The End of Oslo

Judith Butler · Palestine at the UN

Among the many astonishing claims that Barack Obama made in his recent speech opposing the Palestinian bid for statehood was that ‘peace will not come through statements and resolutions.’ This is, at best, an odd thing to say for a president whose ascendancy to power itself depended on the compelling use of rhetoric. Indeed, his argument against the power of statements and resolutions at the United Nations to achieve peace was a rhetorical ploy that sought to minimise the power of rhetorical ploys. More important, it was an effort to make sure that the United States government remains the custodian and broker of any peace negotiation, so his speech was effectively a way of trying to reassert that position of custodial power in response to the greatest challenge it has received in decades. And most important, his speech was an effort to counter and drain the rhetorical force of the very public statements that are seeking to expose the sham of the peace negotiations, to break with the Oslo framework, and to internationalise the political process to facilitate Palestinian statehood.

There are reasons to question whether the Palestinian bid for statehood at this time and on these terms is the right thing to do, but they are not the ones that Netanyahu put forward in his blustery and arrogant remarks. Within the Palestinian debates, many have questioned whether the present bid for statehood effectively abandons the right of return for diasporic Palestinians, leaves unaddressed the structural discrimination against Palestinians within the current borders of Israel, potentially abandons Gaza, delegitimises the Palestinian Liberation Organisation by elevating the Palestinian Authority into a state structure, takes off the table the one-state solution, and mistakenly relies on the UN as an arbiter rather than insisting that Palestinian self-determination form the basis of any future state. Critics like Ali Abunimah, the editor of the Electronic Intifada, argue that the UN has proven itself time and again to be a venue for paralysis, given the veto rules that govern the Security Council and secure the hegemony of major powers, making it likely that the present bid for statehood will be defeated by a US veto.

And yet, one effect that is already felt as a consequence of these ‘resolutions and statements’ is that the 1993 Oslo Accords can no longer be presumed to be the framework for future negotiations – indeed, we may see that framework crumble definitively in the coming days. Oslo not only gave the US a privileged position as broker of all ‘peace’ negotiations, but effectively sponsored the massive growth of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land by refusing to recognise their illegal status according to international law. In fact, the Oslo years have seen the number of settlers grow from 241,500 in 1992 to 490,000 in 2010 (including East Jerusalem), and the indefinite deferral of all ‘permanent status issues’ – effectively establishing the occupation as a regime without foreseeable end. The Oslo Accords also implemented the principle that any change of status of Occupied Palestine would depend on the ‘consent’ of Israel. Thus, the power of Israel to decide the future of Palestine pre-empted the international right of Palestinians to self-determination.

The demise of Oslo as an obligatory framework may well be the most powerful immediate effect of the Palestinian bid for statehood. And yet, a serious debate remains about whether the present bid undermines the broader political right of Palestinian self-determination. Those who oppose the internationalisation of the process underscore that half of all Palestinians may well be disenfranchised if this bid is successful. Can the brokering of statehood through an international body such as the UN confirm the rights of Palestinians to self-determination without external interference? If the Palestinian Authority becomes synonymous with statehood, does that imply a sacrifice of the right of return for millions of Palestinians outside the region? And does it also abandon Gaza and minority rights within Israel? If the rights of self-determination are a collective right of all Palestinians, Omar Barghouti argues, then the UN must preserve the status of the PLO as the rightful representative of the Palestinian people. Perhaps the most devastating criticism has been levelled by Joseph Massad, who understands the present bid for statehood to efface the historic claims of the Palestinian people. On the al-Jazeera website, he writes:

The question... is not whether the UN should recognise the right of the Palestinian people to a state in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would grant them 45 per cent of historic Palestine, nor of a Palestinian state within the June 5, 1967 borders along the Green Line, which would grant them 22 per cent of historic Palestine. A UN recognition ultimately means the negation of the rights of the majority of the Palestinian people in Israel, in the diaspora, in East Jerusalem, and even in Gaza, and the recognition of the rights of some West Bank Palestinians to a Bantustan on a fraction of West Bank territory amounting to less than 10 per cent of historic Palestine. Israel will be celebrating either outcome.

Perhaps this explains why more than 60 per cent of Israelis are reported to affirm the present bid for statehood, and why their position is decidedly left of Obama’s. But however the struggle turns out between the advocates for a Palestinian political demand that emerges from a movement for inclusive self-determination and those who seek the internationalisation of the process by displacing Oslo with the UN, we are in the middle of a historic shift that will lessen the power of the US, Oslo, and the self-appointed Quartet, which appears set to break up as the UN potentially separates itself from the European Union, the US and Russia. Nothing in Obama’s rhetoric will limit these effects. If nothing else, a new set of dynamics will be inaugurated through the statehood bid, and they may prove at the present conjuncture to be more important, and more valuable, than any of us can foresee at this time. Even if a state does not immediately appear (and there are reasons to hope for an initiative that emerges directly out of a more inclusive Palestinian movement for self-determination), at least we may see an end to a ‘peace’ process that has become an excuse for Israeli territorial expansion and the permanent deferral of Palestinian aspirations. Something Obama once called 'hope' may well break through the temporal standstill of the occupation, expulsion, confiscation and disenfranchisement.


  • 2 October 2011 at 3:08am
    Izak Friend says:
    In fifty words or fewer: the Palestinian Arabs are still counting on outside intervention to provide them with a military victory, therby enabling them to undo the Israeli state, and the Israelis are building building building.

    On the Arab side, it's still 1948, and always will be. On the Israeli side it's 2020, and counting.

  • 2 October 2011 at 9:57pm
    Concordia says:
    You mean in 50IQ or fewer. This is about political victory and autonomy and human rights, not 'military' victory. Military aggression and misadventures and atrocities is Israel's purview, not Palestine's.

    On the Arab side, there are springs everywhere. Israel lurches to the extreme right while poverty is on the rise and the regime continues stealing stealing stealing for its illegal building.

    International pariah doesn't have much of a future.

  • 3 October 2011 at 1:50am
    Izak Friend says:
    The post-WW2 order of Arab states is collapsing. There is no point in inventing another Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Iraq in Palestine, and watching it fail there, too.

    The failed ideologies that underpin the failed Arab states--- racial Arabism and religious Islamism--- remain above question, and irreplacable. Look for a long, violent decline, before there's any evolution.

    In the meanwhile, two fantasies, created by Arab League propaganda outlets and rebroadcast until their publics believe them to be "the truth" need to be debunked.

    First, the United States acquired "Palestine" when the Soviet Union collapsed. The US assumption was, that "Palestine" could be brought into a modus vivendi with our prime regional asset-ally Israel, with US money and diplomacy. That strategy failed. "Palestine" allys much more naturally with anti-American totalitarian regimes, like Iran. The US Congress has now recognized that failure. The point: the US was never, and never pretended to be, neutral between Israel and "Palestine." Perhaps you've confused "US" and "UN".

    Second, is the idea that Israel owes it to some future Palestinian state, to freeze time in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in 1967. As this future Palestinian state is only ever imagined in terms hostile to Israel, all Israel owes it, is a sharp kick in the teeth. And, time is not freeze-able. The mundane communal chores, the construction of houses, schools, sewer systems, roads, the demolition of the old buildings, goes on. Of course, Israel is not laying the foundations in the West Bank for a hostile state, to be able to successfully attack Tel Aviv, rather the reverse. Duh.

    Perhaps, some day a Turkish or Russian or Chinese or Persian or Indian hegemon, ruling over the Arabs, will make peace with Israel. Perhaps the Sunni-Shia conflict will escalate, until the two sides see Israel as a valuable asset, worth cultivating. The situation is fluid. A lot could happen.