Why the Oslo Accords Failed

What went wrong?

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Expectations Unfulfilled

The implementation of the Oslo agreements started well. The first Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories in the Gaza Strip and in Jericho on the West Bank was conducted smoothly. The establishment of the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat’s installation as its President followed. Then, after a good deal of hard negotiating, a second Israeli redeployment occurred outside of the larger Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank.
 
Unfortunately, the upbeat mood of confidence-building, in both the Israeli and Palestinian publics, was short-lived, as each side began to perceive the other as violating its agreements.

The Palestinian View

Palestinian spokesmen repeatedly explained that the collapse of the Oslo peace process was due first and foremost to the expansion of Israeli settlements and the disappointing extent of the territorial control of the Palestinian Authority. Polls of Palestinian public opinion indicate that the broad populace shared this view.
 
Palestinians believed that the Oslo agreements included a firm Israeli commitment to halt the expansion of settlements and even begin dismantling them. While there was no such explicit commitment in the signed agreements, Palestinians maintain that this must have been understood by the Israelis as entirely self-evident, and that such conditions would be a minimally necessary precondition for Palestinian assent to any agreement.
 
An Israeli “third redeployment” that was expected by 1996 was not been carried out. The West Bank was divided in a complicated arrangement into three zones, labeled Areas A, B, and C, with complete Palestinian Authority control in Area A, complete Israeli control over area C, and “joint responsibilities” in area B, which was intended to provide civilian Palestinian rule alongside Israeli security control. The Palestinian Authority was thus confined to about 50 per cent of the West Bank, far less than the 95 per cent or more that the Palestinians had originally expected.
 
A “free passage” route connecting the West Bank and Gaza Strip running through Israeli territory was never realized, but Israeli military roadblocks were established on the roads between Palestinian cities. While Israelis cited "security concerns," these moves were interpreted by much of the Palestinian public as an Israeli attempt to create separate Palestinian cantons without territorial contiguity, in order to strangle any possibility of a viable future Palestinian state.
 
For the Palestinians this was seen as an ultimate Israeli betrayal indicating that Israel never intended to come to a peace agreement.

The Israeli View

From the perspective of many Israelis, the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations since the signing of the Oslo agreement confirmed their worst fears: that the Oslo process would give a militant enemy the tools and launching areas for bloodthirsty terrorist attacks against Israelis.
 
Very early on during the establishment of the security services of the Palestinian Authority, it was noted by Israeli observers that the number of Palestinians in arms and the types of armaments being brought into Palestinian Authority territory were significantly exceeding the limits established by the agreements. This led to the suspicion that Arafat was constructing an offensive army rather than a police force.
 
But the greatest Israeli anger was elicited by the fact that the Palestinian Authority was doing very little to prevent terrorist attacks emanating from its territory. It refused to take steps towards disarming terrorist militias, permitted terrorist organizations to operate open offices in its territory, and either refused to arrest terrorists or would adopt a policy of “revolving door” arrests--placing terrorists in prison for a handful of days and then releasing them.
 
As terrorist attacks against Israelis exacted a heavy toll in civilians killed and wounded, the entire conception that had been presented to Israelis--of the Oslo process creating efficient Palestinian security teams that would be better than Israeli soldiers in combating terrorism--collapsed. Palestinian explanations that they “couldn’t be expected to be collaborators and fight against their own people” rang hollow to Israeli ears in the face of civilian deaths.
 
Many incidents caused the Israeli public to wonder whether Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had ever truly intended to lay down arms and seek negotiated peace agreements rather than armed struggle: immense arms supplies to the Palestinian Authority were made public; captured documents indicated Palestinian Authority support for terrorist infrastructures; and Palestinian policemen took up arms against Israeli soldiers. For Israelis, this was the ultimate breach of agreement, rendering it moot.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.