10 Years After Oslo Lessons of Oslo Must Be Learned if Peacemaking is to Have a Chance

Sept. 13 will mark the 10th anniversary of the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House.

The high hopes of that day have long since vanished in a sea of blood, with countless victims, searing violence and profound suffering.

Was Oslo doomed from the start? Some will say yes because Arafat, who became the Palestinian Authority president, was never a partner for peace. As the American negotiator who spent more time with him than did any other non-Palestinian, I came to the conclusion that Arafat was incapable of making peace with Israel. He could not give up his mythologies, and he would not acknowledge that Palestinians, too, would have to make concessions.

But it is far too easy to blame it all on Arafat; doing so means that none of the lessons of Oslo will be learned. And there are important lessons that must be learned if peacemaking — if it ever resumes — is to be done in a way that stands a chance of succeeding.

While I believe there are many lessons from the past, let me single out three here: First, peacemaking requires accountability. One of the most profound failures of Oslo was that neither side lived up to its obligations. Both sides felt it easy to ignore what they had agreed to do, and there was never a consequence.

If Israelis and Palestinians alike wanted the United States in the process, then each needed to know that we would hold them to their commitments and that if they did not perform we would publicly say who was living up to the agreements and who was not.

Though this seems to be an obvious lesson — and President Bush has spoken of holding each side accountable — the pattern of the past remains present today. With the Mitchell report, the Tenet security plan and now the “road map” peace plan, the problem was not the absence of agreement; it was the absence of implementation.

Steps called for were not taken.

The road map was the least well-defined, with no clear understandings by each side of what was expected of them. When the Palestinians agreed to a truce — something not even in the road map — no questions were raised, even though the truce became a reason why the Palestinians were not willing to go after the terrorist infrastructure, something that was an essential part of the road map.

If there are going to be plans, understandings of what is required must be clear and the consequences of nonperformance must be spelled out from the beginning.

Second, both sides must prepare their publics for compromise. People-to-people programs that break down stereotypes and make it harder to demonize are important for making compromise acceptable.

But leaders must lead the way. They must condition their publics that compromise is going to be necessary.

Israelis must know that there will be withdrawals, that they will evacuate many settlements, that they cannot control Palestinians and that geographic contiguity for Palestinians cannot be finessed with tunnels and bridges.

Palestinians must know that there will be no Palestinian state born of violence; that terror will delegitimize their cause; that they will have to compromise on Jerusalem, borders, and refugees — indeed, that the solution on refugees must permit a two-state solution, not a one-state solution. Israel will be a Jewish state and Palestinians must be prepared to recognize it as such.

Throughout Oslo, preparation of publics was conspicuously absent, especially on the Palestinian side — where Arafat treated the very concept of compromise on the permanent status issues as a betrayal.

Third, Arab leaders must assume their responsibilities. The Arab role during Oslo was limited — in part because the Palestinians only sought their support but never their guidance; and in part because Arab leaders were fearful of being accused by Arafat asking the Palestinians to surrender their national rights if they pressed him to compromise on the core issues.

But one clear lesson that is particularly relevant today is that without the Arabs, the Palestinians will be unable either to confront their own rejectionists or to make concessions for peace.

Today, when the Palestinian Authority prime minister must confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad while facing resistance from Arafat, only Arab leaders can help create an umbrella of legitimacy for him to act.

The prime minister needs them to declare publicly that Hamas and Islamic Jihad exploded the cease-fire and are threatening not just Palestinian interests, but the cause itself. Arab leaders must support the crackdown on these groups and also exert meaningful pressure on Arafat not to block what he is doing.

This is not the time to ask for Arafat’s help, which would only play to his desire to show he is indispensable; it’s time for Arafat to be shown that Arab leaders will no longer remain silent about his efforts to undermine the advent of the prime minister they all supported.

In essence, it is time for Arab leaders to assume their responsibilities if they want to see a peace process that can succeed. They, too, must have obligations and be accountable. They, too, can help with the need to condition for peace.

If they do, and if accountability and the ethos of compromise become part of our efforts to promote peace, we may not have to lament the failed promise of Oslo in another 10 years.

Dennis Ross, director and Ziegler Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was President Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East. His book, “The Missing Peace,” will be published next year.

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