The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the holy Muslim shrine on 28 September last year, reopened the question of whether the Oslo Accord is capable of producing a viable settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ever since it was signed on 13 September 1993 on the White House lawn and sealed with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat’s hesitant handshake, the Accord has been a subject of controversy.
The following month the London Review of Books ran two articles about the Accord, one against and one in favour. Putting the case against, Edward Said called the agreement ‘an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles’ and argued that, in signing it, Arafat had cancelled the PLO Charter, set aside all relevant UN resolutions except 242 and 338, and compromised the fundamental national rights of the Palestinian people. The document could not advance Palestinian self-determination, Said maintained, because self-determination entails freedom, sovereignty and equality.
In my article I put the case for the Accord. It was obvious that the document fell a long way short of the Palestinian aspiration to full independence and statehood. On the other hand, it was not presented as a full-blown peace treaty but, much more modestly, as a Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government, which would come into operation initially only in Gaza and Jericho. Despite all the limitations and ambiguities, I argued, the Accord represented a major breakthrough in the long and bitter conflict over Palestine. What mattered was that the two parties recognised each other, accepted the principle of partition, and agreed to proceed in stages towards a final settlement. I believed that the Accord would set in motion a gradual but irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and that it would lead, after the five-year transition period, to an independent Palestinian state over most of the West Bank and Gaza.
Over the last seven years, my mind has often gone back to this early debate. Who had the right reading, Edward Said or I? Sometimes I felt that the argument was going my way; at other times I thought it was moving his way. Zhou En-lai’s famous remark about the impact of the French Revolution, that it was too early to tell, might be said of the impact of the Oslo Accord. Said called his most recent book The End of the Peace Process: that strikes me as premature. What was started at Oslo is still alive, if only just. The peace process has broken down not because the Accord is inherently unworkable but because Israel has reneged on its side of the bargain.
The Oslo Accord did not promise an independent Palestinian state at the end of the transition period. It left all the options open. Similarly, nothing was said about the issues at the heart of the dispute, such as Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees. All these issues were deferred for the final-status negotiations scheduled to take place in the last two years of the transition period. The deal between Israel and the PLO was a gamble and Rabin knew this better than anyone. His body language at the signing ceremony revealed what he told his aides in so many words: that he had butterflies in his stomach. The prospect of an independent Palestinian state did not frighten him, so much as the momentous nature of the occasion. Provided Israel’s security was safeguarded, he was ready to go forward in the peace partnership with his former enemy, as he did when he concluded the Oslo II agreement on 28 September 1995. But five weeks later he was assassinated. The Oslo process had suffered its first serious setback.