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The Oslo Accords were supposed to provide a path to a two-state solution, but they were never designed in the interests of the Palestinians, argues Michael Lavalette

The present settlement in Palestine formally has the Palestinian National Authority exercising limited self-government over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, but with Israel having overarching control. It is rooted in the agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the early 1990s and called the ‘Oslo Accords’, which developed out of the Oslo Peace Process.

The Oslo Peace Process began with secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO in Oslo. Those talks led to the signing of two ‘accords’: Oslo 1, signed in Washington in 1993 and Oslo 2 signed in Egypt in 1995.

The Oslo process was notable for two things. First, the PLO recognised the right of Israel to exist and Israel acknowledged the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This was the first time both had formally recognised each other.

Second, the Accords were meant to initiate a staged implementation towards Palestinian self-determination in line with UN Resolutions 242 and 338 (essentially Palestinian control over the whole of the West Bank to the lines that Israel breached in the Six-Day war of 1967). The Accords were, in effect, an agreement to look towards a ‘two-state solution’ to the Israel/Palestine issue. But it hasn’t turned out that way, and inbuilt problems with the Accords means it was never likely to result in Palestinian statehood or self-determination.

The Road to Oslo

We need to have a little understanding of how we got to Oslo. There were four important aspects to explain the pressures to deliver a deal. First, the PLO was the sole, identifiable representative of the Palestinian people, but their fortunes were on the slide. The PLO was originally set up in 1964 by the Arab League. Although it was ostensibly an advocate for Palestinian interests, it was actually under Egyptian control, and was a vehicle for espousing Nasserist and pan-Arabist views. The Six-Day war of 1967 did huge damage to pan-Arabist aspirations (and to Egypt). In the aftermath of the Battle of Karameh in March 1968 (when Palestinian fighters inflicted defeat on Israel), the Palestinian fedayeen grew in importance and all the military organisations grew significantly. The largest was Fatah and they, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, took control of the PLO.

From 1968, the PLO became the established leading organisation of the Palestinian resistance movement. It was an umbrella organisation which drew together a number of political organisations (such as Fatah, the PFLP and the DFLP). It’s stated position was for a single, secular state that would be home to all people regardless of their faith – ‘from the river to the sea’.

The PLO and the political organisations grew in influence and stature over the 1970s and were committed to the armed struggle for national liberation. By the late seventies, there were serious debates over strategy. After a quarter of a century of struggle, Palestinian liberation was no closer. There were debates over the nature of the armed struggle and the use of terror tactics by some sections (for example aircraft hijacking, or the taking of hostages at the Munich Olympics of 1972). Indeed in 1979, Arafat approached Norway to see if they could broker a deal with Israel to open negotiations, with Arafat indicating he would be willing to move to accept the 1967 boundaries for any future Palestinian state. Nevertheless the PLO remained, on the whole, unified and Arafat was the recognised leader of the national movement.

But the Israelis were unwilling to negotiate. And in 1982 they launched a major offensive into Lebanon, called ‘Operation Peace for the Galilee’. There were two aims. First, they wanted to intervene in the Lebanese civil war to bolster their supporters amongst the right-wing Christian Falange. Second, they wanted to drive the Palestinian fedayeen out and deal with the Palestinian problem once and for all.

The Israelis drove into Lebanon and quickly got to Beirut. But then they came up against heroic resistance from the Palestinian fighters. The Israelis laid siege to West Beirut from 6 June to 19 August. The Israelis launched attacks from air, sea and on land, yet the Palestinian fighters held firm.

However, on 19 August an agreement brokered by the Americans saw 14,000 Palestinian fighters leave Beirut to be scattered across North Africa and the Arab world. The promise was that Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps would be protected. In reality, the abandoned camps were left to the Israelis and their fascist Falange allies. The horror of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila were the result.

Beirut was a massive defeat for the PLO and their international standing declined significantly. The Arab League even stopped having ‘Palestine’ as its lead agenda item at its standing meetings. Their influence was on the wane. The pressure was on Arafat to get some kind of deal.

The Arab states and the first Intifada

The second element driving towards the Oslo Accords was the treacherous role of the Arab states. The Arab states have always had two faces when it comes to Palestine. With one, they express platitudes when Palestinians die, express outrage at Israeli aggression and demand that the international community stands up for Palestine in the face of the Zionist entity. And yet, from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, they have pursued their own interests over those of Palestine. Jordan and Egypt were occupiers of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) between 1948 and 1967.

The Arab states have had an often fractious relationship with Palestinian militants, an antipathy that was heightened during the radical phase of the national-liberation movement when the political groups talked about the need for an Arab-wide revolution. From Jordan (during Black September), through the Lebanese civil war, when Syria entered the fray against the Palestinians, and onto various Arab regime ‘normalisation’ processes, the Arab regimes have been, at best, unreliable allies and at worst hostile and antagonistic forces rallying against Palestinian militants and their solidarity networks.

And despite their initial refusal to recognise the ‘Zionist entity in their midst’, one after another, they have pursued ‘normalisation strategies’ and made deals with Israel. In reality, the Arab leaders and Arab states give ‘shallow support’ to Palestine to pursue their own economic and military interests, which often mean negotiating or dealing with Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians.

Egypt, the state where pan-Arabism, through the leadership of Nasser, had the greatest hold, was formally at war with Israel between 1948 and 1973. But in 1978, it signed the Camp David Accords, brokered by US President Jimmy Carter, establishing full diplomatic relations from 1980. It was the first Arab state formally to recognise Israel. It was expelled from the Arab League as a result, but was readmitted in 1989.

Jordan signed a recognition agreement in 1993, and gradually more Arab states have pursued ‘normalisation’. In 2002, the Arab League proposed the recognition of Israel by Arab states as a pathway to peace. More recently, the Abraham Accords (signed in 2020) saw the UAE and Bahrain recognise Israel. In response, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning any Arab agreement with Israel as ‘dishonourable’. Egypt has always been a significant player in the region and the moves of Egypt and Jordan to negotiate and recognise Israel put more pressure on the PLO and Arafat to enter negotiations.

The third significant feature pushing change was the First Intifada. The defeat of the fedayeen and the PLO in Beirut in 1982 produced a lull in the Palestinian resistance movement. But in December 1987, Palestinians across the whole territory erupted into a full-frontal assault on Israel. The First Intifada was a popular rebellion involving Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Palestine48. It drew men and women, old and young into the campaign. There were strikes, demonstrations and the creation of popular education, welfare and health services. The Israeli response was vicious. However, the movement was televised across the globe and intensified the pressure on Israel to negotiate. In no small measure, Israel was forced to the negotiating table because of the popular rebellion within Palestine that it was struggling to contain.

Imperialism and Oslo

Finally, the fourth feature was US Imperial interests. At the start of the 1990s, Western ideologues declared that ‘history was over’ and that, in effect, capitalism had won. The collapse of the Eastern Block opened up new opportunities for the American Empire to expand further into the Middle East and to hem in any future competitors (essentially China and Russia) by expanding American influence and U.S. military bases across the region. ‘Solving’ the Palestinian running sore, creating a Palestinian statelet that would recognise (limited) Palestinian sovereignty, would, from a U.S. perspective, do two things. On the one hand, it would ensure that Israel remained the dominant pro-US sub-imperial power in the region, whilst, on the other, it would help create the conditions potentially to open up other states in the region to deals with the US. In the post-Cold War era, solving the Palestinian question would potentially have benefits for the US’s long-term ambitions to dominate the region.

These four features, then, explain the context that brought the PLO and Israel to the negotiating table and the signing of the Oslo Accords. The Accords were laid out as a series of staged agreements around recognition and interim self-governance. They did not recognise the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead, the Palestinian Legislative Council was identified as an interim organ of self-government. The Accords recognise Palestinian ‘legitimate and political rights’ but are silent about how they will be fully achieved.

Although there was an agreement that unresolved issues would be addressed and solved within five years, and an indication that a Palestinian Authority would have control over the land area identified in UN Resolution 242 (i.e. the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza). The Accords actually made no reference to the nature of Palestinian self-government and its powers and responsibilities, nor did they define the borders of the territory it eventually would govern.

The Accords did agree that Israeli military forces would gradually withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank (though not Jerusalem). The division of the West Bank and Gaza into zones A, B and C (where the Palestinians have control over A areas, there is joint control over B areas and Israel controls C areas) would gradually wither with eventual Israeli withdrawal.

The question of Palestinian refugees and their ‘right to return’ was not addressed, and there the fault line was built into the fabric of the Accords. The Accords also paved the way for significant aid to be funnelled into the West Bank and Gaza. However, that aid would be structured in such a way as to aid the integration of the Palestinian National Authority area into the globalised world market. After the Accords were signed in 1993, there was a major conference held in Washington, the aims of which were to promote the economic development of the West Bank and Gaza, secure Middle East security, introduce liberalised markets, sustain democratic institutions and protect human rights. As the Arab Marxist writer Samir Amin noted, this was a prescription for a modern imperialist project built around ‘shallow democracy’ and liberalised markets.

The signing of the Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority was not welcomed by all the parties of the PLO. Many argued that Arafat had given up too much, for very little in return, certainly very few guarantees. Even mild critics, and former collaborators of Arafat, like the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, broke from the PLO over the agreements.

The failure of Oslo

Nevertheless, after years of struggle, the sight of Yasser Arafat being helicoptered into Ramallah and Gaza to welcome the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, was something that was greeted in a mass outpouring of joy and celebration. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate what they thought were the first steps towards a Palestinian state.

But the joy was short lived. The Accords decreed that over the five years of ‘transition’, solutions would be found for outstanding issues. Yet, many of the issues left to transition talks were, at the very least, ‘significant’. They included: the status of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest.

The Israelis made very few attempts to implement any of the promises embedded in the Accords. And making matters worse, the PA started on a road which increasingly saw them collaborating with both US and Israeli interests over ‘security questions’ and economic development.

Such collaborations left millions of Palestinians locked in poverty. There were tens of thousands of refugees confined to camps with no hope of their ‘right to return’, and the PA increasingly used a police force to control the rejectionist elements within the Palestinian national movement.

By the end of the 1990s, there had been no movement on the list of substantial and significant issues. Settlement expansion was continuing. There had been no withdrawal from Gaza. There had been no movement on the refugee question.

At the Camp David summit in 2000, the failure to agree on the outstanding issues marked the failure of the Accords. The political process had stalled. When Ariel Sharon led an incursion into the Al Aqsa compound later that year, it was the spark that led to the explosion of the Second Intifada and the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process.

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