When the Oslo Accords were being marketed to the public, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres described it with an aphorism that became a cliché: “You can make omelets from eggs, but you can’t make eggs from omelets.” Peres was saying that the peace process was irreversible, and that it was important to fortify it by means of political and economic agreements with the countries of the region to ensure its long-term stability and viability.
Twenty-one years later, not even Peres talks any longer about a “new Middle East,” about Israel’s joining the Arab League or about the establishment of a regional bank – the initiatives he preached during all the pomp and circumstance when the agreements were signed. The Oslo process and its gloomy aftermath prove that you can make eggs from omelets. History does not flow in one direction, and even big bangs and dramatic changes melt away or assume different forms from what their progenitors hoped.
Important elements of the Oslo Accords remain intact: The Palestinian Authority, which enjoys broad international support, is operating in the West Bank; Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and the border between them looks to be accepted and agreed; and every few years (Camp David, Annapolis, the Kerry talks), an attempt is made to reach a final settlement. However, the principal argument adduced by the fomenters of Oslo – that the establishment of the autonomous regime in the territories constitutes the “end of the occupation” – appears groundless in retrospect. The Israeli occupation in the territories did not stop for a second. The Palestinians never enjoyed independence like their Jordanian, Lebanese or Syrian neighbors. Israel decided, and continues to decide, when and under what conditions a Palestinian can enter and leave his country.
The Israeli discourse, which for two decades sanctified the “two-state solution,” has reverted back to the period before recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization and before the Oslo process. The vision of an agreement to divide the land into two states, Israel and Palestine, has been tossed aside as an unattainable goal. The right wing is promoting the annexation of the West Bank in stages, while on the left a discussion has arisen revolving around one state with equal civil rights for all, Jews and Palestinians. The center has gone back to supporting a unilateral withdrawal from part of the West Bank, aimed at reducing the international pressure on Israel (similar to Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005).
The tension between the two approaches – one state or partition – has existed for almost a century, since the Balfour Declaration promised a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine. The British Mandate was established in 1919 as one state, in which Jewish emigrants would live alongside the local Arabs. That didn’t pan out, and in the 1930s the idea arose of partitioning the country into a Jewish state and an Arab state (the Peel Commission Report of 1937). Since then, the pendulum has swung between the two models: a return to one state with an Arab majority (the British White Paper of 1939); and back again to partition (the United Nations resolution of 1947).
Israel’s establishment did not alter the dynamics: partition in practice in the armistice agreements following the War of Independence (1949); reunification into one state without internal borders and without equal civil rights after the Six-Day War (1967); and a gradual installation of separation apparatuses – closure of the territories, the Oslo Accords, the separation fence, the disengagement from Gaza and the rounds of talks on a permanent settlement – from the eruption of the first intifada (1987) to the failure of the Kerry talks (2014).
What caused the spectacular hopes of Oslo to be shattered, and why did the process of partition become stuck in the craw? The right-wing camp claimed that the fomenters of the agreement, Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, were patsies and were tricked by the crafty terrorist Yasser Arafat, who duped them in order to establish a base for terrorist attacks on Israel in the heart of the country. The left-wing camp claimed that Peres and Rabin were con men who wanted to privatize the occupation and reduce its political, security and economic price to Israel – accordingly, they made do with an interim agreement, established the Palestinian Authority with international funding and expedited the construction of settlements.
These are simplistic explanations, as is the debate over whether the Oslo process was foredoomed to failure, as its critics argue, or failed because of the circumstances: the terrorist actions of its opponents; the assassination of Rabin and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu to power; and the failure of the Camp David summit, at the end of which Ehud Barak declared: “There is no partner.”
Contrary to the conventional approach in the political debate within Israel, the Oslo process was not only dependent on the purity of the intentions of its signatories and their successors – their achievements and failures have also to be understood against the background of the historical processes amid which they played out. The Israeli-Palestinian agreement was signed a few years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world was awash in a wave of wall-breaching at the time, and Israel established, renewed or strengthened relations with dozens of countries that had previously boycotted it. The partial lifting of the ring of Arab enmity, and the forgoing of Greater Israel, looked like local manifestations of the “end of history.” In these circumstances, it is easy to see why Peres and his colleagues believed the process to be irreversible: If a superpower like the Soviet Union – which in its glory days defeated Hitler and imposed its rule on half the world – had evaporated overnight, who would be able to stop the Israeli-Palestinian peace?
Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist who wrote “The End of History,” continues to publish articles in defense of his basic thesis – the triumph of capitalistic democracy – but history has progressed differently from what he expected. The world of 2014 is far from the euphoria of the end of the last century. Isolationism and nationalism have intensified, and trends toward cooperation and the breaking down of barriers have been curtailed. The nationalist wave Netanyahu is leading in Israel today is also surging in Russia, China, India, Japan, in some European countries and, in a different way, in the insularity of the United States under the leadership of President Barack Obama. Arab states – Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon – have fissured in tribal and religious conflicts. In a world like this, Arab-Israeli peace sounds like an off-the-wall notion from the last century, not a practical, attainable goal.
But the multitude of changes that have occurred in the international arena and in the local arena do not undermine the basic assumption of the peace process and of separation from the territories: Israel needs permanent borders as the basis for the normalization of its status in the Middle East. Recognized borders, even without agreements, together with handshakes and hugs, ensure stability and security more than any other solution.
The problem with the ideas of the Right is not that they are “hallucinatory” or that they are unacceptable to “the world.” It is that they provide easy and convenient justification for everyone who wants to continue the conflict with Israel and call into question the legitimacy of its existence, and that Israel’s ongoing rule over the Palestinians obliges it to resort to ever harsher repressive measures that impinge on its domestic democracy.
No agreement is irreversible, and every solution will require maintenance and cultivation if it is to survive in the long term. That is an important lesson of the Oslo process, but not a reason to forgo the idea of partition.