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The legacy of the Oslo Accord, 20 years on

What we are left with, barring a diplomatic miracle, is the fact that one state is not just an inevitability, but a present reality, whether we like or not

Gulf News

It has been two decades since the Oslo Accord was signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). It is interesting that after all this time, Palestinians and Israelis are led by two people integral to the deal that formally established the ‘peace process,’ but for polar-opposite reasons.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a signatory and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later gloated that he “stopped the Oslo Accord” because he wanted “to put an end to this galloping forward to the ‘67 borders” that existed prior to the war Israel launched that year against its Arab neighbours.

The accord was supposed to lead to a Palestinian state. However, it actually made this goal far more difficult, because it deferred the issue of colonies until permanent-status talks, that took place seven years later, and in the meantime failed to call for a freeze on this brazen colonisation of occupied territory.

Although colonies are clearly illegal under international law, this meant that Israel could accelerate its colonisation in earnest, while claiming that technically it was not violating the accord.

This “remains one of the most serious and far-reaching flaws of the Oslo process — the ‘original sin’ that continues to haunt the peace process and the Palestinian leadership to this day,” wrote Khalid Elgindy, an advisor to the Palestinian leadership on permanent-status negotiations (2004-2009).

Abbas entered recent talks with Israel after dropping his insistence that colony expansion must stop first. This shows that history is repeating itself and that obvious, crucial lessons have not been learned — even by a man who endorsed the initial mistakes.

One state or two?

While Oslo was supposed to bring about a two-state solution, it heralded its eventual demise. The argument used to be about whether one binational state was preferable, but reality and ‘facts on the ground’ have shifted the debate to whether two states are even possible anymore.

I believe we crossed that threshold long ago (though many on both sides fail to realise this) and the single biggest contributor to the death of the two-state solution is the colony enterprise.

There are now hundreds of colonies and smaller ‘outposts’ scattered across the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel illegally annexed and which Palestinians claim as their capital. Israel has used colonies as a means to completely cut off occupied East Jerusalem from the West Bank, to enforce its insistence that it will never divide the city.

The colony population now numbers more than 500,000 and its rate of increase is three times that of Israel’s. Colonies control almost half of the West Bank, which constitutes the vast bulk of the Occupied Territories, which themselves represent just 22 per cent of historic Palestine (the Palestinians made the historic compromise to forego the other 78 per cent of their homeland in pursuit of peace and independence. Yet, they are expected to continue making concessions).

Given the huge number of colonists, their increasingly strong political influence and the uproar caused by the removal of just several thousand of them from the Gaza Strip (most of whom simply moved to the West Bank), it is almost inconceivable that any Israeli government will be able to withdraw that many people, or even a sufficient proportion of them, even it was willing.

And no government (right, left or centre) has shown such willingness. On the contrary, all have continued colony expansion, relying on the hope-turned-fact that this will become irreversible, while they make duplicitous statements about their readiness to make “painful concessions” for peace.

Were the Palestinians to accept a deal under such conditions, their ‘country’ would be nothing more than a series of small, disjointed pockets of land. Even if Israel withdrew from all colonies, except the largest and most strategic ones that it insists on keeping under any circumstances, it would leave a nonviable Palestinian state, as those colonies are widespread and situated on the West Bank’s most fertile land and crucial water aquifers.

It will also leave occupied East Jerusalem totally cut off from the West Bank. The Palestinian people will not — indeed cannot — accept such unjust terms, regardless of how accommodating their leaders are prepared to be.

The two peoples have long passed a point of no return, so there is a need for pragmatism and thinking out of the box. As such, I supported an initiative by Dr Tony Klug — vice-chair of the Arab-Jewish Forum, and a special adviser on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group — that colonists can remain if they are willing to be citizens of a Palestinian state. Those who refuse will have to move to Israel. However, the proposal has not gained traction on either side since its launch years ago.

What we are left with, barring a diplomatic miracle, is the fact that one state is not just an inevitability, but a present reality, whether we like or not. Peace talks have little, if any, chance of success until people on both sides recognise this and adjust their expectations, hopes and mindsets accordingly. The only question is whether Palestinians will one day enjoy equal rights in that single state.

The big irony is that Israelis who condemn a one-state solution as a threat to Jewish supremacy, while embracing the colonisation of Palestinian land, are unwittingly its most ardent supporters. As such, ‘one-staters’ can thank their staunchest opponents, who have only themselves to blame for creating the very scenario they vowed to avoid at all costs.

Sharif Al Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.