A quarter century after the Oslo Accords, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) face a legitimacy crisis. The PA failed to bring about peace, justice, and self-determination for the Palestinian people. Failure of leadership marked the Palestinian struggle during the twentieth century from the British Mandate, the 1929, the 1936-1939 uprising and the loss of the war with the Zionists, even with the help of five invading Arab states. The Palestinians were the most serious losers in the Six Day War.
In the aftermath, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council on 22 November 1967. The preamble specifically refers to the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Paragraph One “Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires…withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Pedantically, some argue that it does not specify “the” territories and thus can mean just some withdrawal. However, conjoined with the preamble, such an interpretation seems to be a distraction, especially since the French version includes the definite article “des” before “territories.” And French, along with English, is an official language.
Conjoined with other clauses referring to “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of every state in the area (my italics), a different argument is made. Palestinians did not have a state. The only state in the region referred to can be Jordan. However, when Jordan gave up its claim to the territory in 1988, with the exception of guardianship over the Holy sites in the Old City, then the West Bank, though occupied by Israel, was no longer the territory of another state but disputed territory. As the Israeli Ambassador told the Security Council at the time of Resolution 232, “I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab State (my italics) on all matters included in that resolution.”
On the other hand, successive Security Council resolutions, such as 1515 in 2003, presumed by most governments that the captured territory in the West Bank was occupied territory of a proto-Palestinian State. Such is the problem with equivocation in peace agreements intended not to clarify but to obfuscate and cover up differences in order to get an agreement. In 1994, the Secretary of State of the United States, Madeleine Albright, informed the UN Security Council that it did not recognize 242 as referring to Palestinian occupied territory. Instead, sovereignty had to be determined through negotiations. However, Secretary of State Rogers in 1969, while admitting that the reference was not to “all” the territory, had insisted that adjustments to the border could be made but could not be “substantial.”
Yet Resolution 1515 makes clear that the objective was two independent homelands by means of two states, not just one state and another autonomous polity – Israel and Palestine. Palestine was to be contiguous and viable. However, it did not specify that Palestine would have all the territory that Israel captured in June of 1967. Further, the President of the U.S. insisted in 2004 that Israel’s borders had to be defensible ones, specifically echoing the Alon Plan language. Ever since 1967, various parties have weighed in on the issue, including those who helped write it. It became clear that the resolution was as disputable as the border.
In 1970, when the PLO tried to stage an uprising against King Hussein of Jordan in Black September, they were defeated and driven out of the country into Lebanon. Thus, when Jordan, as well as Egypt, weighed in on the Israeli side against the PLO, it seemed that politics as much as language determined the interpretation. The Palestinians gained nothing from the 1973 Yom Kippur War as Israelis moved right and became super-conscious of their security needs. Resolution 338, passed in its aftermath (15 June 1973), reaffirmed 232 but without clarifying the dispute over its meaning. In fact, it muddied the waters further because the lack of clarification was interpreted to mean that the degree of withdrawal was to be negotiated.
Again, when Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, flew to Israel to take part in negotiations in Jerusalem to forge the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Agreement (1979), the Palestinians lost considerable leverage, even though the deal was considered a stab in the back and a betrayal of their cause across the Arab world. Yasser Arafat mistakenly pronounced that, “it would not last.” It has lasted, even though prominent Egyptian leaders remained critical of the deal. The Egyptian government repeatedly asserted that the terms of the “cold peace” would be kept.
In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo I Accord. In the aftermath, on 26 October 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in the Arava Valley crossing between Israel and Jordan, hence the name, the Wad Araba Treaty. It was perhaps the biggest impetus to the Israelis and Palestinians crossing the finishing line and signing the Oslo II Accord in Taba, Egypt in 1995. The Oslo Accords are not peace agreements, but the start of a peace process based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 that gave the Palestinians the “right to self-determination,” recognized the PLO as the representatives of the Palestinian people at the same time as the PLO recognized the State of Israel.
Finally, a two-state solution seemed within reach. But the Accords themselves did not bring a Palestinian State into existence. Palestinian self-government is not the same as Palestinian sovereignty. A process was started. After Oslo I, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement provided that the issues outstanding would be settled in preparation for signing a permanent peace treaty that would end the conflict before May 1999.
In sum, the OSLO Accords:
- Created the Palestinian Authority (the PA)
- Acknowledged the PLO as Israel’s negotiation partner
- Specified that borders had to be negotiated
- Mentioned that the status of the Israeli settlements was to be resolved
- Similarly, so was the status of the Old City and East Jerusalem
- The Palestinian right of return had to be negotiated
- Israel’s security and military presence in all those areas had to be determined.
Instead of a state, Oslo created a tripartite division of the West Bank into Area C (60%) controlled administratively and for security purposes by Israel; Area B (22%) controlled for security purposes by Israel but administered by the PA, and Area A (18%) with the PA assuming both security and administrative control by a strengthened police force, while Israel continued its military control of all external borders. Oslo did not lead to a Palestinian state. Instead, increasingly, Palestinian critics of Oslo claimed it legalized creeping annexation.
In 1967, of the 2.5 million Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the population of Palestinians in the West Bank, excluding the Old City and East Jerusalem, was just under 600,000 of whom about 100,000 were refugees from the 1948 war. Almost thirty years later, Areas A and B alone in the West Bank consisted of about 2 million Palestinians. However, whereas Area C in which most of the settlements were located, originally held 600,000 Palestinians, that number has been reduced in 2020 to less that 150,000 at the same time as the total population of both Gaza and the West Bank has increased to 4.8 million (2 million of them former refugees and their descendants from Israel), with 2.8 million in the West Bank.
The final boundaries were not determined. The degree of sovereignty of the PA was not determined. The timing of the phases of withdrawal of the Israeli military and the assumption of greater authority by the Palestinian Legislative Council was not determined. However, Oslo specified that, “Area ‘C’ means areas of the West Bank outside Areas A and B, which, except for the issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, will be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction in accordance with this Agreement.” Excluding any reference to Jerusalem or the evacuation of settlements, these became subjects for further negotiations.
The deadline for resolving all of the above remaining issues by May 1999 was not reached. In fact, there was not very much progress in that direction. The first Palestinian Intifada ended with the signing of Oslo I. Violence erupted on 29 September 2000, first in the Old City and then spread to the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza when it evolved into widespread terrorism targeting Israeli civilians in buses and cafes. For Israelis, Oslo became a dead letter that failed to deliver security. For the Palestinians, Oslo became a dead letter because it failed to lead to an independent sovereign Palestinian state. And all the while, new settlements were started; old settlements were expanded. Palestinian critics of Oslo understandably began to see Oslo as merely a cover for the creeping annexation underway.
By 2020, Oslo had turned from a great success to an enormous historical failure. The question of Two-States which Oslo appeared to settle was reopened and a One State solution was back on the table, particularly since the whole area of Mandatory Palestine now consisted of over 13 million, half Jews(6.9 million) and half Arabs (6.5 million). Though Jews had a razor-thin majority, the Arab population in the area was projected to outstrip that of the Jews even though the birthrate had dropped from 7 to 5 children for each Palestinian mother, for the birthrate among Jews, including the ultra-Orthodox with a high birthrate, was much lower.
The reality is that the fight over territory, the fight over political boundaries and political organization of the territory is more a fight over demography than anything else.