The Fatal Flaw That Doomed the Oslo Accords

The very feature of the agreement that was supposed to ensure its success was its undoing.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord on September 13, 1993
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord on September 13, 1993 (Reuters)

It hardly seems possible that it’s been 25 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, that hopeful moment when peace between Palestinians and Israelis seemed at hand. In retrospect, the Accords seem less a triumph than an abject failure. Most observers, trying to understand what went wrong, fight over who to blame. The more constructive question is not who, but rather what, to blame. What doomed the Oslo Accords is also what made them possible in the first place: constructive ambiguity.

Given decades of war and bloodshed, the theory went, the two sides could not be expected to immediately settle their core disputes; an interim period of trust-building was required. It was better to remain ambiguous about the core issues which needed to be resolved, the negotiators assumed, rather than force the sides to adopt positions and make concessions which they might not be ready to make.

This constructive ambiguity, imbued in each element of the Accords, proved to be utterly destructive. Instead of building trust and allowing the parties to adjust to the reality of the inevitable compromises which were necessary for peace, it merely allowed each side to persist in its own self-serving interpretation of what the Accords implied and to continue the very behavior which destroyed trust on the other side. And so, when the time came, a few short years later, to settle the core issues, the ensuing failure was all but inevitable.

Throughout the interim years of the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlement activity was allowed to continue unhampered, with the number of settlers increasing from 110,000 on the eve of the Accords in 1993 to 185,000 in 2000, during the negotiations over a final status, to 430,000 today. That increase seriously undermined the notion that Israel was sincere about making way for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, continued pursuing what they referred to as the “Right of Return,” their demand that ever-growing numbers of Palestinians be allowed to settle within the territory of pre-1967 Israel, which would render Jews a minority in an Arab state. There were nearly 3 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA as refugees in 1993, a number that increased to 3.8 million in 2000, and which stands at 5.3 million today. Palestinian leaders never dared face their people to tell them that as part of a final peace agreement, just as Jews would be expected to vacate their settlements east of the pre-1967 lines, Arab Palestinians be expected to renounce their claim to settle west of those lines. Like settlement building, this undermined the notion that Arab Palestinians had finally made their peace with the presence of a sovereign Jewish people in any part of the land. These two grand obstacles to peace—Israeli settlements and the Right of Return—each representing a form of territorial maximalism and the ideological negation of the other people’s right to self-determination in the land, grew ever larger under the umbrella of constructive ambiguity.

Jerusalem, too, fell prey to destructive ambiguity. Israeli leaders continued to peddle the lie of a “united Jerusalem,” failing to prepare Israelis for the necessary partition of Jerusalem into an Israeli capital and a Palestinian one, and Palestinian leaders extended their decades-long rejection of the idea that Jews have any historical, cultural, national, or religious connection to Jerusalem.

Twenty-five years after that hopeful Oslo moment, there is no need to rethink the end goal—but we need a new path to get there. The two-state solution remains the only option that recognizes the national rights of both peoples and provides a measure of justice to each. Whatever each side thinks about the invented nature of the other, both sides can agree that they each are equally deserving of living in a state where they can be masters of their own fate.

To get there, the parties need to approach the negotiations not as a marriage, but as a divorce. Serious peacemakers need to let go of vague and nebulous concepts such as “trust” and “confidence building,” and behave more like harsh divorce attorneys who spell out every detail. In place of destructive ambiguity, we need constructive specificity. President Trump, for example, would have done Israelis, Palestinians, and the cause of peace a greater favor if, rather than using the ambiguous term “Jerusalem,” he had recognized only west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while making it clear that he is open to recognizing Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. President Obama would actually have served the cause of peace if he had coupled his promotion of the UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which made it clear that Jews should not settle east of the pre-1967 line, with an equally stringent resolution that made it clear that Palestinians could not settle west of the pre-1967 line through the demand of return, condemning both forms of maximalism as illegitimate and harmful to a negotiated and just peace.

Repeated rounds of negotiations for a final-status agreement, especially in 2000, with the Clinton parameters, and in 2008, under Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have served to specify parameters of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would require both parties to make considerable compromises, but offer both of them a viable sovereign state and the right of self-determination: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Arab Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and a special arrangement in the Holy Basin to secure freedom of worship for all; annexation of major Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line in exchange for swaps of equivalent land; removal of all other settlements from the West Bank; and enabling Palestinians living in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, to settle into a new State of Palestine—not into Israel. Had the Palestinians not walked away from those offers in 2000 and in 2008, there would today be two peoples settled in their homelands behind secure borders.

Ultimately, sooner or later, all wars and all conflicts end, with a bang or with a whimper. There is no reason to assume that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more intractable than others. But if we have learnt anything over the past 25 years, it is that being ambiguous about the simple fact that neither side is going to have the entirety of the land does no one any favors. Israelis will have to accept the fact that they cannot build settlements all over the West Bank, and Palestinians will have to accept the fact that they cannot settle inside Israel in the name of return. The sooner both sides hear and internalize these simple, cold, hard truths, the sooner we will be able to speak of hope again.