On September 13, 1993 – exactly 20 years ago last Friday – Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, on the White House lawn in Washington.
There was a sense of euphoria at the ceremony. When the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman and the Israeli prime minister shook hands, Arab Americans and American Jews turned to each other to embrace and celebrate the moment.
There was optimism in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, too. Chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath, appearing on my call-in television show a few days later, was asked if the fledgling Palestinian government would be able to restrain perpetrators of violence against Israelis.
“If the agreement works, and I believe that it will,” he responded, “two years from now our farmers will be cultivating the land that has been liberated, our young men will be working at jobs that have been created, and we will be building the infrastructure of our new state. If, in the midst of all of this, someone were to commit an act of violence, the people would turn to us and say, ‘stop them … they are threatening everything we’ve won’.”
Many Israelis also looked confidently to the future. “Israel is another Israel, we are ready to change many of our ideas … to adapt ourselves to a new reality,” said Yossi Beilin, the deputy foreign minister. “The PLO is no longer the same PLO. Things can be done in the Middle East.”
Not everyone was pleased. Israeli critics accused Rabin of surrendering to and giving legitimacy to “terrorists”, while Palestinian critics said the Oslo documents had too many loopholes and would only prolong the occupation.
By any measure, the Accords were incomplete. They were full of ambiguities, areas where the parties fudged their differences because they could not find agreement. And resolution of the most critical issues – Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, security arrangements – was put off for five years. One observer said the Accords were more “a cry for help” than a peace deal.
But nobody could deny that Israel and the PLO had taken unprecedented steps, breaking taboos and shattering myths.
In the first place, Israelis and Palestinians formally recognised each other as national communities. While Palestinians had committed themselves to a two-state solution in 1988, signing an agreement with the Israelis that recognised the legitimacy of an independent Israeli state represented a dramatic breakthrough.
Israel also had an issue with recognition. Until Oslo the Israelis had refused to acknowledge the existence of a Palestinian people.
In acknowledging the PLO, Israel opened the door to the inevitability of a Palestinian state.
The Accords also shattered the myth that the conflict was insoluble. Oslo did not provide a solution, but did reveal a willingness on both sides to seek one.
There were also other breakthroughs. No Palestinian state came into being, but the locus of Palestinian authority and decision-making moved for the first time to the Palestinian territories. And even the limited pullback of Israeli forces from the West Bank was welcome.
The idea behind the transitional phase was that five years of peaceful relations would build sufficient trust for negotiators to tackle the thorniest issues. For that to play out as envisioned, several things had to occur.
First, the US had to shift from being an observer inclined to support one side, to a fully engaged balanced participant.
Second, the parties had to move quickly. The architects of Oslo had not factored in the ability of suicide bombers, settlers on a rampage, or excessively violent Israeli occupation forces, to unravel the process. As it happened, violence soon eroded public confidence in the peace process.
Third, provision had to be made to bring the benefits of peace to both sides, to sustain their confidence. But while Israel’s economy grew quickly after Oslo, the Palestinian economy contracted. Israeli behaviour was unrestrained: settlements grew faster than ever but because of restrictive Israeli policies Palestinian unemployment doubled, income fell and businesses closed.
In the end, the flaws of Oslo proved fatal. Today the number of Israeli settlers has tripled; the Palestinian economy depends on Israeli goodwill and international largesse; thousands have died. No wonder confidence and trust are at a low point.
Now, after a long hiatus, the parties have resumed negotiations. One can only hope they have learnt these lessons from Oslo:
First, a phased approach won’t work. Opponents of peace will take advantage of an interim period to sabotage any agreement;
Second, the US can’t be an observer. The Palestinians are too weak and have no leverage. Pressure must be applied on the Israelis, to level the playing field.
Third, there must be immediate improvement in the daily life of both peoples. Israelis must feel more secure, and Palestinians must be able to see clear signs of a more just and prosperous future.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa