THE TROUBLE WITH OSLO

by Gerald Steinberg

Once again, Israel is in crisis. Headlines scream warnings of violence and an end to the peace process if "something isn't done". And the devastating news of seven killed and over a dozen wounded in the terrorist attack at Naharayim [on March 13th] only made the stomach churn more.

Everywhere one looks building plans for Har Homa, the extent of Israeli redeployment, angry words from King Hussein, signs of frost in relations with Washington, more UN resolutions, and the international "pressure Israel" conference in Gaza it seems there is conflict.

However, it was all entirely predictable, and not because "Hussein has lost trust in Netanyahu", or some other simplistic explanation.

By carrying through the Hebron withdrawal, releasing Palestinian terrorists, and other actions, Netanyahu made a credible effort to limit the crisis, but in reality there was little he could do.

The real cause of the trouble is the nature of the Oslo process, with the assumption that the most difficult decisions could be delayed and then suddenly solved in the final status negotiations.

Take the three key issues Jerusalem, a Palestinian state, and Jewish settlements. On these, it makes little difference who's prime minister Rabin, Peres, or Netanyahu. None of them could satisfy Palestinian and Arab demands.

All public opinion polls show that measures to ensure continued Jewish control of a united Jerusalem are supported by a vast majority of Israelis. Most Israelis want to ensure that Jewish access to the centre of Jewish life and religion, lost for 2,000 years and only regained in 1967, is not lost again.

Yasser Arafat's antics after the Western Wall Tunnel exit was opened in September, resulting in many totally meaningless deaths (the exit stayed open and has been forgotten), reinforced this consensus.

It is difficult to conceive of any government compromising on the consolidation of Jewish rights in Jerusalem. The Har Homa building plan was approved by Rabin, and a Labour-led government would have made the same decision to go ahead and been similarly criticised.

This isn't an ideological issue; neither is it dependent on the level of trust between Netanyahu and Arafat, Netanyahu and Hussein, or Netanyahu and Clinton. It is part of the battle for control over Jerusalem and the battle became inevitable with the Oslo agreement, in which the future of Jerusalem was opened up for discussion.

The second source of the crisis is the extent of the Israeli redeployment and this relates directly to the issue of a Palestinian state. This is another question that was left to the "final status talks", because here too, there was no basis for agreement.

For the Palestinians it's simple: The more Israel withdraws, the easier it will be to declare a state unilaterally. Netanyahu has this figured out as well, which means that here also the conflict was inevitable.

The architects of Oslo naively hoped that by the time the issues of Jerusalem, borders, and settlements came on the table, the interim period would have created enough trust and co-operation to bridge the gaps.

The theory was that the Israelis and Arabs on Jerusalem, in particular, the Palestinians are part of the wider Arab coalition, with echoes of the 1940s and 1950s would develop sufficient interests in the peace process to be willing to make major compromises in their claims.

However, as anyone who has studied history should know, when vital national interests, developed over centuries, are at stake, five years of tenuous coexistence (mixed with waves of terrorism) are not going to lead to basic changes.

Other Israeli leaders might have played the issue differently, but a Labour-led government under Rabin, Peres or [Labour leadership contender Ehud] Barak would have been faced with civil conflict and divisions that would have weakened the Israeli position even further.

So where does this leave us?

First, with the knowledge that new elections or a national unity government will not end the confrontation with the Palestinians and Arab world over these central issues.

If a more united government can be formed and it's highly unlikely Israel may become stronger, more able to face the orchestrated protests and pressures from the rest of the world. But the substance of the conflicts will remain the same.

So there is little choice but to ride out this storm.

When this crisis wave ends, if the toll in terms of violence and terror rises no higher, a new effort can be made to reconcile Israel's requirements regarding Jerusalem and boundaries with more realistic Palestinian aspirations. But there is little reason to hope that these critical issues can be discussed, under any circumstances, without threats, crises, and pressure.

(Gerald Steinberg is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on March 14, and is used with permission.)

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