Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel, has died at the age of 93 after suffering a stroke. A titan of Israeli political life, Peres remained an active player in his country and the region until his death, working hard to promote closer ties between Israelis and Palestinians.
He will be remembered above all else for his role in negotiating the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with then-Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, who was at the time chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). A peace treaty with Jordan also followed, which established mutual recognition between that country and Israel.
Peres always believed that the Israelis needed to be a proactive partner in the peace process. As he put it in 2013: “We can and should bring an end to the conflict – and we have to be the initiators. Playing hard-to-get may be a romantic proposition, but it’s not a good political plan.”
His dedication to the peace process was established even before Oslo. In the late 1980s, Peres was involved in a secret agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein. Signed in April 1987, the so-called London Agreement outlined a framework for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would focus on education and the development of the two countries’ respective economies. Unfortunately the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzak Shamir, disagreed, and refused to approve the agreement.
Peres was involved in the peace process again by the early 1990s, while serving as foreign minister under Rabin. But before Oslo even took place there were internal battles about who to negotiate with – the PLO in Israel-Palestine, which was supposedly composed of moderates, or the PLO based in Tunis and led by Arafat. Ultimately, it was Arafat who came to the negotiating table.
To make this happen, both Peres and Rabin had to change their mind about dealing with the PLO abroad. Peres felt that it was futile to keep Arafat in exile in Tunisia since it made co-operation between the two sides more difficult.
Though the secret accords have been highly controversial ever since they were struck, they nevertheless included several noteworthy steps. The first was mutual recognition: for the first time, the PLO would recognise the state of Israel, and vice versa.
The accords also created an interim government for the Palestinians, the Palestinian National Authority, which would take over responsibilities in education, social welfare, health care, direct taxation and tourism. Within nine months, elections were to be held.
The accords allowed for Arafat to return to Gaza after years in exile; Israel was also supposed to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho within four months. In return, the PLO would also remove chapters in its charter referring to the destruction of Israel, which would be given guarantees that its people had the right to live in peace and security.
The stalled process
Proponents of Oslo at the time claimed that the accords helped encourage a peaceful approach to the conflict, and constituted the first step to getting the peace process started in earnest. But as is all too evident today, and despite Peres’s lifelong optimism, the peace the accords planned for was never achieved.
Oslo failed to address the key issues of the conflict: the status of Jerusalem, right of return for the 1948 Palestinian refugees, the status of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the borders of the Palestinian territory. There was also no promise of an independent Palestinian state. It was assumed that these issues would be negotiated at the end of the five-year transition period the accords provided for. For many critics, the Oslo was just a litany of empty promises.
Part of the problem was that the accords were not actually a peace treaty, but only a first step to peace and a framework for facilitating negotiations for a final treaty intended to be negotiated in 1998.
When the accords were signed in September 1993, the criticism was sharp and immediate. Palestinian scholar Edward Said decried them as a “Palestinian surrender”, and claimed that the plan would throw the Palestinian leadership into complete disarray.
There was also anger on the Israeli side. Peres’ fellow negotiator Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist in November 1995, an event which in turn led to the election of the right-wing Likud Party in 1996. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who today serves as Israel’s prime minister again, the new government was openly antagonistic towards Oslo.
So why did Oslo fail? As ever, it depends which voices on which side you listen to.
Many Israelis blame Palestinian violence for wrecking the peace process. After the Camp David Accords collapsed in July 2000, the Second Intifada broke out and ran until 2005. The militant Islamist group Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, further deepening a rift among Palestinians and making the Palestinian Authority more irrelevant than ever.
In contrast, many Palestinians claim that it was the Israelis who have reneged on their side of the deal. Highly contentious is the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories: in 1993, there were 115,700 Israeli settlers living there, whereas today there are more than 350,000 in the West Bank and another 300,000 living within East Jerusalem’s pre-1967 borders. No settlement freezes have taken place, and this constant encroachment has made the two-state solution more difficult.
A 2013 poll examining the effects of Oslo on public opinion 20 years later found both sides have been dissatisfied. Palestinians maintained that the Israelis were the big winners, with 49% claiming that the accords damaged their interests. On the Israeli side, 68% of Israelis felt that the main beneficiaries were the Palestinians, and 64% felt that they themselves had been harmed by the accords.
And yet a 2015 poll revealed that while 90% of Palestinians don’t think Israel has abided by the Oslo Agreement, 68% still want to support the agreement. So for all that the Oslo framework is resented criticised, any new peace process for peace in the region will almost certainly have to stick to it in some form.
Although the two sides are far apart, Peres died an optimist, still hopeful that the day would come when the Israeli Defence Forces’s soldiers would serve purely for peace. As he famously put it: “Impossibility is only a product of our prejudice.”