Is peace still possible between Israel and Palestine, 25 years after the first Oslo accord?

Former diplomat François LaRochelle, who once participated in the peace process, reflects on events since that optimistic time in 1993.

By: /
October 12, 2018
An Israeli tank is seen on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border, October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

In September 1993, following secret negotiations under the auspices of Norway, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn in the presence of US President Bill Clinton. This was to be the beginning of the Oslo process for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Twenty-five years later the hopes of the time have been buried under a long series of tragic events, foremost among them the assassination of Rabin in 1995, the many Israeli attacks on Gaza, intra-Palestinian bickering, terrorism, the second Intifada in the early 2000s and the rise of the right in Israel and Islamists in Gaza. The increasing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank added another nail to the coffin.

The faltering of the peace agreement has caused thousands of victims on each side and tremendous destruction, especially in Gaza. The goal of creating two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side peacefully, has become a mirage that is moving further and further away.

Various attempts to resurrect the peace negotiations have taken place, the last under the Obama administration, but they have all failed.

Oslo promised a better fate. Having myself participated in negotiating sessions of the Refugee Working Group, the multilateral part of Middle East peace process negotiations led by Canada from 1992-2000, I witnessed first hand the incredible climate of optimism that prevailed at the beginning and at various stages. But gradually political will and mutual trust, keys to the success of any negotiations, evaporated.

As always in the region, each party accuses the other of being the cause of this failure.

Recent decisions by the Trump administration to cut off all US financial aid to Palestinians at both the bilateral and multilateral levels and to close the PLO office in Washington, apparently punishing them for not negotiating, are not helpful. It is worth remembering that in fact the US has long been the biggest single contributor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), with US$365 million in 2017. Canada ranked 11th with US$20 million.

These measures, in addition to Washington’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem in late 2017 as the capital of Israel, only bolster those on both sides who are against resuming peace discussions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gotten more than he asked for from the Americans. Israel is now in total control of the situation on the ground. Militarily superior, nibbling more and more the Palestinian territory with its colonies and especially receiving limitless support from Washington, Israel, for the moment, has no reason to relaunch the peace process. In addition, Israel is entering an electoral year, with a vote expected in November, 2019 — not a propitious time for political concessions.

The Palestinians are in an untenable and weak position that does not encourage them to negotiate. With ever fewer territories and lacking financial resources, they are divided between the West Bank and Gaza with no contiguous passage. Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor at the head of the Palestinian Authority (an institution flowing from Oslo), is an elderly, sick and inflexible leader. A large majority of Palestinians would like him to resign.

"The Palestinians are in an untenable and weak position that does not encourage them to negotiate."

No one seems to have been appointed to replace him. Seventy-eight percent of Palestinians questioned recently believe that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt. Still, it is all they have left. 

The Palestinian leadership could once count on the support of their “Arab brothers” but the latter now have other priorities and are bogged down in many regional conflicts and disputes, for example, the ongoing quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They are also tired of a problem that never gets solved despite decades of efforts. 

It will be interesting to see which Arab countries will show more generosity to offset Palestinian financial losses. According to the summary of a UNRWA ministerial meeting held in New York on September 27, Kuwait is the only Arab country that has announced an increased commitment. The European Union, Germany, Norway, France, Belgium and Ireland made additional commitments at the meeting, which raised a remarkable US$122 million. According to the organization, $US 64 million is still required. 

Palestinian leaders have previously indicated that they could disband the Palestinian Authority, which, under the Geneva Conventions, would force the occupying force (Israel) to assume its obligations to the 3 million people in the West Bank. This operation would be costly for the Israeli government and would have unpredictable consequences. The temptation might be great for some Israeli politicians to call for the annexation of the Palestinian territories thus putting an end for the creation of two states living side by side. Or they may use these new circumstances to push for a confederation between Palestine and Jordan. A plan previously rejected by both the Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. 

The possibility of disbanding the Palestinian Authority does not seem, for the moment, to worry the Netanyahu government. It probably assumes that Abbas will not want to leave as his legacy the disappearance of the only relatively autonomous institution the Palestinians have.

In this context, Palestinian leaders are turning their backs on the Americans, hoping that a change in Congress and perhaps in 2020 will bring a change of course. At the UN General Assembly last month Abbas stated that Washington was out of the picture and not an honest broker.

But time does not play in favour of the Palestinian side. In the end, they may have to return to the negotiation table before their situation deteriorates further. At least that is what Jerusalem and the Trump administration are counting on. It may be wishful thinking, as the Palestinians would have much to lose.

And Canada in all this? Very much absent. Until recently its foreign policy appeared to be limiting itself to negotiating a new NAFTA. Now that it will have a US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, it is to be hoped that Ottawa may direct its attention to the rest of the world.

In the Middle East, at least publicly, Canada has been financially participating in humanitarian efforts through the UN or NGOs. In the absence of any original political vision, the Canadian government should at least continue to be financially generous towards the Palestinians to compensate for the American losses. Not doing so would jeopardize further the region’s stability.