It’s now clear: the Oslo peace accords were wrecked by Netanyahu’s bad faith

I thought the peace accords 20 years ago could work, but Israel used them as cover for its colonial project in Palestine
OSLO ACCORDS avi
 Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, signs the Oslo accords at the White House on 13 September 1993. Onlookers include Israel’s PM, Yitzhak Rabin; Bill Clinton; and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. Photograph: J David AKE/AFP

Exactly 20 years have passed since the Oslo accords were signed on the White House lawn. For all their shortcomings and ambiguities, the accords constituted a historic breakthrough in the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. It was the first peace agreement between the two principal parties to the conflict: Israelis and Palestinians.

The accords represented real progress on three fronts: the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised the state of Israel; Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people; and both sides agreed to resolve their outstanding differences by peaceful means. Mutual recognition replaced mutual rejection. In short, this promised at least the beginning of a reconciliation between two bitterly antagonistic national movements. And the hesitant handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat clinched the historic compromise.

Critical to the architecture of Oslo was the notion of gradualism. The text did not address any of the key issues in this dispute: Jerusalem; the right of return of 1948 refugees; the status of Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land; or the borders of the Palestinian entity. All these “permanent status” issues were deferred for negotiations towards the end of the five-year transition period. Basically, this was a modest experiment in Palestinian self-government, starting with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

The text did not promise or even mention an independent Palestinian state at the end of the transition period. The Palestinians believed that in return for giving up their claim to 78% of historic Palestine, they would gain an independent state in the remaining 22%, with a capital city in Jerusalem. They were to be bitterly disappointed.

Controversy surrounded Oslo from the moment it saw the light of day. The 21 October 1993 issue of the London Review of Books ran two articles; Edward Said put the case against in the first. He called the agreement “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”, arguing that it set aside international legality and compromised the fundamental national rights of the Palestinian people. It could not advance genuine Palestinian self-determination because that meant freedom, sovereignty, and equality, rather than perpetual subservience to Israel.

In my own article I put the case for Oslo. I believed that it would set in motion a gradual but irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and that it would pave the way to Palestinian statehood. From today’s perspective, 20 years on, it is clear that Said was right in his analysis and I was wrong.

In 2000 the Oslo peace process broke down following the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second intifada. Why? Israelis claim that the Palestinians made a strategic choice to return to violence and consequently there was no Palestinian partner for peace. As I see it, Palestinian violence was a contributory factor, but not the main cause. The fundamental reason was that Israel reneged on its side of the deal.

Sadly, the Jewish fanatic who assassinated Rabin in 1995 achieved his broader aim of derailing the peace train. In 1996 the rightwing Likud returned to power under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu. He made no effort to conceal his deep antagonism to Oslo, denouncing it as incompatible with Israel’s right to security and with the historic right of the Jewish people to the whole land of Israel. And he spent his first three years as PM in a largely successful attempt to arrest, undermine, and subvert the accords concluded by his Labour predecessors.

Particularly destructive of the peace project was the policy of expanding Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. These settlements are illegal under international law and constitute a huge obstacle to peace. Building civilian settlements beyond the Green Line does not violate the letter of the Oslo accords but it most decidedly violates its spirit. As a result of settlement expansion the area available for a Palestinian state has been steadily shrinking to the point where a two-state solution is barely conceivable.

The so-called security barrier that Israel has been building on the West Bank since 2002 further encroaches on Palestinian land. Land-grabbing and peace-making do not go together: it is one or the other. Oslo is essentially a land-for-peace deal. By expanding settlements all Israeli governments, Labour as well as Likud, contributed massively to its breakdown.

The rate of settlement growth in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem is staggering. At the end of 1993 there were 115,700 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. Their number doubled during the following decade.

Today the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank exceeds 350,000. There are an additional 300,000 Jews living in settlements across the pre-1967 border in East Jerusalem. Thousands more settlement homes are planned or under construction. Despite his best efforts, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, failed to get the Netanyahu government to accept a settlement freeze as a precondition for renewing the peace talks suspended in 2010. As long as Netanyahu remains in power, it is a safe bet that no breakthrough will be achieved in the new round of talks. He is the procrastinator par excellence, the double-faced prime minister who pretends to negotiate the partition of the pizza while continuing to gobble it up.

The Oslo accords had many faults, chief of which was the failure to proscribe settlement expansion while peace talks were in progress. But the agreement was not doomed to failure from the start, as its critics allege. Oslo faltered and eventually broke down because Likud-led governments negotiated in bad faith. This turned the much-vaunted peace process into a charade. In fact, it was worse than a charade: it provided Israel with just the cover it was looking for to continue to pursue with impunity its illegal and aggressive colonial project on the West Bank.

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The Netanyahu Disaster

The Israeli prime minister has two main tasks, and he’s failing at both.

Benjamin Netanyahu, making friends and influencing people Reuters/The Atlantic
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Benjamin Netanyahu believes he has just one job, and that is to stop Iran from getting hold of nuclear weapons. He might argue that this description of his mission as Israel’s prime minister is too limiting, though such an argument would not be particularly credible. Israel’s very existence, he has argued, consistently, and at times convincingly, is predicated on stopping Iran, a country ruled by a regime that seeks both Israel’s annihilation and the means to carry it out.Netanyahu’s options are limited. A country possessing scientific knowledge, material resources, and the will to cross the nuclear threshold is very difficult to stop. One way for Netanyahu to stop Iran, or to slow down its progress toward a bomb, would be to launch a preventative attack on its nuclear facilities. He has threatened to do so (credibly, according to officials of the Obama administration) but he has not yet done it, perhaps because American warnings against such a strike have been dire; perhaps because he understands that such an attack might not work; or perhaps because he is by nature cautious, despite his rhetoric.

Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way. And only the United States has the throw-weight to organize sanctions regimes of lasting consequence.For several years, Netanyahu and President Obama, despite their mutual loathing, worked more or less in tandem on this issue. Netanyahu traveled the world arguing for stringent sanctions, and Obama did much the same. In fact, Obama used Netanyahu’s tough posture to America’s advantage: On several occasions, Obama and officials in his administration played good cop/bad cop, telling other world leaders that toughening sanctions on Iran would be the only way to forestall an Israeli attack, and this line of argument often proved effective.

Obama, who has argued that a nuclear Iran poses a “profound” national-security threat to the U.S., believed that pressure was a means to an end—the end, of course, being negotiations. A negotiated neutralization of the Iranian nuclear threat would be in the best interests of the U.S. and its Middle East allies, he argued, and he has worked assiduously to keep Netanyahu from taking precipitous action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, even as he used the threat to his advantage.

Netanyahu does not appear to believe that negotiations will bring about an end to the Iranian threat. He believes that any settlement agreed to by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, would necessarily be, from the Israeli perspective, hopelessly weak. There is good reason to be sympathetic to this argument. Doubts about Iranian intentions are warranted, as is skepticism about the zeal with which the West is seeking such an agreement. But there is good reason to sympathize with Obama and his negotiators as well. They believe that a negotiated settlement that promises to keep Iran perpetually a year or more from the nuclear threshold, and provides for intrusive inspections of Iranian facilities, is far from perfect, but better than the alternative, which is eventual confrontation.Thus, a conundrum, one with greater consequences for Netanyahu and his country than for Obama and his, because of Israel’s small size, relative lack of power, and close physical proximity to Iran.

Faced with this conundrum—an American president who he believes is willing to strike a flawed deal with Iran—Netanyahu has made the second-worst choice he could make. He has not attacked Iran, which is good—an Israeli attack holds the promise of disaster—but he has decided to ruin his relations with Obama.

To be sure, the Obama administration does not make it particularly easy on Netanyahu. For instance, early in Obama’s first term, senior officials in his administration were quasi-openly rooting for Tzipi Livni to replace him as prime minister.

But, unfortunately for Netanyahu, it is incumbent upon the junior partner in the Israel-U.S. relationship to maintain an even keel in the relationship. Netanyahu, grappling with a fear that Obama will go wobbly on Iran, could have tried a long time ago to create a discreet, continuous, and respectful dialogue in advance of the conclusion of negotiations, in order to try to shape the president’s thinking, and—this is important—to work with Obama on issues that interest the United States (advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for instance, by taking the initiative once in a blue moon) in order to make the American side understand that his government is interested in giving, not merely in taking.Instead, Netanyahu chose to make a desperate-seeming end-run around the president and attempted to appeal directly to Congress to oppose a decision Obama has not yet made. In a plan concocted by Ron Dermer, who serves as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the U.S., the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, invited Netanyahu to address Congress on the dangers of a nuclear deal and the need for tougher sanctions, without first informing the White House.

The flaws in this approach are many. Obama administration officials have already felt disrespected by Netanyahu (recall his condescending, and public, Oval Office lecture to the president), and so this latest violation of protocol set their teeth on edge. Another flaw: The Obama administration is trying to create conditions so that if the negotiations do collapse, it will be the Iranians who get the blame, not the Americans. Legislating new sanctions—even delayed, triggered sanctions—would give the Iranians the excuse to quit negotiations and blame the U.S. Such a situation would not help Obama maintain the strong international sanctions regime that has stayed in place through the past year of talks. (Actually passing legislation now also seems superfluous; only the most obtuse Iranian leader would fail to realize that a failure in the negotiations process would lead to more sanctions.)

An even more obvious flaw: John Boehner is not the commander-in-chief, and does not make U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu might find Boehner’s approach to Iran more politically and emotionally satisfying than Obama’s, but this is irrelevant. Yes, Congress can pass new sanctions against Iran, but it is the executive branch that drives U.S. Iran policy. Barack Obama will be president for two more years, and it makes absolutely no sense for an Israeli leader to side so ostentatiously with a sitting American president’s domestic political opposition.Netanyahu appears to believe that his mission is singular, but Israeli prime ministers, in fact, have two main tasks. The first is to protect their country from existential threats. The second: To work very hard to stay on the good side of the president and people of the United States. Success in accomplishing this first task is sometimes predicated on achieving this second task.

Israel has been, for several decades, a bipartisan cause in Washington. Bipartisan support accounts for the ease with which Israeli prime ministers have historically been heard in Washington; it accounts for the generous aid packages Israel receives; and it also explains America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.

Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support. His Dermer-inspired, Boehner-enabled end-run has alienated three crucially important constituencies. First, the administration itself: Netanyahu’s estrangement from the Obama White Housenow appears to be permanent. It will be very difficult for Netanyahu to make the White House hear his criticisms of whatever deal may one day be reached with Iran.

Netanyahu has also alienated many elected Democrats, including Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. One Jewish member of Congress told me that he felt humiliated and angered by Netanyahu’s ploy to address Congress “behind the president’s back.” A non-Jewish Democratic elected official texted me over the weekend to say that the damage Netanyahu is doing to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. may be “irreparable.”

A larger group that Netanyahu risks alienating is American Jewry, or at least the strong majority of American Jews that has voted for Obama twice. Netanyahu’s decision to pit U.S. political party against U.S. political party—because that is what his end-run does—puts American Jewish supporters of Israel in a messy, uncomfortable spot, and it is not in Israel’s interest to place American Jews in a position in which they have to choose between their president and the leader of a Jewish state whose behavior is making them queasy.

Why doesn’t Netanyahu understand that alienating Democrats is not in the best interest of his country? From what I can tell, he doubts that Democrats are—or will be shortly—a natural constituency for Israel, and he clearly believes that Obama is a genuine adversary. As I reported last year, in an article that got more attention for a poultry-related epithet an administration official directed at Netanyahu than anything else, Netanyahu has told people he has “written off” Obama.

I should have, at the time, explored the slightly unreal notion that an Israeli prime minister would even contemplate “writing off” an American president (though I did predict that Netanyahu would take his case directly to Congress). I still don’t understand Netanyahu’s thinking. It is immaterial whether an Israeli prime minister finds an American president agreeable or not. A sitting president cannot be written off by a small, dependent ally, without terrible consequences.As Ron Dermer’s predecessor in Washington, Michael Oren, said in reaction to this latest Netanyahu blow-up: “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”

Oren, though appointed ambassador by Netanyahu, is now running for Knesset on another party’s line. When he was in Washington, he worried more about the state of Israel’s bipartisan support than almost any other issue. He recently criticized Netanyahu, albeit indirectly, for risking Israel’s relations with the U.S.: “Today, more than ever, it is clear that Israel-U.S. relations are the foundation of any economic, security, and diplomatic approach. It is our responsibility to strengthen those ties immediately.”

There is hypocrisy in the discussion of the Netanyahu-Boehner end-run. It is not unprecedented for foreign leaders to lobby Congress directly; the Arab states opposed to Iran do it all the time, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, lobbied Congress earlier this month on behalf of Obama’s Iran policy, and against the arguments of the Republicans.

But the manner and execution and overall tone-deafness of Netanyahu’s recent ploy suggest that he—and his current ambassador—don’t understand how to manage Israel’s relationships in Washington. Netanyahu wants a role in shaping the Iranian nuclear agreement, should one materialize. His recent actions suggest that he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing.


ISIS-CIA-Israel
 
On June 18, 2017, one of top Israeli Hasbara (propaganda) outlets, Wall Street Journal, admitted the fact that Israel had been funding the ISIS terrorists in Syria for years.
 
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