Oslo at 30: Some Positive Takeaways

On the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Agreement, following are some personal observations and thoughts by Ori Nir, who at the time covered Oslo’s implementation for Israel’s Haaretz. 

By Ori Nir

As Israeli and PLO officials were secretly negotiating in Oslo over the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, talks between representatives of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians were taking place openly in Washington. 

The Washington Talks, as they were known at the time, were an exercise in futility. The Palestinian delegation could not include representatives of the PLO (It was illegal for Israelis to even meet with PLO officials). The first few rounds of talks between the Israeli and joint Jodanian-Palestinian delegation addressed the shape of the table. Literally. At one of the sessions on the Israeli-Syrian track, while the Syrian foreign minister laid out his government’s national narrative, a member of the Israeli delegation attempted to disrupt him by loudly tapping his teacup with a spoon. True story.

In the summer of 1993, I was diligently covering the Washington talks for Israel’s Haaretz daily. Although the talks were ultimately useless, they were revolutionary. It was the first time since Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt in 1978 that it was openly conducting bilateral and multilateral negotiations with three other neighboring nations. 

Nobody in Washington knew what was taking place in Oslo. 

In August 1993, I was preparing for another day of covering the talks in DC. I was reading the daily review of the Israeli media, which I just received on my fax machine (the internet and email were not yet publicly available), and saw a report saying that Israel and the PLO reached an agreement on the future of the occupied territories. Astonished, I rushed to the downtown DC hotel in which the Palestinian delegation was staying. At the hotel’s coffee shop, I met Hanan Ashrawi, the iconic spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the talks. I translated the report to her. She was as surprised as I was. As I understood it, she was also deeply offended that the Oslo negotiations, the real negotiations, were taking place by PLO officials behind the backs of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, who were members of the negotiating team to the Washington talks and who were suffering under Israeli occupation. Ashrawi left her cup of coffee on the table and rushed to the elevator to consult with her colleagues. 

The Oslo agreement caught everyone by surprise, including the Clinton administration. The secrecy was an asset during the negotiations. They probably would have not reached fruition had the talks not been secret. But the secrecy also had some negative repercussions. Above all, the shock and the notion among both Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners that they were faced with a fait-accompli, which could only be undone through violence, called them to action. 

Violence and manipulation – on both sides – caused the Oslo agreements to collapse. Current mirror narratives on both sides contend that the other side, from the start, approached Oslo with a hidden agenda of undermining it. Most Israelis say that Yasser Arafat and his deputies viewed Oslo as a tool to destroy Israel. Most Palestinians say that the government of Israel viewed Oslo as a tool to tighten its grip on the West Bank. 

Like serious researchers of the period, which I don’t pretend to be, I strongly believe that the post-factum Israeli narrative is wrong. And even if the Palestinian narrative retrospectively may be proving right, under successive Israeli governments that continued building settlements, my strong impression, at the time, was that the government of Rabin and Peres was committed to a process that would end up in a peace settlement. Yes, there were articles of the Oslo agreement that each side attempted to avoid implementing. As we know, Arafat was less than wholehearted, to put it mildly, about suppressing violence. And, as we also know, All post-Oslo Israeli governments continued with settlement construction and even stepped it up. Sure, a settlement slowdown was not mentioned in Oslo, but everyone was aware of the devastating impact of settlement construction on efforts to advance toward peace. It was not only settlements, though. Take a small example of Israel violating Oslo: from the very beginning, Israeli authorities were less than enthusiastic about negotiating an agreement on the modalities of a “safe passage” for Palestinians traveling through Israel between the West Bank and Gaza, as stipulated by the accord.

What I can tell you, having intensely covered the first stages of the implementation of Oslo, is that both leaderships seemed committed, if not to every word of it, then at least to the spirit and the objectives of the agreement. And their attitude definitely trickled down to the bureaucracy and to most people on both sides of the Green Line. 

I was there when Israeli and Palestinian security officers jointly patrolled Palestinian towns and villages and stopped to break bread together. I was there when Israeli troops, in an orderly manner, handed over control of Palestinian towns in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. I won’t forget the sight of Palestinian women in Bethlehem gently tossing flowers at Israeli soldiers as they left town, and the hugs that young Palestinian men gave to Israeli Border Patrol officers as they departed, wishing the Palestinians independence. 

Sure, I also covered the bloody attempts of extremist Palestinians to foil Oslo through deadly suicide attacks, as well as extremist Jewish violence that came to a devastating crescendo with the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Extremists on both sides worked hard to drown Oslo in blood. I am aware of what the carnage did to both Israelis and Palestinians in the post-Oslo era and of its impact on how both sides retrospectively perceive Oslo. 

But to me, the legacy of Oslo is not just a post-factum failure. Oslo’s failure does not prove that pursuing it was a mistake in the first place. I see Oslo as proof that building an Israeli-Palestinian sense of common purpose and shared interests is possible. I see it as an experience from which both sides can draw lessons for future attempts at peacemaking. And I am also aware that the Oslo Accords still regulate Israeli-Palestinian coordination – what’s left of it – whether in jointly fighting terrorism, in health care, the environment, and many other fields. 

Oslo’s subsequent failure is not proof that it was a mistake in the first place. Spoilers spoiled it. Moderate leaders on both sides were unwilling and unable to patch it up and fully implement it in good faith. All who aspire to see a future of peace between the state of Israel and the future state of Palestine can draw lessons from Oslo’s good intentions and disastrous implementation.