

Without diplomatic support and without money, Arafat would be no more than a shadowy figure languishing in Tunisia.

His downward slide had been accelerated by the Madrid Peace Conference in which “real Palestinians”, that is to say, people who lived in the West Bank and Gaza, fielded an alternative leadership that quickly won respect and admiration across the world.

Unlike Arafat who was notorious for a career of violence, including attempts at destroying Jordan and plunging Lebanon into civil war, not to mention countless acts of terror in a dozen countries, the Palestinian delegation in Madrid established itself as a voice of reason and compassion. Haidar Abdul-Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal al-Husseini, who had remained inside, did look like people who genuinely desired peace because they were directly affected in their personal lives.

Thus one undeclared aim of “Oslo” may have been to destroy the “Madrid” figures and re-impose Arafat’s hold on the Palestinian “cause.”

Another reason may have been the failure of part of the Israeli leadership to consider the possibility of peace with Syria at a time that the US, having flushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, had established itself as the arbiter of things in the region.

At the time one heard echoes of feelers put out by Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad who promised Israel peace not only with Syria but also with Lebanon which was under his occupation. There is evidence that Rabin was initially tempted by the Syrian feelers. However, it seems that some in the Israeli leadership felt that giving up even part of the Golan Heights was too risky while giving Arafat an office in the West Bank would keep him in a cage.

In choosing the path to “Oslo” the Israel leadership ignored a key lesson of the state’s founding father David Ben Gurion who insisted that the solution to the “Palestinian problem” had to start with peace with Arab neighbors. For without such peace, he argued, any Arab state could manipulate the Palestinians for its own ends.

“Oslo” not only did not envisage the creation of a Palestinian state but may have even postponed it sine die. It created a new status quo in which those with guns and money on the Palestinian side felt comfortable while the Israeli side could also avoid contemplating the longer-term prospects of an unstable situation.

Ironically, the two-state idea has morphed into a cliché, especially for anyone running out of ideas as to how to deal with what Tony Blair once described as “the most difficult problem in the world.”

Since “Oslo”, with the exception of Rabin, all Israeli prime ministers, that is to say, Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu have endorsed the “two-state” formula. The official Palestinian side has been more ambiguous on the subject, and, in the case of Hamas, hostile to the idea. It was only during the premiership of Salam Fayad that the Palestinians Authority came close to genuinely adopting the two-state formula as the basis for its strategy.

Even if one does not believe that “Oslo” was still-born, it should be clear by now that the scheme is now all but dead.

A quarter of a century later, we are left with a status quo that, though far from ideal, seems stable and the flickering hope of a new deal brokered by the US. In both cases, contrary to common perceptions, it is the Palestinians, weak and divided though they are, who will have to make a choice.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.


Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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