Thirty years after the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or the Oslo process, weighs heavily on contemporary political discourse in Israel and Palestine.
Arnon Degani is a Fellow at Molad — Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, specializing in the history of Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The reigning narratives of Oslo prevalent among the two peoples warring over the land are so entrenched that the word “Oslo” can stand for a long argument about the infeasibility of reconciliation with the other. Each side blames Oslo either on Arafat as the embodiment of the Palestinian collective psyche, or on “Zionism” as a monolith and stagnant ideology shared by Jewish Israelis and their leaders. Unfortunately, revered intellectuals and serious scholars also propagate these one-sided national narratives about Oslo, cementing their credibility.
There is an unmet demand for a body of knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, and Oslo in particular, writing that would adhere to the universal tools of the historical discipline: avoiding essentialist explanations, anachronism, and determinism. Historians of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who stick to professional standards produce complex and nuanced narratives that may not even lend themselves to easy answers about what to do going forward but can destabilize rigid political stances.
Document declassification and utilizing novel theoretical frameworks, such as settler-colonial studies, hold great promise. But way before manuscripts will arrive at the desks of academic publishers, we should take notice of the complete inadequacies of the reigning “theories of the case”, which animate the Oslo accounts circulating among the two societies and their respective intellectual classes.
Gaps in the Israeli Narrative
The biases, inconsistencies, and collective amnesia comprising the two national narratives have produced two opposite historical indictments. The majority of Jewish Israelis and their supporters see Yasser Arafat, standing in for the entire Palestinian collective will, as someone who essentially lied to Israelis. According to this account, shared among politicians, pundits, military experts, and scholars, Arafat and the top Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) cadre came from Tunis into the Occupied Territories to create a haven for terrorists and a new launching pad for his relentless campaign to destroy Israel.
Israeli confidence in Palestinian intentions was susceptible to the intensity of Palestinian terrorism, which escalated during Oslo’s early years and even more so with its collapse between 2000–2002. However, evidence for the Arafat conspiracy tends to come from symbolism and inference. For instance, a repeated claim Israelis like to make to prove Arafat’s inability to make peace with Israel began with Professor Efraim Karsh of Bar Ilan University, who pointed to the fact that Arafat never took off his military uniform, even during the Nobel peace prize ceremony.
Historians have no access to any one person’s thoughts, much less an entire nation.
Another example of the Israeli narrative making the rounds in Israeli social media accounts, is a recent YouTube lecture by Shlomo Ben Ami, a historian and the former chief Israeli negotiator in the final status talks in the year 2000. In this lecture with the telling title, “Why did the Palestinians not want to make peace with Israel”, Ben Ami makes vague generalizations about the Palestinian national ethos and Arafat’s psychological traits to explain an essential Palestinian inability to make peace with Israelis. But whichever Arafat quote or manoeuvre may be brought as evidence for his inner desire to renege on Oslo’s promises, a full confession of the details of the conspiracy is nowhere to be found.
In the final analysis, the claim that Arafat intended to use the Oslo process to further the demise of Israel assumes the ability to enter his mind and read his thoughts. Not only do historians lack this power, but if one considers the historical context in which Arafat operated and applies some fundamental logic, the whole theory can be dismissed off hand.
Historians have no access to any one person’s thoughts, much less an entire nation. People are complex — they change their minds, lie to themselves, and do not follow a grand plan. They make things up as they go along. Thus, if we were to believe that Arafat was plotting to use Oslo as a way to facilitate the killing of more Jews all along, we must assume that the same Arafat who in the mid-1970s strong-armed the purist parties of the PLO to steer the Palestinian national movement towards pragmatism, who fought these elements in Lebanon to assert his prerogative to negotiate with the US, who pressured the entire Palestinian national council to recognize Israel, and who came to the brink of civil war in the Territories with Hamas was all this time secretly conniving to move in the opposite direction. Are we to believe that Arafat committed to diplomacy publicly and then secretly conveyed to millions of Palestinians in the Territories and the Diaspora to stand by and await further orders?
The fact is, conspiracies happen, but they require a tightly knit cabal, they cannot work on an entire-nation scale. Leaders can renege on their public statements but uttering them makes a historical impact. Arafat’s repeated iterations of his commitment to peace and recognition of Israel could not have been in preparation to mobilize the Palestinians for total war against Israel. This does not mean that Arafat does not carry any responsibility for the failure of the process, that he did not prepare for its failure, that he did all he could to stop Palestinian violence, or that he even refrained from inciting it — but considering the circumstances, he could not have been following a plot to destroy Israel.
What Really Happened?
If the Israeli meta-narrative of Oslo does not pass a rudimentary test of logic, then the Palestinian hypothesis of Oslo’s failure seems, on the face of things, to be a bit more grounded in facts.
Palestinians who supported the two-state solution but were critical of Oslo, such as Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, warned that the terms of the initial agreement would allow Israel to retain the settlements, deny Palestinians a state, and have the PLO essentially become an Israeli subcontractor for municipal and security affairs. This prophecy seems to have materialized, as Israel remains the sole sovereign of the entirety of the land between the river and the sea and is building homes more or less freely for Jewish settlers in West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority, also known by Palestinians as the “Oslo Authority,” serves the interests of Israel by keeping Hamas and other armed groups in check in the West Bank.
Even the present, ultra-right-wing government, is pursuing an agenda to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and prevent its collapse. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas and the Israeli Right seem to have reached a détente, where the latter has taken responsibility for managing Israel’s open-air prison, and Israel has the perfect excuse to not engage in talks with the PLO considering it does not control all the Territories.
The two-state solution was popular in Israel for years, but it never gained a strong enough parliamentary representation to push through the harsh opposition of the settlers and their supporters in Israeli society.
Ever since 1967, a succession of Israeli leaders considered a hybrid situation in which Palestinians “enjoy” a measure of autonomy in separate conclaves as the optimal course for keeping the land and not absorbing the people in it. Rabin himself probably died while holding a vision within these parameters. A month before his assassination, he spoke in the Knesset about the final status agreement he intended to negotiate, which included keeping most of the settlements, maintaining a unified Israeli Jerusalem, Israeli control over the Jordan valley, and agreeing to a Palestinian entity that would amount to be “less than a state”. Essentially, Israel got exactly what it wanted, with the PLO as a co-signer to the Palestinians’ subaltern status.
This, in a way, is a smoking gun that proves that Israeli leadership went into the Oslo process with no intention of granting the Palestinians a state. But this does not mean that the Oslo process could not have led to the creation of such a state, and certainly does not mean that Zionists are incapable of accepting the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state within the territory of the former British Mandate. Whatever obstacles that the Israelis have placed in front of the peace process, and there were many, the fact remains that Ehud Barak acceded to a Palestinian state on around 95 percent of the territory the Palestinians demanded, and Arafat said “no”.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Arafat could not have accepted the Clinton Parameters in December 2000. Despite his reputation for being dishonest, he was quite consistent about his goals when he made the great leap of committing the PLO to recognize Israel’s right to exist: a state, the entirety of the West Bank, the entirety of East Jerusalem, and a just solution for the Palestinian refugees. The Clinton parameters were the most “generous” offer on the table ever presented to the Palestinians, but they only met one of Arafat’s goals — a state.
All Arafat had as leverage to gain those other goals was withholding his “yes”. At the same time, Barak would have had nothing to gain from making an insincere offer that he knew would be rejected. Barak made that infamous claim that Arafat was “not a partner” in good faith.
It is also worth mentioning that the two-state solution was popular in Israel for years. However, it never gained a strong enough parliamentary representation to push through the harsh opposition of the settlers and their supporters in Israeli society. One can imagine a scenario ìn which a more proactive US, a more courageous Israeli leadership, or even a less lethal form of Palestinian resistance could have helped this constituency gain more political power.
A year ago, I wrote an in-depth eight-episode podcast series on the Oslo process with Molad — the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, soon to be released in English. The chapters focus on several themes, including the changing approaches to the conflict by Zionists and Palestinians, Palestinian violence, Israeli settlement building, and the mechanics of diplomatic negotiations. Another episode explains what I have claimed here, that neither side was motivated by an agenda to “screw over” the other.
Once we understand that Oslo represents a sincere effort to end a conflict going on for a century-and-a-half, we will be able to focus more on “what happened?” than on “who is to blame?”.