x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Time disproves Oslo optimism of 20 years ago

Two decades after the Oslo accords, Israel benefits from single-minded purpose, while Palestinians languish under divided leaders.

Amid the boisterous enthusiasm of September 1993, a few warning voices could be heard, just barely.

Most of the world was welcoming the spectacle of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, respectively chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and prime minister of Israel, shaking hands. A form of mutual recognition in the Oslo Accords the two men signed at the White House, 20 years ago last Friday, seemed to mean that an enduring two-state solution was in reach.

To be sure, agreement on a long list of contentious details had been deferred until the end of a five-year confidence-building period. But optimism is humanity’s default position, and many saw the Oslo deal as a genuine way forward.

Few people think that now. Two decades on, the views of critics such as Palestinian scholar Edward Said still reverberate. Denouncing “the degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for the suspension of most of his people’s rights”, Mr Said wrote that autumn that the Accords were merely “an instrument of Palestinian surrender”.

By many measures, the situation today vindicates that view: Palestine’s economy is still anaemic, Israeli settlements keep expanding, a sinister wall divides Palestinians and serves Israelis while Palestinian leaders remain hopelessly divided. A Palestinian state is still a sadly remote abstraction.

It didn’t have to be this way. Ultimately, the Middle East’s most intractable issue must be settled at a negotiating table, not on a battlefield, and Oslo was by any measure a long step towards a two-state solution.

Through most of the years since that day in Washington, however, Israel’s government has worked with determined unity to stall Palestinian institution-building and to accelerate the change in demographic “facts on the ground”. Palestinian leadership has been irresolute and divided.

A few liberal Israelis persist in objecting to each new settlement and decrying each military abuse of Palestinian civilians. But these matters are no longer much of a political issue; Israeli society seems to be broadly intent on simply getting on with the task of swallowing and digesting the best parts of the West Bank.

As we have argued before in this space, the worldwide “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) campaign is becoming increasingly potent, as much of the world turns against Israel’s relentless behaviour.

But BDS is not enough. Unless Hamas and Fatah and other factions can come together as one political instrument, to speak with one voice for all their people, then there will be no new occasions for the kind of exultant optimism that bubbled up in 1993.