What it means to cancel Oslo by Omar Shaban

Palestinians continue to demand the cancellation of the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as the representative of the Palestinian people, and the government of Israel. Oslo was intended to end the state of hostility between the PLO and Israel and to mark a new era of peacemaking, but has since turned into an endless process which has delivered neither an end to hostilities nor a coherent framework for peace. Calls for the dismantling of the Oslo Accords come not only from Palestinian civil society activists and intellectuals but from Palestinian Authority (PA) figures as well, including President Mahmoud Abbas himself. Are such calls serious, or are they aimed at capturing the world’s attention, particularly that of the United States? Have Palestinians fully considered the implications of cancelling the Oslo Accords, which created the PA in the first place?

The abrogation of the Oslo Accords would most likely lead to an increased Israeli military presence in parts of the Occupied Territories, a third intifada, enormous economic losses for Palestinian society, the empowerment of Hamas, and other destabilizing developments. Instead of repeatedly threatening the cancellation of Oslo, then, the PA and the international community should focus on renewing and strengthening the core tenets of the Accords.

Oslo Accords: realities on the ground

The Oslo agreement led to fundamental changes on the ground and produced a new reality that cannot be ignored. Twenty-two years after the signing of the agreement, the Palestinian political and economic situation has been transformed, and the Palestinian-Israeli relationship is radically and irreversibly altered. The PA has replaced the Israeli military in assuming responsibility for the well-being of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and for providing them with basic health, education, development, relief, and police services. The PA also employs a large number of Palestinians, at times as many as 170,000, many of them inherited from the Civil Administration (the former Israeli military government in the Occupied Territories). In addition, the PA, acting on behalf of the PLO, has signed a number of agreements with various international parties in all areas.
Under the Oslo Accords, the PA is obligated to undertake security coordination with the Israeli army in order to maintain stability and prevent acts of violence, as defined by Israel.
Under the Oslo Accords, the PA is obligated to undertake security coordination with the Israeli army in order to maintain stability and prevent acts of violence, as defined by Israel. Likewise, with regard to economic relations, the subordination of the Palestinian economy to the Israeli economy that existed even before Oslo was legitimized by the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations signed in April 1994.

Consequences of cancelling Oslo

Cancelling the Oslo Accords would effectively remove the legal justification for the PA. Quite simply, it would mean dismantling the PA, laying off its employees, ending international funding, and nullifying the economic agreements between the PA and Israel as well as between the PA and many other countries around the world. It would also mean an end to security coordination between Israel and the PA, which would facilitate the return of the Israeli military to parts of the West Bank designated as Area “A.” This would certainly lead to another intifada. Such an uprising would, in all likelihood, turn violent, given the enormous amount of weapons currently held by PA police and security personnel; and there would be no guarantee that these weapons would be kept out of the hands of the militant groups in the West Bank.

Ending the Oslo accords and dismantling the PA would also lead to an exodus of foreign diplomatic representatives from Ramallah, as well as a freeze on all joint economic projects between the Palestinian and Israeli private sectors in the fields of energy, cement, electricity, telecommunications, and others, resulting in economic losses of at least hundreds of millions of dollars.
The costs of cancelling the Oslo Accords are much greater than either the PA or Palestinian society can bear, and the Palestinian leadership is well aware of this fact.
The costs of cancelling the Oslo Accords are much greater than either the PA or Palestinian society can bear, and the Palestinian leadership is well aware of this fact. Therefore we may assume that repeated threats to cancel Oslo are designed to raise concerns within the international community about the relative stability of the status quo created by the Accords. According to this logic, despite its institutional relationship with Israel, the PA is left with no other choice from which there is no possibility of returning.

The position of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements are not part of the PLO, and both came into existence at least two decades after the PLO was established in 1964. Both movements openly reject the Oslo Accords and routinely call for its cancellation, albeit with some differences between them. Whereas Islamic Jihad remains firm in rejecting Oslo in both theory and practice, Hamas has shown considerable flexibility in dealing with the realities created by Oslo. For example, Hamas participated in the second parliamentary elections that took place in 2006, in which it won a majority of seats, thus enabling it to form a government on its own. Hamas has boarded the Oslo train without recognizing it or having to pay the cost of the ticket in terms of the peace process, namely the Quartet conditions: recognition of Israel, acceptance of prior agreements between Israel and the PLO, and the renunciation of violence. Consequently, Hamas was able to form a government on its own, after Fatah’s refusal to participate in the government, and requested recognition from the international community without accepting the requirements of the international community.
Dismantling Oslo would be a victory for the Hamas program and its position, which has always opposed Oslo.
Hamas has consistently called on the PA to cancel the Oslo Accords, fully aware that such calls are a continuous source of embarrassment for the PA in light of the lack of progress in the peace process and its limited achievements. Hamas knows that cancelling Oslo would be to its advantage by eliminating its main political rival, the PA, and vindicating its long-standing opposition to the Accords. Dismantling Oslo would be a victory for the Hamas program and its position, which has always opposed Oslo. More importantly, Hamas would be seen as the most capable political faction owing to its social and educational activities and its military wing, as well as to its excellent relations with regional powers like ­Turkey and Qatar. In short, if Oslo were annulled, Hamas might then be perceived as the most qualified body to represent the Palestinians. Hamas could then form an alternative leadership umbrella with which to replace the PLO, with itself as the dominant force.

Toward “Oslo 3”

In light of the above, what is needed is not to cancel Oslo but to revive and strengthen it. The international community and the Palestinian Authority should call for a new peace conference aimed at building upon previous agreements: identifying new international partners among emerging powers such as China, Brazil, India, Turkey, and Russia; ending the monopoly of U.S. sponsorship of the peace process, which would be good for the United States, who has been blamed for the failure of the peace process, while allowing for a more active role for the European Union; and finally imposing a timeline for the implementation of the agreement. In addition, this process must take into consideration the rise of Islamist powers like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which did not exist in the 1990s. A future elected Palestinian leadership should be younger and should more accurately represent the full spectrum of Palestinians, both within the West Bank and Gaza, and in the diaspora. Last but not least, the proposed process must demand that Islamist organizations pay the price of admission before partaking in—or benefiting from—the peace process.

Omar Shaban
Founder and director of Palthink for Strategic Studies