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Five Years After Oslo: Israeli, Palestinian Hopes Give Way to Disillusionment

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Five years after Israel and the Palestinians agreed to end their century-old conflict, many on both sides of the divide are feeling disillusionment — and anger.

Political visions such as former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ “new Middle East” and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s “peace of the brave” appear to many as mere wishful thinking.

For them, the peace process launched in Oslo in the months before the White House signing took a seriously wrong turn.

The basic assumption behind Oslo was that one understanding would lead to another, mutual trust would increase and the wall of peace would be built brick by brick.

But the Oslo architects did not anticipate the zeal of the hard-liners on both sides who would spare no effort to make the bricks come tumbling down before the edifice of peace was erected.

Indeed, the months after the White House signing on Sept. 13, 1993, witnessed several stabbings and shootings of Israelis. In one case, when two Israeli soldiers were kidnaped and killed while hitchhiking in the Gaza Strip, Hamas militants left a note with the bodies that the killings were a “gift to the peace process.”

One Israeli who lost a friend during these months decided to wreak some retribution of his own: On Feb. 25, 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinian worshipers before he himself was killed by an angry mob.

The cycle of violence continued, with Hamas launching a series of suicide bombings to topple the peace process. Starting with the first such attack in April 1994 in the northern Israeli town of Afula, Hamas and other terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for at least 15 terror bombings during the past five years.

Despite the mounting death toll, the peace process continued, with the May 1994 Cairo Agreement for launching Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, and more than a year later, with the September 1995 Interim Agreement for extending self-rule in the West Bank.

Weeks after that second agreement was signed, as protests from the Israeli right took on an increasingly incendiary tone, a gunshot changed the way Israel looked at itself.

The Nov. 4, 1995, assassination of Premier Yitzhak Rabin came at a Tel Aviv rally intended to give the peace process a boost. According to some, the Oslo process has never recovered from that fateful night.

Support for Rabin’s successor, Peres, was shaken by yet another series of Hamas suicide bombings — in February and March 1996 — that claimed the lives of 59 innocent people and wounded some 220 more.

Israel was left reeling, and on May 29, 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party — and of the Oslo skeptics — was elected premier.

Although Netanyahu accepted the Oslo accords as a political given, Israeli- Palestinian relations suffered a serious setback.

A period of mutual recriminations followed until what was arguably the nadir of the Oslo process: In September 1996, Palestinian rioting erupted throughout Gaza and the West Bank after Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel alongside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Despite Israeli assurances to the contrary, the rioters were certain that the Temple Mount was under threat. Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers exchanged fire, with Palestinians using the very guns that were allowed them under the Oslo accords. In three days of violence, 15 Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed.

The peace process recovered in the succeeding months, culminating in the transfer of most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule in January 1997.

For the Netanyahu government, the transfer was a remarkable development: The Likud Party, for the first time in its history, had agreed to turn over a portion of Greater Israel to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu was trying to stave off the inevitable backlash from the Israeli right when, in March of that year, he approved the start of construction of a Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem.

Soon after, the Palestinian Authority suspended all negotiations with Israel. Despite a series of high-profile meetings arranged by the United States, there has been no meaningful progress by the two sides ever since.

Netanyahu said recently that the Oslo process has been dead for two years – – but there are those who see the matter quite differently.

“Dead?” said Ahmed Karia, the head of the Palestinian team at the negotiations in Oslo.

“Oslo is not a process of death. It is a process of life,” said Karia, who was recently interviewed along with Uri Savir, his Israeli counterpart in those talks. “There may be delays, there may be time-wasting, but I am sure that this process will not die.”

Savir, who was director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry when the two sides met secretly five years ago in the Norwegian capital, said that even in the best days of the Oslo process, the two populations did not sufficiently appreciate the great changes that have occurred.

“The Palestinians regarded Israelis as a people who had done them wrong. They did not see us as a people or a state,” said Savir.

“We regarded the Palestinians as individuals, and not as a people or a nation with equal rights. As a result of Oslo, both parties have learned to know each other, and this can no longer be changed. This is the most significant thing that happened five years ago.”

For many believers in the process, the main accomplishment of Oslo is the creation of a channel of dialogue, something unthinkable five years ago. Meetings between officials from the two sides no longer create banner headlines.

Some say that a major consequence of the Oslo accords will be the creation of a Palestinian state. In fact, a portion of them believe that statehood is virtually in place.

Former Knesset member Uri Avneri, one of the first Israelis to advocate recognition of Palestinian national rights, wrote this week that “the State of Palestine is a fait accomplis. There is not one serious officer in the IDF who seeks to reconquer Gaza, Ramallah and Nablus.”

Indeed, public opinion polls indicate time and again that the majority of Israelis accept that there can be no real peace unless the Palestinians achieve statehood.

Five years after Oslo, radicals from both sides can proudly claim that they have all but stopped the Oslo wheels from turning.

But according to those like Karia, this is only temporary.

“The majority, with us and with you as well, know that this process has no alternative. This is what gives Oslo life and will keep it rolling.”

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