Twenty-five years ago, US President Bill Clinton launched the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the southern lawn of the White House as they signed the Oslo Accords. These agreements, which were initiated in secret Norwegian talks between Israeli academics and PLO officials, established an agenda and a five-year plan for a comprehensive peace agreement that would initially allow limited Palestinian self-government in parts of the occupied territories and would provide mutual recognition between Israel and the US PLO.
Today, this historical moment is largely forgotten, as Israelis and Palestinians, on the other hand, are throwing known accusations to defend their present positions. In some neighborhoods there is occasionally a touch of nostalgia for a missed opportunity. But hint or rosy memories of this September day miss the importance of the event. In today's grim reality, the most important thing to understand is how the breakthrough of Oslo became possible.
The Oslo Accords were signed in a very specific local and global political context. It was the end of the Cold War; a coalition led by the US had triumphed in the first Gulf War; Arafat's PLO was in crisis; When Rabin came to power in 1992, there was a political turnaround in Israel. But the main reason for the change was the fact that the status quo for the more powerful party – Israel – was no longer free. The Israeli government was therefore ready to seriously consider compromises. And the key factor for this change was the first Palestinian intifada.
In the mid-1980s Palestinians mobilized to demand change, with women often leading a largely unarmed uprising. The Palestinians have fought for over five years, uniting political factions known for their power struggles, politicizing those who had previously submitted to the Israeli occupation, and being self-reliant in support of mass mobilization. The focus of the Palestinian protest was on the occupation and its Israeli military executives, who were often reservists or juvenile soldiers when deployed for the first time. There were occasional attacks against Israeli civilians, but these were the exception led by groups outside the Intifada leadership. The Israelis have understood that they are facing a civil uprising – and they have paid attention. The Palestinians could no longer be ignored, and the harsh decisions that Israel had long avoided were put on the agenda.
An occupied people, the weaker party, had finally acquired leverage in every conflict situation – this irreplaceable card. As soon as the costs of maintaining the status quo arose, the parties could not fully engage on equal terms, but each needed something from the other.
The particular process set in motion by Oslo is dead; it can not be revived. What is presented today as a peace process is indeed little more than a day-team bullying attempt by the powerful parties – Israel and the United States – against the stateless Palestinians. Indeed, if the Trump government ever actually submits a plan, it will likely codify an existing reality in which the Palestinians are denied rights and freedoms, and Israel is free from all obligations and accountability.
But peace itself is not unattainable. The challenge is to re-establish the conditions for a breakthrough by rediscovering the ingredients that, a quarter-century ago, led Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seek common ground.
The First Intifada and the signing of the Oslo Accords marked the end of an occupation system that had existed since the end of the six-day war in June 1967. The war – and the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has created its own new reality. Over the next two decades, Israel instituted a control system for the West Bank and Gaza Strip (in the annexation of Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian villages) that combined direct military occupation with the formation of a civilian administration responsible for providing basic services (Health , Education, infrastructure maintenance, garbage collection) operated by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, with predominantly local staff in the places of direct service provision.
With the beginning of the First Intifada in 1987, this system reached the end of its life cycle. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority was created with responsibility that is severely limited both in function and in geographical scope to meet the basic needs of the population. Subsequent agreements divided the territories into a patchwork of zones ranging from full Israeli control to partial Palestinian control; Israel has introduced a new system of strict restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement; Settlements grew rather than shrunk; and new and more destructive forms of Palestinian armed violence hit civilian targets deep in Israel. And finally, Rabin, the Israeli leader who made history on the White House lawn, was murdered at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish Israeli extremist after conducting a relentless sedition campaign by Israeli right-wing extremists.
As the Oslo-led hope to establish a Palestinian state subsided, this new control matrix took shape and became semipermanent for the administration of the territory and the Palestinian population. A major disruption followed the violent Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005, when Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, but then imposed a severe land, sea and air blockade on the territory. As a result, there are now two distinct control systems for these divided Palestinian territories.
In the West Bank, the US-trained Palestinian security forces are now tasked with providing security cooperation for Israel, but not protecting their own people. The international donor community receives most of the bill for the welfare of the Palestinians, not the Israeli government. (Europe was the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority until the recent Trump government decision to withdraw support, in addition to US support.)
The premise was that the Palestinian Authority, along with Israel, became an independent, sovereign state. The reality on the ground was quite different when Israel consolidated its physical control over the majority of the country, notably through the rapid expansion of settlements and the further confiscation of Palestinian land. In 1990, the total Israeli settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was just over 200,000; Today, this number is over 600,000, and some Israeli government sources claim the number has exceeded 700,000.
Today, after almost 25 years, this Oslo-led system of occupation also shows cracks and is no longer sustainable. The Palestinian Authority is divided administratively and factionally, institutionally corroded and politically adversive. Now that Israel has tightened its control matrix in the West Bank, it is trying to impose a new legal regime to codify the deep existing structural inequalities between Jews and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (while providing for greater inequality in Israel itself). This shift from de facto to de jure annexation marks the final end of the Oslo era.
The signs for the next phase are not good. In Israel, hardliners are stronger than ever within the ruling Likud party and right-wing coalition factions. They feel further strengthened by the Trump administration, intoxicated with the prospect of making Palestinian disempower permanent, and almost dizzy to have become a global leader replacing liberal democracy with illiberal ethnocracy. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, there is a growing trend to seek solace in the naive notion that Israel will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and tensions – that an Israel at war with itself will inevitably receive support from the Foreign countries lose their undemocratic face is exposed and simply imploded.
These claims are not a recipe for mutual understanding or compromise. Indeed, with such dynamics in play, the standard outcome is that change is triggered by a shock of extreme violence. Over the last decade, Israel and Gaza have witnessed multiple cycles of extreme violence, each time killing masses of Palestinian civilians. The peace that reigned elsewhere is unlikely to last indefinitely.
But the alternative way still exists. It goes back to the simple and universal formula of demonstrating to the powerful and inflexible Israeli party that the occupation and the new realities that have been created (settlements, displacement, closure, discrimination) will not continue to be free.
This will require a kind of non-violent and non-violent mobilization in Palestinian society, which has spread extensively over the last quarter century, alongside a combination of externally imposed sanctions, diplomatic pressure and legal accountability that Israel has all invested heavily in averting.
Only when the Palestinians, as during the First Intifada, can take some influence again will Israel begin to rediscover the need to find a common ground and what it means to think in win-win scenarios rather than in zero-sum equations.
Then, and only then, will there be room for secret channels, secret meetings and denying documents that made the Oslo process possible.
On this Oslo anniversary, those who are interested in peace between Israel and the Palestinians should give up the yearning for a missed opportunity and instead reflect on the conditions that once made this tempting prospect possible – and which could still be within our reach ,