Oslo Accords failed in design and implementation, experts say

Former negotiators weigh in on why the Oslo peace process for Israel and Palestine failed

Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister at the time, signs the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993, at the White House. AFP
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Three decades after a US-brokered peace process failed to produce its intended outcome – an independent Palestinian state and with it, peace in the Middle East – experts and former negotiators are now examining what went wrong.

At the heart of why the Oslo peace process failed is whether it was due to flaws in its design or its implementation – or perhaps both.

Experts on both sides agree: the landmark accords signed on the White House lawn in 1993 had several major flaws in design, primarily that they treated both sides of the negotiations – the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel – as equals despite the stark power imbalance.

Shlomo Ben Ami, who served as Israeli foreign minister between 2000 and 2001, said the treaty suffered in both design and implementation.

He said Israel’s insistence on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank – areas that had been reserved for a future Palestinian state – even while talks were continuing and few avenues to hold Israel accountable were other major flaws.

“No Israeli commitment to halt expansion of settlements, let alone dismantle them, was in the Oslo Accords,” Mr Ben Ami said at an event hosted by the Middle East Initiative in Washington.

“No system of international observation, no mechanism of sanctions for violators of the agreement – it was all built on the wrong assumption that trust can be built between the occupier and occupied.”

At the time of signing the initial agreement, the sides did not agree on any of the core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, borders and Palestinian refugees’ right of return, among others. They instead agreed to reach a permanent settlement on these unresolved issues within five years.

No such agreement happened and over the course of the following three decades, successive US administrations made efforts to get talks started, all of which ended without reaching a final agreement. Most were separated by years of no talks and violent flare-ups.

The last time major direct talks were held was back in 2014.

Omar Dajani, a law professor who served as a member of the Palestinian negotiation team from 1999-2001, said that as the broker of the talks, the US could have made up for the accords' design flaws.

The agreement, he said, left Israel in full control of most of the West Bank, even while the talks were taking place. It also had many ambiguities, which gave Israeli leaders discretion to interpret their commitments as they liked.

And four times between 1993 and 2016, the US used its veto powers on the UN Security Council to prevent measures condemning Israeli settlement activity and create a framework for costs associated with that activity.

“The United States could have played a useful role in compensation for the accords' weaknesses, its choice not to do so should be recognised as the policy failure that it was,” Mr Dajani said.

“They offered cover for unilateral action by Israel.”

Jewish settlements in the West Bank, built on territory Israel occupied in 1967, are considered illegal under international law.

But successive Israeli governments have continued to expand them.

When the accords were signed, about 250,000 Jewish settlers lived in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 128 settlements, according to Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that promotes the two-state solution.

Now, close to 700,000 live in both areas in about 300 settlements and outposts, severely undermining the possibility of having a contiguous Palestinian state.

Last year, Israel voted in its most extreme, right-wing government yet under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since his government was sworn in, settlement expansion has accelerated and cabinet ministers have said they planned on annexing the entirety of the West Bank.

“The far right-wing Israeli government a Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping de facto and eventually de jure to annex the West Bank, their plan is very clear,” said Martin Indyk, who served as US special envoy for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations from 2013-2014.

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Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, points to the absence of dispute resolution mechanisms, and a lack of an effective monitoring and accountability mechanism, as major flaws to the peace process.

He said US reports of breaches of the agreement often simply went nowhere.

“Looking in the mirror, I point to failures of American diplomacy and policy,” Mr Kurtzer said.

But he added that there were also failures in the ways in which the negotiations themselves were conducted.

He pointed to Israeli settlement expansion as well as Palestinian suicide bombings, which began soon after the treaty was signed. He said the PLO did not do enough to condemn them.

“The process of peace making has not succeeded or failed as a result of elements of failure within the process of negotiations,” he said.

“They're related to Oslo but they’re much more related to flaws in the way in which all of us negotiated.

“Oslo ended the moment it was signed on the White House lawn.”

Updated: October 02, 2023, 3:43 AM