Unless Palestine Reappears
While the US and its Western allies mark the horrific strike on the World Trade Centre which killed 2,800 innocent civilians two years ago today, peace-minded Palestinians and Israelis argue that if the Oslo accord, signed ten years ago Saturday, had been faithfully implemented, there would have been no attack on the US. Instead of a burgeoning civilisational conflict between the US and militant Muslims, there could have been a small, viable Palestinian state on 22 per cent of the territory of Palestine. Some 2,500 Palestinians and 850 Israelis would not have died in the Intifada which began nearly three years ago and Israel might have been on the way to resolving its half-a-century-old conflict with the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Bush administration would not have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East might have been on the road to a peaceful, prosperous future.
I was in Jerusalem on Sept. 13, 1993, the day the breakthrough Oslo accord was signed on the south lawn of the White House. Palestinians were confused, sceptical about the accord because of its vagueness, optimistic because they hoped that Israel, at long last, intended to come to terms with their existence in the occupied territories, Jerusalem and, even, in the Galilee and Negev. That afternoon, I joined Palestinian notables, scouts, citizens of Jerusalem and journalists for a ceremonial raising of the Palestinian flag over the holy city, an act prohibited by the Israeli occupation regime. We gathered in the garden and on the steps of Orient House, the elegant 19th century Husseini mansion in the leafy suburb of the Walled City. A chubby Palestinian boy scout solemnly carried the flag to the standard, unfolded the white, black, green and red cloth, attached it to a rope and pulled. The flag rose slowly as it unfurled and hung limply above the heads of the crowd.
A band played the Palestinian national anthem, “Biladi”, and little boys handed out small paper flags. We filed out into the streets with our flags, reclaiming East Jerusalem for Palestine with these small symbols of sovereignty. A youth carrying a large flag rode a brown horse down Salaheddin, the main thoroughfare of the eastern sector of the city. Half a dozen lads walked with a huge flag down the street and made for Damascus Gate, where they hung it from the city wall. Israeli policemen and troops stood by, uncertain how to react. Palestinians and Israelis hoped this was the beginning of the end of the painful occupation and the beginning of the beginning of Palestinian liberation.
The next day, a colleague and I drove to Jericho and Gaza — the areas set to emerge “first” from the occupation. The shops in Jericho blossomed with Palestinian flags of all sizes. The flag flew over the municipality, cars displayed the flag, children waved the flag. The inhabitants of the ancient town were cheerfully optimistic that the ordeal of the Palestinian people had come to an end. We arrived in Gaza that afternoon as Palestinian celebrants were gearing up for street parties. Flags sprouted on every building. In the shadow of doorways stood the sour men opposed to Oslo, biding their time, willing Oslo to be transformed from victory into defeat.
If the provisions of the first Oslo accord had been implemented faithfully, the Palestinian state should have emerged at the end of 1998. The territory of the state should have encompassed virtually all the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, in accordance with the provision of the unacceptability of the acquisition of territory by force laid down in Security Council Resolution 242.
Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles (the Oslo accord) stipulated “that the negotiations on the permanent status [of the territories] will lead to the implementation of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338”. Dr Ron Pundak, one of the Israeli academics involved in the negotiations with the Palestinian team, confirmed to this correspondent that this was the expectation of the Israeli side.
The Declaration of Principles envisaged a 10-month time frame, beginning on Oct. 13, when the accord came into effect. The two sides were meant to reach an agreement on Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho by Dec. 13. This was set to be completed by April 13, 1994. July 13 of that year was set as the final date for Palestinian general elections and the redeployment of Israeli troops from Palestinian population centres.
Dec. 15, 1995, was the latest date for the start of negotiations on the final settlement which was scheduled to take effect on Dec. 13, 1998.
What happened? First and foremost, neither of the parties to the accord and none of the sponsors of Oslo insisted that its provisions be implemented properly, its spirit observed or its timetable followed.
This allowed Israel to ignore its commitments and rewrite the Oslo accord. This process produced a series of subsequent agreements which eroded the provisions of Oslo and postponed final status negotiations. Thus, the agreement for Israel's pullout from Gaza and Jericho was not reached until May 1994, Israel's redeployments from Palestinian urban centres did not take place till late 1995, and Palestinian elections were not held until January 1996. Final-status talks did not open until May 1999 — and only for a formal session. Serious negotiations did not get under way until August 2000, after all parties involved were shocked by the collapse of the Camp David initiative.
Meanwhile, Israel continued to establish colonies and build road networks in the West Bank and Gaza in an attempt to preempt the final status negotiations by creating irremovable facts-on-the-ground.
Israel got away with such prevarication and procrastination for several reasons.
The Oslo accord was vague and allowed Israel to reinterpret its provisions. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, elected in July 1992 on a peace platform, was not really convinced of the merits of Oslo until just before he was assassinated in November 1995. Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat and his colleagues, including Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmad Qureia, did not insist that the accord be faithfully implemented. Instead, the Palestinian side allowed Israel to seize and hold the initiative and undermine the accord.
The Palestinian leadership believed that the step-by-step extension of Palestinian self-rule was indeed inevitable and irreversible (as the Oslo accord stated). US President Bill Clinton did nothing to correct or halt this Israeli-driven perversion of the Oslo process. He had surrounded himself with a group of Zionist advisers who set out to “get” as much as possible for Israel. So there was a progression of sub-texts which absorbed the time and effort of negotiators and destroyed the integrity and credibility of Oslo. When it was all too clear that Oslo was moribund, Clinton convened the Camp David summit in July 2000. By that time, it was too late for outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to strike a deal and for outgoing Clinton to see that it was implemented. The opportunity to reach a final status agreement had been lost even though Israeli and Palestinian negotiators came very close to succeeding during last ditch negotiations at Taba, in January 2001.
Once Ariel Sharon, a dedicated opponent of Oslo, became prime minister of Israel, and George Bush was in the White House, Oslo became a dead end. In March and April 2002, Sharon reoccupied West Bank territory from which Israel withdrew in 1994-95. Subsequently, he has sent his troops into all the areas of Gaza which they had evacuated.
Oslo was not irreversible. In June, after 10 months of prevarication and procrastination, Bush formally issued the “roadmap”, a plan for the emergence of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005. But the course he laid out is already a dead end. Since he is facing election in 2004, he cannot be expected to exert any pressure on Israel to permit a Palestinian state to emerge in ever shrinking tracts of the West Bank and Gaza.
But unless Palestine, a country present for more than 2000 years, reappears on the map of the globe, there will be no security for Israelis or Americans who live in glass houses.