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The Path to Peace—What’s Next?

September 5, 2017

by: Rev. Cheryl L. Hauer, Associate Editor

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On September 13, 1993, a joint Israeli–Palestinian Declaration of Principles based on an agreement worked out in Oslo, was signed by their chief negotiators. The agreement was to be a framework for ongoing negotiations that would eventually bring the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to a peaceful resolution. Since then, history records a plethora of conferences, meetings, discussions and agreements involving not just the two principals but nations that run the gamut in their approach to Israel—from the French and the Americans to the Russians and the Saudis. All looked to Oslo as their foundation.

However, the consensus among many experts today is that Oslo was a failure; some even calling it the worst diplomatic disaster in Israel’s history. When asked what went wrong, these same experts suggest a look at those chosen to navigate the difficult waters of negotiation.

The Negotiators

The initial discussions that made Oslo possible were held in secret and came into being at the suggestion of Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and an outspoken hater of Israel. American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris, in his 2012 article “Hanan Ashrawi Is to Truth What Smoking Is to Health,wrote that Ashrawi “has just earned a gold medal in historical revisionism” for asserting “there were no Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Jews were not singled out for persecution, and if they were, it was, in reality, a plot by ‘Zionists’.” Ashrawi would be involved in negotiations throughout the Oslo era.

(Public domain/wikipedia.org)

Yair Hirschfield, a lecturer at Haifa University, and Ron Pundak, a journalist, were the initiators of the back-door discussions that eventually led to the Oslo accords. Both men became part of the official Israeli negotiating team but would later remark that, as private citizens, they were somewhat out of their element in the diplomatic realm. However, they were convinced that Palestinian statehood was the only pathway to peace. Pundak spoke often of Yasser Arafat as a “true man of peace” who was “misunderstood” by Israelis and who sincerely sought a peaceful resolution with Israel.

Yossi Beilin, Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin rounded out the team under the leadership of chief negotiator Uri Savir, former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. These men were all committed to the principle of land for peace and believed that a major step on that path had to be a total building freeze on all settlements.

Uri Savir also believed that Israeli checkpoints should not be manned by IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers, but rather by specially trained outsiders dressed in less threatening white uniforms. In an interview in 2014, Savir expressed his disappointment that Israel had not been willing to make more concessions to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to achieve peace and stated, “We have ceased to be a peace-seeking country…In the family of nations we have turned from an admired success to an isolated, criticized and soon-to-be boycotted outcast.”

Ongoing Negotiations—The Oslo Effect

In retrospect, many experts, some of whom were originally strong proponents of Oslo, now believe these negotiators, all men who sincerely desired peace virtually at any cost, were naïve in their belief that their Palestinian counterparts were equally committed to a peaceful solution. It has been said that their naïveté was not only the undoing of the Oslo initiative but made future progress toward peace impossible by setting Palestinian expectations too high while ignoring Israel’s security needs.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R. Yanushevsky/shutterstock.com)

On the Palestinian side of the table sat Yasser Arafat, Faisal Huseini, Haider Abdel Shafi, Saeb Erekat and Nabel Shaath. Every one of these men, like Ashrawi, publicly adhered to Arafat’s vision of peace summed up in a statement he often reiterated: “Peace for us means the destruction of Israel. We shall not rest until the day when we return to our home, and until we destroy Israel.”

When Arafat died in 2004, a veritable who’s who of international leadership lauded him as an outstanding leader and politician, a man of courage and conviction. Yet the UN Special Coordinator for Peace Negotiations said of him, “He lied all the time. And he knew it.” Negotiations proceeded sluggishly until the American-led peace talks broke down in the spring of 2014.

Enter Team Trump

At the writing of this article, Israel awaits the arrival of Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell, US President Trump’s envoys who will work to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the table. It will, however, be a very different table.

The Oslo agreement is no longer viewed as the foundation for negotiations. Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stated that the Palestinians are no longer bound by Oslo. Prime Minister Netanyahu, after decades of Palestinian violence and the loss of thousands of Israeli lives to terror, does not suffer from the same naïveté as his predecessors. He has repeatedly called for face-to-face negotiations and stated his commitment to a true peace achieved only when Palestinian violence comes to an end and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is acknowledged.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (360b/shutterstock.com)

For his part, Trump has repeatedly stated that he believes an agreement between the parties is crucial and possible. However, what that deal should actually look like, Trump says, is whatever solution both parties can agree to and actually live with.

The Times of Israel recently posited that Oslo’s failure had one positive outcome: less blindness on either side. The average Palestinian no longer believes that Israel can be dislodged from the region, and the average Israeli now understands that the Palestinians are not about to reciprocate to Israeli concessions with peace. “The cynicism that now grips Israelis and Palestinians,” the article stated, “is arguably healthier than a half-blind, violence-inducing peace process.” Trump and his team are optimistic that a true peace can be reached. Let’s hope they’re right.

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