Politics & Policy

After 20 Years, Moving Beyond Oslo

Left and right can agree that we must move on to find a solution.

Let us start with a rare activity in that twilight zone that is called the Middle East peace process: talking about things we agree upon.

Regional leaders and experts on all sides of the discussion have declared the peace process to be dormant, if not dead. No meaningful negotiations have taken place in almost three years. The Obama administration is hiding its head in the sand. Rumors have replaced ideas and action.

Alas, that reality remains a taboo topic in Washington. So, for that reason, we and others have arrived on Capitol Hill to lay out the realpolitik of the peace process, to strip away the fig leaf, and to force us to see and act.

The time has come, 20 years after Oslo, to reevaluate our thinking and try a new approach. It is the only hope of moving toward a lasting peace. This Thursday in Washington, we are converging with leaders, experts, and journalists from all sides to go back to the drawing board and rethink our basic assumptions about peace in the Middle East. We must. If no path forward can be found, the region is doomed; the sentiment that “it can’t get any worse” will be disproved and mocked.

The two of us come together as Zionists. We do not yield in our determination that Israel shall thrive and grow and be a beacon of democracy, perhaps even a role model for our neighbors in the Arab world, who are now probing new possibilities and lurching toward possible democracy — or theocracy — in their homelands. That said, we do not always agree with each other about the appropriate way to achieve this all-important goal.

In 1992, one of us, Yossi Beilin, initiated top-secret negotiations with the Palestinians, including now–Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, resulting in the Oslo agreement in 1993, and then, in 1995, a list of guidelines for a permanent solution to the conflict. He further participated in the 2001 joint talks in Taba and the later signing of the Geneva Accords, which were designed to be a model permanent-status agreement.

The other, Benny Elon, spoke out against Oslo from the very beginning and has consistently lamented its implementation ever since. During a second term in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet, he refused to vote or even be present to rubber-stamp what he saw as the prime minister’s disastrous decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza.

Yet the debate is no longer between doves and hawks, pro-Oslo or anti-Oslo. It is about ensuring that there is a Jewish state called Israel that shares borders with Palestinians. A peace agreement would be the much preferred method but should perhaps not be a condition for such an undertaking.

Recently, both Palestinian and Israeli voices have bemoaned the death of this 20-year muddle. Leading Fatah party figure Marwan Barghouti has declared the peace process dead and has called for “popular resistance.” Abbas is rumored to be, once again, flirting with the idea of dissolving the Palestinian Authority. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak is now suggesting a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

We are both interested in achieving peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians in the region. Would it be as a Palestinian state encompassing much, but not all, of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)? Or would coexistence come via a nation, Jordan, that already exists and has been home for Palestinians for decades, by restoring connections between the two banks of the Jordan River?

Whatever the answer, the continuity of the Jewish people is a key tenet. For that, Israel is the essential vessel — the one state that has its gates open to Jews, in stark contrast to the world 70 years ago, when all nations denied Jews entrance. Sovereignty is necessary to ensure it remains that way.

The agreements and institutions established within the framework of the Oslo Peace Accords were intended to be temporary and, two decades later, are no longer viable. The peacemakers were correct to seek a solution to the conflict, but were wrong to think it would happen because they wanted it to happen. To ignore and pretend that any longer is a worse mistake.

Let’s find that first step now.

— Dr. Yossi Beilin is a former Israeli minister of justice and deputy minister for foreign affairs and architect of the Oslo Peace Accords. Rabbi Benny Elon is a former Israeli minister of tourism. A longstanding critic of Oslo, he is president of the International Israel Allies Caucus Foundation.


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