Lessons from Oslo – Lack of Strategic Decisions Led to Impasse in the Process

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Dr. Ephraim Lavie speaking at the conference: 20 Years since the Oslo Accords - Success and/or Failure? held on June 20th 
Photo by Tamir Bargig of ArTamir Photography


Exactly ten years ago, in June 2003, an important conference was held here at Tel Aviv University, initiated by the Tel Aviv Institute for Diplomacy and Regional Cooperation, on the topic: “Camp David Summit 2000 – What Went Wrong? – Lessons for the Future.” Senior representatives from Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, who had participated in the negotiations for a permanent status agreement, as well as academics, attempted to explain what transpired at Camp David, which began with tremendous hope and ended with a great confrontation. During the two days of the conference, which was fascinating, it became clear that each side had its own answer to the question of “what went wrong” and knew how to explain exactly why the blame rested with the other side, and not with their own side.

Much has been written since that conference on the Camp David Summit of 2000 and on the Oslo Process, by those who were involved in the negotiations, and by others, who tried to explain the obstacles, political or otherwise, that led to Oslo’s failure. Moreover, since then, over 20 initiatives have been published that proposed various formulas for dividing up the country, whether by agreement or unilaterally. Some initiatives offered an overarching peace agreement, such as President Clinton’s parameters of December 2000, the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002, the “Road Map” of the Quartet on the Middle East of April 2003, and the Geneva Initiative of October 2003; afterwards, the plans for unilateral withdrawal began popping up, first that of Haim Ramon, and later, in 2006, Kadima’s “pullout plan.”

In recent years, plans for a limited, long-term political settlement have been publicized, including the plan authored by Shaul Mofaz, whose idea was to establish a state within temporary borders, and to delay the negotiations on a permanent settlement. And most recently, the Institute for National Security Studies formulated a plan intended to promote a “two-state reality,” even though an agreement is lacking. The plan also includes the option of unilateral separation – all in order to bring a halt to the decline along the slippery slope towards a bi-national state.

Most of these initiatives are compiled and analyzed in the book: “The Peace Process – Seventeen Plans in Ten Years,” which I wrote, together with my friend, Mr. Henry Fishman. The study was initiated by Dr. Ron Pundak, when he was the director of the Peres Center; the book was published in November 2011.

However, not one of all of these initiatives has been adopted, since the debates regarding the permanent issues have not been resolved, and all of the ideas for interim agreements of one kind or another were rejected by the Palestinians who fear, rightfully, that any temporary solution will remain in place for generations.

Of late, the ideas of “one state” or a “bi-national state” are coming back. There is probably a psychological basis for this since most people, including those on the left, have given up on the idea of two states. Some of them, such as Meron Benvenisti and Prof. Adi Ophir, also believe that there is no contradiction between “Zionism,” and “two-statism.” And indeed, we hear more and more voices – even from diplomats and foreign representatives – of those who have accepted the view that the two-state solution is no longer realistic.

This discourse is abused by those on Israel’s right, who turn the opposition to two-states into a political ideology, and determine categorically that “there is no solution to the Palestinian problem,” based on which they propose plans – such as that of the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party  – to annex large portions of the West Bank to Israel. However, the assertion that “there is no solution to the Palestinian problem,” is baseless, in my opinion: maybe the leaders on both sides lack the will or ability to reach an agreement, but the problem itself – despite its complexity – most definitely has a solution.

Factually speaking – and this is important to emphasize – reaching a permanent agreement between both countries remains the declared position of Israel, and is still the diplomatic objective that the Palestinian national leadership is trying to advance. And wonder of wonders, most of the Israeli public still supports this solution, even it is doubtful that it is possible in the present reality; the same is true for the Palestinian community, which explicitly has not adopted the Hamas’s alternative, and is interested in a two-state solution.

Therefore, the question as to why the Oslo process failed, and why all of the initiatives that I mentioned were rejected – this question presents itself at our doorstep and that of the Palestinians to the same extent, since to this day, neither side has taken an accounting of their part in the failure, and instead, has preferred, and still prefers, to blame the other side.

Today, at a distance of two decades from the beginning of the Oslo process, I would like to grapple with this question from an angle which, in my opinion, has not been sufficiently examined, namely, the nature of the strategic decisions made by the leaders on both sides regarding the conflict, which, in my opinion, is a key and decisive factor affecting the chances of reaching a two-state solution in the future.

And now, I would like to make a clear distinction between “Oslo” as a process that failed, and the idea of “two states for two peoples” – which could be practical, or not, in keeping with the nature of the strategic decisions of the leaders of both sides.

To this end, I would like to present findings from a study I conducted with my friend, Mr. Henry Fishman, on this topic. Henry’s field is the behavioral sciences, and together, we examined the nature of the strategic decisions made by the leaders of the Oslo process. The conclusion we reached was that the deep problem relates to the fact that both sides entered the process and engaged in a negotiation between them, without making a strategic decision – in the sense of an historic decision – to reach a solution to the conflict and to agree to compromises that such a solution requires. In fact, they had no “strategy”, which is a necessary and powerful condition for succeeding in negotiations. “Strategy” in this sense is that very complete and coherent perspective that defines the overarching objectives of the leadership in combination with key ways of arriving at those objectives.

We examined the question of whether the Israeli and Palestinian leadership formulated for themselves a strategic outline of this type, which should have included a deep analysis of the roots of the conflict, and take into account the possible ways of reaching a solution, beyond the tendency to operate via a diplomacy that is either reactive or conditional. For example, a policy of: “If they give, they’ll get; if they don’t give, they won’t get” is not strategic.

A strategic outline is one in which the striving for a peace agreement and the policies adopted in other areas, such as the settlements or use of violence, correspond to one another coherently. A strategic outline also must have long-term vision, an overarching perspective, and vision that are not influenced or eclipsed by the existing situation. For example, the necessary vision from Israel’s perspective regarding its future as a Jewish and democratic state, in contrast to the security dangers of a tactical nature, which can be resolved.

All of these characteristics were absent from the decisions of the leaders when they entered the Oslo process. As a result, the negotiations on the interim agreements as well as on the permanent status negotiations took place without a clear direction of joint goals and defined interests. The existing process of dialogue served, for the most part, hidden agendas whose goal was completely at odds with the stated and manifest goal of the political process. On the outside they spoke of “peace,” but it was an imaginary peace, since in effect, no historic decision or political-strategic decision was made.

The question is: why did this happen? Why did the leaders not formulate a strategy for a settlement? In Israel’s case, the reason lay, first of all, in the fact that Oslo came as a surprise to the Israeli leadership: they did not initiate it, and in any case, they did not choose it from among a number of different strategic alternatives, which is the correct way of making such a decision. Israel adopted Oslo as an outline for a settlement without deciding what way it was going. And therefore, it was a decision lacking any strategic basis, and it could be asserted that the Israeli leadership had no strategic and thought-out infrastructure towards any kind of settlement. Even if further down the road, Israel understood that the correct objective was two states, it could not, for political reasons, advance it.

In the Palestinian case, the PLO’s choice of the “Oslo option” was made from a position of having no other option. The diplomatic-political thinking of the PLO relied on a formulation whose components were the right of return for refugees from ’48, and a right to self-definition that can only take place in a Palestinian state that spans from sea to sea. However, given the circumstances of the time, the PLO developed the recognition that agreeing to divide up the homeland, without relinquishing all of Palestine, is a necessary move in order to preserve unity and Palestinian national identity.

On the other hand, it was clear to the PLO leadership that an agreement that included a commitment to ending the conflict in addition to relinquishing some of the homeland and non-return of refugees to their homes – such an agreement would necessarily undermine the Palestinian national narrative, which is the definitional foundation of the Palestinian people. Therefore, the recognition that returning all of the homeland is impossible in the present was translated into a preparedness for a political settlement that would ensure the establishment of a sovereign state on part of the homeland within the ’67 borders, but would leave the “’48 file” pending for the future struggle of subsequent generations.

The upshot of all this was that the Palestinian leadership viewed Oslo as a “lifesaver” and therefore accepted it. It was also a “lifesaver” because during that period, the PLO was close to being thrown in the trash heap of history and considerations of survival fulfilled a decisive role. However, as in the Israeli case, it was a decision without historic resolve and utterly lacking a strategic basis.

It can be asserted, then, that the clearest sign of the lack of “strategic decision” was that the parties did not stipulate an agreed upon objective for the conclusion of the process, what’s known as an “end game.” Therefore, without a clear definition of a shared and agreed upon overarching goal, according to which the negotiations would be conducted, Oslo became a process that blew in the wind, emphasized by manipulations and undermining acts all along the way, perpetrated by both partners, Israel and the Palestinians.

Moreover, the three leading principles defined in the Oslo Accords were mistaken and contributed to failure of the negotiations. I refer to the principle that the process would move forward from the simple to the complex, that is, Gaza and Jericho first, and then an interim agreement, followed finally by a permanent status agreement; the second principle was that trust between the parties would be built as they progressed through the stages of the process; and the third principle was that the permanent status agreement, which was the main essence and goal of the political process, was to remain invisible, and be postponed until the later negotiations.

One might assume that agreement on an ultimate objective for negotiation would generate positive motivation for both parties to safeguard every stage of the process in order to reach the end, and to avoid violations of agreements achieved along the way. However, in the absence of an ultimate objective, a reverse dynamic was created that was at odds with confidence building: every party had an incentive to create facts on the ground, in the sense of “grab as much as you can,” so that when the time came, these facts would determine the permanent agreement.

The result was a complete lack of correspondence between both sides’ declarations about an “historic peace” and “peace of the courageous,” and their activities on the ground, which contributed to an undermining of the trust between them: Israel continued and even accelerated the building in the settlements, and the Palestinians failed to fulfill their commitments regarding the absolute rejection of violence and terror, and refraining from hateful incitement.

From a certain point on, the negotiation process became simply a struggle of flinging accusations back and forth, with the goal of influencing international as well as domestic public opinion. Neither party managed to recruit its own community in order to support the political process, but rather adopted extremist rhetoric intended, for the most part, to justify unwillingness to make concessions in the negotiations.

All of this – everything I have just described – reflected, in effect, the lack of strategic depth in leaders’ decisions, and the mutual lack of faith between them and in the process itself.  

Israel, as the powerful side, did not view the Palestinians as an equal partner in the negotiations, but rather as an opponent that must be forced to submit and accept Israel’s dictated conditions. Based in this perspective, most of the process, from the outset, was placed in the hands of the army, with Israel’s security considerations dominating the nature of the negotiations.  Israel attempted to dictate an arrangement in which it would be able to “close the case” on 1948, through a kind of real estate deal or a barter agreement: it would relinquish most of the ’67 territories, and agree to divide Jerusalem, and in exchange, the Palestinians would give up the right of return.

The Palestinians, as the weaker party, agreed to most of the security arrangements that Israel demanded, but stubbornly insisted on recognition of their complete right to all territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, based on Resolution 242, including East Jerusalem, since it was the “poor man’s lamb,” and all they have left. They were prepared to make adjustments to the ’67 borders and receive alternative territories in order to enable the creation of settlement blocks, and agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem remain in Israeli hands. But from their standpoint, that was their great compromise: [to establish a state on just] 22 percent of Palestine on which there were to be no negotiations. In exchange, they demanded that Israel declare its recognition of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, while conceding to a practical compromise: they reached the negotiating table with Israel with a demand for a fixed number of refugees that be allowed to return, in addition to the possibility that the Lebanese refugees be allowed to settle in those same alternative territories that they would receive from Israel in exchange for the settlement blocks.

Israel, however, rejected 242 on the territorial issue and demanded that the compromise apply within the area of the 22 percent. Israel’s approach in the negotiations, on the whole, reflected a defensive posture of “as few concessions as possible,” since it considered every concession as a loss. Therefore, it did not really define positions for the negotiation, but rather set “red lines” that were intended to curb the Palestinian demands; but these lines were crossed and also changed all the time, and it was unclear what Israel’s true position was on every issue in the final status agreement.

It can be understood, then, that neither side had the insight to create a framework for a balanced and mutual negotiation, the kind that was based on a definition of shared interests that would serve them en route to a peace agreement.

It is true that today Israel and the Palestinians declare explicitly their desire for a two-state agreement: Israel out of an understanding that a continuation of the status quo could endanger its existence as a Jewish and democratic state – today the prime minister states this explicitly – and the Palestinian leadership out of the same recognition of the need to preserve the national identity of the Palestinian people and its right to self-definition on its land. However, the leaders on both sides are still caught in the trap of their inability to make a strategic decision and a historic determination in terms of actualizing the territorial and other compromises necessary in order to reach an agreement.

In summary, the Oslo process failed, as did all of the initiatives and experiments attempted and still underway to this day to revive it, and the main reason is, as I have described: “weak” strategic decisions by both parties that entered Oslo because they had no choice, and without agreeing on an ultimate objective.

Therefore, the important political lesson from the Oslo process is the necessity for each party to be truly committed to reach a political agreement based in a strategic decision that is supported by their constituencies, and relying on the mutual recognition that both parties have equal rights and status. It is imperative that the source of authority for the negotiations be decision 242, which, while it was not accepted in the Palestinian context, is still a decision based on the principle of “land for peace” which appears in the Oslo Declaration of Principles. It is also imperative that the ultimate and agreed upon objective of the negotiations be two states for two peoples that exist side-by-side in peace and security.

It is clear that the price that each party will have to pay for such a solution will be painful, since it will involve relinquishing portions of the homeland and recognition of the other’s right to the land. However, the pain will be less relative to the price they would have to pay over the long term if a political agreement was lacking. Therefore, the understanding among both peoples that they have equal rights to self-definition and peace, and that a peace agreement will safeguard their national identity and continued existence – even if they receive only a portion of their homeland – such an understanding can constitute the founding principles and ethics that lend legitimacy to the leaders as they proceed in determining this difficult and fateful question.