The Middle East: Making Oslo Work

The Middle East peace process and with it the modus vivendi that has evolved between Israelis and Palestinians is on the verge of unraveling. Although Israel and Syria can manage a prolonged period of ‘no peace, no war,’ or even a sustained period of no negotiation, Israel and the Palestinians cannot. Either there will be progress or there will be deterioration, including increased violence and political polarization that will only further diminish what prospects still exist for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The Clinton administration has three options. It can continue what has become a mostly passive role and allow the situation to drift. Sometimes a situation needs to ripen before it can be usefully addressed, and inattention can on occasion contribute to maturation. But this strategy is failing, and matters are likely only to get worse. Continued diplomatic passivity or neglect is almost certain to be malign in its consequences.

A second option would be for the United States to abandon step-by-step peacemaking and leap directly to talks on the final resolution of the issues dividing Palestinians and Israelis. There are valid arguments for doing so. But there are even stronger arguments that such an ambitious approach would fail, leaving matters far worse and prospects for a diplomatic solution dim.

The third and most attractive policy would be for the United States to stick with a step-by-step formula but to do much more to promote it. The Clinton administration needs to make Oslo work. ‘Oslo’ is shorthand for a gradual process of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. This would require more time, work, and risk on the part of the United States, and even then it is not clear the endeavor would succeed. What is clear is that the alternatives to a serious effort on behalf of gradualism are virtually certain to fail, prove even more costly to the United States, and, in the process, present U.S. officials with far worse choices.


Nearly six years after the Madrid conference that first brought Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors face to face for negotiations, and almost four years after the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn, the Middle East peace process is on the verge of collapse. Talks between Israelis and Palestinians have broken down; rocks are being thrown, bombs are going off. Once more Israeli soldiers are squaring off against Palestinian youths.

The violence is both a cause and a reflection of the problem. Palestinian violence-in particular, acts of terrorism against Israelis, such as the March 1997 bombing that recently killed civilians at a coffee house in Tel Aviv-may be an expression of Palestinian frustration. But for Israelis these acts bring into question the basic premise of the peace process: the cessation of Palestinian terrorism. If the Palestinians are unable or unwilling to curb the violence, Israelis will walk away from negotiations.

Violence does not occur in a vacuum, however. What has provided a context or even impetus for the latest surge in Palestinian acts of violence are Israeli decisions. The most provocative was the decision in February to break ground for new housing at the Har Homa settlement in eastern Jerusalem. This step combined what are arguably the conflict’s two most highly charged issues: expanding settlements and the future of Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the mix has proved combustible.

The situation has been made worse by a separate Israeli decision to offer to the Palestinians some nine percent of the land Israel still occupies. This was the first of three territorial transfers called for by the Hebron accord signed earlier this year. But the parcel was smaller than the PLO expected and sought. Although Israel possessed the right unilaterally to determine the size of the transfer, the fact that the decision was taken without consultation made it much more difficult for Palestinians to accept.

These decisions reinforced ominous developments that had gained strength in preceding months. Economic conditions in the Palestinian areas had worsened, in part because of long-lasting border closures that preclude the movement of goods and people to or through Israel. Petty and not so petty harassment of Palestinians had grown more frequent. The decision by Israeli authorities in September 1996 to open a tunnel running alongside Moslem holy places in the heart of Jerusalem had triggered a violent reaction in which elements of the Palestinian security forces turned their guns on Israeli citizens. And in December 1996 the Netanyahu government announced that it would resume financial incentives for Israelis choosing to live in settlements.

The actions overwhelmed the commitments of the January 1997 protocol (brokered by the United States) in which Israel agreed not only to undertake its promised withdrawal from Hebron (the last of the West Bank cities it pledged in the Oslo Accord to leave) but also to implement the remaining parts of the Oslo arrangements, including withdrawal from other occupied lands and resumption of talks on final status. In making the commitments, the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu tied themselves to the Oslo process and increased the odds that a viable Palestinian political and territorial entity would result.

Why should any of this matter to the United States? We have invested a great deal in facilitating the peace process. But beyond any blow to U.S. prestige, a breakdown would jeopardize our interests. Israeli security would suffer, as would the stability of moderate Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan. And the ability of local states to work with the United States in containing Iran and Iraq, the two greatest threats to the area’s security and energy supplies, would be diminished. A successful peace process lubricates other U.S. relationships in the Middle East and Persian Gulf; a failing process pours sand into the gears.

The Oslo Accord Declaration of Principles
Signed in Washington, D.C., by Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, September 13, 1993

    Five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule.

      Permanent status issues such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, security arrangements, and permanent borders are excluded from the interim arrangements.

      Israel retains sole responsibility for security along international borders and crossing points to Egypt and Jordan.

      Israel is responsible for the overall security of Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli settlements in those areas, and freedom of movement on roads.

      Immediate self-rule for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.

      For remaining Palestinians in the West Bank, responsibility for education, health, social welfare, direct taxation, and tourism to be transferred to Palestinian representatives.

      Calls for the election of a Palestinian Council and the establishment of a Palestinian police force.

      Permanent status negotiations to begin no later than the third year of the interim period (May 1996).

      American Choices

      What, then, should the Clinton administration do? In principle, it has three choices: more of the same, a radically more ambitious policy, or something in between.

      The first option would maintain the current modest U.S. involvement. The president would host the occasional meeting, issue the occasional pronouncement, send the secretary of state on the occasional visit. The United States would be a facilitator. Such a policy clearly appeals to the current administration. It is less politically risky at home than confronting the Israelis when we disagree with them. And it is certainly less demanding than active mediation on the time and energy of the president and senior officials.

      There is also a diplomatic rationale for a relatively detached approach. Israel and the PLO learned to talk directly with one another at Oslo without American help. Also, peace tends to prosper best when it is brought about by the parties directly involved rather than imposed from outside.

      In addition, allowing protagonists to live for awhile with the situation they have created can be a good strategy. Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. In today’s Middle East, however, things are likely to get worse and then get even worse. The current U.S. strategy is not working; more of the same promises only more deterioration. Palestinian violence and terrorism are draining Israeli popular support for the peace process, just as poverty and Israeli building programs are undermining Palestinian optimism. Trust is fading; moderates on both sides are under siege.

      The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement
      on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (Oslo II)
      Signed in Washington, D.C., by Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, September 28, 1995.

        Democratic elections to be held for an 82-member Palestinian Council for an interim period not to exceed May 1999 with limited legislative and executive powers.

          Israeli withdrawal from six Palestinian population centers in the West Bank: Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem, Kalkilya, Ramallah , and Bethlehem, as well as 450 towns and villages. Special provisions to be negotiated for Hebron.

          At six-month intervals, unspecified amounts of additional territory to be turned over to Palestinian rule.

          Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel retains overall responsibility for external security and the security of Israelis and settlements.

          Commitment of Israel and the Palestinian Council to cooperate in fight against terrorism and prevention of terrorist attacks.

          Palestinian police, numbering 12,000, to be the only Palestinian security authority.

          PLO to revoke those articles of the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.

          Final Status Now?

          A second U.S. option could not be more different. President Clinton could jump into the action. The idea-one voiced by several American analysts as well as by Prime Minister Netanyahu-would be to leapfrog the slow step-by-step process launched in Madrid and refined in the two Oslo agreements and the more recent Hebron agreement and initiate a major effort to resolve the conflict once and for all.

          There are arguments supporting decisive action. One reason gradualism has encountered difficulty is that both sides are wary of taking even small steps for fear that doing so would prejudice their ultimate claims. Thus critics of gradualism assert that the two sides might as well tackle the basic questions. A related advantage is the much bigger potential payoff for successfully taking on the core issues. Gradualism requires a great deal of effort, and even when it is successful, it still leaves a great deal unresolved.

          In addition, both sides are unhappy with the step-by-step procedure and worried by it. Israelis fear that continuing to return territory piecemeal will rob them of their principal leverage. Oslo, they say, would have them irrevocably give up tangible territory in exchange for inherently soft promises to rein in terrorists. Palestinians fear that continued settlement building means there will be little territory left for them to take over if negotiations reach that point.

          But there is a fundamental problem with accelerating final or permanent status negotiations: they are extremely unlikely to succeed. It is hard to envision how two parties who can barely walk can be expected to sprint. The PLO and Israel took months to agree on security arrangements for Hebron. How would they be able to compromise expeditiously on everything else that divides them?

          In part the difficulty stems from differences on basic issues that are inherently complex and controversial. Palestinians want an independent state, something many Israelis (and their current government) oppose. Palestinians want all refugees-including those whose claims go back to 1948-to have the right to return ‘home.’ Israelis, fearing the obvious demographic consequences, do not. There is also the difficult question of what will become of the more than 100,000 Israelis who live in West Bank settlements. Precious water resources will have to be divided or shared. Arguably the most intractable problem is the final status of Jerusalem. How can the city remain united and the capital of Israel, something virtually all Israelis want, yet not be off limits politically to whatever Palestinian entity may one day emerge from negotiations?

          The inherent complexity of the issues is not the only obstacle. The two leaderships appear unable or unwilling to make significant compromises. What made the success at Camp David possible was not the intervention of Jimmy Carter, although that was surely valuable, so much as the desire of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to succeed and the political strength that allowed them not only to cut a deal but to sell it at home. The United States can provide the missing 10 percent of the motivation to achieve an agreement, but the local parties themselves must provide the critical 90 percent.

          The Camp David parallel breaks down in other ways. The meeting between Sadat and Begin was preceded by years of American prodding and intense contacts between the parties. In addition, for all its difficulties, the Sinai negotiation was about land and security. The West Bank and Jerusalem are far more populated by Israelis, far closer, and far more sensitive politically, psychologically, and emotionally.

          Entering negotiations on final status entails still further impediments. The complexity of the issues would almost certainly require years of intense work before the two sides agreed. What would happen in the meantime? The Palestinians would have no interest in suspending implementation of the Oslo and Hebron accords while the talks proceeded. They understandably fear that an all or nothing negotiation could too easily result in nothing. Israelis, meanwhile, are unlikely to want to continue transferring land and authority in the absence of an agreement that provides them what they seek from final status.

          Moreover, final status between Israelis and Palestinians would not be negotiated in historical isolation. Terrorists would try to poison the atmosphere. Syria would almost certainly oppose a separate solution to the conflict that would leave it the odd man out in the area. It could funnel support to Palestinians opposed to compromise or stimulate new violence in southern Lebanon. And trying to solve the Israeli-Syrian conflict at this time would place enormous and potentially impossible political demands on the Israeli government.

          An accelerated effort to achieve an accord on final status would, then, most likely fail. A premature attempt to address crucial but complex matters would risk discrediting worthy ideas and diminishing the attraction of potential compromises. Failure to agree would create a sense of despair that would fuel greater violence. Living with the status quo would become that much harder for Palestinians to endure. It is one thing to accept an imperfect situation when there is a chance that negotiations might yield an acceptable outcome; it is quite another when a peaceful solution has been shown not to exist.

          Protocol Concerning Redeployment in Hebron
          Signed on January 17, 1997 by representatives of the PLO and the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

            Israeli security forces to redeploy from 80 percent of Hebron; 450 Jewish settlers living in the city will be permitted to stay. Palestinians to deploy 400 police officers

            Israel to undertake three further withdrawals in the West Bank by mid-1998. Extent of withdrawals is to be determined by Israel

            Provisions for negotiating the opening of a seaport and airport in Gaza

            PLO provides assurances for extradition to Israel of wanted Palestinians

            Renewed commitment from the Palestinians to combat terrorism and prevent incitement and hostile propaganda

            Schedule providing for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails

            Renewed commitment from the PLO to revoke articles of the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel

            A Workable Alternative

            A third choice for U.S. action can be summed up in three words: making Oslo work. This will require sustained involvement, publicly and privately, with both Israelis and Palestinians. It will require the time of the president and his secretary of state and a willingness to say and do things that will not always be welcome by strong domestic constituencies. Still, making Oslo work is the only workable alternative to the current course of American diplomacy.

            With Israel, the Clinton administration needs to take a tough stand against settlements. It is not a question of Israeli rights, as Prime Minister Netanyahu contends, but of priorities. If peace is a priority, settlement activity will have to be sharply curtailed. This means no new settlements and no significant expansion of existing ones. This position should be made clear first in private, but if need be in public and from the White House.

            The new construction at Har Homa is a special case. To expect the Israeli government to abandon what it has begun is not at this point politically realistic. But the United States can urge a slow, i.e. negligible, building program. And President Clinton can make it understood that he does not want to see any future Har Homas.

            The Clinton administration also needs to work behind the scenes to influence the next return of land called for in the Hebron accord. The August 1997 and January 1998 transfers should be generous. Just as important, and even though Israel may have a unilateral right to decide what territory to hand over, the decision should be made after consultation. Again, it is sometimes wisest not to exploit every right to the fullest if there are larger considerations. Israeli leaders need to strengthen, not humiliate, their Palestinian counterparts if the PLO is to rein in terrorists. There is no other way Prime Minister Netanyahu can make good on his campaign pledge to bring Israel peace and security.

            Israel can also take more modest steps to improve daily life for Palestinians. Easing the movement of goods and people into and out of their enclaves would help. So too would opening air and sea links between the Palestinians and the rest of the world.

            All this will work only if the PLO fulfills its obligations. A new and not simply amended PLO covenant would signal Israelis that the Palestinians were serious. So, too, would regular public statements by Yasir Arafat and those around him of the need to compromise and coexist. Those advocating or carrying out vigilantism against Palestinians selling land to Israelis should themselves be brought before the law.

            Most important, the PLO needs to do everything in its power to prevent violence and terrorism. The Palestinian leadership has not always met this test. This must change or there will be no peace process and no peace; indeed, continued violence will discourage and undermine the position of precisely those Israelis who are in principle willing to compromise. Again, the United States can and should make its voice heard, privately and publicly, whenever Palestinian behavior comes up short.

            It is also important to remember that gradualism has succeeded before. Partial agreements have brought stability between Israel and Egypt, Syria and the Palestinians. The rationale continues to makes sense: to focus diplomacy not simply on what is desirable but on what is doable. Small steps can improve the situation for all parties and build momentum so that the two sides can usefully address more basic questions. Clearly, there has been a loss of trust and momentum. The fault, however, is not with the concept of step-by-step diplomacy but with how it is being carried out. The correct response is not to jettison the approach but alter its implementation.

            None of this should be construed as an argument against focusing on final status. It is not a question of never, but of just not now. Indeed, the United States should urge both sides to resume talks on final status, but, much as was done at Oslo, in a low-key, private fashion that would allow them to explore possibilities for compromise.

            Such quiet talks can open options. And attitudes can change. So too can leaderships. In particular, a different Israeli government-be it the result of a refashioning of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government or the consequence of a new election in the next three years-could adopt different policies. Or Mr. Arafat could make a greater attempt to reach out to the Israeli public and meet Israeli concerns. If and when changes such as these create a new context, U.S. diplomacy must become more ambitious so that the opportunity is not wasted.

            Until then, however, the Clinton administration needs to reconsider its current policy. A more active effort along the lines of the one advocated here is sure to involve costs and risks. Still, they are likely to be less than those inherent in continued drift, which is all but certain to lead to serious violence between Israelis and Palestinians as well as a deterioration of U.S. interests throughout the region. The costs and risks would also likely be less than those of trying to achieve a new Camp David, a roll of the dice that would almost surely fail and lead to renewed polarization and conflict. In the Middle East, there are never easy choices, only the certainty that the choices will grow more difficult if nothing is done to shape them.