30 years to the Oslo Accords (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- September 5, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Where has Oslo proved beneficial for Israel?

A. The Oslo Accords paved the way for peace with Jordan, a solid accomplishment that is now finally yielding not only security benefits but an economic horizon as well: energy and water, thanks to UAE partnership. At least in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority still provides the political structure for Israeli-Palestinian security and economic cooperation, however fragile. The Palestinian refugee issue, long viewed as a threat by Israel, is dormant and seems increasingly irrelevant as the Palestinian diaspora loses influence.

Further, Israel’s outlay for security has dropped since Oslo from 11 percent of GNP to five percent, thus sparking the growth of the economy. Even with Gaza and the West Bank divided and Hamas ruling Gaza--or perhaps for that very reason--the conflict seems to have become ‘manageable’.

But here’s the rub. It is for all these reasons that settlements are spreading, West Bank Palestinians are being disenfranchised, and Israel and the Palestinians, with no political horizon, are descending into a binational hell that threatens to forever alter the nature of Israel as Jewish and democratic.

This is definitely not beneficial for Israel and for Jews everywhere. It is disastrous. Would this be happening without the Oslo Accords? Probably. And at an even faster pace. Only a two-state solution could ensure a Jewish and democratic Israel.

Q. The protocol of the Rabin Cabinet meeting that approved the Oslo Accords was just published. The tenor of the discussion is a realistic assessment of the security dangers and the risks of dealing with Arafat, balanced by a general sense that Israel has no better alternative.

A. Indeed, Rabin and his ministers were very sober and serious in discussing the Accords. One could argue that they were so aware of the risk they were taking, that it made sense to approve a bare-bones interim accord in which Israel took relatively few chances. They knew it could fail. In that eventuality, they apparently believed, damage would be minimal. As so often happens at critical junctures in history, there was no better idea on the table.

Two very thoughtful quotes from the protocol sum it up. PM Rabin: “Jewish settlement has complicated life, without any security contribution”. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who initially shepherded the Oslo talks behind Rabin’s back: “It’s possible the entire PLO business will fall apart and we’ll have here a Hamas-type Iran”.

Q. You were involved in informal Israeli-Palestinian security talks in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s that contributed to the Oslo Accords from Israel’s standpoint. Regrets?

A. None. Even in retrospect, this seemed like the best course of action. I sent reports of our talks to Rabin and he signaled me that they were important for understanding how to proceed on security issues--which, surprisingly, were not discussed by security professionals in the talks leading up to September 13, 1993. When, after the Accords were signed, the IDF began fleshing out security with the PLO, it also referred to ideas broached in these informal Israeli-Palestinian security talks.

A lot of Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements have foundered and even imploded since then. But note: the Palestinian Authority security forces created by Oslo still exist and still cooperate with the IDF.

Q. What killed trust in Oslo as a dynamic agreement from Israel’s standpoint?

A. Rabin’s assassination was a terrible blow. Peres took over and quickly botched an election. Netanyahu followed and for a while went through the motions. Barak followed and badly mismanaged an attempt at final status negotiations. Only Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was able to pump new life into a process that he himself, having previously godfathered so many of the disastrous settlements, had earlier tried to bury. Had Sharon lived, withdrawal probably would have continued deep into the West Bank and the two-state solution would have gained a new lease on life.

The second blow to Oslo was the Palestinian suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005. Despite providing the backdrop to Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians during those years have had a profoundly negative effect--to this day--on the willingness of the Israeli public to engage in any further trust-based cooperation with Palestinians in general.

True, PM Ehud Olmert tried yet one more time, in 2008, to negotiate an Oslo-based final status deal with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But Olmert was by then a lame-duck leader and Abbas was reluctant; he apparently reasoned he could not muster Palestinian public support for the deal. By that time, had the two succeeded and agreed, I doubt the Israeli public would have backed Olmert. We would have witnessed yet another Oslo-related fiasco.   

Q. Bottom line?

A. Implementation of the Oslo Accords began in 1994 with “Gaza and Jericho first”. Arafat rode into Gaza from Egypt in a car that smuggled both weapons and a terrorist wanted by Israel. Today Gaza and increasingly Jericho are terrorist havens. There is enough blame to spread among both Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet the Oslo Accords remain, at least in areas A and B, some 40 percent of the West Bank, the internationally recognized law of the land.