Flashback to 1993: US president Bill Clinton standing between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin as they shake hands after signing a historic agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories on September 13, 1993. Twenty years after the historic Oslo accords, seen then as the cornerstone of an imminent peace settlement, Israelis and Palestinians had to be dragged back to the negotiating table following conflicts and political deadlock.
By Selim Saheb Ettaba and Hossam Ezzedine/Ramallah
Twenty years after the historic Oslo accords, seen then as the cornerstone of an imminent peace settlement, Israelis and Palestinians had to be dragged back to the negotiating table following conflicts and political deadlock.
With Palestinian officials admitting the latest US-brokered talks are “doomed to failure” and Israel stepping up settlement construction, analysts see outside pressure as the only way to reach an agreement.
“Both sides will have to... restrain the extremists. The enemies of peace are within both camps,” Yossi Beilin, a mastermind of the Oslo accords, wrote in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
Pro-settlement ministers in Israel’s ruling coalition, including Housing Minister Uri Ariel, oppose any withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory and even the creation of a state for the Palestinians.
Success in the talks is “so dependent on the players”, agreed Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath, speaking to journalists this week.
“I thought when Oslo started that it had a strong opportunity for success.
“There were two leaders who were dedicated to make it work,” he said of then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who sealed the accords with a handshake on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.
But given the current climate, “it should not be just bilateral negotiations and just bilateral agreements because the balance of power (firmly in Israel’s favour) makes it impossible to implement”, Shaath said.
“There has to be international involvement ... and there has to be a commitment ... to monitor implementation and take steps needed if any party violates” tacit agreements.”
Settlement building, to which the Palestinians had long demanded a halt before negotiating, was stepped up with Israel’s announcement before talks on August 14 of more than 2,000 new settler homes, infuriating Palestinian negotiators.
The last round of talks in 2010 broke down within weeks over the settlements issue.
“The presence of a third party is vital in a situation where the two sides themselves are not initiating anything,” Beilin said.
“When the leaders of the two sides believe that the status quo is tolerable, there is the need for a third party to wake them up to reality.”
Palestinians complain that Israel has deliberately kept the US, which brought the two sides back to the table after months of persuasion by US Secretary of State John Kerry, away from any meetings since August.
Ahead of the Oslo anniversary, observers can reflect on its achievements, such as the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But the goals of ending the decades-old conflict and paving the way for Palestinian statehood appear as distant as ever.
Beilin said the PA, dominated by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and headed by Arafat’s successor as Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was crucial for the success of any dialogue.
“Israel has a definite Palestinian entity that it can address... Today Israel and the Palestinians co-ordinate operations in all spheres... especially the security field. This is the major change that the Oslo accords have brought about,” he wrote.
But “the fact that, 20 years after the signing of the Oslo accords, we are standing in front of scaffolding instead of a finished structure is disappointing,” he said.
He warned that should the current talks fail, “the Palestinians might decide to dismantle the PA” altogether.
PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi agreed the PA’s creation had been a starting point.
“We have achieved the return of the Palestinian leadership to Palestinian territories as well as about 300,000 families, and the building of Palestinian institutions and an administration,” she told AFP.
But “we have lost a lot - land, resources, capabilities - and Israel has imposed an infrastructure (on us), splitting us up into isolated areas through settlements. It’s as if the settlements have always been there and the Palestinian presence is what’s new.”
Adnan Abu Amer, professor of politics at Gaza’s Umma University, said there was “no doubt that the Oslo accords were a necessary stage for both sides”.
But they “did not give the Israelis the security they wanted in Gaza and the West Bank, and did not grant the Palestinians the land they wanted based on the 1967 lines”.
The Palestinians want the borders of their future state to be based on borders which existed before Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. That would involve the evacuation of settlements.
Political analyst Hani al-Masri slammed the Palestinians’ willingness to talk at all, given Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank.
“Twenty years after Oslo... the occupation (Israel) is entrenching itself, settlements are expanding, and the worst thing about it is that the Palestinians have returned to negotiations,” he told AFP.