The Israel-Palestine negotiations currently underway in Jerusalem coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. A look at the character of the accords and their fate may help explain the prevailing skepticism about the current exercise.
In September 1993, President Clinton presided over a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn – the climax of a “day of awe,” as the press described it.
The occasion was the announcement of the Declaration of Principles [DOP] for political settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which resulted from secret meetings in Oslo that were sponsored by the Norwegian government.
Public negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians had opened in Madrid in November 1991, initiated by Washington in the triumphal glow after the first Iraq war. They were stalemated because the Palestinian delegation, led by the respected nationalist Haidar Abdul Shafi, insisted on ending Israel’s expansion of its illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories.
In the immediate background were formal positions on the basic issues released by the PLO, Israel and the United States. In a November 1988 declaration, the PLO called for two states on the internationally recognized border, a proposal that the United States had vetoed at the Security Council in 1976 and continued to block, defying an overwhelming international consensus.
In May 1989 Israel responded, declaring that there can be no “additional Palestinian state” between Jordan and Israel (Jordan being a Palestinian state by Israeli dictate), and that further negotiations will be “in accordance with the basic guidelines of the [Israeli] Government.” The Bush I administration endorsed this plan without qualifications, then initiated the Madrid negotiations as the “honest broker.”
Then in 1993, the DOP was quite explicit about satisfying Israel’s demands but silent on Palestinian national rights. It conformed to the conception articulated by Dennis Ross, Clinton’s main Middle East Advisor and negotiator at Camp David in 2000, later President Obama’s main advisor as well. As Ross explained, Israel has needs but Palestinians only have wants, obviously of lesser significance.
Article I of the DOP states that the end result of the process is to be “a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338,” which say nothing about Palestinian rights, apart from a vague reference to a “just settlement of the refugee problem.”
If the “peace process” unfolded as the DOP clearly stated, Palestinians could kiss goodbye their hopes for some limited degree of national rights in the Land of Israel.
Other DOP articles stipulate that Palestinian authority extends over “West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, settlements, military locations and Israelis” – that is, except for every issue of significance.
Furthermore, “Israel will continue to be responsible for external security, and for internal security and public order of settlements and Israelis. Israeli military forces and civilians may continue to use roads freely within the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area,” the two areas from which Israel was pledged to withdraw – eventually.
In short, there would be no meaningful changes. The DOP also did not include a word about the settlement programs at the heart of the conflict: Even before the Oslo process, the settlements were undermining realistic prospects of achieving any meaningful Palestinian self-determination.
Only by succumbing to what is sometimes called “intentional ignorance” could one believe that the Oslo process was a path to peace. Nevertheless, this became virtual dogma among Western commentators.
As the Madrid negotiations opened, Danny Rubinstein, one of Israel’s best-informed analysts, predicted that Israel and the United States would agree to some form of Palestinian “autonomy,” but it would be “autonomy as in a POW camp, where the prisoners are ‘autonomous’ to cook their meals without interference and to organize cultural events.” Rubenstein turned out to be correct.
The settlement programs continued after the Oslo Accords, at the same high level they had reached when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister in 1992, extending well to the east of illegally annexed Greater Jerusalem.
As Rabin explained, Israel should take over “most of the territory of the Land of Israel [the former Palestine], whose capital is Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile the U.S. and Israel moved to separate Gaza from the West Bank by closing access to it, in explicit violation of the terms of the accords, thus ensuring that any potential Palestinian entity would be cut off from the outside world.
The accords were followed by additional Israel-PLO agreements, which spelled out more clearly the terms of the autonomy of the POW camp. After Rabin’s assassination, Shimon Peres became prime minister. As Peres left office in 1995, he assured the press that there would be no Palestinian state.
Norwegian scholar Hilde Henriksen Waage concluded that the “Oslo process could serve as the perfect case study for flaws” of the model of “of third party mediation by a small state in highly asymmetrical conflicts. The question to be asked is whether such a model can ever be appropriate.”
That question is well worth pondering, particularly as educated Western opinion now follows the ludicrous assumption that meaningful Israel-Palestine negotiations can be seriously conducted under the auspices of the United States – not an “honest broker,” but in reality a partner of Israel.
As the current negotiations opened, Israel at once made its attitude clear by expanding the “National Priority List” for special subsidies to settlements scattered in the West Bank and by carrying forward its plans to build a train line to integrate the settlements more closely into Israel.
Obama followed suit by appointing as chief negotiator Martin Indyk, a close associate of Dennis Ross, whose background is as a lobbyist for Israel and who explains that Arabs are unable to comprehend the “idealism” and “generosity of spirit” that infuse all of Washington’s efforts.
The negotiations provide a cover for Israel’s takeover of the territories it wishes to control and should spare the United States some further embarrassment at the United Nations. That is, Palestine may agree to defer initiatives that would enhance its U.N. status – which the U.S. would be compelled to block, joined by Israel and perhaps Palau.
It is, however, unlikely that the negotiations will advance the prospects for a meaningful peace settlement.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including recently Hopes and Prospects and Making the Future. Noam Chomsky is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.