Oslo 15 years on: fruitful lessons from a flawed Mideast pact

Enduring peace must be built from the bottom up.

On Sept. 13, 1993, the world witnessed Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin stand together on the White House lawn and agree on a framework for future relations between Israel and Palestine. The atmosphere at the signing of the Oslo Accords was charged with hope. For the first time in decades, peace seemed possible.

Fifteen years on, that possibility remains unfulfilled. Despite cooperative ventures and concerted efforts to move toward mutual acceptance and security, both Israel and the Palestinian Territories are still afflicted by violence, terrorism, and economic hardship.

As I was Israel's chief negotiator during the Oslo negotiations, I have felt both personal and national highs and lows at the accords' unraveling and the region's continued conflict.

But instead of dismissing Oslo as yet another failed attempt at reconciliation, we can and must derive lessons from that agreement if we are to move toward real, sustainable peace.

Let us not forget that the Oslo Accords were rightly heralded as a milestone in peacemaking efforts between the two parties. It was the first time Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization engaged in direct, face to face negotiations, and the first time some Palestinian groups acknowledged Israel's right to exist. In return, Oslo provided for the establishment of an independently administered Palestinian Authority.

Oslo was the beginning of the process to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was also paramount to the genesis of cooperation and joint socioeconomic ventures between the two national entities. Collectively, these accomplishments provided a critical foundation on which to build future negotiations and agreements.

However, Oslo suffered from several fatal flaws – flaws shared by many peace processes today, as evidenced by the number of failed treaties and high-intensity conflicts worldwide.

For one thing, the Oslo negotiation process unfolded behind closed doors as an interaction between two political parties, ignoring for the most part, the needs of the people on the ground. Few efforts were made to sell peace to the people – to create an environment in which peace would be recognized as not just the best but the only way forward.

Security plans, too, failed to take into account the inevitable consequences of imbalanced security doctrines. Israel curtailed economic growth and the movement of people, thus lowering the standard of living and increasing unrest. On the Palestinian side, a lack of restrictions allowed armed militia and terror organizations such as Hamas to gain a foothold in the region.

In addition, Oslo failed to deliver on its promise of economic prosperity; the peace process bore economic fruits mainly for the elite and not for the middle class and the lower income strata. Socio-economic gaps increased in both Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. Those who did not make economic headway rebelled – politically in Israel, and with violence in the Palestinian Territories.

The ultimate lesson we can glean from Oslo's limitations is that an enduring peace must be built from the bottom up, not from the top down. Instead of relying on the same archaic peacemaking strategy we've used for centuries – and which was reflected in the Oslo process – we can embrace a new model based on nurturing mutually beneficial forms of cooperation on the local level, as well as between cities and organizations.

This process of "glocalization" – involving local actors in global issues – is the first step toward constructing a comprehensive transnational culture dedicated to breaking down the psychological and social barriers between former enemies. These efforts can be furthered through the establishment of joint ventures that give each side a tangible stake in maintaining peace.

Diplomacy still has a role, but we must reject maneuvering for one-sided gain and instead emphasize the advantages both sides will gain with the cultivation of lasting peace.

The Oslo Accords may have floundered, but the hope that accompanied them must not be lost.

Uri Savir was director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Israel's chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. He established the Peres Center for Peace as well as the Glocal Forum, which encourages intercity diplomacy around the world. He is the author of "Peace First: A New Model to End War."

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