The recent attempt to revive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is not likely to produce more meaningful results than that of any of the previous attempts. It comes 20 years after the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The Oslo Accords were a twofold event. There was the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed ceremoniously on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993; and there was the relatively less celebrated ‘Oslo II’ agreement signed in September 1995 in Taba, Egypt, which outlined the implementation of the 1993 DoP, according to their Israeli interpretation.
The Israeli interpretation was that the Oslo Accords were merely an international as well as a Palestinian endorsement of the strategy the Israelis had formulated back in 1967 vis-à-vis the occupied territories. After the 1967 war, all the successive Israeli governments were determined to keep the West Bank as part of Israel. It was, for them, both the heart of the ancient homeland and a strategic asset that would prevent the bisection of the state into two should another war break out.
At the same time, the Israeli political elite did not wish to grant citizenship to the people living there, nor did they seriously contemplate their expulsion. They wanted to keep the area, but not the people. The first Palestinian uprising, however, proved the cost of the occupation, leading the international community to demand from Israel a clarification of its plans for the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For Israel, Oslo was that clarification.
The Oslo Accords were not a peace plan for the Israelis; they were a solution to the paradox that had long troubled Israel, of wanting the physical space without the people on it. This was the predicament of Zionism from the day of its inception: how to have the land without its native people in a world that no longer accepted more colonialism and ethnic cleansing.
The Oslo II accords provided the answer: the discourse of peace will be employed while creating facts on the ground that lead to the restricting of the native population to small spaces, while the rest is annexed to Israel.
In the Oslo II accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Only one of them, Area A, where Palestinians lived in densely populated areas, was not directly controlled by Israel. It was a non-homogeneous territory that constituted a mere three per cent of the West Bank in 1995, and it grew to 18 per cent by 2011. The Israelis granted that area autonomy and created the Palestinian National Authority to run it. The two other areas, Area C and Area B, were run directly by Israel in the case of the former, and allegedly jointly, but also directly in practice, in the latter.
Oslo was meant to allow the Israelis to perpetuate this matrix of partition and control for a very long period. The second Palestinian uprising of 2001 showed that the Palestinians were unwilling to accept it. The Israeli response was to search for yet another Oslo, which we can perhaps call Oslo III, that would again grant them international and Palestinian acceptance for the way they want to rule the occupied territories. That is, by granting limited autonomy in densely populated Palestinian areas and full Israeli control over the rest of the territory. This would serve as a permanent solution in which that autonomy would eventually be termed ‘statehood’.
But something has changed in the Israeli view of Oslo since the year 2000. The political powers in Israel before 2000 were genuine, I believe, in their offer of Area C of the West Bank, and Gaza to the Palestinians for statehood. The political elite that took over in this century, however, while employing the discourse on two states, has established, without declaring it publicly, a one Israeli state in which Palestinians in the West Bank will be in the same secondary status as those living elsewhere inside Israel. They also found a special solution for the Gaza Strip: to ghettoise it.
The wish to maintain the status quo as a permanent reality became a full-blown Israeli strategy with the rise of Ariel Sharon to power in the early part of this century. The only hesitation he had was about the future of the Gaza Strip; and once he found the formula of ghettoising it, instead of ruling it directly, he felt no need to change the reality on the ground elsewhere in any dramatic way.
This strategy is based on the assumption that in the long run, the international community would grant Israel, if not legitimacy, than at least leniency toward its continued control over the West Bank. The Israeli politicians are aware that this strategy has isolated Israel in world public opinion, turning it into a pariah state in the eyes of civil society groups all over the globe. But, at the same time, they are also relieved to know that so far this global trend had little effect on the policies of the Western governments and their allies.