On Sept. 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat signed a Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn, heralding the beginning of the Oslo peace process. Ten years later, the process is completely deadlocked. Israel has decided to “remove” Arafat, and many outside observers are left wondering what went wrong. The answer lies in the fundamental failure of the Oslo process to address the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While scenes of bombed-out Israeli buses on television screens have become a familiar sight for many Americans, this conflict is not about suicide bombings. Rather, violent attacks on Israeli civilians stem from larger unresolved issues, particularly Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Oslo agreements, which were to be implemented in phases, made no mention of occupation and postponed, until the final stage, negotiations over the most contentious issues, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements. It failed to address the fundamental power imbalance between Israel, a regional hegemon, and the Palestinians, a stateless, occupied population. Palestinians hoped that the Oslo process would lead to an end of occupation and the creation of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Oslo’s phased process, and the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism or a clear end goal, allowed Israel, as the more powerful party, to continue a policy of territorial expansion, leaving Palestinians with little recourse.
While Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were haggling over areas in which Israeli troops would redeploy, Israel continued to build settlements in the occupied territories. Between 1994 and 2000, the Israeli settler population doubled. Concurrently, Israel constructed a network of “bypass roads” to connect the settlements to each other and to Israel. By early 2000, nearly 250 miles of bypass roads had been built on confiscated Palestinian land. Israeli settlement building went largely unchecked by the United States, supposedly an “honest broker” between the two sides.
What the world perceived as a “peace process” was resulting in a marked decrease in Palestinians’ already poor standard of living. Israel maintained its control of the land and resources of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and through a series of increasingly restrictive checkpoints, it controlled movement of persons and goods as well. Israel had altered the form of its occupation, but not the content.
The attempted reincarnation of the Oslo process in the U.S.-backed “road map” is faring no better. While the road map calls for an end to occupation and is intended to be based on “reciprocal steps,” attention thus far has almost exclusively focused on what measures the Palestinian Authority is taking to crack down on militant groups. Israel’s obligations, such as freezing settlement activity and removing roadblocks, have largely been ignored. At the same time, Israel continues to carve up the West Bank, seizing more Palestinian land, demolishing businesses and destroying livelihoods as it constructs its so-called security wall there.
No one should doubt that Palestinian suicide bombings pose a major security threat to Israeli civilians, but these attacks do not occur in a vacuum, and neither Israelis nor Palestinians are served by a political process that ignores the cause of conflict and focuses on one group’s security at the expense of the other’s. Attacks on Israeli civilians are unlikely to end until the conditions that encourage them are removed.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to end, there needs to be a fundamental change in the approach to its resolution. As the party with the most power, the choice is Israel’s. Israel can maintain the status quo. But occupation has not brought Israel security, and choosing to continue it will undoubtedly ensure the deaths of more Israeli and Palestinian civilians. Conversely, Israel can accept the solution that the majority of Palestinians and the international community have accepted: two states based on the 1967 borders, an end to occupation and the possibility of true peace and security.
Catherine Cook is senior analyst at the Middle East Research and Information Project, www.merip.org