by Mitchell Plitnick
After twenty years of futility, more and more people are coming around to the idea that the Oslo process has failed and that the basis of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution needs to be re-thought. Funny, there are those of us who have been saying that for years now.
Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, stated bluntly in an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday that the Oslo process was “…an idea whose time is now past.” Lustick’s controversial article urged new thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, rather than trying to continue along a well-worn path that has not led to success or even hope in two decades.
“The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine,” said Lustick. “It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot. But avoiding truly catastrophic change means ending the stifling reign of an outdated idea and allowing both sides to see and then adapt to the world as it is.”
Lustick made it clear that two states was still an option, just not in the form that the Oslo process had heretofore envisioned. His point was that the current process has failed and that all viable options must now be on the table, in whatever formulation of states. “It remains possible that someday two real states may arise,” Lustick wrote. “But the pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned. Time can do things that politicians cannot.”
But David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, accused Lustick of “…dispens(ing) with the foundational Jewish link among a people, a land, and a faith.” He bases this on his highly selective quoting and interpretation of Lustick saying, as Harris puts it, that “Zionism… has become ‘an outdated idea,’ and Israelis should accept that ‘Israel may no longer exist as the Jewish and democratic vision of its Zionist founders.’” Harris does not explain how this in any way means Lustick is denying a Jewish link between Jewish people, their faith and the land in question. But Harris has never been one to allow facts or critical thinking to factor into his arguments.
At the neoconservative magazine, Commentary, Jonathan Tobin lays the entire blame for the failure of the Oslo process at the feet of the Palestinians. “So long as the Palestinians are unable to re-imagine their national identity outside of an effort to extinguish the Zionist project,” wrotes Tobin, “and to therefore recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, negotiations are doomed to fail.” Tobin goes on to assail Lustick as “conceited” and “dishonest.” In his view, the ultimate flaw in Lustick’s thesis is that “…his determination to ignore the nature of Palestinian intolerance for Jews causes him not only to misunderstand why peace efforts have failed but also to be blind to the certainty that the end of Israel would lead to bloodshed and horror… Israelis understand that they have no choice but to survive and to wait as long as it takes for the Palestinians to give up on dreams of their destruction.”
Other observers, however, offer a more sobering assessment that supports Lustick’s main point: the peace process as we have known it has failed and new approaches must be considered. In the twenty years of the Oslo Accords, the United States was unable to create the sort of breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians that the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 promised. Instead, the peace process itself has become a sort of trap.
“The peace process itself has become an institution,” said Leila Hilal of the New America Foundation and a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team, speaking in Washington. “All incidents are fitted into this prism of the peace process, waiting for a bilateral agreement to end the conflict.”
Hilal’s point touches on the same key issue Lustick addresses. The entire underlying structure of Oslo was flawed from the outset. The disparity between a regional superpower and a stateless and powerless people makes the notion that the conflict must be resolved via bilateral negotiations between these two wildly asymmetrical parties an absurd myth that blocks any hope of progress. That’s precisely why the Palestinians keep complaining that the United States is not playing a role in the current talks while Israel is perfectly content with their patron playing the role of host and observer but not mediator.
Shibley Telhami, the noted pollster University of Maryland professor contended on the same panel as Hilal that
It is impossible for the US to effectively negotiate Palestinian-Israeli peace without a president backing it and who believes it is strategically important for the United States… After 1973 and the Arab oil embargo, it was easier to make the case that the U.S. had interest in peace because it had interest in good relations with both Israel and Arabs. But by the time of (Bill) Clinton’s election, the Cold War had ended, foreign policy was not the central issue and his administration was not looking at this as a national security issue.
All of this sets up conditions that have led to twenty years of stalemate and left little hope that the situation between Israel and the Palestinians can improve. Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace stated bluntly that “Left to themselves, the parties are incapable of coming to an agreement. They need a guiding hand. Today, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in particular there is a system of occupation and settlement that has endured for almost half a century. There has been no agreement of any consequence since 1995, but the system remains intact.”
Aronson also pointed out that even the oft-cited decision by George H.W. Bush to cut loan guarantees if Israel didn’t curb settlement activity was an incidental tactic, and only policy change can actually create incentives for Israel to get serious about compromising with the Palestinians. Governments are not supposed to make concessions unless they have to. Until U.S. distaste for the settlement project and other odious Israeli practices is incorporated concretely into policy, things won’t change. This is true for other actors, like the EU, who have already shown what a tiny policy move — in this case, a policy of refusing to fund projects done in partnership with Israeli settlements, which means very little on the ground but has provoked a virtual tantrum from Israelis in and out of government — can do.
Neither in Israel nor in the Occupied Territories was there any hint of marking the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, a telling point that reflects how this one hopeful event is viewed today by both parties. For Israel, the issue of the occupation has taken a back seat to broader concerns in the region, particularly with regard to Iran, Syria, Egypt, and economic concerns. But even for the Palestinians, the entire concept of the two-state solution has been thrown into question by the failure of the Oslo process.
The current round of talks are not just a microcosm of the twenty years of Oslo; they’re a magnification of it. After months of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts focused on just getting the two sides to talk, they cannot agree on even the basic outlines of what they should be talking about. The U.S. envoy, Martin Indyk, has been to only one meeting with the two sides in that time.
All of this is why Lustick is saying a new approach is needed, from the ground up. It must not be built on the ashes of Oslo and rather must be an entirely new structure. Harris, Tobin and their ilk do not bash Lustick because he “hates Israel,” but because they are quite content with the status quo and wish to defend it. Those who wish to see millions of Palestinians living under harsh Israeli military rule freed; the rights of millions of dispossessed Palestinians addressed; and, perhaps most of all, those who wish to defuse this powder keg, especially in light of so many other explosions that have nothing to do with Israel enflaming the region, need to pay heed to Lustick’s words. Oslo is dead, killed by its own birth defects. It’s long past time for something new.