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Middle East: Oslo Period Ends Both With Failures And Successes

  • Charles Recknagel

Jerusalem, 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When the Oslo interim peace period expires on Tuesday (May 4), it will conclude a chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations that began with high optimism five years ago but is closing amid mutual accusations of bad faith.

When the detailed accords went into effect on May 4, 1994, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made a historic commitment to accept each other as peace partners and to work out their differences at the negotiating table.

The agreement, endorsed by most world leaders, came soon after Israel formally recognized the PLO following decades of the two sides warring against each other. Similarly, the PLO acknowledged Israel's right to exist.

These revolutionary commitments were accompanied by what both sides hoped would be a step-by-step process over five years leading them out of their long history of conflict.

The accord gave the Palestinians the right to establish an autonomous government -- the Palestinian Authority -- over areas which were to be expanded in gradual Israeli turnovers of land. In return, the Palestinian Authority was to prevent attacks against Israelis by Palestinians opposed to the peace process, notably the Islamic Resistance Movement, HAMAS, which refused to recognize it.

The two sides also agreed to begin negotiating the toughest issues between them: what to do about Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the rights of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem -- which both sides claim for their capital.

The Oslo peace accords were given the name "interim" in the hope they would be followed by a permanent peace treaty between the two sides. But the most visible events during the five years since have been long periods during which the peace process has been frozen.

Within a year and a half of the signing, the head of the Israeli government that signed the accords -- Yitzhak Rabin -- was assassinated by an Israeli extremist. Bus bombings carried out by Palestinian extremists equally intent on sabotaging the accords helped usher in a harder-line Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. The new Likud government, while bound to honor the accords it inherited, came to power on promises to take a tougher line in negotiations.

Analysts say the driving force behind the conflict between Netanyahu's government and the Palestinian Authority is disagreement over where the peace process should end. The Palestinians want an independent state. The Likud opposes that, saying the Palestinian Authority has not done enough to curb terrorism and cannot be trusted as a sovereign power.

David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's spokesman, told RFE/RL last week in Jerusalem that an independent Palestine would be a danger to Israel:

"We feel that a state is out of the question. We do not believe a sovereign state can be prevented from being militarized, and to have a Palestinian state which through sovereign powers can form alliances with such regimes as Iraq or Iran -- both sworn to the destruction of Israel -- is unacceptable."

On the Palestinian side, the Oslo period is widely seen as ending in failure because it has not brought them close to achieving a contiguous stretch of territory that is a crucial asset for building a state.

During the five years of the Oslo period, Israel handed over to the Palestinian Authority total control of some 10 percent of the West Bank and partial control over another 17 percent. It also gave the Palestinian Authority total control over some two-thirds of the Gaza Strip, where the rest of the land is taken up by buffer zones and Israeli settlements.

The land turnovers have put the biggest Palestinian population centers -- except those in east Jerusalem -- under full or partial self-rule. But they have disappointed Palestinians by giving them towns and territory in a patchwork mosaic of enclaves, which mostly are not contiguous. Between many of the enclaves are Jewish settlements and new neighborhoods that have expanded to now house a total of some 400,000 people in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Washington successfully brokered the Wye accord last October in an effort to increase land transfers, but the measure was so volatile for the Likud's coalition government that it helped to lead to its collapse. Netanyahu has since frozen implementation of any more land transfers while awaiting early elections in the middle of next month.

Ghassan al-Khatib, a former Palestinian peace negotiator who heads the independent Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, told our correspondent that many Palestinians feel Netanyahu's government unilaterally suspended the Oslo accords:

"Israel is in a comfortable situation because the aspects of the agreement which were implemented are the aspects that Israel is interested in having, while the articles which haven't been implemented yet are the articles that interest the Palestinians ... [But] Israel suspended the implementation of this agreement."

The Palestinians say that final status talks, which never began, should have resolved the issues of Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem by the end of the interim period. The Israeli government rejects that, saying the five-year interim period was a time frame, but not a deadline, for land turnovers and negotiations.

Where the peace process goes now will depend on the results of the Israeli elections on May 17. Netanyahu faces a major challenge from Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor-led One Israel coalition. Barak is seen as more flexible on the question of Palestinian statehood while still demanding strong security guarantees, such as demilitarization. Another challenger, the Centrist Party's Yitzhak Mordechai, is also seen as moderate, but so far he has spoken little about the peace process.

Even though the Oslo interim period will end on May 4 in a deadlock, some analysts say it has produced several quiet successes which may yet assure the long-term success of the peace process.

Arye Carmon, head of the liberal Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, says the most important legacy of the Oslo period is that, for five years, Israelis and Palestinians have lived with the idea that they are engaged in a peace process, no matter how difficult it has been.

"In the past five years, we have seen a tremendous revolution in the perception of the Israelis of the entire issue of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. First and foremost, the recognition that there is no way Israel can live for too long occupying the territories of another entity. [At the same time] the Palestinian people who live in the territories have moved from a completely oppressed people into a process that will lead them to some sort of autonomy and independence."

A recent poll of Israelis by the Peace Research Center of the University of Tel Aviv supports Carmon's view that the Oslo period has brought attitude changes. The poll found that 55 percent of Israelis now say Palestinians deserve a state, up 10 percent from a similar poll six months ago.

Carmon told RFE/RL that the psychological changes during the Oslo period -- plus international interest in the peace process -- leaves any future Israeli government with little choice but to pursue a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, whether it does so slowly or quickly. And that he calls the key achievement of the Oslo period.

From the question five years ago of whether they could recognize each other, Carmon says the two sides now have moved deep into tactical -- but ultimately solvable -- problems such as schedules and timetables, and what will be the borders of a Palestinian entity and its future relation to Israel.

(This is the first feature in a five-part series evaluating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the conclusion of the Oslo interim period on May 4. The first part looks at failures and progress during the Oslo process. The second at the likely shape of the peace process to come. The third at economic relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. The fourth at challenges for the Palestinian Authority as a government. And the fifth at Jordan's new regional role following the death of King Hussein.)