Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
It’s both poignant and fortuitous that the HBO film “Oslo,” based on the award-winning play of the same name, is being streamed starting this weekend, days after the end of the worst round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and violence in recent years.
Poignant – even tragic – because the film’s subject stunningly highlights the importance of political will, skill, partnership and above all leadership that defined the Oslo breakthrough, all of which have been remarkably absent in recent decades of attempted peacemaking.
Fortuitous because even against the grim toll of the recent violence, the film evokes a world in which empowered Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could actually recognize one another’s humanity and create a pathway through which each side’s national aspirations might be realized and secured. A measure of hope amid so much despair.
Indeed, I vividly remember sitting on the South Lawn of the White House that beautiful cloudless September day in 1993 watching President Bill Clinton, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin clasp hands – and thinking that Israelis and Palestinians had reached a point of no return on the road to peace; there was no turning back now.
In the 28 years since the signing of the Declaration of Principles and the several interim accords that followed under the Oslo process, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking turned out to be anything but inevitable.
There were certainly highs – Israeli-PLO mutual recognition, the establishment of a Palestinian Authority in Gaza and at least part of the West Bank and an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. But there were many more lows – Rabin’s assassination, the ill-advised Camp David summit and the violence and terror of the second intifada from which the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has never recovered.
Even before the current conflict over Jerusalem and the fourth round of Israel-Hamas confrontation, the mistrust between the two sides was profound, the politics on each side toxic and the gaps on the big issues required to end the conflict – Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees – Grand Canyon-like.
Donald Trump famously said he was taking the issue of Jerusalem off the table by recognizing the city, whose territory has been fought over for millenniums, as the capital of Israel; well, Jerusalem has now become the table.
This isn’t a review of the film – I haven’t seen it yet – but a mediation on the real-life history of Middle East peace negotiations. (Note: HBO is, like CNN, owned by WarnerMedia.)
As the creation of the play and movie suggest, the Oslo process made for an inspiring tale even though it would eventually collapse. It is now considered by many on both sides a cautionary tale of what not to do – conducting negotiations without having a clear political horizon and a monitoring mechanism to evaluate each side’s commitments.
So too, Oslo was agreed and implemented in the most fraught of environments – amid a relationship between an occupier and the occupied that could only increase, rather than diminish, the trust and confidence required for any final deal. So when Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat gathered at the July 2000 Camp David summit, convened under the auspices of an American president, there was little of that trust and confidence on which to draw.
All of Oslo now appears as a distant dream, a kind of stone-age peace process whose artifacts are bloodied, buried and best forgotten. The recent Abraham Accords negotiated by Donald Trump’s administration held out some promise of inter-state accommodation; but the notion that relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco would signal some sort of hope for regional transformation remain just that.
Now the talk is no longer of two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian, but a paradigm shift to a one-state reality. Israel is facing charges, which it denies, from its critics that it is an apartheid state.
Still, Israelis and Palestinians confront the reality of proximity – their past, present, and future are inextricably bound up by the short physical distances that connect their lives. And as Mark Twain observed long ago, familiarity “breeds contempt – and children.” Separation through negotiations into two states (assumed but never formally endorsed by the Oslo process) seems – however bleak the prospects – the only way to resolve the underlying demographic and political problems.
As we look back now not just at the Oslo years but at all of those moments when in fact Arabs and Israelis negotiated and reached agreements, several key lessons stand out.
First, war insurgency and violence set the stage for almost every breakthrough by injecting urgency into the equation. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was preceded by the 1973 war and the US-brokered disengagement agreements that followed the conflict. Oslo came about after the first intifada in 1989-1992 generated urgency and convinced Rabin that there was no military solution to the Palestinian problem and that the PLO was the only partner for peace. And the 1991 Madrid peace conference followed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the first Bush administration’s campaign to push Iraq out of that nation.
Second, pain alone wasn’t sufficient. There had to be a sense of gain too. And this required local leaders who were masters of their politics and constituencies, not prisoners of their ideologies. Sadat, Menachem Begin, King Hussein, Arafat, Rabin, Shimon Peres. All imperfect, but they were all willing to take risks, not necessarily in the service of morality and humanity but for what they considered to be in their own political and national interest. It is only in that spirit that real breakthroughs are possible. Look around. Today those kinds of leaders are nowhere to be seen. And without them, no breakthroughs seem possible.
Third, there must be a sense of ownership. In the history of the world, the old saying goes, nobody ever washed a rental car. People care about what they own. And unless the parties have the motivation to want to negotiate and to protect those negotiations as best they can, it’s hard to sustain them. It’s no coincidence that in three of the Arab-Israeli breakthroughs – Israel-Egypt; Israel-Palestinians; Israel-Jordan – the US was not involved in the secret diplomacy that led up to them. Only after certain understandings had been reached, was the US able to facilitate, broker or support their negotiations. Today that ownership is stunningly absent, and there’s little belief on the part of current Israeli and Palestinian leaders that it will return anytime soon.
Fourth, partnership and trust between negotiators is critical. Leaders don’t have to be best friends in order to reach agreements. They rarely are. Begin and Sadat did not get along so then-President Jimmy Carter stopped bringing them together at the first Camp David negotiations, in 1978. But their respective teams did play a role with one another and with the President and US negotiators. Ditto at the second Camp David summit where Arafat and Barak rarely met. But several members on their negotiating teams tried mightily to look for areas of common ground.
Perhaps the best example of trust generated by partnership was the Oslo talks. When I interviewed Oslo’s two main negotiators in 2013, the Palestinian, Ahmed Qurie (known as “Abu Ala”) and the Israeli, Uri Savir, it was clear how much respect they had for each other and the importance of personal relationships. “It was the first time,” Abu Ala noted, where we looked “at each other face to face, and not in an interrogation room or a checkpoint.” That sense of trust lies battered and broken today.
So in view of the current bitter realities, what should the take-away be from the Oslo experience? Perhaps in addition to being moved by the possibilities of a moment long ago when Israelis and Palestinians came together in hopes of a better future, we should recognize just how hard it is to produce that future. Never give up hope, but discard any illusions about the challenges ahead.
For now, there is no clear pathway to end the conflict. And the Biden administration is only the latest in a series of US mediators to wrestle with the problem of the much too promised land. Indeed, for the foreseeable future we are likely to be trapped in the lonely space between our hopes for a solution and the painful reality that Israelis and Palestinians – even with outside help – may be unable or unwilling to produce one.