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"Israel's leadership, back then, understood that occupation cannot and should not persist"

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"We thought that recognising Israel would pave the way towards that historical compromise: two states for two nations." Two decades after the Oslo Accords were signed, Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo reflects on his early expectations of the peace process, what went wrong, and how today's political climate compares to that of twenty years ago.

Elders team: How would you compare the political climate around the Israeli Palestinian talks now to that of 20 years ago, in the run up to the Oslo Accords?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: During the Oslo agreement, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the first priority in this region. Today, I can’t say that interest has diminished, but all the other priorities in the region continually distract attention from our issue.

There is a lot of scepticism about the possibility of success of the current peace process, and this scepticism starts from the highest level in the American administration to all corners of the earth. This is because the experience of the past 20 years has not been encouraging – and because the current Israeli policies of settlement expansion and confiscation of land have vastly changed the geographical conditions on the ground.

Nobody trusts that there is a serious and real intention at the highest level in Israel and its governing coalition to be determined to have a solution for all the basic issues that remain unsolved after 20 years.

It doesn’t mean that our core issues have changed, but the dilemma is that everybody 20 years ago believed that the two-state solution would be achieved, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the Oslo agreement; today everybody is talking about the two-state solution as the only outcome of this conflict, but it is less certain how it will be accomplished.

Did Israelis and Palestinians differ in their early expectations of the Oslo process?

One of the main flaws of the Oslo agreement was that the final result wasn’t defined: a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders. The agreement also failed to state explicitly that settlement activities should stop immediately – it was referred to only indirectly when mentioning that no side should take any steps that would affect the outcome of the final negotiations.

In spite of that, I can say that we felt that the political leadership in Israel was totally and fundamentally different to the current one. The leadership then had understood, vaguely, that occupation cannot and should not persist.

On our side, we had taken a step that we thought would open the doors of historical compromise by recognising Israel, in return for their recognition of our national aspirations and our national movement, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which represents these aspirations. We thought – even though it wasn’t balanced, because we gave a full recognition for a partial one – that it would pave the way towards that historical compromise. Two states for two nations.

There was a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning – many underestimated the difficulties that would arise due to the power of the opponents of the deal, in Israel and even in the United States.

Back in 1994, how did you envision the region 20 years later?

We thought that the region would witness the beginning of a new era of open borders and wider economic cooperation, focusing on development rather than on the arms race, and that we would start thinking of having special and developed relations with Israel. We felt that technology at that time would be our main common challenge, and that the Middle East would be more united, rather than divided as it is today.

The dream is still there, but it remains a far-off dream rather than being a serious possibility.

What was key to the success of the Oslo negotiations, and can it be replicated in 2013-14?

The Oslo agreement, for me, had corrected the path of history. For the first time, it partially changed the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration, which had created new nations and states, but on the other hand had abolished the rights and neglected the aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Although we didn’t speak about “two states” in the agreement, not even the most naive politician would have failed to understand that this would be the eventual result of the process.

Today I can’t be sure that even the most sophisticated politicians are sure of the outcome. This could prolong the conflict and jeopardise the future of the two nations of Palestine and Israel, and the whole region as well.

Can you identify a turning point when, in your view, the Oslo process switched from a positive to a negative direction?

The early vacuum created by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, while the peace process was still very fragile, enabled the Israeli right wing to turn the course of the process backward. Yet before his death, even Rabin used slogans, maybe without recognising their implications, saying for example: “There are no sacred dates.”

When Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in 1996, he built a strategy to undermine the Oslo agreement and created a new reference to the process, which he called “reciprocity”. For him, this meant that when the Palestinians took action he would decide whether it was positive or not, and based on that he would determine the response. He shattered the whole philosophy of the Oslo agreement, which had defined and started to implement reciprocal steps taken by both sides.

He said this to Yasser Arafat in their first meeting after his election. I was sitting right next to Arafat in the Erez checkpoint conference room two weeks after Netanyahu formed his new cabinet, and Arafat told me as he left: “I believe we have started a totally different game – a very dangerous one – with this man. We have lost the compass of Oslo."

What, do you think, have been the unintended consequences of the Oslo Accords?

Some elements which weren’t mentioned in the Oslo agreement were understood, but there was not enough courage to implement them. The Oslo agreement was the first attempt to have a peace deal after a century of antagonism and conflict. The two nations would have to coexist and accept the reality of the existence of the other side, rather than sticking to their historical narratives and claims. The decision to sign was extremely difficult for us, but the wide vision of Arafat and his Israeli counterpart led us to accept the Accord without these elements being mentioned directly in writing.

However, the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was not intended to be a long-term formula and we behaved accordingly, believing that after five years we would be able to finalise the deal and create our independent state. But the changes in the Israeli leadership and the shift to the right – though interrupted for a time by Ehud Barak's leadership – saw what I can call politely strong hesitance on the Israeli side to continue the path of Rabin, which ultimately led to the fall of Barak’s government.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t challenged enough by our side or by the international community. We didn’t expect that the five-year interim period would become a long-term arrangement without any promise of light at the end of the tunnel.

If you could go back twenty years, what would you do differently?

Two things. First, a clear and unambiguous commitment to the final outcome of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital on the basis of the 1967 borders, and a just, mutually accepted solution to the issue of refugees.

Second, a commitment that all the steps to be taken should serve that end, such as freezing settlement activities during the interim period.

Ambiguity concerning these two matters has led to the death of Oslo at the hand of the extremists. It enabled the right wing in Israel, and Hamas and others on our side, to destroy the process through their violent methods and to marginalise the founders of the Oslo agreement, along with its spirit and vision.

If I could go back in time, I would insist on these two commitments and ensure Oslo had the strongest and widest support, instead of leaving the agreed terms unclear.

If you could give one piece of advice to the current Israeli/Palestinian negotiators, what would it be?

Nothing more than defining the borders of the two states, with minor swaps of territory that will leave us with 100 per cent of our state.

If we don’t take that approach, and we are left to discuss Israeli security needs and measures – the separation wall, settlement blocs, controlling the Jordan Valley and annexing East Jerusalem for security purposes – then we will be doomed to failure.

Borders will bring with them the necessary security arrangements; we should not let security claims define those borders. The problem of settlements will then be easier to resolve and will have to be resolved. If it is neglected and left for Israel to regard as a secondary concern after the security issue, it will mean that there will be no viable Palestinian state and national homeland.

Is there one personal story or memory that encapsulates for you the spirit of the 1993 negotiations?

Rabin was a heavy smoker, as I was. We exchanged cigarettes when one of us had run out, building a friendly atmosphere – this was probably the first Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. In some meetings, when I wasn’t attending, Rabin would ask seriously about his “heavy smoker counterpart”. His mood was serious but very open at the meetings.

He moved from dealing with us strictly as opponents to holding special meetings with us. I remember during one of the meetings in Paris, he advised Arafat in my presence on how to deal with the international community in order to get more economic and financial support. Rabin believed that we were now tied together, that “your failure is ours”.

We were suspicious at first of such a cordial atmosphere, but we came to recognise later, his advice was built on profound Israeli experience and genuine need to justify his agreement with us in front of his public.

When Arafat heard about Rabin’s assassination, I saw the extreme sadness that he usually tried to control on similar occasions. He kept saying the same thing: “How can we move forward now?”

Yasser Abed Rabbo is Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Executive Committee. A member of the official Palestinian negotiating team, he is known as one of the architects of The Geneva Accords.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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