Last week’s twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords spurred much commentary on how the agreement has fared over the past quarter century. To the extent that there is a near-consensus, it is that Oslo has been a failure. Many Israelis — particularly those on the right — blame Oslo for installing a corrupt and terror-supporting entity in the West Bank, rewarding violence as a tactic, and giving hope to the Palestinian dream of first the West Bank and Gaza and next the entirety of historic Palestine. Many Palestinians blame Oslo for legitimating and institutionalizing the occupation while taking the burden of perpetuating it off Israeli shoulders and placing it onto Palestinian ones, turning Palestinian leadership into Israel’s security subcontractor, and giving the settlement movement free rein to gobble up the territory of a theoretical future Palestinian state. A permanent status agreement seems further away now than on the day of the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn under President Clinton’s beaming gaze, and many Israelis and Palestinians want to tear the agreement up and move on as a way of furthering their interests.
It is easy to pile on Oslo. It has led to a seemingly interminable peace process that follows a predictable formula of unwilling parties being dragged to the table for doomed negotiations that are inevitably followed by rounds of violence. It has stunted any ambitions that Palestinians harbored for democracy. It has taken Israeli security partially out of Israel’s own hands. It has created and perpetuated a culture of Palestinian dependence on foreign aid and addiction to grievance. If you are an Israeli who views Palestinian nationalism as illegitimate, Oslo gave it legitimacy. If you are a Palestinian who views Israel’s existence as illegitimate, Oslo gave it legitimacy. It is understandable why there are many on both sides who view it as a terrible mistake.
But taking a 30,000 foot view, Oslo actually has not failed. In fact, it has in many ways been wildly successful. This is not to gloss over its shortcomings or the bevy of justified criticisms of the agreement and what it has wrought. But for both sides, from a practical everyday perspective and from a political narrative angle, Oslo has created important victories that did not exist before and that would not exist had it never been signed.
For Israel, Oslo created a security architecture that it did not have before. Oslo came on the heels of the shock to the Israeli system of the First Intifada and the costs it imposed on Israel having to police the cities, towns, and villages of the West Bank. Oslo allowed Israel to put much of this responsibility in Palestinian hands and focus on larger and more dangerous regional threats. It took some time for the Palestinian security services to become reliable partners interested in actually fighting terror and extremism rather than being yet another threat for the IDF to contend with, but today Israel is enjoying the abundant fruits of security cooperation with the Palestinians. Without Oslo and a Palestinian Authority, Israeli soldiers would still be stuck in Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, and other Palestinian population centers, which would not make Israel more than marginally safer than it is now but would carry with it substantial costs in blood and treasure.
Oslo also transformed Israel’s economy and opened up a new era of Israeli global diplomacy, as Ephraim Sneh noted last week. But the security angle is possibly the most enduring facet of Oslo on the ground, and it is worth the various downsides that have come with the accords. It illuminates the extreme illogic of the voices on the Israeli right who point to Oslo as opening the door to Israel’s destruction, when in fact it has made Israel demonstrably safer. Oslo was not responsible for the Second Intifada – much, though not all, of the violence was driven by groups whose existence pre-dated Oslo and who were not under the PA’s control – but Israelis saw the devastating consequences of a PA uninterested in security cooperation with Israel. It took time for this cooperation to develop and become institutionalized, but now that it exists and has survived multiple challenges, it is unpleasant to think of what would transpire in the event of another widespread violent uprising were Oslo nullified. Those who want to scrap Oslo entirely are taking an enormous gamble that the PA will continue this security arrangement without the benefits that it enjoys as a result of Oslo.
And Oslo has indeed benefited the Palestinians as well. No, it has not brought about the end of the occupation or the creation of a Palestinian state, but it has created a network of Palestinian institutions that did not and could not exist without it, and has brought the Palestinians a measure of autonomy that they did not enjoy before. It is easy to disparage Palestinian administrative control in Areas A and B and security control in Area A. After all, Palestinians do not control their own autonomous borders and have to deal with routine Israeli violations of their supposed security independence inside of West Bank cities. But Palestinians living in Areas A and B answer to their own local government, run their own local municipalities, and have a measure of official control that would not exist without Oslo. It is not a substitute for having an independent state, nor does it lessen Palestinian anger at watching settlements and the settlement population grow exponentially since Oslo, but neither of these factors erase the real benefits that do exist.
Yet Oslo’s most enduring legacy is an intangible one, and it is the change in mindset and language surrounding both sides’ legitimacy and aspirations. Oslo took official Israel from Golda Meir’s “there is no Palestinian people” to a recognition of Palestinian nationalism and an acknowledgment that there is indeed a Palestinian people. Oslo took the Palestinian leadership from “the Zionist entity” to recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders. Once these genies were out of their respective bottles, there was and is no forcing them back in, no matter how badly extremists on both sides want to return to a pre-Oslo mindset.
Oslo also moved the goalposts in a way that is easy to lose sight of if one does not take a long view. As opponents of two states exult in endlessly pointing out, Yitzhak Rabin’s last policy speech to the Knesset explicitly and clearly endorsed something less than a state for the Palestinians, and not more. In other words, the very architects of Oslo from Israel’s peace camp did not envision two states, while the right wing camp – led by future Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – still insisted that nothing on the West Bank need change at all. A quarter century later, the reality of Oslo has so thoroughly penetrated Israel’s political system that the peace camp’s original position has been adopted by Netanyahu, while the left and center speak about two states in a manner well beyond anything Rabin himself ever expressed.
Bashing Oslo is easy and has never been more in vogue. But to focus only on Oslo’s downsides and the shattered promise of those heady days in the fall of 1993 is to miss that while the Oslo Accords have had their share of failures, they have not failed.