Limitations of the Oslo Accords


I want to look at the text of the Oslo Accords, and to ask whether the intentions of Israel and the Palestinians should have been clear to all concerned at the start-and not just to a handful of critics, most notably Edward Said. I will then see if the Oslo Accords shed light on Israel's response to the Al Aqsa Intifada. Finally, I'll address "What Next?"

First, the Texts. The Oslo Peace Process was launched by the Israeli-PLO Recognition Agreement of September 9-10 1993 and the Declaration of Principles (DOP) of September 13 1993. Over the next six years, some 12 agreements in total were negotiated and signed. The DOP became known as Oslo I after the Interim Agreement Between Israel and the Palestinians was signed in September 1995. The Interim Agreement became known as Oslo II.

Taken together, the Agreements run into hundreds of pages. Oslo II alone is over 400. The length of the documents and the continuous cross-referencing make it difficult for people-in particular the Palestinian people whose rights are at stake-to understand exactly what is being negotiated. However, you do not have to read several hundred pages to understand the basic thrust of the agreements. Just a few pages are revealing about both the substance and the process that they entailed.

In terms of substance, what is missing from the agreements is as important as what is in them. Missing are references to Palestinian self-determination and sovereignty, as well as to any UN resolutions that address Palestinian rights. The only UN Resolutions referred to are Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, where, significantly, the word Palestinian is not even mentioned. In other words, the only principle that underpins the Oslo process is the principle of land for peace. Of course, even the principle of land for peace, for which the PLO sacrificed mention of all the other principles, has yet to be respected by Israel, which is the occupying power.

As for what's in the accords, if the outcome were not so tragic, they would be quite humorous. In the 1993 DOP-Oslo I-the stated aim is "to establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority, the elected Council (the 'Council'), for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338." So the stated aim is not ending the occupation, but rather establishing a Palestinian Authority. A permanent settlement based on 242 and 338 is left to be made somewhere down the line.

In fact, in the DOP, there is no mention of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The only word that provides a hint that there is an occupation is the word "withdrawal." But the word "withdrawal" is only used in reference to part of Gaza and to Jericho. When other planned transfers of territory to the Palestinians are discussed, the word "redeployment" is used.

Israel transfers "structure, powers, and responsibilities" to the Palestinian authority, "except: external security, settlements, Israelis, foreign relations, and other mutually agreed matters." Another frequently repeated phrase-you don't know whether to laugh or cry-is that Israel will "continue to carry the responsibility for defending against external threats." Maybe the Palestinians should call in Israeli troops to protect them from the external Israeli threat.

The DOP is only 8 pages long. Nearly two pages are dedicated to economic cooperation, inserting the Israelis into every imaginable area of Palestinian life, beginning with water, and "proposals for studies and plans on water rights of each party."

But perhaps even more pernicious than the issues of substance in the DOP, are the provisions regarding process, particularly the timetable and the committee structure. For example, the five-year transitional period does not begin after the signature of the DOP itself, but after the Gaza-Jericho agreement, which was concluded in May 1994. Permanent status negotiations do not begin immediately after the DOP, but are supposed to start no later than the third year of the interim period. Meanwhile, all energies are invested in negotiating an agreement to cover the interim period, which results in Oslo II two years later. As for committees, the DOP alone provides for five committees- liaison, economic, continuing, arbitration, and coordination and cooperation. The committees continue to proliferate in subsequent accords.

Of course, the main problem with the DOP and the remaining accords is that they leave to final status negotiations the core issues- "including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest"-in fact, the very occupation itself.

Now, even after reading the DOP, you might still think that these are all issues that could be resolved, given good faith and a commitment to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If so, the May 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement gives you a much stronger signal that good faith is absent on the Israeli side. The three types of jurisdiction to be applied to Palestinian land-territorial, functional and personal are just one example of the new and very problematic aspects introduced by this agreement.

Territorial jurisdiction includes land, subsoil and territorial waters (a few paragraphs later you observe that territorial does not include the electromagnetic sphere and airspace). As for functional jurisdiction, this "does not include foreign relations, internal security and public order of Settlements and the Military Installation Area and Israelis, and external security." Personal jurisdiction covers defined persons in the West Bank and Gaza. Is that clear to you? No? I'm sure you're in good company.

This vertical slicing of the West Bank and Gaza into three jurisdictions is taken a huge step forward in Oslo II, the Interim Agreement signed in 1995, where it is accompanied by a horizontal slicing of the West Bank into four areas. By the way, Oslo II kicks off with four pages on elections, as though this was the key problem facing the Palestinians, rather than the occupation. The four categories of territory in the West Bank are: areas A, B, C, and the parts that are to be left until permanent status negotiations. The A, B, and C areas each have one or more of the different types of jurisdiction applied to them, so that the separation and division of the land is practiced both horizontally on the ground and vertically in terms of jurisdictions. The only part where Palestinians were given all three jurisdictions was Area A; jurisdiction is shared in Area B, with Palestinians subordinate to Israelis; and Israelis have jurisdiction in Area C. No Palestinian jurisdiction at all applied to the areas containing settlements and to military areas, which are left for final status negotiations.

In spite of the clear slicing of territory in Oslo II, it pays the usual lip service to the territorial integrity of the West Bank and Gaza, through this oft-repeated mantra: The "two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period." Except, of course, they are not treated as a single unit whose integrity is preserved. Rather, "The territorial jurisdiction of the [Palestinian] Council shall encompass Gaza Strip territory, except for the Settlements and the Military Installation Area shown on map No. 2 and West Bank territory, except for Area C which, except for the issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, will be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction in three phases, each to take place after an interval of six months, to be completed 18 months after the inauguration of the Council" (Article XVII).

A pathetic little clause toward the end of the main Oslo II text reads: "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations."

Another thing that became clear in the Gaza-Jericho agreement and was reinforced by Oslo II was the extent to which Israel intended to maintain control over all aspects of Palestinian life. To take just one example: "All legislation shall be communicated to the Israeli side of the Legal Committee. [T]he Israeli side of the Legal Committee may refer for the attention of the Committee any legislation regarding which Israel considers the provisions of paragraph 4 apply, in order to discuss issues arising from such legislation. The Legal Committee will consider the legislation referred to it at the earliest opportunity."

By the time the Gaza-Jericho agreement was signed in May 1994, the extent to which Israel intended to intervene in Palestinian economic life had been fleshed out beyond the highlights of the DOP, and signed in a full-fledged Economic Protocol, annexed to Gaza-Jericho as well as to Oslo II (which supersedes Gaza-Jericho). In addition, Israel got the Palestinian Authority to assume responsibility for "all related rights, liabilities and obligations arising with regard to acts or omissions which occurred prior to the transfer. Israel will cease to bear any financial responsibility regarding such acts or omissions and the Palestinian authority will bear all financial responsibility for these and for its own functioning" (Article XX).

A final point worth highlighting about Oslo II is the way it cemented Palestinian commitment to Israel's security, spelled out in Annex 1 to Oslo II, during Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Among other things, 61 new Israeli military bases were to be established in the West Bank, and arrangements were initiated to ensure the security of the 450 settlers in Hebron, guaranteeing the city would become a regular flashpoint for violence.

In short, Oslo II is very clear as to the four major points of interest to Israel-land, control, security, and economic relations. Even after reading these texts you might still think that good faith would lead to a settlement based on 242 and 338. But if you had been on the Palestinian negotiating team at the time, you would have been aware, as was later revealed in the New Yorker (October 14, 1996), that the Israeli side had unilaterally removed from Oslo II the reference to the percentages of land from which they would redeploy, as well as the timetable, just when the agreement was ready for signature. Although angered, the Palestinian negotiators signed anyway. Instead of calling the whole Oslo process off, they went on to negotiate and sign another seven or so agreements between 1995 and 1999.

The subsequent Oslo agreements-the 23 October 1998 Wye Memorandum and the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum of 4 September 1999-focused on getting the redeployments agreed at Oslo II imple- mented. Even if you knew nothing about the situation on the ground, the full title of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement would give you a clue: The Memorandum on Implementation Timeline of Outstanding Commitments of Agreements.

Overall, then, and from a reading of the text alone, the substance of the Oslo Accords was to ensure Israeli domination of most of the West Bank and Gaza for at least five years, and a move to economic relations with Palestinians and the Arab world. As for the process of the Accords, this was designed to ensure that Palestinian leaders were engaged in a whole series of committees on legal, security and economic issues instead of focusing on an end to the occupation.


Given this reading of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli Government's reaction to the Al Aqsa Intifada is unsurprising. Neither the Labour nor the Likud Governments have any intention of settling the conflict with the Palestinians on the basis of the only principle that underpins the Oslo process-land for peace as set out in Resolutions 242 and 338-let alone the other principles in UN resolutions. It is important to remember that both Oslo I and II were negotiated by Labour Governments.

Palestinian field commander Marwan Barghouti said in an interview on 16 January 2001 that the Al Aqsa Intifada is meant to end Oslo and the transitional phase "for once and for all." What the Palestinians are making clear through the Al Aqsa Intifada is this: They have agreed to accept 242 and a settlement based on a two-state solution, but they are not going to accept less, and they want a fair deal for the refugees.

As far as successive Israeli Governments are concerned, if the Palestinians are unwilling to accept Israeli hegemony through negotiated accords, then it must be imposed by force. This is what is happening today [February 2001], under a Labour Government. It is what will happen tomorrow, with even more ferocity, if Likud leader Ariel Sharon is elected. So, clearly we're in this for the long haul. The question is "What Next?"


When individuals face history on their own, it is difficult to avoid a sense of paralysis. But throughout history, people have formed movements and organizations to change the course of events in their favor.

Of course, it is not enough to form movements or organizations. People need a clear vision of what they are fighting for, based on clear principles that everyone can understand. One of the many problems facing the Palestinians at the moment is that there are no clear principles behind which people can mobilize. What are the Palestinians fighting for? If they get 90% of the West Bank and Gaza and a state under PLO leadership, does that mean success? If Israel agrees to take 100,000 refugees back into Israel should that be considered success?

To develop a clear vision, I believe the Palestinians must learn from the South African struggle. In this regard, I recommend two very useful books. The first is by Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After-the essays he has written on and around this subject for the past five years. And the second is by Mona Younis, Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements. Both books highlight the premise that peoples can control their common destiny, if they organize to do so.

When Edward Said asked African National Congress leader Walter Sisulu how the ANC had managed to turn defeat into victory, Sisulu replied,

You must remember that during the eighties we were beaten in South Africa; the organization was wrecked by the police, our bases in neighboring countries were routinely attacked by the South African army, our leaders were in jail or in exile or killed. We then realized that our only hope was to concentrate on the international arena, and there to delegitimize apartheid. We organized in every major Western city; we initiated committees, we prodded the media, we held meetings and demonstrations, not once or twice but thousands of times. We organized university campuses, and churches, and labor unions and business-people, and professional groups.

Every victory that we registered in London, or Glasgow, or Iowa City, or Toulouse or Berlin, or Stockholm gave the people at home a sense of hope, and renewed their determination not to give up the struggle. In time we morally isolated the South African regime and its policy of apartheid so that even though militarily we could not do much to hurt them, in the end they came to us, asking for negotiations. We never changed or retreated from our basic program, our central demand: one person, one vote.

The Palestinians had been headed this way after 1982 but this spirit was defused by Oslo. It can be regenerated. It is hard work, but it is not impossible. The question remains, though, what principles should underpin such a struggle. You will see from Sisulu that one central non-negotiable demand drove the South African struggle: one person, one vote. The principle underpinning this demand is simple yet powerful: all human beings are born equal.

For the Palestinians, it is not possible to come up with just one clear demand, because the Palestinians live in three different realities, unlike the South Africans, who used to live in the one reality of apartheid. The Palestinians live under occupation, in exile, and in Israel. Yet, there can be a clear non-negotiable demand for each one of these situations, based on principles recognized under human rights and international law. These demands have already been shaped and articulated by Palestinians. They are: End the occupation. Right of return. Equal rights.

End the occupation deals with the reality of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This demand is based on the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force, which underpins 242 and 338. What happens after the occupation is ended-elections, a Palestinian state, and so on, is up for discussion -but the struggle in the West Bank and Gaza must be to end the occupation.

Right of return deals with the reality of the Palestinians in exile. This is based on the principle that refugees have a right of return, enshrined in international law and currently applied in Europe (Kosovo), Africa (Rwanda) and Asia (East Timor). How the Palestinian right to return is to be implemented, 52 years on, in a way that does not create new injustice must be addressed and discussed. But the principle must be recognized and the demand must be non-negotiable.

Equal rights deals with the reality of the Palestinians in Israel. Like the South African demand of one person, one vote, this is based on the principle that all humans are born equal.

End the occupation. Right of Return. Equal Rights. The fulfillment of each demand requires a different body of knowledge, tactics and alliances to achieve, so for activists it is important to choose in order to focus their energies.

Yet achieving these three demands fulfills a single unified vision, that of a secular, democratic state. Ending the occupation and achieving equal rights must result in a secular, democratic state, to which refugees would return. Whether the end result is two states, Israel and Palestine, or a single unified Israeli-Palestinian state, or a united states of the Middle East, these must be secular and democratic states. So long as they are based on any form of discrimination-race, religion, sex or others-then conflict will continue.

Unlike the 33 leading activists in the Israeli peace camp, who on 2 January 2001 rejected the Palestinian right of return, because this "would conflict with the right to self-determination of the Jewish people," in other words because it threatens the Jewish character of Israel, the Palestinian vision must be of democracy and secularism.

Israel was established to be a Jewish state, but it is not in fact a Jewish state either in terms of race or religion. Apart from the million Arabs, there are ethnic groups from all over the world. Apart from the Jews, there are Muslims, Christians, and atheists. Any vision other than secular democracy leads to discrimination and internal strife-in Israel as in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and future Palestine.

Such a vision has many implications for the strategies of the Palestinian struggle. There is just one strategy I want to highlight here, and that is the need to forge strong alliances between Palestinians and Jews who support human rights. There are many Jews and Israelis who are speaking up for Palestinian rights as human rights. Joining forces with them will ensure that the ultimate vision of a secular democracy remains in view for the region. To counter Zionist plans for Palestine, the vision must of a secular democratic state. The road to this vision involves organizing around three demands: end the occupation; right of return; and equal rights.