Oslo and the failure of ‘constructive ambiguity’

The Oslo Accords are 25 on September 13, with Fathom Journal publishing a host of perspectives from different players involved in the negotiations such as Joel Singer, Yair Hirschfeld, Hussein Agha and Orna Mizrahi. Much ink has been spilled analysing what went wrong (with significantly less on what went right). But looking back at those heady days of 1993-5, it remains striking how Israeli and Palestinian leaders had vastly different understandings of the type of final status agreement they would ultimately sign.

This isn’t a case of success having many fathers and failure being an orphan. Rather, it was the same integral component of the Oslo Accords that allowed the agreement to be initially signed – its ambiguity on final status issues – which subsequently became one of the causes of its ultimate failure.

On October 5, 1995, during Rabin’s last Knesset speech before his assassination, the Israeli prime minister said that “the borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the June 4, 1967 lines. Changes which will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Betar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the ‘Green Line,’ prior to the Six Day War, adding that “the security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” Meanwhile, Arafat had an entirely different vision, telling his supporters that the basic components of a final agreement would involve, “the dismantlement of occupation and the complete withdrawal of occupation troops from our land, our holy places and holy Jerusalem”. While Israelis believed Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of their state, Palestinians expected the city to become an integral part of their capital.

None of this was necessarily overly problematic during the early days of Oslo. Politicians are prone to giving speeches emphasising maximalist positions, only to compromise when push comes to shove.

But because the complicated problems were delayed (some might say fudged) until a date 3-5 years in the future, Oslo’s ‘unambiguous ambiguity’ facilitated the continuation of these vast differences. Thus, during the interim period, when both societies should have been preparing themselves for the inevitable compromises that were to follow, neither Israelis nor Palestinians were forced to alter their dreams, visions and expectations of a final settlement.

Oslo wasn’t the first equivocal document to become a cornerstone of Middle East peacemaking. UN Security Council Resolution 242 which Avi Shlaim calls “a masterpiece of deliberate British ambiguity” was unanimously adopted on 22 November 1967. It demands that Israel withdraw from ‘territories occupied in the recent conflict’, while expressing the ‘right of every country in the region to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries.’ The Palestinians emphasise the French and Arabic translations (which include the definite article ‘the’) arguing it calls for complete withdrawal. Israel, on the other hand, understands the resolution as demanding only partial withdrawal and argues that any withdrawal must come in the context of ‘secure and recognised’ boundaries.

In other words, both Oslo and UN 242 – the bases upon which peace must be made – are deeply (and purposefully) unclear over detailed parameters on final status.

Perhaps this is how politicians forge agreements – certainly interim ones. During a one-week trip to Northern Ireland in 2015 with Israelis and Palestinians, I remember being struck by how both Republicans and Unionists deeply believed that their (completely contradictory) vision of Northern Ireland would ultimately be actualised by the Good Friday Accord.

Yet these ambiguities in the Israeli-Palestinian context were exacerbated by different perspectives and terms of reference when they sat opposite one another. Israelis believed they were negotiating events through the prism of 1967. Negotiations were thus over the future of the West Bank and Gaza, and some sort of Palestinian territorial compromise was expected when final status discussions arrived.

Palestinians believed they were negotiating through the prism of 1948. According to their perspective they had already made their historic compromise by giving up claims for 78% of Mandatory Palestine. They thus expected they would receive nothing less than the remaining 22% as well as forms of recompense over issues such as refugees which surround Israel’s creation.

The ambiguity in Oslo helped convince the sides to sign. But it also anesthetised both peoples over painful compromises and delayed a future clash for when the veil of ambiguity was finally lifted when final status issues were discussed.

About the Author
Calev Ben-Dor is Deputy Editor of the Fathom Journal