by Sufian Abu Zaideh
Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) over 25 years ago and the agreements that followed it, the Palestinian people have been aware that this agreement wasn’t the ideal solution for them, on both the political leadership and the people’s level. Nonetheless, there was a gap between what the Palestinian leadership and what the Palestinian people viewed as needed at that historical stage.
The Palestinian leadership came out after the First Gulf War weakened by siege and financial losses, while the Palestinian people, who were witnessing and living the high spirits of the first intifada and its impressive political achievements in the region and worldwide, felt strong. They felt betrayed and that their expectations were not met, because they believed that they deserved much more than what the DOP provided as an interim period agreement.
From the Palestinian public’s viewpoint, there were several weaknesses in the DOP. These weaknesses strengthened the position of the Palestinian opposition who refused, on principle, the two-state-solution.
The first weakness that was very difficult to overcome, from a Palestinian perspective, is that the mutual recognition between the Palestinians and the Israelis wasn’t in fact a mutual recognition in the real sense. While the Palestinians recognized Israel as a state, Israel only recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as being the representative of the Palestinian people. The public call to reassess that step was often neglected.
The second weakness that stirred Palestinian internal disagreement is the compromise the Palestinian leadership made by giving up over 78% of the historical land of Palestine and negotiating with the Israelis over the remaining land.
Nonetheless, the Palestinian people hoped that this path would lead to an end to the Israeli occupation. And while most political parties supported the leadership, there was and still is a political opposition among some political parties to this compromise. Therefore, the Palestinian leadership expected an internal political opposition that would try to undermine the implementation of the DOP on the ground, by using both violent and nonviolent methods.
In addition, it was also expected that the Israeli right-wing extremists would sabotage the process, as they opposed the two-state solution, even with an agreement that granted them over 78% of historical Palestine.
The path of Oslo did not continue for a long time, because the opposition on both sides who rejected the two-state-solution, despite the differences between their goals and motives, quickly acted against the process. The first spark of this opposition came with the massacre that rightwing settler Baruch Goldstein committed in Hebron. Hamas and Islamic Jehad retaliated. This cycle reached its peak with the Israeli assassination of Yahya Ayyash that Israel accused of being responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis. Hamas retaliated with several suicide attacks, which were used by the right wing Israelis to incite against the process led by Yitzhak Rabin, and led to his assassination by an Israeli right-wing extremist. Since then Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing extremists have dominated the political scene in Israel and caused the freeze of the process and the deadlock after the partial implementation of the DOP.
From a Palestinian perspective, the problem in the DOP wasn’t only with the opposition and extremism of right-wing Israelis, but also the fact that the Palestinian negotiators were in a difficult position, in that the Israelis imposed their security agenda on every aspect of the negotiations process, undermining Palestinian rights, diluting international law and the international resolutions. This Israeli attitude placed the Palestinian negotiators in a weak position in the face of the occupiers’ military power.
I speak from personal experience: Since 1994, I was involved in several negotiations sessions until they ceased after the negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas in Annapolis, on the issue of Palestinian political prisoners and other civil issues. Being a former prisoner in the Israeli jails, where I acted as a spokesperson and a mediator between the prisoners and the prison authorities, I felt at the peace negotiating table like a prisoner communicating with the prison authorities, though it wasn’t an overwhelming feeling in every meeting.
The negotiations were complicated for those Palestinians who never interacted with Israelis, whereas for us former prisoners, they were less complicated because of our knowledge of the Hebrew language, which we learned in prison and our knowledge of the Israelis. However, the main feeling is that the negotiations were never held at any stage between two equal sides.
The Failure of the Intermediate Solution Option
No doubt, Oslo was the outcome of an cumulative process to narrow the gap between the two sides. At the beginning of the conflict, each side totally rejected the idea of accepting the other side or compromising. In time, the Palestinian side abandoned the big slogans that often clashed with the harsh reality and started talking about progressive solutions that were discussed in the very beginning with non-Zionist Jews who supported the Palestinian rights and the establishment of a Palestinian state on any possible land, and these discussions prepared the grounds to later stages which evolved to the recognition of Israel and compromising to a Palestinian state on the borders of June 1967.
Gradual changes in the same direction happened in Israeli society that led to the recognition of the PLO as the only legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people. Before that it was listed according to the Israeli law as a terrorist organization that it is forbidden to meet with. But then they were obliged to sit with Yasser Arafat whom they had called “the father of terrorists.”
The path of going through progressive gradual solutions according to the DOP, which postponed discussing the final status issues, from a Palestinian perspective proved its failure on the ground. It became clear to the Palestinians in time that what was supposed to be a gradual process for a specific period of time became permanent while the final status issues were still on hold.
The DOP interim period was set for three years, and according to it the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) was divided into three areas A, B and C. These divisions became permanent. Area C, according to the DOP, is Palestinian territory. Nonetheless, Israel acted as if it were out of the scope of Palestinian control and violated that territory, same as with the Paris Protocol, the economic agreement and the borders. These are only a few examples of how the temporary became permanent without any obligations for resolving the final status issues.
The Absence of an Impartial Mediator
The U.S. administration dominated the management of the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And for this dominance to succeed, the jurisdiction of the United Nations was minimized, almost eliminated. Thus, the organization that was originally established to intervene and resolve conflicts was absent, not to mention that the international law was also marginalized by sabotaging any decision that might do justice to the Palestinians. And if such a decision is made, the U.S. vetoes it and protects the Israeli occupation.
The Palestinians were forced to accept the American role in the management of the negotiations and forced to accept the marginalized role of the EU, the UN, and the Arab countries.
Despite the biased U.S, supportive role to Israel, the Israeli government was often disturbed by the presence of American negotiators in the negotiation sessions, and preferred U.S-Israeli and U.S-Palestinian unilateral meetings without the intervention of any other side. There was an Israeli rejection of any substantial role for any other international side to intervene in the negotiations.
The Palestinian negotiators found themselves alone in front of the Israeli negotiators with the delusion of having an American mediator, whereas there was no significant difference between the U.S. and the Israeli position, though in rare situations, the U.S. exercised soft pressure on Israel for that process to continue.
The Debate about Dismantling the PA and Withdrawing from the DOP
There is no need to stress the fact that in practice the DOP has withered, and only exists in form of a skeleton. Israel, the stronger side in this equation, has imposed facts on the ground by using the failure of the negotiations in several stages, especially after the second Camp David summit and the escalation that followed in 2002, for the construction of the Separation Wall in the West Bank and the confiscation of thousands of dunums of Palestinian lands.
Israel has used the internal wars and disturbances in surrounding Arab countries to maintain its occupation. These wars and other major events in the Middle East that dominated the international community’s priorities, in which tens of thousands of people were killed and millions were displaced, have been used as an excuse to undermine Palestinian rights and the political process.
Israel’s three main priorities are Jerusalem, land and security. Israel continued its violations of the DOP through settlements activities and through the Judaization of the city of Jerusalem. These violations were crowned by the U.S. decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was seen by the Israelis as an endorsement of their policy, and by the Palestinians as American disengagement from the peace process.
As for the rest of the West Bank, in which the Palestinian state was supposed to be established, the Israelis used the absence of the international community and the weakness of the Palestinian people to increase the number of Jewish settlements and settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem to five times that of the time of the signing the DOP-Oslo agreement.
Therefore, from the Palestinian perspective, the DOP became a cover for the Israeli land theft and for building settlements, especially in Area C. While the Israeli army is not supposed to enter Areas A and B, it acts freely in these areas without any commitment to the signed agreement.
The Palestinians are aware that Israel is benefiting from maintaining the DOP while violating every aspect of it. And the Palestinian leadership has taken several decisions regarding the Israeli violations but so far hasn’t acted to dismantle the PA or to withdraw from the DOP and the signed agreements with Israel.
There are several reasons for not taking such a strategic decision: mainly because of the internal Palestinian political conflict, the separation between Gaza and the West Bank, and the obligations of the PA towards its people, mainly on the economic and social levels.
Another reason for not moving forward with this decision is the personal interests structure that evolved in the OPT, in which many of the PA personnel are benefiting from the existence of the PA, and their interests would be affected if they were to withdraw from the agreement. This is one aspect that the Israelis are building on.
Nonetheless, this internal Palestinian debate about withdrawing from the DOP will continue in the shadow of the continuous Israeli violations and attacks on the PA.
It is difficult to predict what the situation will be after Abbas, other than to conclude that the DOP no longer exists because it was not fully and honestly implemented.
The PA is still functioning in its minimized role as a civil administration, and its presence is conditioned by continuing the security coordination with Israel, in accordance with Israeli interests. It is in the interest of Israel to maintain this situation as much as possible. A weak PA, without any jurisdiction or control, provides Israel with security coordination, while the right-wing government in Israel continues its settlement activities in the OPT, eliminating any hope for a two-state solution.
To maintain this status quo, the Israeli side will continue feeding the Palestinian internal conflict and the separation between the West Bank and Gaza as long as possible. And Israel will continue enjoying and benefiting from its costless occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, under the premise that the PA is responsible for them. This is an ideal situation for Israel.
But what seems an ideal situation for Israel, which is the preference of the Israeli right-wing government and the Israeli right, will inevitably lead to two options: a binational state, which Israel is refusing, or an apartheid in its full meaning, and Israel is moving fast in that direction.