The Israel-Palestine negotiations currently underway in Jerusalem coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. A look at the character of the accords and their fate may help explain the prevailing skepticism about the current exercise.
In September 1993, President Clinton presided over a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn -- the climax of a "day of awe," as the press described it.
The occasion was the announcement of the Declaration of Principles for political settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which resulted from secret meetings in Oslo that were sponsored by the Norwegian government.
Public negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians had opened in Madrid in November 1991, initiated by Washington in the triumphal glow after the first Iraq war. They were stalemated because the Palestinian delegation, led by the respected nationalist Haidar Abdul Shafi, insisted on ending Israel's expansion of its illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories.
In the immediate background were formal positions on the basic issues released by the PLO, Israel and the United States. In a November 1988 declaration, the PLO called for two states on the internationally recognized border, a proposal that the United States had vetoed at the Security Council in 1976 and continued to block, defying an overwhelming international consensus.
In May 1989 Israel responded, declaring that there can be no "additional Palestinian state" between Jordan and Israel (Jordan being a Palestinian state by Israeli dictate), and that further negotiations will be "in accordance with the basic guidelines of the [Israeli] Government." The Bush I administration endorsed this plan without qualifications, then initiated the Madrid negotiations as the "honest broker."
Then in 1993, the DOP was quite explicit about satisfying Israel's demands but silent on Palestinian national rights. It conformed to the conception articulated by Dennis Ross, Clinton's main Middle East Advisor and negotiator at Camp David in 2000, later President Obama's main advisor as well. As Ross explained, Israel has needs but Palestinians only have wants, obviously of lesser significance.
Article I of the DOP states that the end result of the process is to be "a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338," which say nothing about Palestinian rights, apart from a vague reference to a "just settlement of the refugee problem."
If the "peace process" unfolded as the DOP clearly stated, Palestinians could kiss goodbye their hopes for some limited degree of national rights in the Land of Israel.
Other DOP articles stipulate that Palestinian authority extends over "West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, settlements, military locations and Israelis" -- that is, except for every issue of significance.
Furthermore, "Israel will continue to be responsible for external security, and for internal security and public order of settlements and Israelis. Israeli military forces and civilians may continue to use roads freely within the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area," the two areas from which Israel was pledged to withdraw -- eventually.
In short, there would be no meaningful changes. The DOP also did not include a word about the settlement programs at the heart of the conflict: Even before the Oslo process, the settlements were undermining realistic prospects of achieving any meaningful Palestinian self-determination.
Only by succumbing to what is sometimes called "intentional ignorance" could one believe that the Oslo process was a path to peace. Nevertheless, this became virtual dogma among Western commentators.
As the Madrid negotiations opened, Danny Rubinstein, one of Israel's best-informed analysts, predicted that Israel and the United States would agree to some form of Palestinian "autonomy," but it would be "autonomy as in a POW camp, where the prisoners are 'autonomous' to cook their meals without interference and to organize cultural events." Rubenstein turned out to be correct.