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A Decade After Oslo, Israel and Palestinians Face a Changed World

September 3, 2003
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On the face of it, the Oslo peace process failed to achieve very much. Ten years after Israelis and Palestinians astounded the world by signing the accords, the two sides again are locked in armed struggle and are raising basic questions of legitimacy and recognition.

In terms of conflict resolution, the parties seem to have stumbled back to a pre-Oslo square one.

But the situation today in fact is very different than it was a decade ago. Major political and geopolitical changes in the 10 years since Oslo, and the Oslo process itself, have colored political thinking on both sides.

In Israel, taboos like the existence of a Palestinian state have been irrevocably smashed, while on the Palestinian side there is deeper questioning of the efficacy of the terrorist weapon.

Perhaps most significantly, profound regional and international developments seem to be playing in Israel’s favor.

In Israel, the vagaries of the Oslo process changed political thinking on the right and the left. The peace process undercut the right’s dream of “Greater Israel,” while the process’ collapse shattered the left’s dream of an idyllic, two-state solution in a “New Middle East.”

Before Oslo, the thought of a Likud prime minister agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state would have been inconceivable. Indeed, when Oslo was signed, Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were careful not to commit themselves to Palestinian statehood for fear of sparking a public outcry.

Now, 10 years on, over 60 percent of Israelis — including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud — back the two-state solution.

The failure of the parties to see the Oslo process through led to two significant conclusions on the Israeli side: If there are new agreements, there must be scrupulous third-party monitoring to ensure implementation; but if, ultimately, there is no credible peace partner, Israel should consider unilateral separation from the Palestinians.

The recent peace plan known as the “road map” provides the third-party supervision the Oslo process lacked. If it, too, fails to gather momentum, calls for unilateral separation will grow in Israel.

The dynamics of Oslo clarified for many Israelis the advantages of a two-state solution and the demographic dangers inherent in the present status quo. Even erstwhile right-wingers like the former minister for strategic planning, Dan Meridor, now make the classic Labor argument that, if it wishes to remain a Jewish and democratic state, Israel must separate politically from the Palestinians before they become a majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Though Sharon doesn’t use the demographic terminology, clearly it’s in the back of his mind when he says that Israel should not rule over 3 million Palestinians and when he calls for an end to “occupation.”

On the Palestinian side, two contradictory post-Oslo strategies emerged: forcing Israeli concessions through terror or abstaining from terror and turning international sympathy into pressure on Israel.

Encouraged by the Israeli retreat from Lebanon in May 2000 and what he perceived as Saddam Hussein’s growing power in Iraq, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat opted for violence.

But his strategy imploded. No Arab states joined the struggle, the international community did not step in and Israel made no political concessions. On the contrary, the upshot was a discredited Arafat and a devastated Palestinian economy.

Moreover, after Al-Qaida’s Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Palestinian terrorism became associated with international terrorism, and Israel was allowed unprecedented freedom of action against the terrorists. Sharon was able to reoccupy Palestinian cities and to embark on a policy of liquidating Hamas terrorist leaders with little international protest.

Mahmoud Abbas, who became P.A. prime minister in April, led the post-Oslo policy alternative, denouncing Arafat’s “militarization” of the intifada as a huge strategic mistake that played into Israel’s hands. Instead, Abbas advocated a strategy of dialogue based on the road map, coupled with American pressure on Israel.

Regional developments since Oslo further weakened the Palestinian position. Most significantly, the threat of a powerful “Eastern front” against Israel – – made up of Iraq, Syria and Jordan — collapsed. In 1994, a year after Oslo, Jordan made peace with Israel, while Saddam Hussein’s ouster in April removed Iraq and left Syria isolated, surrounded by American or pro-American forces in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

Other developments also worked in Israel’s favor. Israel’s close relationship with Turkey, developed in the wake of the Oslo process, has survived the intifada; U.S. control of Iraqi oil means a significant decline in the weight of the Arab oil card, and the weakness of the Arab League reflects a decline in the sense of a collective Arab identity.

For the Palestinians, these factors add up to a loss of their “Arab hinterland” and a growing sense of isolation.

Indeed, the Palestinians have had to turn to Iran for arms and financial aid. In January 2002, the Karine A, a ship carrying arms from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, was intercepted by Israel. Today, according to Israeli intelligence sources, Iranian Revolutionary Guards based in Lebanon are transferring arms and funds to Hamas.

Ironically, a decade after Oslo, a non-Arab country — Iran — poses the most serious strategic threat to Israel, promoting Palestinian terror and developing nuclear and other nonconventional weapons with missiles capable of reaching Israel.

For Israel, the American war in Iraq has a crucial bearing. If, over time, the Americans are seen to have won, it will be a major blow to all radical forces in the Middle East. But if they lose, Israel could find itself confronting buoyant radicals from all over the region.

Either way, one thing is certain: Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States has become much stronger in the wake of Oslo — a process in which, initially, the Americans were not even involved. ld Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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