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Oslo is dead. Liberal Israelis must make common cause with the Palestinians

Thirty years on from the signing of the Oslo Accords, the one lesson learnt is that only equal rights between equal citizens, Palestinian and Jewish, can end this conflict
Protesters carrying the Palestinian flag during a demonstration for 'judicial independence' in Tel Aviv on 2 September 2023 (Reuters)

It is painfully clear that the prospect of creating a Palestinian state alongside one that defines itself as Jewish is zero. As a process to reach a solution to this conflict, Oslo is dead.

There are 700,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and not an Israeli politician or movement in sight is prepared to remove them. Quite the contrary. Annexation exists at two speeds: creeping annexation favoured by a broad spectrum of the Israeli political elite, from centre to right; and annexation tomorrow, as proposed by the National Religious Party. This latter force is in the driver's seat.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has lost its national compass, its popularity and its meaning.

It only exists as an extension of Israeli security policy. Its purchasing power or diplomatic leverage has shrunk in the Arab World. When the United Arab Emirates normalised relations with Israel, it achieved a suspension of plans to annex territory in the West Bank, which is meaningless in the context of the current Israeli government.

We will see how much of the PA's shopping list can its delegation get from Riyadh. As I have written before, I doubt Saudi Arabia will normalise with Israel for a host of reasons which have little to do with the Palestinians, not least its wish to see how long the current normalisation with Iran will hold.

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But even if that happens, I doubt the PA will achieve much. This comes at a time when support for the Palestinians on the Arab street is as strong and as vocal as it ever was.

The fact, however, that a two-state policy could not conceivably function does not prevent it from living on in the bosom of the international community and every major player in it: the UN, US, China, India, Russia, every European state, and every political party within those states calls for a two-state solution that cannot happen.

Every European state, and every political party within those states calls for a two-state solution that cannot happen

Why? Because as a mechanism for supporting the one state that continues to exist and expand, Oslo is not about to crumble. A policy of supporting the exclusive right to sovereignty of only one people in this conflict is cemented in place, as permanent as the wall, the roads, and the roadblocks that carve the West Bank up into a myriad of prisons.

Oslo lives on just as doggedly as 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas remains president. It lives on just as long as he refuses to hold free and fair elections. It lives on as Israel and America retain a vice-like grip on who is going to succeed him.

It lives on as the Palestinian Preventive Security force functions as the eyes and ears of the Shin Bet. Oslo lives on in all the weasel and deeply duplicitous statements of the international community implying a symmetry of violence. It lives on as the West looks the other way when settlers rampage through Arab towns under the protection of Israeli soldiers.

A paralysed Palestinian Authority

Right now, a paralysed PA is being kept on life-support by an Israel which has no intention of restarting negotiations. Why, you might ask? Because it is abundantly in the interests of an expanding and expansionist Jewish state to have the PA in place.

As long as the PA exists, the eastern border, where Israel is most vulnerable, is quiet. As it is, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced he is going to reinforce the fence with a wall. As long as the PA exists, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian National Council (PNC) remain shells of their former selves. It is not in Israel’s interest for the PA to dissolve. The PA plays a key role in keeping the occupation as painless as possible for the occupier.

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The recognition of Israel by the PLO in 1993 has been a disaster for the Palestinian national cause. With Oslo in place, there can never be a national unity government composed of representatives of all the Palestinian factions. Nor can there be proper negotiations, because only one Palestinian faction has a seat at the table. 

For Israel, however, more or less the opposite is true. The number of countries that recognise Israel has gone from 110 in 1993 to 166 today. That represents 88 percent of the member states of the United Nations.

The number of settlers in the West Bank has increased fourfold, from 115,000 to 485,000, excluding East Jerusalem. The right of return has disappeared as a demand. 

Would Oslo ever have delivered a viable Palestinian state? I doubt it.

Now, there were many honest and deeply knowledgeable participants of the 1991 Madrid conference who would disagree with me and who would say that Madrid was betrayed by eight months of secret negotiations going on in the Norwegian capital.

I have only one source for claiming Madrid was doomed before it even started, a Jordanian, but he is worth listening to.

'There will be no Palestinian state'

I came across Adnan Abu Odeh as an old man, still held in high esteem by the palace in Amman, and still running around in an official car and smoking pencil cigars. 

Odeh, who died last year, was King Hussein’s Palestinian adviser. The king had plucked the major from the ranks of the mukhabarat, had him trained by MI6 in London, and made him his minister of information.

A view of a wreckage and remains of a destroyed house belonging to a Palestinian family after Israeli army demolished it because this house was built in Area C, which was classified in the Oslo Accords in 1993, in Duma village, south of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank.
The wreckage of a Palestinian family house demolished by Israeli army in Duma village, south of Nables on 2 February, 2023 (Reuters)

In March 1991, Odeh was sent by Hussein to Washington to see US Secretary of State James Baker. The mission was a delicate one and had to be arranged in some secrecy. Odeh accompanied Prince Hassan to a conference in San Francisco as cover for flying in secret back to Washington.

Odeh recounted his meeting with Baker in some detail. 

It started inauspiciously. Odeh’s mission was to find out what George HW Bush’s intention was in calling an international conference that was convened in Madrid.  

Oslo created a template for making occupation as painless as possible for the occupier. The question is how long is it going to remain so?

Baker fobbed him off with platitudes for 15 minutes and ended by saying: "Have I been clear?” Odeh said no and remained firmly in his seat. There was a clock in the secretary of state’s room that was linked to the one in the antechamber. It chimed every 15 minutes, and each time it did so, a secretary appeared to accompany Odeh out. 

Odeh refused to budge. Baker went on talking for another 15 minutes. The clock rang again, the secretary reappeared. Still, Odeh was not satisfied. Baker snapped: “What do you want?” Odeh replied: “I want to know the end game.” Baker ordered his secretary out for a second time.

“Look, Mr Odeh, I will tell you one thing as secretary of state. There will be no Palestinian state. There could be an entity less than a state, more than an autonomy. Okay? That is the best we can get from the Israelis.”

This was not news to the Jordanians. In 1981, the Russian Arabist Yevgeny Primakov, then director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences and first deputy chairman of the Soviet Peace Committee, came into Odeh's office and told him bluntly: “Adnan, forget it, there will be no Palestinian state.”

New generation of resistance

Oslo created a template for making occupation as painless as possible for the occupier. The question is how long is it going to remain so, while the fire underneath the occupier’s feet burns as strongly as ever.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli war lasted nine months. Before that, Jewish terrorist gangs like the Haganah and the Irgun murdered village headmen and forced Palestinians to leave. In all, it took about a year to force 700,000 Palestinians into exile, an event known as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.  

In 1967, in the Six-Day War, Israel’s army swept all before it in a matter of days, with the result that Palestinians did not leave on the same scale. David Ben-Gurion’s original plan to take as large an amount of land with as few Palestinians as possible failed, and Israel today is living with the consequences.

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The consequences of Oslo have only deepened Ben-Gurion’s failure. While the number of settlers has increased fourfold, the number of Palestinians has increased too, from the Jordan river to the sea.

Parity exists in the number of Jews and Palestinians living between the river and the sea, according to Ula Awad, director of the PA’s Central Bureau of Statistics. There are approximately seven million in each group.

A new generation of resistance is rapidly taking shape, which is also a response to Oslo. 

Oslo gave no role to the Palestinians who didn't leave when Israel was declared a state. The Palestinians of 1948 are now an embedded part of the Palestinian national cause, and so too are Jerusalemites. From 2021, the Palestinian people have become one again and the Green Line is becoming more and more obscure. 

People who were not yet born in 1993 have learned that Oslo will not liberate them. They are engaging in direct resistance in the full knowledge they have been betrayed by the leadership that led them to Oslo and the international community.

As important is the passive resistance shown by the farmers in the South Hebron hills, or Shufat in Jerusalem, or anywhere where Palestinians refuse under unbearable pressure from settlers and the army to leave their land. It does not matter how many settlements there are if the Palestinians refuse to leave. 

Power struggle for control of Israel

As the occupation deepens, deep splits are emerging among the occupiers. The disciples of Yitzhak Rabin are losing control of Israeli society. Before Oslo, two narratives existed - a Palestinian and an Israeli one - but now there are at least three. There is a deadly fight going on between liberal Zionism and the National Religious movement.

This is a power struggle for the control of Israel.

It is one which Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is surely placed to win. The American Jewish writer Peter Beinart made this point in his last video from New York. He told liberals that unless they made common cause with the Palestinians, who have been excluded from the protests against judicial reforms, they would be crushed by the settler right.

Beinart is one of a number of former liberal Zionists who have come full circle on Oslo.

He says, and there are other Jews like him, that only a one-state solution with equal rights between equal citizens, Palestinian and Jewish, will end this conflict. 

Who will be more tempted to quit the battlefield and head for Europe? Palestinians or the Ashkenazi Jews, with their European passports?

To fight the religious right on the one side and bomb Jenin on the other, Beinart argues, is a losing bet. He is right.

The so-called liberal wing of the military, the Shabak and the air force will be swallowed up by the religious right if they don’t ally fully with the Palestinian cause. At the moment the religious right has all the momentum and youth on its side. 

And who will be more tempted to quit the battlefield and head for Europe? Palestinians or the Ashkenazi Jews, with their European passports? It will and already is the Ashkenazi who are fleeing Israel for the US, Turkey and Europe. 

After Portugal announced it would allow in the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled after the Inquisition, nearly 21,000 Israelis applied for passports, more than the number of applicants from Portugal's former colony Brazil.

Palestinians will not vanish - but Israeli liberals indeed could. 

Battle of wills

Of course, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, what is indeed the difference between them? 

The only difference as far as they are concerned between Ben-Gvir and Benny Gantz is the speed at which annexation or territorial expansion should proceed. Ben-Gvir wants the West Bank to be annexed tomorrow. Gantz is more than happy for it to proceed in salami slices.

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Both are irreversible. No land, no building is ever given back. 

Even when 8,000 settlers were pulled out of 21 camps in Gaza by Ariel Sharon in 2005, double that number were settled in the West Bank the following year. The total number of settlers did not decline. It increased.

This conflict is a battle of attrition and a battle of wills. Oslo was not a respite, but used as another weapon in the conflict. Today it serves as an object lesson in what not to do.

Israel will only negotiate when it can no longer maintain the level of force required on a daily and nightly basis to enforce its hegemony over the lives of the Palestinian majority. It may still take another intifada and decades to come to that point.

But when it does, there can only now be one solution - one state for all its peoples living as equals.

Only then will a Palestinian state truly exist. Only then will the nightmare of occupation, and the nightmare of Oslo, be truly over.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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