The Secret Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations in Oslo by Sven Behrendt
Chilling Out in the Sweltering Middle East

The Secret Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations in Oslo: Their Success and Why the Process Ultimately Failed by Sven Behrendt. Oxford: Routledge, 2007. 176 pp. Hardcover, $120.

Riad al Khouri

Riad al Khouri, the director of Middle East Business Associates, Amman, is a visiting scholar at the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut.

Despite its title, this book is no potboiler, being a recent publication in the scholarly Durham Modern Middle East and Islamic World Series. Rather, The Secret Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations in Oslo looks at the topic against the background of negotiation concepts and strategies, focusing particularly on the timely issue of non-recognition. That was certainly a significant topic in the early 1990s when the book's events mainly took place; but is a vital one today, given the emergence of Hamas as a key political player, and the soap opera currently playing in Palestine and world capitals starring various forces and governments refusing to recognize one another.
Since 2000 Sven Behrendt has worked for the World Economic Forum (WEF), where he set up and ran numerous projects focusing on geopolitics and business strategy, including several in the Arab world. Behrendt's credentials are sound, on both the theory of negotiation and the real-life issues of the region, and his description and analysis do not disappoint. He starts by showing how Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were facing challenges in the late 1980s and early 1990s that drove them to start talking to each other. Although Arab-Israeli diplomacy was always there, what made the Oslo negotiations different were direct, face-to-face talks between Israel and the PLO.
Oslo called for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, affirming Palestinian self-government there. After an interim period, the two sides were to negotiate permanent agreements on deliberately excluded "final status" issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and Israeli settlements. However, with these core topics off the table, what did Oslo actually accomplish? Most important, the two sides had engaged in formal mutual recognition. The Israelis officially accepted the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, who in turn recognized the right of Israel to exist, and renounced terrorism and violence.
While the accord raised hopes for an end to conflict, skepticism abounded. The many subsequent negotiations ended in the fiasco of the 2000 Camp David Summit, which failed to resolve final status issues. The al-Aqsa Intifada followed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the final analysis, Oslo was an icebreaker. Not that icebreaking is not an honorable activity, or indeed a necessary one. The last chapter in the book is tellingly entitled "The Success of the Oslo Talks - and Why the Process Failed." Behrendt correctly concludes that the lack of longer-term vision on both sides doomed Oslo, but it was, in its own way, a successful breaking of the ice.
Where are we today, 14 years later? James Wolfensohn summed it up by ending an interview in Haaretz earlier this year on a note of exasperation: "Israelis and Palestinians really should get over thinking that they're a show on Broadway. They are a show in the Village, off-off-off-off-Broadway. I hope I don't get into too much trouble for saying this, but what the hell, that's what I believe, and I'm 73."
Wolfensohn is a 21st-century Old Testament patriarch who will certainly not get into hot water over his outspokenness. I, neither a septuagenarian nor Jewish, hope I can stay out of trouble for repeating something I said on the record in late 1995 about Arab-Israeli rapprochement: "The ice has been broken but the temperature is still below zero. It could easily freeze over again." I made that comment in the wake of an ice-breaking WEF conference in Amman. Held before Behrendt joined the Forum, that event, which was overt and large-scale, brought together in Jordan for the first time Arab and Israeli public- and private-sector decision-makers to talk business. Such an open gathering would have been unthinkable before the October 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace accord, which, in fact, the Oslo agreement had made possible. The Palestinians having signed such a treaty with Israel, a pact between Jordan and Israel became easy to conclude - and indeed inevitable -just over a year after Oslo.
However, the PLO's pact with the Jewish state had already sown the seeds for open Israeli-Jordanian cooperation, as can be seen clearly in Annex IV of the Oslo agreement. Entitled "Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation Concerning Regional Development Programs," this segment called on the Israelis and the Palestinians to cooperate in promoting a "Development Program for the region" initiated by the G-7 powers. The Annex states: "The parties will request the G-7 to seek the participation in this program" of others such as "regional Arab states and institutions." Accordingly, a "Regional Economic Development Program" could consist of: "development of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian Plan for coordinated exploitation of the Dead Sea area" and of the Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal. You do not need a post-graduate degree in politics to figure out that open Jordanian participation in "peace projects" was the target here. Alas, over a decade after Oslo, the Dead Sea is deader than ever as a focus for regional cooperation, and the "Med-Dead canal" remains unbuilt. However, even without all that, Jordan made peace with Israel, and that event may have been one of the key results of Oslo.
The maestro for all that was Shimon Peres, who has kept the faith by talking constantly about how people in the region can cooperate. In fact, he ended his long cabinet career in a position invented expressly for him, "minister for regional cooperation." Never mind that most of his ideas on Middle East states cooperating have come to naught: Peres has shown that there is nothing like hot air to melt ice, an apt metaphor in this age of global warming.
Now that Peres is occupying the bully pulpit of the Israeli presidency, could we be in for another, perhaps final, chapter of the Palestinian-Israeli show? After all, he helped orchestrate the ice-breaking at Oslo, so maybe… With the American position weakening in the Middle East, and more of the region's inhabitants (including those of Israel/Palestine) fed up with the consequences of Zionism and its antitheses, it may be time for Israel to wind down its failed colonialism. That would first involve real recognition of the Palestinians and their rights, instead of an Oslo-like public relations exercise.