Twenty-five years ago, the iconic images of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin enthusiastically shaking hands on the White House lawn were splashed on the front page of nearly every major newspaper. Many in the international community initially celebrated the signing of the Oslo Accords and viewed it as the opening of a new era in Palestinian-Israeli relations. But Palestinians and analysts who had a deeper understanding of the implications of the agreement issued prescient warnings about what was in store for Palestine after Oslo. While nearly any sign of substantive progress was a welcome development in the Arab-Israeli conflict amidst the First Intifada, any serious analyst could see just how unfavorable the terms of the agreement actually were for Palestinians. Far from providing the foundations of a workable and just peace agreement, the Oslo Accords should now be understood for what they have always been, in the words of Edward Said: “an instrument of Palestinian surrender” as the “primary consideration in the document is for Israel’s security, with none for the Palestinians’ security from Israel’s incursions.”
To commemorate the anniversary, the Journal of Palestine Studies has published a special virtual issue, “The Failure of the Oslo Accords,” which features some of the best articles analyzing the Oslo Accords and its discontents. Even without the benefit of hindsight, many JPS contributors have issued clear-eyed assessments of the accords over the years.
Brushing aside the collective euphoria that affected so many in the international community at the time, Ian S. Lustick argues in “The Oslo Agreement as an Obstacle to Peace” that “opponents of the principles of compromise…can interpret, stall, complicate, and even thwart it by prematurely (from the point of view of its supporters) treating the agreement as a legal codex rather than a political framework.” Lustick was acutely aware that the Israeli and American opponents of Oslo had chosen to “undermine the peace process by demystifying its grand claims” and simply arguing that the Palestinians were not to be trusted. All in all, the Oslo Accords were effectively weakened in being treated “not as a basis for an evolving partnership, but as an array of legalistic and public relations weapons that can free Israel of its commitments, prevent further transfers of Palestinian territory to Palestinian control, and delegitimize Arafat and the idea of a Palestinians state in the mind of Israeli public opinion.”
In her article “De-development Revisited: Palestinian Economy and Society since Oslo,” Sara Roy effectively demonstrates how Palestinians experienced “severe economic decline, social regression, and political repression” as a direct result of the accords. Roy uses her incisive approach to the process of de-development to articulate the relationship between Israel and Palestine wherein a true development process is effectively undermined and prevented. Roy’s analysis shows how the “characteristic features of the de-development process—expropriation, integration, and deinstitutionalization—not only have continued, but have accelerated since Oslo, their detrimental impact heightened by new economic realities, particularly [the] closure.” One need look no further than the deplorable economic conditions in Gaza that Oslo has wrought upon the Palestinians to see these devastating effects.
The political economic dimensions of the accords were also explored by Peter Lagerquist in “Privatizing the Occupation: The Political Economy of an Oslo Development Project” and by Leila Farsakh in “Undermining Democracy in Palestine: The Politics of International Aid Since Oslo.” While Lagerqist explores the “dubious economics” and financial schemes that the Oslo Accords facilitated between Israeli and Palestinian elites, Farsakh observes how donor countries implemented programs with a complete disregard for the reality on the ground in Palestine. In her critical assessment of aid programs in Palestine under the auspices of Oslo, Farsakh argues that the “donor community has failed to accept Palestinian society’s own critique of the Oslo process and its definition of resistance against the occupation.” The donor countries, led by the European Union and United States, instead focused on the politics of normalization with Israel against the national aspirations of Palestinians themselves.
Writing in 2001, Mouin Rabbani argues that the Second Intifada was merely the “inevitable conclusion” to the Oslo Accords. Rabbani notes that while most West Bank and Gaza Palestinians initially supported the Oslo Accords, “the fact that military occupation, settler colonization, and economic underdevelopment preceded Oslo is less significant than the reality that, since Oslo, they have been consolidated where most expected their removal.” This consolidation was indisputably intentional, as the accords were never really meant to solve the conflict but rather further Israeli control over Palestine and Palestinians as the developments over the last twenty-five years have shown. As all other issues including the legitimate rights of Palestinians were subordinated to the security interests of Israel, while the Oslo Accords simply “formalizes arrangements tantamount to apartheid.”
The final selection for this virtual issue moves from previous studies of political economy and development to highlight an outstanding literary contribution to JPS. In “Mahmud Darwish’s Allegorical Critique of Oslo,” Sinan Antoon frames Darwish’s poem, “A Non-linguistic Dispute with Imru’ al-Qays,” as an enactment of his final days as a member of the PLO after he refused to support the Oslo Accords. In his poetry, Darwish uses “a double prism of sorts, one to view the nightmarish present through the mythic past and the other simultaneously to re-inscribe the past through the present.” Though Darwish largely avoided criticizing or commenting on the PLO after he left the organization, Antoon eloquently derives insights from his poems, and augments our understanding of Darwish’s enduring legacy.
The peace process is now effectively dead, if there ever was one, with the final nails pounded into its coffin by the Trump administration’s ongoing punitive measures against Palestinians. But the consequences of Oslo’s failures echo in the streets of occupied East Jerusalem, through the settlement-covered hilltops of the West Bank, and across the fields of besieged Gaza. While it is important to push ahead and envision a just future for all of historical Palestine, it is instructive to look back to understand how Israel and Palestine arrived at these current crossroads. For all of its failures, there are still many lessons to be gleaned from the legacy of the Oslo Accords.