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Oslo Accords Offer Lessons After Twenty-Year 'Interim'

The failures of the Oslo experience should inform the restarted Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Sept. 13 will be the 20th anniversary of the signing of the declaration of principles between the Israelis and the Palestinians, better known as the Oslo Accords. Despite some criticism from ideological and political points of view, the accords were a breakthrough and a watershed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It happened less than two years after the launching of the Madrid Conference, which indirectly set the stage for such an achievement.

The interim accords were supposed to deliver, at the end of five years, a permanent agreement. Everybody is still waiting to go beyond what became a permanent interim agreement. Since Day One of the accords, the policies of the different Israeli governments have continued to create new facts on the ground in the occupied territories through an active policy of building and enlarging settlements under different pretexts. Thus the accords became an empty shell, a typical example of a failed approach to reach a permanent solution.

The 20th anniversary coincided with the relaunching, a month and a half ago, of US-engineered Palestinian-Israeli talks with the aim, as announced by the United States, of reaching a permanent settlement in nine months' time. The United States is trying to be a facilitator and a bridge builder without being a main player, at the request of the Israelis. Yet the United States is supposed to present its ideas to bridge gaps six months after the negotiations started. The talks began by focusing on two core issues: borders and security. An agreement on the former would solve or help solve many of the remaining issues. Nonetheless, the Israelis are still focusing entirely on security issues, setting the subject of negotiations alone. They are presenting security demands that will impinge upon and violate the sovereignty of the Palestinian state to be.

Israel is still avoiding presenting a map of its borders. It refuses former agreements or understandings such as the Olmert proposals on swaps while still pursuing an active policy of building settlement units under different pretexts such as previous adopted decisions that cannot be changed.

Despite the serious American commitment to reach an accord, no serious progress can be made unless, perhaps, the president himself pushes the two parties to reach agreements on all key issues, based on encouraging and facilitating trade-offs. This could be done by formulating practical proposals from Day One instead of waiting for six months to elapse.

Agreements reached on each issue could be considered as deposits to be entirely implemented once everything has been addressed. Time could elapse and the US role, despite all good intentions, might not be able to save this last, much awaited, attempt at settling the conflict.

One major lesson of the conflict diplomacy is that time is not supportive for reaching a just and comprehensive peace if another opportunity for interim agreements is lost. The Oslo Accord stands to witness to that bitter reality. Twenty years later one can say with confidence that Oslo was born dead. If it has a major merit it is to indicate the road that must not be taken anymore.

Ambassador Nassif Hitti is a senior Arab League official and the former head of the Arab League Mission in Paris. He is a former representative to UNESCO and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors. The views he presents here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

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