The Oslo Accords—two agreements that outlined a timetable for the peace process between the state of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—were once cause for great optimism. Among their prime accomplishments were the formation of the Palestinian National Authority, which continues to govern the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank (although it was formed as a provisional body), and the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. The first Accord was signed in September 1993; a year later, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Then, about a month after the second Accord was signed in 1995, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli hard-liner. In the years since, the glimpse of peace that the Oslo Accords offered has largely dissipated. To make sense of what went wrong, NYU’s Taub Center for Israel Studies convened a conference on March 25 to assess the Oslo Accords nearly 25 years after their signing.
The Accords, once symbols of vast potential, now serve as reminders of squandered opportunity, some panelists argued. The timeline they outlined has come and gone; central issues that were set to be negotiated in a future of heightened trust—like Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, and the city of Jerusalem—remain unresolved. The resultant sense of stagnancy has, in turn, caused the Oslo Accords to resemble a specter looming over the peace process.
“The problem with Oslo is not that it is dead,” said Yossi Beilin, former Israeli negotiator and minister of justice, at the conference. “The problem with Oslo is that it is alive.” Beilin was one of the chief engineers of the Oslo Accords, which began as backchannel talks between Israel and the PLO, mediated by Norway.
During the NYU conference’s opening remarks, Lior Lehrs, an Israel Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Taub Center, effectively framed the significance of the Accords, both at the time of their signing and in hindsight. “For my generation, Oslo was the main event and the main process that shaped our generation,” he said. “I think that for all of us, Oslo remained an open question.”
The conference assembled three panels to answer the myriad questions posed by the Oslo Accords. Each panel consisted of four individuals: a chair, two people who were involved in the peace negotiations—one Israeli, the other Palestinian—and a third-party expert.
In an interview with NYU News, Ronald W. Zweig, director of the Taub Center, said of the diverse panels that “it’s easy to invite Israelis, it’s easy to invite Americans...But to bring Palestinians, and have them appear publicly—not in a private, closed session, but a public session—that’s an achievement.”
It’s an achievement, in part, because the failure of the Oslo Accords to yield long-term results in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, to many, come to embody the limitations of diplomacy. As panelist Ghaith al-Omari, senior fellow at the Washington Institute and former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team in talks that followed the Accords, said, “For many Palestinians today, arguably many or even most Palestinians today, Oslo is a four-letter word. It’s a dirty word.”
“The basic promise of Oslo,” he continued, “that liberation will come through diplomacy, has yet to deliver.”
The conference offered both hope for and skepticism of possible improvements in the conflict. Hilde Henriksen Waage, a Norwegian historian who has researched Norway’s role in the Oslo Accords, said, “So far, I think that—I’m very sad to say that—Israel has kind of won, and the Palestinians have lost. There will be no two-state solution, or Palestinian state, I think.” Her presentation focused on the fundamental power imbalance between Israel and the PLO, which, she argued, led Norway to defer to Israeli priorities during the negotiations.
Al-Omari, however, framed the Accords in a slightly more optimistic manner. (At one point, he admitted to having “been very uncharacteristically upbeat” throughout his talk.)
“These are issues that were complicated,” he said. “I would argue [that] even our attempts, at Camp David and elsewhere, were part of an educational process. It needed time, it needed to be tested, it needed to be developed—and none of that was there.”
The educational process has carried on, and the conference undoubtedly contributed to it. But the panelists did not shy away from highlighting the need for new action in addition to retrospection.
Said Beilin: “If nothing happens—God forbid—we may meet here again, with the frustration, with the questions of what exactly went wrong, and with very few answers, in years from now.”