Sam Menassa

30 Years Later: Be Weary Of the West Bank Becoming Another Oslo

It has been exactly thirty years and three weeks since the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were signed, and the situation in Palestine, and the conditions of the Palestinians, are worse than ever. Indeed, parts of the West Bank are on the brink of turning into armed resistance strongholds. The Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in Southern Lebanon - broadly considered the capital of the displaced Palestinians - is witnessing the fiercest and longest rounds of infighting in over twenty years.

While no faction speaks fondly of or mourns the Oslo Accords, which are favored by neither the people nor the leadership in Palestine and which Israel violates as though they had never been signed, the reality is that the Oslo Accords exist. It exists regardless of the reasons for its floundering and how things have played out since it was signed in 1993, a year when the PLO was at the weakest point in its history: in dire straits financially, and isolated regionally and internationally, following its heedless and misguided decision to support Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

On the other hand, the agreement has not been viable since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat took an ambivalent stance towards suicide attacks. It was also greatly undermined by violent attacks launched by the factions opposed to peace in both the Palestinian and Israeli camps, as exemplified by the Baruch Goldstein massacre in Hebron. Its repudiation by Arab actors affiliated with the Axis of Resistance, who did everything they could to ensure its failure, did not help either.

Nonetheless, the Oslo Accords laid the foundations for two pillars of a future agreement that remain with us to this day: the Palestinian Authority and the principle of a two-state solution. Despite the poor performance of this authority over the past 30 years, and its entanglement in minor and marginal internal issues, it has established an institutional framework for a future Palestinian state. Moreover, the concept of the two-state solution would not have emerged if the Oslo Accords had opened the door to mutual recognition. The actualization of the two-state solution remains far off, but there is now a global diplomatic consensus around the need for "two states for two peoples," which has become the framework through which the international community addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a result of this mostly negative state of affairs, and in light of the unprecedented changes the region and the globe are undergoing and their significant impact on diplomacy, the Palestinian question has become increasingly marginal to moderate Arab and international powers. Meanwhile, the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance has been waging a fierce onslaught on the Palestinian question, rejecting any peaceful settlement in principle. This assault is motivated by compassion and genuine support for the Palestinians and Palestine. Rather, it is this Axis’ only means for meddling in the affairs of the countries of the Levant and retrieving the regional popularity they have lost. Moreover, the truce that has been seen in the region since the Saudi-Iranian agreement has turned Palestine into a pressure valve for this Axis.

On the other side, the extreme right has come to power in Israel. The current coalition government has been brutal, providing the Axis of Resistance with the fodder it needs within Palestine's interior and in countries where the Palestinians have been displaced to. Moreover, many of the necessary prerequisites for the peace process are lacking. There are no brave political leaders with a vision that can break the diplomatic impasse, and the leadership of both parties lacks the legitimacy needed to take consequential steps to undercut the voices opposed to peace. Unfortunately, these requisites, pillars of peace, are not found in either the Palestinian or Israeli side.

On the Palestinian side, this is due to the failures that began as early as the first two years after the Oslo Accords were signed. The Palestinians missed the window of opportunity that had been there before Rabin was assassinated and Arafat shifted his position and began endorsing violence, which peaked with the Second Intifada that began in 2000 and continued until 2003. Things were then exacerbated by the schism between the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the growing influence of Hamas, which silenced Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. On the Israeli side, the country has been witnessing unprecedented protests for months. Its political tug-of-war has left reserve officers and soldiers reluctant to serve because of their opposition to the government's plans to undercut the judiciary and to turn Israel into a populist and fanatical ethno-religious state, as the opposition sees it.

To sum up, both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have failed to lay sound foundations for a Palestinian state and left the door to violence open, though we should not overlook the role played in this by the weight that the occupation placed on their shoulders. For its part, Israel has not stopped building settlements and refused to grant the Palestinian Authority the powers that had been agreed to in Oslo. Once Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister, Israel adopted a policy of "managing" the conflict instead of seeking to end it. In this climate, opposition voices have grown in prominence and extremist views have played an increasingly influential role in framing decision-making.

The intention, here, is not to defend Oslo or promote its revival. The current conditions in Israel, Palestine, the region, and the world as a whole are no longer suited for such a formula. However, this does not imply that the conditions of the Palestinians can be left to rot and neglected. The Palestinian questions should not be left to be maliciously exploited for non-Palestinian objectives. To avert this, Palestinian, Arab, and international efforts are needed to ensure a smooth transfer of power once Abbas exits the scene.

Until then, it is in Israel's strategic interest to empower the Palestinian Authority. Otherwise, the vacuum of the post-Abbas era would enable violent extremist forces to take center stage, and there are plenty of indications that they have begun pursuing their end. The collapse of the Palestinian Authority would shrink what remains of the potential for a two-state solution and end aspirations for one sort of Palestinian state or another. And the only alternative is Hamas and its allies, who stand for terrorism and fanaticism and lack international legitimacy.
The proposal for a solution should come more from within Palestine rather than the displaced. The Palestinians in Palestine are suffering, and they are better aware of what is and is not possible than the displaced. Furthermore, the latter are more vulnerable to regional intervention, as manifested in the events witnessed in the Nahr al-Bared camp in Northern Lebanon in 2007 and those being witnessed in Ain al-Hilweh, where the Fatah and the Authority are on the verge of losing control, which could eventually extend to other camps in Lebanon.

A future settlement cannot be tailored to Oslo, nor can it bypass the remaining interests and rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories, especially not in the most difficult knot to untie Jerusalem. A settlement would emerge through an American-Israeli-Arab-Palestinian understanding along the lines of those concluded by Arab states and Israel. This scenario would be possible if the Israeli protest movement gives rise to a national unity or center-left government, or any other framework that does away with the current coalition government. Unless this happens, great risks loom over the West Bank and the future of the Palestinians there, particularly if it turns into a second Gaza, whether in fact or in Israeli propaganda.

As for the bet that some Palestinians are making on a one-state solution, it would inevitably end with the Israelis trying to impose their will on the Palestinians or the Palestinians trying to impose their will on the Israelis, making this solution effective, a recipe for an endless conflict between Jews and Arabs.