A confluence of circumstances is leading to the establishment of new parameters for future negotiations
Exactly a quarter of a century after the Oslo Accords were signed in an end of history-style ceremony at the White House, it is increasingly evident that the longstanding paradigm governing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is being upended. No longer does the refrain “everybody knows what a solution to the conflict will look like” ring true, as the prospect of a Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the eastern part of Jerusalem as its capital and existing side-by-side in peace with Israel seems remote.
For twenty-five years diplomat after diplomat acting on behalf of government after government has maintained that the “core” issues of the conflict—foremost the delineation of borders, the matter of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem—can be reconciled through negotiations. And when each effort failed spectacularly, invariably culminating not in peace but, rather, renewed violence, excuses were conjured up that omitted the fact that the sides remained as far apart as ever.
Enter United States President Donald Trump, who in December demonstrated his disdain for repeating failed policy—even issues codified in diplomatic mantra—by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, explaining that committing the “cardinal sin” effectively took the holy city “off the table.” The administration reportedly is now pressuring regional countries to naturalize their Palestinian populations, which, coupled with Washington’s cut-off of aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is geared towards ending the red-line issue of a “right of return” to Israel for some five million descendants of Palestinians displaced during the 1948 conflict.
Concurrently, President Trump has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in funds earmarked for the Palestinian Authority and humanitarian projects within the territories it administers, while his feud with Mahmoud Abbas shows no signs of abating. Tensions reached a crescendo when the U.S. announced it is shuttering the Palestinian mission in Washington over Ramallah’s refusal to engage in American-led peace talks and over the PA’s push to place Israel in the docket of the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
All of this, meanwhile, comes on the backdrop of the deepening chasm between Abbas’ West Bank-based government and Hamas-ruled Gaza, with no end in sight to the decade-long intra-Palestinian internecine warfare.
While President Trump and his peace envoys likely believed their scorched-earth tactics would eventually force the PA to play ball, the opposite is proving to be true as Palestinian officials dig-in and double-down on what much of the world—including some Arab neighbors—see as its obstructionism. As a result, the White House has shelved its eighteen-months-in-the-making peace proposal in favor of an apparent strategy to unilaterally, and permanently, move the “goal posts” of the process so that when conditions more conducive to jump-starting negotiations arise there will, the thinking goes, be fewer obstacles standing in the way of success.
While the Trump administration might be described as heavy-handed or biased, and, arguably, the PA regarded as rejectionist, the defining characteristic of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s tenure could be said to be inertia. In fact, the Israeli leader has for years been accused of idle chatter as it pertains to Palestinian statehood, pursuing a policy of doing as little as possible and only when absolutely necessary in order to perpetuate the status quo, thereby absolving him of making any “tough compromises.”
This perception exists despite the Israeli premier’s implementation in 2009 of an unprecedented 10-month ban on construction in Jewish communities in the West Bank, a move demanded by the Obama administration yet essentially spurned by Abbas who, in turn, waited nine months to enter negotiations before walking away when the building freeze expired. A few years later Netanyahu’s government approved the release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners as a “goodwill gesture to Abbas, who subsequently torpedoed a second attempt by then-U.S. president Obama to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace by signing a spurious reconciliation agreement with Hamas—one of many.
Nevertheless, Mideast pundits see Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actions as reactive and not pro-active, prompting growing calls for Jerusalem to publicly outline the terms, as it sees them, of Israel’s future relationship with the Palestinians. Many contend that this need is amplified when considering the possibility that Abbas could follow through on past threats to end security cooperation with Israel or even dismantle the PA entirely, two scenarios with serious ramifications for which the Jewish state must be prepared. Moreover, observers deem it inconceivable that the Israeli government is not working in tandem with President Trump and therefore not only has a good idea of what is coming down the pipes but also a unique opportunity to shape developments.
According to Uzi Arad, a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu and subsequently the head of Israel’s National Security Council, “Oslo is a relic but acting as if the whole process was a big mistake and returning to a zero-based situation might not be possible. Life has gone on and realities have taken hold,” he explained to The Media Line, adding, “nor do I think that Israel is suggesting that the agreement be declared non-binding.
“The concept of Oslo—[premised on] a two-state solution—remains valid; that is, territories captured in [the] 1967 [war] are negotiable in exchange for peace with the Palestinians,” Arad elaborated. “The guiding principle of separation between the two peoples still has merit and is the least bad option. That we should learn lessons from what happened is obvious in order for negotiations, when they resume, to be conducted in a more constructive way. So, in essence, the real question is what next steps need to be taken [within the existing reality].”
While the two-state model may still be the desired route—this is, after all, the ostensible position of Israel’s government—it is noteworthy that the Trump administration has not formally endorsed it. Additionally, a confluence of factors has raised the probability that this archetype, if actualized, will find tangible expression in a non-traditional form. More acutely, the peace process itself currently is undergoing an enormous transformation.
“The Oslo Accords are not dead in the sense that they charted the way forward and their basic ideas—whether people like them or not—may always exist in the collective consciousness. That said, it is possible that some details of the agreement could be changed,” Oded Eran, a Senior Research Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies who from 1999-2000 headed Israel’s peace negotiating team, stressed to The Media Line.
“In the original deal, the idea was to defer discussion of a whole set of problems for five years. Even though many of these issues still cannot be concluded, there are some that could be addressed,” he expounded. “In other words, the notion that ‘nothing is solved until everything is solved’ needs to be reconsidered. If you can [tackle] one or two [disputes] then do so, all the while working on the others.”
Indeed even the most vocal proponents of the Oslo Accords concede that reaching a comprehensive end-of-claims pact presently is impossible. Despite this admission, few, if any, alternatives to or potential variations of the prevailing methodology have been advanced. That is, until President Trump—for good or for bad—turned on its head a process that most agree had become stale, if not unviable.
Accordingly, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is undergoing a significant makeover, and even if the most basic tenet—the two-state solution—is ultimately preserved, its conventional parameters may be modified to such a degree so as to render them unrecognizable compared to those devised a generation ago.