Waking from the Oslo Dream

Guardian- 01/05/2002

Israel is at war. The brief respite afforded by operation Defensive Shield ended with the killings at Adura. As I write, Israeli forces are in Hebron. Here in Jerusalem, once again, the streets are emptying. Tension, fear in the air. The poet Chaim Guri summed it up: “The bad has come to live amongst us again,” he wrote, “as is its wont.”

If the world’s faith in rational problem-solving was shaken on September 11, then for the Israeli Jewish public a similar process took place in the autumn of 2000. That was the Indian summer of Oslo. A period of uneasy waiting, between the failure of Camp David and the renewed violence that erupted in October. There were those who were surprised and those who were not. For many of us, the bright tale of the 1993 Oslo agreement never rang true. We saw that the historic compromise on which it was based was an illusion made possible by the structure of the process itself.

The defunct peace process of the 1990s was based on a negotiation model perhaps unique in the history of conflict resolution. Peace talks usually result either from the military defeat of one side by the other, or from a change in thinking on the part of one, introducing hitherto unimaginable possibilities for historic compromise.

Oslo did not derive from a meeting of minds on the feasible parcelling out of the area under dispute. Rather, it was founded on faith: in the power of a negotiating process to bring the two sides together. Problems which seemed to come down to zero sum equations (Palestinian refugees to return to Israel or not, Jerusalem to be redivided or not, the conflict to be declared at an end or not) would, in a sort of alchemy born from the process of talking, become amenable to solution. This would come about without either side feeling that it had surrendered something at the very core of its national being.

What seemed intractable would somehow simply prove not to be. This process, and the hopes it engendered now belong to the realm of memory. With all issues on the table, it was discovered that Israelis and Palestinians were as far apart as ever. The Palestinian leadership, with victorious Hizbullah as its inspiration, then decided to embark on a course of limited armed confrontation. They had looked at the evidence and drawn conclusions. Ratchet up the body count, and the flexibility would follow. This is the formula which the Palestinian leadership, using Fatah-associated forces such as the Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, has been testing for 18 months. Before new negotiations can begin, this formula must be disproven. This is the rationale behind the Israeli armed action in the territories.

What would be the Israeli bottom line in renewed negotiations? An overwhelming consensus exists among the Israeli public in favour of an arrangement based on territorial concessions. Recent opinion polls confirm that the events of the past 18 months have not dented this. But the experience of the last period shows that such concessions must be accompanied by cast-iron security arrangements. These must mean clear limitations on the ability of any Palestinian entity to develop its capacity for aggression.

Our right to exist as a Jewish state has been accepted by none of our Arab neighbours. The unavoidable fact of our existence, however, and the advisability of coming to terms with it, has been internalised by some of them, with the resultant negotiation of cold peace agreements. With the Palestinians, even an agreement of this kind is currently not feasible. As Camp David and Taba indicated, the absolute maximum which Israel can offer is apparently less than the minimum which the Palestinian leadership finds acceptable. The Palestinian side has sought to bridge this gap by softening the Israeli position through the use of violence. Israeli submission would invite further aggression.

This misreading of the capacity for steadfastness of Israeli society has now led the region into its most dangerous impasse in a generation. More than half of the Arab-Israeli wars began with low-intensity conflicts. The resumption of Hizbullah aggression, combined with the likelihood of an Iraqi strike on Israel in the event of US action against Baghdad, point to possible further deterioration. Irreconcilable differences rule out conflict resolution. Facts must be faced. Returning the conflict to the lowest possible temperature is the only available objective. Conflict management will only emerge from the firm maintenance of Israeli deterrent capacity.

This capacity was allowed to slip in the high days of Oslo. Violence has been the result. Our neighbours see all the justice on their side and all the sin on ours. When we seem weak, we are attacked. Until they change their minds, Israel’s existence depends on its strength, and on our neighbours’ awareness of this strength. The rapture of illusory rapprochement brought us to the present situation. It is to be hoped that the sombre awakening from illusion which is now taking place contains the potential for a more durable stability after the guns fall silent.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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