RAMALLAH // It is an anniversary most Palestinians would rather forget. Twenty years ago, the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, met on the White House lawn to inaugurate what many hoped would be an end to their peoples’ conflict.
But the series of interim agreements for concluding a historic peace deal, known as the Oslo Accords, have become a byword for failure.
In the two decades that followed, the endless negotiations that came after Oslo have been used by Israel as cover to further entrench its occupation of areas wanted for a Palestinian state. This helped feed Palestinian violence and a feud that bitterly divided Palestinians between Fatah and its Hamas rivals, which has further set back prospects for independence.
“This is such a sombre anniversary,” said Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which secretly negotiated the deal in the Norwegian capital after which the accord was named. “We’re still under occupation, and at the same time we have such bad leadership.”
She and others said the lives of Palestinians have worsened dramatically since the accord was signed on September 13, 1993.
Their freedom of movement into Israel and between the territories Israel occupies has been seriously restricted, something which aid organisations say has undermined Palestinian economic prospects. Israel also maintains a stranglehold over Palestinian resources – according to statistics released this week by Oxfam, it controls 80 per cent of their water.
Moreover, says Oxfam, Israel has demolished more than 15,000 Palestinian buildings during the past 20 years and stripped another 11,200 Palestinians of their right to live in their desired capital of East Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But almost just as galling to many Palestinians is the PLO’s willingness to continue peace negotiations under these circumstances, which many say only gives Israel political cover for carrying out destructive policies.
“Oslo has been 20 years of doing the same thing over and over and over, and it’s been nothing but failure after failure,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Centre for Middle East Policy and a former member of the Palestinian negotiations support unit.
“The very least we could do is recognise this failure, make a break with it, and adopt a different framework.”
Like many others, he cited as a grievous error the repeated failure of the Palestinian leadership to make peace talks conditional on Israel’s halting of settlement expansion. The Oslo agreements did not stipulate that settlement construction should stop on occupied Palestinian land, allowing the number of Jewish settlers to more than double to more than 500,000. The settlers represent a major obstacle to creating a Palestinian state.
After prodding by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who also chairs the PLO, agreed in July to enter peace talks with Israel after a three-year hiatus. He did so despite initially demanding a halt to the building of settler homes as a pre-condition.
Some critics consider that a capitulation driven by what they see as another one of Oslo’s flaws– inordinate Palestinian reliance on foreign aid, especially from Israel’s foremost ally, the US.
“Abbas and these people will always go to negotiations, no matter the circumstances, because they receive money in return for obedience to America and Israel,” said Abdul Sattar Kassem, professor of political science at the West Bank’s An Najah National University.
He said the perception of Oslo as a capitulation was a central grievance of the second Palestinian intifada of 2000 that left thousands of Palestinians and Israelis dead. It also fuelled the rise of groups opposed to the peace process, such as Hamas, which became notorious for suicide and rocket attacks against Israelis.
Formally calling for Israel’s destruction, the Islamist group won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and wrested control of the Gaza Strip from PLO forces a year later.
In private, some PLO officials defend the Oslo Accords for winning Israeli recognition of their organisation as the sole representative of Palestinians. It also won watered-down autonomy in limited areas of the occupied territories with the creation in 1994 of the Palestinian Authority.
Others, however, were more vocal with their criticism.
“Not at all,” Ahmed Qureia, an architect of the Oslo Accords, said when asked whether the Palestinians would have accepted the agreements in hindsight.
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Centre, a research organisation in Washington, said the structure and timing of the Oslo agreements inevitably doomed it to failure. “A problem with this situation is that you have one party, backed by an American superpower, that is negotiating with a far-weaker party that it also occupies,” he said.
The PLO leadership, exiled to Tunisia before signing Oslo, also appeared far more willing to make concessions with Israel than Palestinians living in the territories, Mr Munayyer said. The organisation was suffering from a dire financial crisis and the political fallout of being outside the territories during the first Palestinian intifada, from late 1987 through the early 1990s.
The organisation effectively agreed to interim agreements that neither committed Israel to ending its occupation nor following through on any of their stipulations.
In retrospect, said Yigal Kipnis, professor of international relations at Haifa University in Israel, Oslo should have included more foreign involvement, especially from the US, to push compromises between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is unclear whether any American president would risk the domestic capital required to restrain Israeli expansionism, especially given the regional instability wrought by the Arab uprisings and the rising influence of Israel’s pro-settler right-wing.
“But it’s clear that leaving the two sides to negotiate on their own hasn’t worked,” Mr Kipnis said.