Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian diplomat who was one of the main architects of the Oslo Accords, was astonished when Yitzhak Rabin became Israel's prime minister in 1993. At their first meeting, he had been unimpressed by him. After Rabin's election, he realised his mistake: “I saw one side of this man and assumed this meant I knew all of him.” That, inevitably, is also the mistake Palestinians and Israelis make about each other.
That conversation between Mr Rod-Larsen and his wife never took place. It is the stuff of fiction, uttered by a character in Oslo, a multi-award winning play by American playwright JT Rogers about the nine months of secret negotiations that led to the accord, which began performances in London last week.
Oslo has arrived at the right moment. In September 1993, 24 years ago today, Bill Clinton watched on the lawn of the White House as Yasser Arafat, chair of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister, shook hands and signed the Oslo Accords. The handshake and the agreement were pivotal moments in the long, embattled history of the two peoples and were meant to pave the way for a final peace deal within five years. Nearly a quarter of a century later, a peace deal looks further away than ever.
The events of 1993 seem recent, almost within touching distance of the modern world. But in reality, they are as distant from us as the war which started the occupation that Oslo was meant to end was from the men gathered on the White House lawn. This year marks 50 years since the 1967 war, a historical event that the entire Middle East is still grappling with. Placed almost midway, the Oslo Accords, which were meant to end the conflict once and for all, turned out to be, in the prescient remarks of Yasser Arafat to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that day in September, merely a "very, very, very small step" in a long journey.
The dream of Oslo has not died, but it has faded away. The men of Oslo are dying, replaced by a younger generation with very different ideas. In a wider shot of that famous scene of Arafat and Rabin signing the Oslo Accords, two other figures can be seen, Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres, both of whom would go on to lead their people. Of the four, Mr Abbas is the only one still alive, but, at 82, he is far removed from the experience of the majority of Palestinians, who are overwhelmingly young. Mr Abbas will most likely be the last Palestinian leader born in British-mandate Palestine. Benjamin Netanyahu is the first Israeli leader born inside Israel. The generations are shifting.
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With their passing goes the old certainties. The framework of Oslo, the structured path of peace process negotiations leading to two states, is passing into history, but the international community still clings to it. Every round of peace talks since Oslo has presumed the two-state solution as its final destination. Every new initiative has merely trumpeted an old policy. The current deal sought by the US president is, if media reports are to be believed, merely a rehash of the Arab Peace Initiative that has been on the table for 15 years.
As the old certainties pass, nothing is replacing them. The Palestinian Authority now survives only because of the person of Mahmoud Abbas; he himself declared two years ago that Palestinians would no longer be bound by Oslo. The Israelis, too, are lost, lurching from threatening war to staving off the burgeoning international campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel over the occupation. Out of ideas and out of options, the leaders of both sides still play their parts, although the audience is no longer listening.
The failures of Oslo had many fathers. For two decades, every book on the conflict and the negotiations has sought to alleviate or allocate blame. Yet the fatal flaw of Oslo was its optimism. The mistake was to see a dream as a reality, a chimera as a certainty.
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In 1993, the idea of a two-state solution was an outlier. Both Arafat and Rabin believed they would have to convince their respective peoples of the wisdom of trusting the other side. When Rabin was killed two years later, it was by a fellow Israeli who believed even negotiations were religiously forbidden. Today, such extreme nationalism is almost the norm: more than a third of the Israeli army is composed of supporters of the ultra-nationalist, religious right, and the 20 years since Rabin's death have seen the extinguishing of any liberal Israeli movement. It is conceivable that, in the 1990s, a peace deal could have been sold to the Israeli public. Today, such a situation is hard to imagine. When Benjamin Netanyahu bellows that he will never vacate a single settlement, as he did just days ago, his is actually the voice of the Israeli centre. The ground has shifted.
It has done so, too, on the Palestinian side. While negotiations deal with the political aspects of the occupation, the moral case for justice is often sidelined. But if a deal is ever to be struck and accepted, it must have that at its heart. After decades of justice delayed, after wars and sieges and imprisonment, the moral case matters more than ever.
The trajectory of the future is being altered, but not by Palestinians or Israelis. The rise of Iran, the strengthening of Hizbollah, the support for BDS, and the militarisation of religious settlers will have a far greater impact on what happens to both peoples than the Oslo Accords. Far more than in 1993, the fate of Palestinians is intimately tied to the Israeli state. And the fabric of the Israeli state is woven into the occupation.
If the certainties of the Oslo process are still offered lip service in the capitals of the world, in Jerusalem, the future capital of both peoples, the document is one more in a series of long-irrelevant parchments by dead leaders. Oslo, like its stage namesake, remains a historical fact – but it is no more than a modern political fiction.
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