Twenty-nine years ago this week, the leaders of Americans for Peace Now stood among the many dignitaries at the signing ceremony of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. APN has worked behind the scenes in the years that preceded Oslo to push the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace, advancing the dialogue between Washington and the PLO, and helping induce the détente in relations between the Israel and the Palestinian leadership.
The Oslo Accords, a surprising breakthrough to everyone (except a handful of Israeli, Palestinian and Norwegian diplomats and leaders), were warmly welcomed in Israel, Palestine, the United States as the path to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring the collective national rights of both peoples.
Over the past 29 years, many have accused Israeli and Palestinian leaders of coming to the negotiating table and to the White House lawn with nefarious hidden agendas. But at the time, there was good reason to believe that both negotiated and signed the agreement with a sincere intention of achieving peace.
During the first phases of the implementation of the Oslo Accords, both the Israeli and Palestinian publics shared optimism in the agreement. A solid majority of Palestinians supported the diplomatic process and believed it could lead to statehood, independence and peace, despite the momentous concessions Palestinians believed they were making. Hamas and other militant groups had a marginal following among Palestinians at the time (lower than 15%), and many Palestinians vociferously opposed anti-Israeli terrorism. Even within Hamas there was some opposition to terrorism.
In Israel, too, there was solid support for diplomacy that would lead to peace with the Palestinians, and there was a palpable attitude among the military, civil service, and public at large, in support of implementing the Oslo agreements leading to ultimate sustainable peace.
So, what happened?
Well, the enemies of peace, those who vowed to torpedo the accords, sprang into action. First from the margins of both societies, and later from positions of political power. Whether through direct action – Palestinian and Israeli terrorist acts, including the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, settlement construction on steroids, incitement etc. – or through inaction (avoiding the implementation of certain aspects of the accords or failure to negotiate subsequent steps or matters of final status), the peace initiative was in crisis mode from the very start.
With time, as Israelis suffered devastating Palestinian terrorism and Palestinians suffered the impact of an increasingly brutal Israeli occupation, the very notion of peace and reconciliation and the use of diplomacy to attain them, became anathema to ever growing segments of Israeli and Palestinian societies.
Among Palestinians, resistance – whether armed or unarmed – became a preferred path for addressing the conflict. Among Israelis, the mere idea of conflict resolution gave way to “conflict management.”
In practice, over time, the set of agreements that was envisioned as the path toward resolving the conflict became the substructure of a toxic status quo, which impedes resolution. The carefully negotiated framework that was envisioned as the road to Palestinian statehood became the structure that preserves the status quo of occupation and anti-occupation Palestinian armed resistance, the very status quo that prevents a two-state solution. Ironically, the Israeli settler right, which has always bemoaned Oslo (and still does), became the benefactor of the agreements that it so reviles. Oslo created the conditions that allowed for escalated settlement construction, creeping annexation in most of the West Bank (with a limited autonomy in heavily populated Palestinian enclaves), a Palestinian government that works with Israel’s security authorities to fight Palestinian terrorism, and an international community that for the most part acquiesces.
APN believes in the spirit of Oslo, in the initial vision of a mutually charted Israeli-Palestinian path toward peace. Whether the framework of Oslo can be updated and overhauled to still further its original purpose is beside the point. What matters is that a negotiated agreement that leads to peace and hopefully to future reconciliation, is not only possible but essential. It becomes more necessary with every day of agony, bereavement and strife that the status quo imposes.
The signing of the Oslo accords and their immediate aftermath were proof that peacemaking is possible, that both societies and their leaders can forge a shared vision and a shared path to attain it.
Just like the APN leaders who attended the signing ceremony 29 years ago, we continue to believe that peace is possible, that both Israelis and Palestinians badly need it, and that even if they currently can’t envision peace or don’t think it’s possible, majorities on both sides want it – and certainly deserve it.