There are many milestone moments in the tragic story of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but few as pivotal as the Oslo Accords, which were signed at a ceremony in Washington on this day, 30 years ago.
The images of old foes shaking hands and agreeing to set aside decades of pain, mistrust and division were momentous. It is worth noting that before Oslo, the Palestinian people’s main representatives, the PLO, were shunned as a terrorist group and there was no internationally supported road map to Palestinian autonomy or independence. Oslo, with the considerable assistance of Norwegian mediators, also codified the general vision of what a free Palestine would look like: an independent state alongside Israel. Although the two-state solution is currently moribund, this outcome remains the most widely accepted answer to the conflict among the international community.
But it is clear to see from events today that the promise of peace once offered by the Oslo process has failed to be realised: Palestinians in the West Bank still face military occupation, millions more in Gaza endure life in a blockaded and impoverished enclave and both struggle to make ends meet in a hamstrung economy without a recognised state, denying a decent future to young Palestinians. Many Israelis have also suffered, losing loved ones to violence and yearning for a more peaceful existence.
Arguably, Oslo contained the seeds of a protracted process that wouldn't deliver a final resolution to end the occupation and establish two states. Although it was a noble and hard-fought attempt to guide Palestinians and Israelis out of the lethal dead-end they had found themselves in, the decision to put aside critical issues such as illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the status of Jerusalem and the right of refugees to return undermined the deal. And yet, compromises were necessary to even get a deal. As the architect of the Oslo Accords, Norwegian diplomat Terje Rod-Larsen, told The National earlier this week, “a peace agreement is a compromise, and a compromise is about give and take,” adding that implementing a deal is much harder than having signatures on paper. On why an Israeli settlement freeze was not included in the Oslo Accords, Mr Rod-Larsen said it was “on the original draft and Mr [Yitzhak] Rabin told his negotiators that he was not against it, but it would have been impossible to get the Knesset's – the Israeli parliament's – approval”. "So the parties took it out, and this was one of the compromises,” he explained.
Sadly, the two-state solution to the conflict now seems more aspirational than imminent. The settlement project in particular has been allowed to hollow out not only international support for a Palestinian state but the means to make it a reality. The growing number of settlements divides the West Bank into cantons and undermines hopes for a Palestinian state – a goal that has been openly stated by senior and influential Israeli political figures aligned with the settler movement. This was predictable and avoidable; the settlers never hid their agenda of displacement.
Oslo was also weakened by the failure of countries with influence in the conflict, particularly the US, to address the power imbalance experienced by Palestinians. This damaged Palestinian faith in the Oslo process. This power imbalance remains in place today, as do most of the settlements.
And yet Oslo had “ripple effects” as Mr Rod-Larsen stated, leading to a peace deal with Jordan soon after and by 2020 the signing of the Abraham Accords, a testament to the commitment of leaders in the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Israel to forging a new path together.
The return of such high-level dialogue among credible and capable political leaders on the Israeli and Palestinian sides would be very welcome today. And although such talks seem a remote possibility now, a new generation of Palestinian and Israeli figures might emerge whose frustration with the current situation rekindles some of the bravery and fresh thinking put forward by the Oslo negotiating teams three decades ago.
But 1993 is not 2003, and the Middle East is a much-changed region. Israel has built new relationships with several Arab countries, but these new partners cannot solve the conflict for them – that requires engagement with a credible Palestinian leadership. Unless the Israeli state wants to be locked in a forever war with the Palestinians, now is the time for intelligent and pragmatic voices within Israel and Palestine to champion moves towards a talks process that may – one day – deliver on the promise the Oslo once held.