Israel and Palestine twenty years after Oslo
Rabin's and Arafat’s problematic legacy
Twenty years ago Yasser Arafat, President of the PLO, and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Labour Prime Minister, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the brave choices they had made a year earlier in Oslo, agreeing to reciprocally acknowledge each other’s country as an independent nation with a right to statehood, to start the process involving the division of historical Palestine and forever renouncing war.
This reciprocal promise, sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn in the presence of President Clinton a year earlier (1993), was not much more than an informal understanding and shared intentions that never became an agreement recognised by international law (the Oslo Accords were never formally registered with the United Nations in New York), nor could it be, since Yasser Arafat did not officially represent a state, but rather a not-clearly-identified “organisation”. On both sides, however, many believed that the time had come to move from an outright conflict between two national movements, to gradual cooperation between two independent political entities, both devoted to regional stability.
The “peace” glimpsed, rather than achieved, in Oslo marked the start of a brief season of great optimism. The European Union, for example, believed that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have led to renewed regional integration, reawakening interest in the Mediterranean and its development. This “political interpretation” resulted in an attempt to launch a new Euro-Mediterranean partnership in Barcelona based on the inclusion of both Israel and Arab countries in a multilateral cooperative project. The region, however, was soon to return to chaos when Rabin was killed in 1995 and Hamas once again resorted to terrorism, reacting to the Israeli attack on Hebron (1994), while negotiations for the “final status” initially scheduled for May 1999, never took place. The sun had definitely set on the “Euro-Mediterranean” season.
Twenty years later, the Oslo Accords are seen as a great failure. Palestinians live in conditions that are even worse than those of twenty years ago, nor have they made any substantial progress towards independence in spite of a never-ending series of attempted agreements; Oslo (1993), Oslo II (1995), Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), Annapolis (2007), Washington (2007), secret negotiations held by Kerry (2013), all failed or dead letters. All this led the eminent scholar of this region, Victor Kattan, to sarcastically say that “nowadays Palestine only exists in United Nations documents, exactly as in 1993” (Kattan, 2013). Even the latest international demarches - Palestine’s achievement of the status of a “Non-Member Observer State” in the UN’s General Assembly and its attempt to explore possible membership of the International Criminal Court - seem like dramatic attempts to distract the attention of international and, above all, national public opinion from the crude reality that Israeli occupation not only persists, but increases, causing deeper and deeper rifts in Palestinian society. Of all the data one could provide as an example, there is the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which has risen from about 100,000 in 1993 to the current 700,000.
Nowadays Oslo seems no longer to have been a failure but a mistake tout court. The Palestinians complain they have never been offered a fair solution, a realistic place, a well-defined objective expressed in clear language (a state) and the will to seriously address all the conflict’s issues, including the more thorny ones such as the division of Jerusalem and refugees’ right to return. The Israelis, on the other hand, believe Israel has never been guaranteed safe borders or the end of terrorism, and that the Palestinian National Authority has not proved to be up to managing a state and maintaining a monopoly and control over forces on its own territory.
It is clear that the image of the two “heroes of peace”, who during the nineties were expected to appear as the achievers of a “turning point”, emerges faded and downsized in this posthumous judgement after twenty years. The question, however, is whether or not progress really had been made and whether things later started to go wrong due to responsibilities not linked to the two politicians and the small “pacifist” entourage supporting them during those years, or whether instead too many expectations had been projected at the time on these two men, many by the media and almost all eschatological, a little like what happened when the Nobel Prize was awarded to a very recently sworn-in President Obama (another mistake made in Oslo).
In seems evident that conditions that led to the Oslo Accord were rather imperfect from the very start, primarily because Rabin was not the “man of peace” so greatly praised by the Israeli pacifist narrative, and nor was Arafat. Rabin should not be judged so much for his original sin – the fact that like many other Israeli politicians he had been soldier – but for never having sent a conclusive signal to block the building of settlements, one of the elements that most jeopardised the peace process. Arafat is historically known both for his courage and his connivance with terrorism – before and after Oslo – as well as for not having ever totally abandoned his role as a guerrilla to embrace that of a man of the state, continuing to use two different ways of expressing himself on sensitive subjects such as violence, the state and religion, depending on the context (national speeches, Arab summits and international meetings).
That said, both in Israel and in Palestine it is now difficult to commemorate these two men, not because of their evident limitations in searching for peace, but for the opposite reason. In both countries, opposition to negotiations has increased, as has reciprocal disillusionment with and resentment of the controversial legacy of these two “pacifists”.
Every year in Israel, one or more rallies are organised to commemorate Rabin and educational programmes are launched in schools to remind the young of how inter-Jewish violence degenerated to the point of murdering the prime minister on stage during a protest. There is no mention in these programmes of Oslo as a peace process, nor of the gesture made and the equally brave role played by the Palestinian counterparty (Arafat). On the contrary, this normally occurs in very politicised rallies, but, in this sense too, 2014 was different.
As far as the two commemorative events held in 2014 just a few days apart are concerned, the first, more loyal to the prime minister’s legacy – organised by the Israeli Peace Initiative, a network presided over by the General’s son, Yuval Rabin – was attended by a few thousand people easily labelled in Israel as “the die-hards” (pacifists); the small left-wing minority that continues to identify itself with the semi-defunct movement Shalom Akshav (Peace Now). The second larger one, on the contrary, entitled “Returning to the square, restoring hope”, brought together heterogeneous personalities such as President Rivlin (a known Likudnik and opposed to Oslo), Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of one of the three young settlers kidnapped and killed last summer, and the singer Orna Banai, who during the last war, with its operation “Protective Barrier”, publicly exhibited pity for the Gaza victims; all three are considered “pacifists” due to their anti-violence and moderate opinions.
There is no trace of the role played by the PLO, the Arab-Israeli votes supporting Rabin and his government and the pragmatism of the now dead leader in foreign policy. Rabin’s spiritual legacy is reduced to a totally inward-looking refection restricted to Israeli society, focusing on his assassination as a warning against sectarian divisions. Some even label this interpretation as overtaken by events and excessively politicised, asking that no more commemorative events be held.
On the tenth anniversary of his death, there was equally a degree of resistance in Palestine to commemorating the man who, officially, continues to be remembered as the “father of the homeland” (also known as “Abu Ammar”). The fact that the homeland never became reality and that Arafat’s legacy is increasingly linked to the negative outcome of the Oslo Accord and that of the opposed Palestinian National Authority, does not allow all Palestinians in the West Bank to feel emotionally and politically linked to the leader’s spiritual legacy. Many in fact wonder whether it would not have been better to not even embark upon a semblance of a state, the only result of which has been to absolve Israelis from having to pay the costs linked to occupation and their own security, now the responsibility of the Palestinians.
Furthermore, as Karim Bitar from the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) emphasises, Arafat’s legacy also clashes with divisions within the Palestinian nation – Fatah and Hamas, nationalists and Islamists. Arafat historically incarnated the secular national battle as well as the excessive power of the al-Fatah movement in Palestinian institutions such as the PLO’s National Council and Central Committee, which he slowly deprived of meaning and power and representativeness. The fact that commemorating Arafat has increased and not healed Palestinian society’s internal wounds, is also proved by the series of anonymous attacks, or at least unclaimed ones, against the Fatah’s representatives in the Gaza Strip that coincided with a commemoration event planned for November 10th, which resulted in its being cancelled.
Although Palestinian society as a whole finds it hard to openly express dissent, and perhaps disillusionment as far as its historical leader is concerned, the signs of a degree of popular disaffection are visible at various levels. In particular, there is the abandonment of the two-state solution, Hamas’ popularity compared to Mahmoud Abbas as well as bitter criticism of the Oslo process and PNA so greatly supported by Arafat. There are also the attempts made by the young to follow new paths such as the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and to resume the dialogue with Islamist elements, overcoming now obsolete political party divisions. Above all they are also opposing the dogma of the PLO’s centrality and that of the institutions it created. Mass participation at commemorative rallies for the old leader appears increasingly to have become a way of rectifying his legacy and endorsing the sense of continuity with the past that President Abbas projects on the ceremony, exploiting it for obvious political objectives.
Arafat, rather than Rabin, is certainly still a symbol and a popular personality, but what is appreciated about him is the sense of identity and nationhood he conferred to the Palestinian people as a whole during his lifetime, not the choices that characterised the last years of his life, from the Tunis-based leadership’s “return” to the Territories, to the creation of the single-party National Authority, vaguely adapted to the rules of democracy.
Rabin’s legacy, instead, is challenged in even greater depth. Remembered as a brave general in the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu commemorated him in 2013 as “the man who understood, before anyone else, that peace could not be achieved without Israeli military superiority.” If the message of the late premier is reduced to this, and to not having wanted to acknowledge the right to a Palestinian state as well as having undersigned the principle of abandoning the Territories, it is obvious that today Israel looks well beyond his legacy towards politicians incarnating the idea of absolute defence without compromise, in an even more marked and energetic manner.
Translated by Francesca Simmons