The Oslo Legacy: Goodbye to All That

Editor’s Note: The author has written an online supplement to this article, in which he discusses developments that have occurred since the deadline for the print journal.

Although President Obama put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the forefront of his foreign policy when he moved into the White House, pressing for a settlement harder than any of his predecessors had, in the last few years Israel has grown even more isolated and the Palestinians have usurped the process of negotiations altogether by a unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN. No doubt these outcomes were unintended, but they were inevitable because America and its partners failed to recognize that the logic of the Oslo Accords—that both sides could negotiate their differences in a political context—was dead. The way in which a Palestinian state has been declared produces many new questions, from on-the-ground logistics to legal ramifications and the future of current Israeli-Palestinian agreements. These questions also include, crucially, how to continue the pursuit of a two-state solution. If progress is to be made in this quest, and if US influence in the Middle East is to reverse its decline, American mediators and those of its allies must write an obituary for Oslo and move on to a new approach.

The Israelis and the Palestinians know that Oslo is dead. Israel has hid behind America’s naïveté in this regard, mostly because many in Israel believe they have no other choice. The Palestinians have embraced the death of Oslo and, at the moment, it is hard to argue that they are not the better for it. They picked up massive international support for recognition of a Palestinian state. Many countries are increasingly upgrading the status of their Palestinian delegations. Some have argued that this is a drama with little consequence, but if the Palestinians succeed in gaining real independence outside the peace process, the members of the Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia) will find it increasingly difficult to deny that the international community is recognizing the death of the Oslo logic as well, thereby making the very purpose of the Quartet itself obsolete.

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There are many reasons for the death of the Oslo process, some enumerated below. But the primary reason is that the reality in the Levant is one of zero-sum: each side must determine what it can afford to lose so that the other side can gain. Truly successful negotiations tend to share a common trait that is thus far missing in the Mideast conflict: both sides recognize that they have more to gain from compromising than from entrenching. Until Israel and Palestine adopt such an attitude, peace will be elusive to even the deftest of diplomats.


The zero-sum nature of the negotiations so far is the result of multiple factors, both domestic and international, that developed under the Oslo framework and undermined its chances of success. The first one is that neither side’s political leadership has the personal motivation to compromise. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) live comfortable lives in the modern city of Ramallah. They provide financial prosperity for their families and friends, are able to travel internationally, and wield more power and influence than any other Palestinians in the West Bank by virtue of being heads of a “state.” They know they are unlikely to achieve an agreement with Israel that their public will reward them for, and therefore the dire personal and professional risks they face by signing an agreement that Israel can accept are too significant to ignore. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas alluded to this reality after failed negotiations with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that went further than anything Bill Clinton or George W. Bush could secure and were more generous than anyone can imagine a Likud-led government offering. “The gaps are wide,” Abbas said, in reference to Olmert’s overtures on issues like splitting Jerusalem and resettling thousands of Palestinians in Israel.

The leaders of the Israeli government likewise know that they are unable to find a solution for which their electorate will reward them. The price paid by the previous Israeli leaders who established peace for their country is a cautionary tale: isolation from society and personal turmoil leading to a depressing and lonely death, and even assassination. While the demographic clock is not ticking in Israel’s favor, the status quo of relative social calm and economic prosperity in the Palestinian Territories has created a dangerously misleading calm that Israel nonetheless takes comfort in, encouraging procrastination on some of the most important issues relating to peace, especially the conditioning of its own society for the compromises that will be necessary to reach a final agreement. Preparation for eventual settlement is also missing in action at the headquarters of the PA.

The second factor in the Israeli-Palestinian zero-sum game is the absence of political support in either society to motivate the political class. Despite Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s economic and institution building in the West Bank, opinion polls show that the Palestinian public does not overwhelmingly support him, calling into question whether the impressive economic success is actually being felt by a large part of Palestinian society, and whether Fayyad has a firm enough foundation to be the leader with whom Israel can engage in real and long-lasting peacemaking. The other main power player, Mahmoud Abbas, has seen his domestic reputation improve in the aftermath of the PA’s statehood application at the UN, though he has often been a weak president who does not even enjoy the full support of his own political party, Fatah. The strength of his popularity will undoubtedly rely on future progress toward statehood. Compound these difficulties by the tenuous and questionable reconciliation attempt between Fatah and Hamas, the elected government of Gaza, and it is clear why the Palestinians are too weak and divided to have sufficient motivation to compromise with Israel.

On the Israeli side there are too many within the various religious and settler communities that are opposed to peace with the Palestinians via a two-state solution for an Israeli government to have the necessary political support behind them. Because of Israeli parliamentary and electoral rules and the current impotence of the Israeli left-wing parties, these religious and settler blocs are politically powerful enough to prevent an agreement from being reached.

The third factor is that the initial promise for the Palestinians of the Oslo Accords, which was supposed to lead to the end of the Israeli presence in the Palestinian Territories and to a mass release of Israel’s Palestinian prisoners, has gone largely unfulfilled. Although receding, the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in the West Bank is still substantial, and today the Palestinian Authority claims there are more than seven thousand Palestinians in Israeli detention. While acknowledging Israel’s security needs, the Palestinian Authority will not sign an agreement until Israel’s footprint in the West Bank is significantly reduced (perhaps to nothing). It is also true, however, that Israel has been promised a dramatic reduction in incitement to violence from the Palestinians, but this has not happened either.

The fourth factor in the zero-sum game is concern among Israeli Jews that Israeli Arabs do not support the state of Israel. A recent in-depth survey published by the Brookings Institution confirms these worries. Only twelve percent of Arab citizens of Israel identify themselves as Israeli, and only thirteen percent accept Israel as a Jewish state without exception. These numbers will need to be significantly higher before Israeli Jews feel comfortable allowing full participation of Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, which is a concern for the Palestinian Authority in final status discussions, since the issue of Israeli Arabs is directly connected to the issue of the right of return.

The fifth factor is the misguided obsession with what are called “final status issues” crucial to the basic viability of each state. The list of these issues includes the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, final borders, and security arrangements. Tackling them collectively has proven impossible, yet trying to extract those that are supposedly more susceptible to compromise—like security and borders—from those that are more intractable—like Jerusalem and refugees—has been no more successful. The many underlying issues are ignored while the final status issues become increasingly complicated and politicized.


The sixth factor moves the discussion into the international arena. The Israeli mind-set (in public, private, and diplomatic life) is largely shaped by the disproportionate amount of attention and condemnation Israel receives from the international community. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Oxfam (financed in large part by international bodies like the UN and independent foreign governments, all with specific policy goals and looking to exert influence outside formal mechanisms where their policies may not be well received) spend significant portions of their budget on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet most of their efforts reinforce the victim narrative adopted by the Palestinians, which has achieved little success in ending the Israeli presence or in delivering independence. In the instances where progress has been made in coordination with members of the international community, such as in agriculture, the parties involved have refrained from politicizing the issue in this way, focusing instead on helping businesses and industries prosper through education, cooperation, and investment. If the international community is to be part of the solution, it needs to bend its efforts toward mutual recognition, understanding, and cooperation, and understand that moral posturing and placing overwhelming blame only on one side creates further separation.

The seventh factor is that while the sincere participation of Arab countries in the peace process has been a central assumption of the Oslo process, the large majority of Arab countries seem reluctant and/or devious in their involvement. Their history of using the Palestinian cause to divert attention from domestic political problems is well known. The December 2010 WikiLeaks release made plain what was already obvious—that Arab leaders have been far more concerned with Iran’s threat than the Palestinian issue. Now their own internal democratic uprisings have consumed their attention. Further, the Arab world has for years now fallen far short of fulfilling the financial pledges made each year to the Palestinians and shown little initiative in incentivizing the Palestinians and Israelis to make difficult decisions together. If Israel needs guarantees from the Arab world, it cannot rely on them if they are unable to keep their own promises to the Palestinians.

The eighth and perhaps most subversive factor is the split in the Palestinian national movement created by Iran. The driving anti-Israel force in the world today is Iran, which has succeeded in splitting part of the movement away from the Ramallah leadership of the PA. There is now another section of the national movement that has decided that Iran’s confrontational and militaristic approach is more likely than negotiations to produce not only a Palestinian state but also the elimination of Israel. The increasing involvement of its ally, Hamas, in the Palestinian Territories means that Iran’s influence is likely to deepen, not recede. If Israel is to find a true and honest Palestinian peace partner, this split in the Palestinian national movement will have to be healed and Iranian influence and ideology purged.

The logic of Oslo is dead, finally, because neither side is prepared to commit to creating peace or to upholding it, even if they genuinely wanted to. Both sides face the same core obstacles: a lack of trust in the other’s commitment to making and implementing difficult compromises, and influential and powerful domestic factions who do not accept the idea that coexistence is achievable or even preferable. No wonder that they do not believe that changing the status quo will improve their respective situations.


So how to determine a plausible way forward in the Middle East “conflict”? First, America and its partners in the peace process must let go of the Oslo logic that tells them the two sides can negotiate their respective issues solely on the political level. The goal of this new approach must address the factors listed above, bringing an end to the zero-sum nature of the situation. Broadly speaking, the societies need to be conditioned for peaceful coexistence while being shown its benefits. Not until this message has reached a majority of each population can the will of the people begin to affect either government. This process is likely to take years, perhaps generations, before it reaches the required societal depth. But there is no shortcut; the people must want peaceful coexistence if their politicians are to feel confident in taking substantive steps.

The process must build gradually with both sides undertaking parallel steps to neutralize and reverse the factors that made Oslo a zero-sum game. The steps ought to begin as civic initiatives, broadly expanding, for instance, current joint Israeli-Palestinian academic and sporting exchanges organized on the nongovernmental level, and grow later to include the governments. Economic ties and direct investment should and can be grown, as both societies are capitalistic in nature and already have a broad base of economic integration. These steps too can gradually involve government—as in verifiable and responsible Palestinian water management and (re)usage, for example, and improved and effective security operations in exchange for the removal of sections of Israel’s security barrier. Later, Israel might agree to evacuate small settlements deep in the West Bank in exchange for a formal and public request from the Palestinian Authority to Iran, given perhaps on the floor of the UN General Assembly, for the withdrawal of all financial and material support from terror operations in Palestine.

If the two sides were to successfully achieve such incremental steps, issues requiring actions by other nations could then be addressed, such as World Trade Organization acceptance of the PA and Israeli membership in its UN regional group. The international community must support this process by remaining mostly on the periphery, taking action only to ensure that outside forces don’t spoil it.

It has long been thought that any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will require significant leadership from America. As we have seen during the Obama administration, however, there is such a thing as too much American leadership. The heavy-handed, personalized nature of the White House involvement has in fact been the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process.

Moving forward, the US must understand that dictating policy to the Israelis and Palestinians creates wider gaps between the two sides. When President Obama secured a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, he effectively created a new precondition to negotiations that the Palestinians now demand before moving forward, thus creating more instead of less conflict. In his May 19th speech, Obama added yet another new condition: pre-1967 borders, which will likely become a second precondition for the Palestinians, pushing the two sides even farther apart. In the days leading up to the UN General Assembly session in September, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proposed unconditional negotiations and was rebuffed by Abbas despite support from the US, Russia, and the major EU countries.

The Israelis feel that they have had policies forced upon them from above, as it were, that conflict with their security needs, while the Palestinians now feel that if a US president can make such demands, they should as well. In Israeli circles, many are saying that President Obama has attacked Israel so effectively as to produce an equal and opposite reaction in the right-wing coalition that opposes his approach. Meanwhile, the Palestinians remain committed to unilateral actions that show the hollowness of US diplomacy. The situation not only contributes to the decline of American power abroad but also makes peace far less likely than it was at the beginning of 2009.

Aaron Menenberg was a 2010–2011 Menachem Begin Heritage Center Israel Government Fellow with the Israeli Ministry of Defense in the West Bank. The views expressed are his own.

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