No Return to Oslo

This is yet another crucial moment in the capricious Middle East peace process. The new political reality that has emerged since September 11 has dramatically changed the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the first time, the United States perceives a direct and immediate interest in resolving the conflict—or at least minimizing its potential for obstructing the recruitment of Arab and Muslim states into the antiterrorist coalition. President Bush has expressed support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the U.S. government seems poised to present a comprehensive Middle East plan.

As pressures mount for Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, extreme care must be taken not to return to the dead end of the Oslo process. Simply returning to negotiations is not enough. If a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state does not emerge from the negotiations, the conflict will not be resolved and will once again burst out in violence.

Rather than dwell on the shortcomings of Oslo, this is the time when those seeking a just and lasting peace must define new parameters of negotiations capable of leading to a genuine resolution of the conflict, a win-win situation. Such a new framework must contain the following elements that were missing from Oslo.

Connecting negotiations with realities on the ground: Oslo was formulated in a way that postponed the "hard issues" (read: those most crucial to the Palestinians) for the final stages of the negotiations, which never happened. Jerusalem, borders, water, settlements, refugees, and security arrangement—all except the last, important mainly for Israel, were put off during seven years of negotiations.

Although Article IV of the Declaration of Principles talks about preserving the "integrity" of the West Bank and Gaza during negotiations, it did not prevent Israel from "creating facts" on the ground that completely prejudiced the talks. From the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 until the collapse of the negotiations in February 2001, Israel more than doubled its settler population to 400,000, adding dozens of new settlements —even whole cities—while proclaiming to the world that it had frozen them. Having turned the Palestinian workforce into one of casual labor completely dependent upon
the Israeli job market, it imposed a closure that shut most Palestinians out of Israel and led to widespread poverty. Although the Palestinian negotiators pleaded that they need their people to actually feel the benefits of the peace process, the average Palestinian family today earns less than a quarter of what it did when Oslo was signed. The Occupied Territories have been carved into hundreds of tiny islands with no freedom of movement among them, and virtually every Palestinian lives under conditions of siege. Israel controls all the water supplies of the West Bank and Gaza, and in violation of international law transports most of it during the driest summer months. Israel is building frantically in Palestinian East Jerusalem to prevent any division—or even equitable sharing—of the city. And it refuses to address the refugee issue in any meaningful way.

The new framework for negotiations must integrate negotiations for a political solution with the actual situation on the ground. If Israel succeeds—as it probably has already—in creating irreversible "facts" that will allow it to control and dominate the Palestinian territories indefinitely, negotiations based on the principle of two states are only a prescription for apartheid. The goal must be clear and up-front: if Israel rejects the option of one binational state because it would compromise its Jewish character, then it must agree to a two-state solution—but one of two viable and sovereign states, not one state ruling over a bantustan.

International law and human rights: In Oslo, almost every protection and source of leverage the Palestinians possessed—including the Geneva Conventions and most UN resolutions—were set aside in favor of power-negotiations in which Israel had a tremendous advantage. The Fourth Geneva Convention, for example, forbids an occupying power from building settlements in territory it has conquered. Had international law been a basis for Oslo, the Palestinians could have insisted the settlements—all of them, including those in East Jerusalem—be dismantled. Yet Israel insisted that everything be negotiated. The U.S., supposedly the "honest broker," gave its backing to this skewed framework. Like every other country in the world, it considered the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as occupied, thus accepting the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Feeling that adherence to international law would hinder negotiations, and adopting a policy of "constructive ambiguity," the U.S. reclassified the Palestinian areas from "occupied" to "disputed." In so doing it pulled the rug out from under the Palestinians.

Any new framework of negotiations, then, will have to take international law, human rights, and UN resolutions into account. This does not mean that crucial issues such as security, borders, and even the claims (if not the rights) of the refugees cannot be negotiated, but that there is at least a level playing field permitting the stateless Palestinians to negotiate from a stronger position than now vis-à-vis Israel.

Dismantling the matrix of control: Israel presents its offer of relinquishing 95 percent of the occupied territories as "generous," accusing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of missing an "historic opportunity." Superficially this seems to make sense. But under Oslo, the Palestinians already gave up claim to the 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine that is the state of Israel. So agreeing to give up another 5 percent of the 22 percent—an area the size of five Tel Avivs with an Israeli population of 200,000 located in the heart of the future Palestinian state—is not as reasonable as it might sound.

Moreover, it does not include East Jerusalem. Continued Israeli control over all of Jerusalem, plus the 5 percent that is mainly an Israeli-controlled "Greater Jerusalem" controlling the entire central portion of the West Bank, would sunder the north from the south. It would also render a Palestinian state economically inviable, since 40 percent of the Palestinian economy is directly related to Jerusalem.

If, then, the object of negotiations is a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, the fundamental issue is one of control, not merely territory. The strategic 5 percent Israel has in mind would allow it to maintain three or four major settlement blocs containing more than 90 percent of its settlers, create an Israeli-dominated Greater Jerusalem, and continue to control movement throughout the area. Unless the issues of control, viability, and sovereignty become formal elements in the negotiations, an inviable and dependent Palestinian ministate will be the result.

Refugees: Some 70 percent of Palestinians are refugees. Resolution of the conflict is impossible without addressing their rights, needs, and grievances. Israel must acknowledge its active role in creating the plight of the refugees and recognize their right of return. This is a precondition for negotiations on the actualization of that right. Without it, the justice of the refugees’ claims and acknowledgment of their suffering remain unspoken and festering, obstructing negotiations and reconciliation. With acknowledgement, a viable Palestinian state, a willingness on Israel’s part to accept a meaningful number of refugees, resources, and international support, the refugee issue is resolvable.

Proponents of a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis cannot afford to let the United States present another unilateral peace plan that allows Israel to maintain its control over the Palestinians. Nor will Israel, with its virtual lock on Congress, allow it to pursue a peace that genuinely threatens to dismantle the occupation, as Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent warning to the U.S. demonstrates. It is up to the international community to ensure a new framework of negotiations that does not prejudice their outcome from the start.

Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper is coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University.