Secrecy and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Lessons from Oslo

Since evidence first emerged alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria, media attention has been primarily locked onto a civil war that is beginning to stir classic Cold War-esque geopolitics over control of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly this has been at the expense of the latest Israeli-Palestinian talks. However, despite the nearby instability, the lack of broadcast coverage in conjunction with the deliberately secretive nature of the negotiations has set an excellent precedence for real progress to be made under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Recent Middle Eastern history has shown that important deals tend to be reached in the most clandestine of conditions. The prime example of this is the progress made during secret talks held between Israel and Egypt in Morocco in 1977, prior to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s public visit to Jerusalem, that are widely accepted as being the driving force for the lasting peace agreement signed in 1979.

Furthermore, September marks twenty years since the famous handshake between the then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, which appeared to usher in a new era of peace into this tumultuous region. Rabin famously addressed the Palestinians in a speech insisting “Enough of blood and tears. Enough”. The Oslo Accords of September 1993 were the culmination of 14 secret meetings purposely held in and around a secluded woodland area near Oslo, giving both sides the privacy they requested for negotiations to take place.

Back in 1993, hopes were high that a lasting peace would be achieved if both sides officially recognised each other, with the Israelis withdrawing from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank and the PLO renouncing the use of violence. The reasons for Oslo failing are still hotly disputed, but most analysts do not primarily blame an unwillingness from the public in supporting the implementation of the Accords, but rather its inability to resolve outstanding issues that have thwarted the peace process ever since: control of Jerusalem, refugees, borders and settlements.

The Oslo Accords was the first peace agreement to be signed by two antagonistic national movements and introduced a sense of mutual recognition enabling hopes of reconciliation to become reality. Indeed, in the immediate months following the publication of the ‘Declaration of Principles’ public opinion swayed in favour of the secret peace agreement, as it did after the Sadat visit, following its announcement to the general public.

This was particularly the case in Israel, where despite public opinion normally influencing the policy of elected representatives, the overriding desire for peace and security proved support can always be mustered when an end to violence is realistically in sight. For the Palestinians the declaration promised a state free from Israeli occupation and as a result celebrations ran long into the night, with Ihab Al-Ashkar, an official in Mr. Arafat’s Fatah faction, predicting a new “era of peace.”

Today the Oslo Accords are largely viewed as a failure, a sentiment shared by both sides, especially with the deaths of over 7100 Palestinians and 1200 Israelis in the two decades since. However, important lessons must still be learnt, particularly concerning the manner in which the agreement was conducted. Of course, secrecy can’t guarantee a meaningful outcome. Nevertheless, the lessons from both 1993 and 1997 suggest once a leader is onboard, public opinion tends to follow if negotiations are shown to be of a serious nature. With the world distracted by the Syrian crisis, one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts may finally be resolved away from the pressures of public opinion, quietly.


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