Oslo At 20: A Failed Process

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 But avoiding truly catastrophic change means ending the stifling reign of an outdated idea and allowing both sides to see and then adapt to the world as it is.”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on his highly selective quoting and interpretation of Lustick saying, as Harris puts it, that “Zionism… has become ‘an outdated idea,’ and Israelis should accept that ‘Israel may no longer exist as the Jewish and democratic vision of its Zionist founders.’”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.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. What a waste of time, the present negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Nothing will be accomplished, but more death, suffering, humiliation. As for “something new”, cut Israel loose from Momma U.S. and see what happens. Of course, it would help if every lobbing group that puts Israel first, were denied access to the Congress, their money lenders banned, were made to register as agents of a foreign government. Oh, and the U.S. gets out of the M.E., for the only interest I see is the protection racket that doesn’t pay the U.S. returns.

  2. In my view, the so-called “peace process” is like what in school we once called “busy work”, something to make people do when they might have been employed doing something useful. Could it have produced a “just and lasting peace”? In principle it might, but in fact, the parties were not close to a mutually agreeable solution and the settlement regime moved them farther and farther from one over the many years of “peace processing”.

    In my view, a view I’d imagine was shared by 100% of people who actually want a peace treaty that is fair to (or acceptable to) Palestinians, there can be no peace unless and until severe pressure is exerted upon Israel to move Israel away from its settlement project and toward an acceptable peace treaty.

    Where would the pressure come from? Who can say? It has not happened yet and is as purely conjectural today as are Two States, or One Single Non-Discriminatory Democratic State. The only very, very slight pressure to be seen so far is the EU’s current tentative steps to suspend contact with organizations connected to the settlements in the Occupied Territories — a very odd tentative step since, of course, the government of Israel is itself connected to the occupation and those settlements.

    What would the pressure seek to accomplish? This too is pure conjecture since no such pressure has eventuated. I’d like the pressure to aim at forcing Israel to remove the settlers and remove/demolish the settlement buildings and the wall. My reason for choosing that “goal” is that it compiorts well with EVIDENT INTERNATIONAL LAW, whereas making “peace” is not required by law, and making Israel become a “democratic” state and especially a “non-discriminatory” state is not required by law, and not very well defined as a goal, either.

    But those are my own “druthers”. choose your own. But — after you’ve chosen what you consider a desireable outcome OTHER than the current status quo apartheid regime, the current undemocratic fully-discriminatory multi-ethnic, multi-confessional Sincel State — ask yourself how it could possibly come to pass without the exertion of extreme pressure on Israel (or, of course, on the much beleagured Palestinians).

    My prediction is that no sensible person will see a likely path within a shortish time period (e.g., “my lifetime”) to a goal differing from status quo without the exertion of extreme pressure, presumably upon Israel.

    That said, I wonder that people are not saying so out loud.

  3. The Jewish state of Israel is not going to commit suicide to make extreme-left antisemites (like the author) happy. Sorry, neo-nazis, antisemites, extreme-left wackos, jihadists, and the other filth that people like Mitchell Plitnick, Ian Lustick and other bigots appeal to.

  4. Look at Israel’s neighbors. Syria (insane), Egypt (insane), Muslim Brotherhood (insane), Hamas (insane), Hezbollah (insane), Islamic Jihad (insane), etc.

    Extreme-left antisemites (like the author) want the world’s only Jewish state to suicide itself and become another Arab state that discriminates against Jews and becomes a complete disaster, like, Israel’s neighbors.

    Israel is by far the most modern, secure, liberal, successful state in that entire region. It’s a shame that extreme-left antisemites (some of whom happen to have been born Jewish) and their jihad-defending “comrades” are so intent on erasing Israel and turning it into something like… Syria. Or Hamas-run Gaza.

    You won’t win, Mitchell Plitnick. You and your extreme-left Jew-hater allies won’t erase Israel from the map. You’re going to have to accept that in a giant sea of Muslim states with Muslim majorities, the one tiny Jewish state with a Jewish-majority isn’t going anywhere.

  5. Careful what you wish for, you just might find that what you get, isn’t what you want. That said, why do you have to resort to name calling, are you that narrow/closed minded, that you can’t see the forest from the trees?

    Perhaps you enjoy perpetual war, death, killing, destruction, poverty. Perhaps you equate all of these to what the NAZIS did in W.W.TWO. Instead of leading, you advocate hate, murder, thievery, poverty, yet call anyone who dares speak of these things, the various names you’ve committed to type. What do you call the very same actions you accuse others of, when they are committed by the IDF/Settlers?

    Aggravating the situation at hand, such as the settlements, walls, segregation, taking of others lands, Jerusalem, now with the march upon the Muslim Mosque in Jerusalem, which I believe is against the laws for occupiers. This “KABUKI” that’s played out on a daily basis, has shown the World how wrong it is.

    Israeli leaders have never let up on telling the world what the NAZIS did, yet there have been other Genocides of greater degrees, yet we don’t hear about them like we do about the Holocaust. That’s fine for the Jewish population, but to brand anyone who wants peace a NAZI as you have done, then just exactly what do you call yourself? When Israel embraces the same or worse tactics, then isn’t that what the saying of “the pot calling the kettle black” means?

    I don’t believe all Israelis believe as you do, but the brainwashing has taken hold, which may or may not be reversed. Needless to say, the present way of thinking will only lead to more bloodshed, which won’t accomplish any thing.

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