Interview with think tank veterans Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib
"The Oslo peace process approach is over"

On 13 September 1993, an agreement of mutual understanding known as the Oslo Accords kicked off the Middle East peace process. 25 years on, Middle East expert Christian Hanelt interviews Israeli Yossi Alpher and Palestinian Ghassan Khatib on their experiences and their thoughts regarding the way ahead

The intended objective of the peace process that began with the Oslo Accords 25 years ago was, as I remember it, to create two states – one for the Israelis, one for the Palestinians – living side by side in security, peace, democracy, and with social security. This objective has also been stated in declarations and resolutions of the United Nations and the European Union. What are the three reasons why an envisaged two-state solution has not been achieved so far?

Yossi Alpher: Firstly, the original text of the Oslo I Accord (Declaration of Principles, DOP) did not specifically mention a two-state solution and Israeli Prime-Minister Yitzhak Rabin never endorsed a two-state solution. So, this was not necessarily the original Israeli objective. Secondly, in discussing final status the DOP unfortunately lumped together relatively solvable post-1967 Six-Day-War issues like "borders" and "security" with pre-1967 narrative issues like "holy places" and the "1948 refugeesʹ right of return" that have proven intractable. Thirdly, the DOPʹs phased approach and the two sidesʹ decision that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" proved too vulnerable: both to violent interventions – a few by the Israeli right and many sponsored or condoned by the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, himself – and to expansion by the dynamic Israeli settlement movement. Today no less than 10 percent of Israeli Jews live across the 1967 Green Line.

Ghassan Khatib: The two-state solution is the underlying assumption in the peace process. It is endorsed by almost every country in the world, including all EU governments and the United States. It has not been achieved primarily because of the illegal Jewish settlement expansion in occupied Palestinian territory, which has led to the settling of three quarters of a million Israelis in the Occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem. Secondly, the change in the internal Israeli political landscape, which has led to the decline of the peace camp in Israel and the election of parties to the Israeli parliament (Knesset) that have never supported a two-state solution and opposed the Oslo I Accord (DOP). Finally, the weakness of the Palestinian side and its poor negotiating performance ultimately led to flawed Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Over the years, governments and envoys of the U.S., the EU, Russia and the United Nations have tried to mediate, support and finance the Israeli-Palestinian track. Why has such external support and mediation not been successful?

Khatib: Firstly, the United States and Israel have never allowed other countries, especially European states, to play any real role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have always insisted on an American monopoly. Secondly, mediation was never consistent with international law, including United Nations Security Council resolutions such as 242 and 338, which consider the Palestinian territory that fell under Israeli control in 1967 to be under belligerent military occupation that needs to end. Finally, the Palestinian side allowed the U.S. to monopolise mediation and did not lean enough on international legislation. The Palestinian leadership should have insisted on United Nations or international collective mediation subject to international law.

Alpher: Third parties cannot be expected to understand the dynamics of the conflict more than the two parties themselves. By the time of the July 2000 Camp David peace summit meeting between U.S. President Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, Leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, it was clear that even Israel was just beginning to understand what the Palestinians meant by "right of return" and "there never was a temple on the Temple Mount": the Palestinians did not and do not accept Israelʹs historical roots in the region. The U.S. and the Europeans still fail to understand any of this. Today, both Israel and the U.S. support "economic peace" – a mistaken approach to a conflict that is historical, ideological and increasingly religious, but not economic. Furthermore, while the Trump administrationʹs grasp of Middle East strategic dynamics is particularly poor, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush understood the region either. In view of these perceptual gaps, only an imposed solution might have worked, at least temporarily. However, the third parties were never prepared to confront Israel and the Arab world and brutally impose a solution.

Over the past 25 years, both of you invested your expertise in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, running a joint project – bitterlemons.org. From your personal experience, which issue was the most frustrating and which the most promising?

Khatib: The most frustrating issue is the lack of accountability, the double standards and the treatment of Israel as a country above international law by the international community. Israel is violating Palestiniansʹ rights by its illegal settlement policy, for example, without any serious reaction from the United Nations. The most promising is that international public opinion, especially in Europe, is gradually becoming more balanced regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – take, for instance, the vote by many parliaments across the world, including in Europe, to recognise Palestine as a state.

Alpher: The most frustrating issue is the Palestiniansʹ refusal or inability to confront the negative consequences for peace of their fundamental belief that the State of Israel was "born in sin" in 1948. The most promising issue is the capacity of so many on both sides to talk to one another. We learned from "bitterlemons" that this includes virtually all Israeli ultra-nationalist rightists.

Consider things from a Palestinian point of view: what would you recommend the Palestinians do in future to improve their relationship with Israel?

Alpher: They need to consider the impossible: Hamas must reject violence and it and the PLO must accept Israel as the legitimate state of the Jewish people with real cultural and historical roots in the Holy Land. A sustained Palestinian campaign to accept and present these points of view would have a profound effect on Israeli public opinion. Remember Egyptian President Anwar Sadatʹs address to the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) in November 1977, when he declared publicly: "We were wrong to reject you"? He won the Israeli public over overnight, and two years later, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed.

Consider things from an Israeli point of view: what would you recommend the Israelis do in future to improve their relationship with the Palestinians?

Khatib: I would tell the Israelis that continuing their illegal settlement expansion policy is closing the door to a two-state solution, mainly because Israeli authorities are establishing infrastructure and Israeli population in land that is supposed to be part of the Palestinian state, thus eliminating future chances of peace and stability in our region. In addition, the Israeli settlement policy is compromising democracy and creating a discriminatory regime for Palestinians. The reality is that Israel promoting discrimination by forcing two communities to live in the same country, yet under two sets of laws and systems.

What needs to happen this year and down the line in order to move towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is there a viable alternative to the two-state solution?

Alpher: We need new Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders who have a deeper understanding of the conflict, a greater willingness to compromise and public backing. But this wonʹt happen. The only conceivable exception could be an Israel-Hamas deal that stabilises the Gaza Strip in a way that points toward some sort of progress.

Khatib: The first step would be the organisation of an international peace conference to establish new terms of reference consistent with international law – a conference that can agree on a framework and terms of reference that are consistent with the basic rights of the Palestinians, including their right of self-determination and independence. The second would be to establish an international mechanism that would mediate fresh Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, forcing the parties to avoid pre-emptive practices such as settlement expansion.

This year the Israelis celebrated 70 years of the foundation of their State of Israel, which is mirrored by the Palestiniansʹ Nakba Day. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Oslo peace process. What is the most realistic scenario for developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this autumn and next year?

Khatib: Realistically speaking, the only scenario that can be expected in the next year is the current situation continuing with no major developments. The reason is that this status quo is very convenient for Israel, and Israel is able to maintain it. Firstly, because it is too powerful in terms of its military, and secondly, because the United States and Europe allow Israel to continue its actions.

Alpher: The era of the Oslo peace process approach is over. Sadly, Israelis and Palestinians find themselves sliding down a slippery slope towards an ugly, conflicted bi-national one-state reality. Israeli ultra-nationalism, Hamas Islamism and the West Bank-based PLO have all contributed to this failure to build a state. All other things being equal, this course of events will lead to a far worse reality in the decade ahead. Only a major regional cataclysm would "shuffle the cards" and change this. But it will happen eventually.

What does this scenario mean for the role of the EU and Germany? What would you recommend?

Alpher: Europe has to adjust to the slippery slope reality: this requires less hand-wringing about the demise of the Oslo peace process and the two-state solution and more involvement in understanding and "managing" the slippery slope and devising ways to at least slow the deterioration until an opportunity for change presents itself.

Khatib: This scenario will mean that the EU and Germany will remain marginal players in the Middle East conflict. Changing this sad political reality would require two things. Firstly, the EU needs to stop treating Israel as a state above international law and hold Israel and the Palestinians equally accountable for any violation. Secondly, the EU must insist on political involvement, at least equal to its financial contribution, as the EU and European states are the biggest donors, while having the least significant political role and influence.

Interview conducted by Christoph Hanelt

© Bertelsmann Stiftung 2018

Yossi Alpher is a consultant and writer on Israel-related strategic issues. As director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, he co-ordinated and co-edited a JCSS research project, producing "The Alpher Plan" for an Israeli-Palestinian final settlement. In July 2000 he served as special adviser to the prime minister of Israel, concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He co-founded and co-edited bitterlemons.net, a series of Palestinian-Israeli Internet-based political publications.

Ghassan Khatib is lecturer in Cultural Studies and Contemporary Arab Studies at Birzeit University. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation for the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference in 1991 and the subsequent bilateral negotiations in Washington from 1991-93. For 11 years, Khatib also co-founded and co-edited bitterlemons.net, a series of Palestinian-Israeli Internet-based political publications.

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