Oslo II: What Did Peres and Abbas Expect?

Oslo II was based on Oslo I
Arafat, Peres and Rabin accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Image Credit: By Saar Yaacov, GPO (Government Press Office) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is my summary and critique of an article published in 1996 (citation below). I bring this now because we can see that even at that early stage points were being drawn in the sand in what has become a trajectory of failure. The article outlines the “peace process” clearly and helped me understand it better and also shows that, while the world may call Israel’s presence in Judea & Samaria an “occupation”, it was clearly perpetuated by signed agreement of BOTH Palestinian Arabs and Israelis under the approving eye of the United States. Most importantly, there is a serious legal oversight in the Oslo II Agreement over which history will, perhaps, bring the partners to task.

* * * * *

In 1995, both Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) published books about the negotiations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) on 13 September 1993, also known as the First Oslo Accords. Oslo II, signed on 28 September 1995, is also known as the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

American-Israeli Human rights lawyer Justus R. Weiner wrote an analysis of Oslo II. He compared facts on the ground with expectations expressed by Peres and Abbas after Oslo I in their respective books.

The Oslo II Agreement

Oslo II superseded all agreements signed before it (Oslo I set the ground rules for what followed: the Cairo Agreement, Agreement on Preparatory Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities between Israel and the PLO, and the Protocol on Further Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities). Oslo II set the rules for democratic elections for self-government for the Arabs of the West Bank (Judea & Samaria, or J&S) and Gaza short of setting up a situation sufficient to legally establish a sovereign state.

Oslo II also divided J&S into Areas A, B, and C, whereby the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) had control over Area A, Israel retained control over Area C, and Israel and the PA shared control over Area B. Israel was to withdraw from Gaza and from urban areas, most particularly Jericho. Israel and the PA were to share security in J&S. The PA was made responsible for education, social welfare, tourism and health. Issues left to be determined by final status negotiations included: status of Jerusalem, final borders, future of the Arab refugees, and other aspects that could be interpreted as related to national sovereignty of the PA.

Issues Related to Oslo II

A. Human Rights Issues

Weiner reminds us that Oslo II instructs both the Israeli and PA security forces to

. . . exercise their powers and responsibilities pursuant to this Agreement with due regard to internationally-accepted norms of human rights and the rule of law. . . (p. 672)

Prime Minister Rabin expressed confidence, in this rather cynical comment, that the PLO would have no problem

. . . enforce[ing] security because it had no need to be concerned about criticism from human rights organizations. Nor, Rabin continued, would PLO practices be subject to judicial review by the Israeli Supreme Court. (p. 671) [emphasis mine]

Interestingly, Hanan Ashrawi lamented that human rights issues were not seriously considered as the PLO was more concerned with pride and with economic viability and Israelis were most concerned with security and preventing terrorism. In fact, opponents to Arafat were very inhumanely dealt with by the PA via illegal detention, torture and even murder, bans on demonstrations and censoring of the press to the extent of closure of newspaper offices, or imprisonment of journalists who published anything critical of Arafat. Israel’s leaders remained conspiratorially silent regarding violations of human rights, perhaps because they felt that Arafat was necessary for continuation of the peace process to which Israel had committed itself.

Weiner remarks on the irony of how human rights issues were supposedly behind the push for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs and now that the peace process was underway, human rights was shunted aside for political expediency. Professor Edward Said, former member of the Palestinian National Council, was quoted as having made a comment to that effect at the time as well.

B. The Palestinian Elections

Weiner claims that the elections, which were “one of the primary purposes of the peace process”, did not match up to international standards for “free and democratic elections”. Oslo II included detailed instructions for carrying out legal democratic elections for the Palestinian Council and Chairperson. For example, numbers of seats per electoral district were to be determined according to populations of historically determined regions of the territories; however, Arafat dictated major changes in electoral districts that favoured candidates supportive of him. There were other irregularities that included pressure on some to withdraw their candidacy in exchange for ministry jobs or other favours, and more.

At that time, the Islamist parties, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, refused to take part in the elections as an expression of their opposition to the peace process. However, voters did not agree with them and over 85% and 75% of the registered voters in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, did cast ballots.

Whether or not Arabs in East Jerusalem could vote was a highly contentious issue during the peace talks. In the end, a compromise was struck whereby East Jerusalemites could vote and stand for office if they also had an address in the PA outside of Jerusalem. This allowed everyone to vote (because outside addresses were easy to obtain) and at the same time maintained the appearance of Israel not losing sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. In spite of this, voting in Jerusalem was low because there was the false rumour that Israel would deny government benefits to anyone who voted plus threats by Islamists against voting. Israeli security forces there to ensure order only served to scare off potential voters.

Journalists and human rights activists critical of Arafat were detained or harassed during the elections period. And a

. . . significant number of ballot boxes reportedly disappeared for lengthy periods of time in at least two districts.

Other counting irregularities were noted by international observers but reports were all dismissed. So much for democracy!

C. Palestinian Claims to Sovereignty

While not explicitly stated, many assumed that the agreement to recognize “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” meant making steps toward self-determination, perhaps even the establishment of a Palestinian state. Weiner claims that the Palestinian Council did not fulfill the “prerequisites for independence under international law”.

In accordance with the agreement, the Israeli military apparatus would continue to operate in the West Bank and Gaza throughout the interim period, Israel would be responsible for external security and borders, and the legal status of the territories would not change. Weiner suggests that Oslo conferred legitimacy upon the PLO, and that

Article I of the Oslo II Agreement makes clear that Israel is the source of the Palestinian Council’s administrative power and that Israel maintains residual control over functions not expressly transferred to the Council. . . (p. 688)

This means that the Palestinian Council (PC) was not sovereign, but “legally subordinate to the authority of the military government” of Israel. According to Peres, the Palestinian Arabs fought hard over this issue but in the end agreed that, while Israeli civil administration would be dissolved after formation of the Council, the military government would remain. Abu Mazen, on the other hand, felt that Oslo II gave the PC responsibilities different from those that the Israeli Civil Administration held when they were in control; in other words, he argued that the PC was not under the authority of the Israelis.

While the Palestinian Arabs believed that Oslo would lead inevitably to an independent Palestinian state, the Americans and Israelis did not agree this would necessarily happen. They were considering alternatives, such as confederation with Jordan. This meant that the Palestinians and the Israelis paid strict attention to words used in the documents: while the Israelis succeeded in eliminating the word, “national”, the Palestinians took the term “legitimate and political rights” to mean that sovereignty was the eventual outcome anticipated. Weiner believes that, as a result of the interim accords, an eventual Palestinian state is part of the new reality.

D. Amending the Palestinian National Covenant

Weiner states that Oslo I comprised dramatic concessions on the parts of the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs. Israel needed Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, acceptance of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, an end to terrorism, and deletion from the PLO Covenant articles calling for the destruction of Israel; the Arabs needed formal recognition of the existence of a Palestinian people with the PLO as its representative. Before Oslo neither side recognized the other.

In spite of signing the Oslo Accords, the PC never renounced terrorism and soon there were a number of attacks committed by groups associated with the PLO. Moreover, PLO support for Iraq during the Gulf War raised serious doubts regarding Palestinian Arab willingness to accept Israel. This is compounded by the fact that items in the Palestinian Covenant related to the aim to destroy Israel were not rescinded.

Arafat had not presented the issue to a vote, possibly because he knew there was not enough support for the peace process and an unwillingness of most members of the Council to recognize Israel without further Israeli concessions. They accused Israel of not releasing all the prisoners promised and of not carrying through on the promise of ensuring safe travel between the West Bank and Gaza. Following IDF withdrawal from urban centers and nearing inauguration of the Palestinian Council, Arafat believed that with his manipulations of process he could acquire the majority necessary to modify the Palestinian Covenant.

The amendment would have shown Palestinian Arab determination to endorse the peace process.

E. Oslo II: Harbinger for a New Era

Oslo followed on the coattails of the Gulf War, a war in which Saddam Hussein tried to link his invasion of Kuwait with the “Palestinian problem”, a claim rejected by Israel and the USA. Yet, the international community headed by the USA tried to use the momentum of the apparent success in Iraq to begin a new process between Israel and the PLO. The first attempt, the Madrid Conference, was a dead end, but the parties continued to meet secretly in Oslo.

The PLO was in a weakened state for a number of reasons: (1) the collapse of the Soviet Union, until then a major supplier of arms to the Arabs and the PLO; (2) PLO isolation given their support of the “wrong” side of the Gulf War; (3) the fact that the intifada had not benefitted them at all; and (4) internal violence and rising support for Hamas. On the Israeli side, Rabin had promised his electorate that they would see significant advances in peace within less than a year. Therefore, leaders on both sides needed the other for their own political survival.

In the immediate aftermath of Oslo, both Israel and the PLO experienced improved international relations. Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty and Israel’s trade and diplomatic relations with many countries grew stronger. The PLO enjoyed a new relationship with the USA and was given financial aid for development. Yet, Weiner writes:

Whether the process is indeed irreversible, as the preamble to the Oslo II Agreement confidently asserts, remains questionable.

According to the agreement, permanent status negotiations were supposed to begin on May 4, 1996. However, a spate of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel dampened Israeli’s enthusiasm for the peace process and certainly for “further territorial concessions to the Palestinians”; Yitzhak Shamir openly declared that “nothing is irreversible” (699).  The final issues remaining to be discussed were:

sovereignty of Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish settlements, control of subterranean water resources, the issue of Palestinian statehood, and the repatriation or resettlement of Palestinian refugees from the 1967 and 1948 wars. (p. 700)

Weiner admitted that the huge gap between the parties meant that the entire peace negotiations project was constantly at risk of collapse.

Weiner’s Conclusions

Weiner noted that in the final chapters of their books, both Peres and Abu Mazen were upbeat and optimistic about the future. Weiner claimed that Oslo II marked a change in direction for the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs. He showed how the machinery for democratic self-government was set down in the signed agreements and then sounded the alarm to warn us all that there was a serious gap between the stated desires of the Palestinian leadership and the facts they created on the ground. He wondered if the Palestinian Arabs would move away from their traditional collectivist authoritarian leadership and embrace leadership based upon individual citizen rights.

Regarding the Israelis, he wondered if the Left could maintain their end of the peace process in view of renewed Hamas terror attacks that naturally undermined trust in “Palestinian” commitment to peace. Ever the optimist, Peres implored Arafat to come down hard on Hamas and seize their weapons. Arafat did. But Weiner noted that in the past terrorists arrested by the PLO were let go after a short time. Arafat even accused ex-IDF soldiers of having supplied the ammunition and Israel was accused of “responsibility for creating an atmosphere conducive to acts like these” (p. 704).

Weiner suggests that the peace process, while fragile, “has thus far shown remarkable stamina” (p. 704).

My Response to Weiner’s Analysis

I want to thank Weiner for presenting the history of the peace process in an orderly and easily comprehensible fashion. I do think, however, that two years after the signing of Oslo II was not enough time to say that the process showed any stamina, never mind remarkable stamina. Two years is less than the blinking of an eye, historically speaking.

I want to look at the two quotes he furnished in his conclusion: one from Peres’ book and the other from Abu Mazen’s book. Peres opened his epilogue with:

We are ending a decades-long history dominated by war and embarking on an era in which the guns will stay silent while dreams flourish. . . . Peace in our region is no longer part of a dreamworld; it has built a permanent place for itself in the realm of reality. (cited on page 700)

Abu Mazen opened his last chapter with:

The long struggle of the Palestinian people was aimed at regaining their dignity, their rights and their place among the people of the world in an independent state. This struggle was . . . not vengeance but an expression of their collective will that drove them on. . . . The intifada in the occupied territories was a natural extension of this struggle, and showed that the Palestinian people were a match for the Israelis who contested their existence and strove to crush them. But they were persuaded otherwise when the decisive hour came. (cited on page 700)

Look what each of them wrote: Peres talked about dreams of utopia and Abu Mazen talked about how the sword (bombs/knives/stones/vehicular homicide) led Israel to make concessions.

Even today, in the midst of a months-long wave of unprecedented seemingly lone-wolf terrorism that can strike anyone anywhere, both within internationally recognized Israeli borders or in the disputed territories, Israeli Leftists still live in that dream world. And terrorists still believe they can bring Israel to her knees.  Both Peres and Abu Mazen were overly optimistic and in the wake of their respective enthusiasm many more Jews and Arabs have lost their lives.

Perhaps the most serious oversight in Oslo II (aside from embarking on Oslo in the first place) was neglecting to include a paragraph outlining what would happen in the event that either or both sides failed to follow through on their obligations per this agreement. After all, don’t most competent lawyers add a release clause to contracts? Faisal had had the foresight to do so when he signed the famed Faisal-Weizmann Agreement. What happened that none of the lawyers involved in piecing together this little piece of historical document thought of the potential need for release? Were they so cocky as to think that the trust inferred by Oslo II really had a basis in reality?

Well, now that Abu Mazen is threatening to cancel the Oslo Accords, he may be doing Israel a favour. But, of course, we Jews will be blamed for that. And the wheels keeps going round and round.

Source: Weiner, J.R., (1996). An analysis of the Oslo II Agreement in light of the expectations of Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas. Pp 667-704.

Feature Image Credits: Abu Mazen: U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Shimon Peres: David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

This article first appeared on Israel Diaries

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