The Oslo Accords were pronounced dead in some quarters well before Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s funeral in 2004. Six years later, however, questions persist about who is responsible for their demise. Did Arafat kill Oslo? Did Oslo kill Arafat? Or, as some suspect, is another party responsible for both deaths? As Palestinians undertake to breathe new life into their national movement and to decide the form it should take – grass roots nonviolence; political Islam; intensive institution-building; or a struggle for civil rights within a binational state – the time seems right to assess both the legacy of the man who personified the movement and the process he hoped would yield the crowning achievement of Palestinian statehood. While an examination of Arafat’s role in the Oslo process reveals serious mistakes – the coroner’s lamp is unkind –,it may help to illuminate the way forward.
Arafat and the Accords
Though Arafat was by no means the architect of the Oslo process, he was its primary instigator. The PLO’s mounting financial woes and marginalization following the first Gulf war prompted Arafat to seek out avenues that would place the PLO – and him – in the center of Middle East diplomacy. Arafat accordingly did not hesitate to circumvent the stultified peace negotiations then in progress in Washington (in which the PLO participated only indirectly) for the opportunities that Oslo presented. Moreover, since at least the early 1980s, Arafat had been pressing – consistently, if at times obliquely – for direct Palestinian engagement with Israel, on the condition that the Palestinians be represented by the PLO, the organization that Arafat had headed since 1969. As Arafat saw it, Oslo gave the Palestinians what they had been seeking since he first wrenched political control of the PLO from the Arab states – the chance, as a people, finally to decide their own fate.
But while Arafat deserves credit for securing Israel’s recognition of his people’s right to represent themselves, he seems to have vastly overestimated the opportunity that Oslo gave Palestinians to govern themselves . After the 1993 Declaration of Principles was signed, Arafat declared to his skeptics that given even an inch of territory, he would take a mile. His finely honed talent for improvisation was poorly suited, however, to the legalistic regime in which he had become trapped. What made Oslo a disaster for the Palestinians was not so much its embrace of gradualism – the incremental negotiation and implementation of agreements – or the complexity of the jurisdictional scheme it established. Rather, it was the sweeping discretion the agreements left to Israel with respect to the implementation of its commitments. For example, the Accords provided for the release of Palestinian prisoners without stipulating how many, called for Israeli redeployment from West Bank “territory” without indicating its extent, and mandated “free and normal” movement of Palestinian persons and goods “without derogating from Israel’s security powers and responsibilities.” The Accords channeled disputes regarding the interpretation of key obligations to joint committees staffed by equal numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, giving the latter effective veto power. Even more damaging, the Accords placed no explicit restrictions on the construction of Israeli settlements and related infrastructure, giving successive Israeli governments wide latitude to continue building.
To be sure, such discretion might have been narrowed by third party insistence on good faith interpretation of the agreements; and, in this respect, the Clinton administration’s tendency, as veteran Middle East diplomat Aaron Miller has observed, to act as “Israel’s lawyer” rather than an honest broker contributed greatly to Oslo’s demise. Nonetheless, that Arafat, a leader so concerned with the trappings of Palestinian independence, would agree to leave decisions so critical to the lives of his people in the hands of others is both ironic and the ultimate harbinger of Oslo’s failure.
Arafat and the Israelis
Compounding the gravity of these errors, Arafat failed to understand how domestic Israeli politics and the Israeli government’s long-established decision-making apparatus vis a vis the Occupied Territories would affect Oslo’s implementation. Since 1967, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had been held captive by both Israel’s fractious and unstable parliamentary system and its risk-averse security establishment. It is hard to say which had been less forgiving. Ever fearful of losing the confidence of the Knesset, Israeli leaders, particularly those on the left, hesitated in making decisions that would stir domestic opposition or cast them as weak or gullible, deferring instead to the judgment of the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF, in turn, tended to resist relinquishing control over any asset or function that had the potential to affect Israel’s capacity to defend its citizens. As a result, Israeli security policy in the Occupied Territories focused not on managing risk, but rather on eliminating it entirely, with little regard for the consequences to Palestinians.
Although these dynamics were well known to those who had lived for decades under Israeli occupation, Arafat appeared unawares. Following his return to Palestine in 1994 after years of exile, Arafat made no systematic effort to analyze or influence Israeli public opinion, and took no steps to form a competent bureau for Israeli Affairs within either the PA’s or PLO’s sizable bureaucracy. In the years following Oslo, Arafat’s failure to appreciate the importance of Israeli public opinion continued. During the permanent status negotiations of 1999-2000, he at no point undertook to explain Palestinian positions to the Israeli public either directly or through proxies, giving then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak the opportunity to cast Arafat as an uncompromising villain bent on Israel’s destruction
On the security front, the PA did eventually take sweeping action to prevent terrorism against Israelis, though Arafat’s success on that front came too late to sway Israeli public opinion. Moreover, his penchant for opacity, though affording him some room to maneuver within the tiny political space allocated to him by Oslo, did little to inspire the confidence of his Israeli interlocutors. As a result, security operations, which were politically costly to him at home, earned Arafat only passing credibility with Israelis, who continued to question his reliability and trustworthiness and to resist further devolution of power to the PA.
Arafat and the Palestinians
In addition to the errors in his engagement with Israel, Arafat was poorly equipped for governing in the challenging and unique circumstances Oslo created. Arafat was never a great believer in democracy, though he often paid winking lip service to the concept. During his long stewardship of the PLO, however, he evinced a canny, and seemingly intuitive, understanding of the temper of the Palestinian body politic, scattered and fragmented as it was; and he was more inclined to direct his charisma and extraordinary energy toward coaxing and cajoling a loose consensus than to passing diktats or eliminating enemies. Indeed, during the decades before Oslo, Arafat’s tent tended to be too large rather than too small.
Upon returning to Palestine, however, Arafat grew increasingly remote from his people. He did little to connect the PLO cadres that he had transplanted from his days of exile in Tunis to the grass roots mobilization networks that had developed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To be sure, those networks were badly in need of leadership and discipline after the seven years of sustained revolt that had marked the first intifada. But, instead of directing and nurturing their growth, Arafat simply supplanted them with PA structures, using patronage, rather than participation, to secure support from the local population. The impression given by these actions was that the time for popular mobilization was over – an approach that would have been more credible if the institutions of the new government functioned effectively (and if Palestine’s independence had been secured). In fairness, the PA’s manifold dysfunctions arose in part from the structure of the Oslo Accords, which left Palestinian institutions vulnerable to foot-dragging and over-reaching by counterparts in Israeli ministries. But Arafat’s hostility to the development of Palestinian institutions that could dilute his authority – and his lack of a strategic vision for how the PA could be transformed into a robust and responsive government – did much to foster the sense of disillusion and disenfranchisement that prevailed among Palestinians by the end of Oslo’s transitional period and the commencement of negotiations on permanent status issues.
In retrospect, Arafat’s talent for improvisation and consensus building, which served him so well during the decades he led his movement through the desert, seems to have contributed to his failures once the promised land had been reached. While his disdain for strategy made Arafat nimble and unpredictable as a revolutionary leader, it also prevented him from appreciating the constraints that Oslo had imposed, as well as the opportunities that the agreements afforded. Similarly, while Arafat’s reticence regarding his philosophy and objectives enabled him to assemble (if not unite) most of Palestine’s fractious political fronts into a single movement, it later invited Israeli suspicions regarding his ultimate intentions and stripped his leadership of coherence at a time when it was most needed. Indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries leading other revolutionary movements, Arafat left behind no philosophical tracts, no political manifestos, no personal memoirs – only a multitude of cryptic account books. Like the Oslo Accords, they are very detailed, but offer no vision of a peaceful future for Palestine.
All of that said, one should not be ungrateful. Palestinians are indebted to Yasser Arafat for bringing the Palestinian national movement to the world’s attention after years of neglect – and keeping it there, despite multifarious efforts to extinguish it. Palestinians can also credit the Oslo process for consolidating a broad international consensus in support of the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. These achievements are not insubstantial. But if they are ultimately to bear fruit, Palestinians must do more than press and cajole Israel and other states to give them independence. They – we – must complement international diplomacy with civil mobilization, not just for protest, but also for promoting social and economic development. And we must articulate a concept of Palestine that is about more than ending occupation – a concept that embraces the eastern Mediterranean’s rich cosmopolitan tradition rather than a narrow nationalism, that channels our attachment to the territory into respect for the land, and that reintroduces an ethic of service into a movement focused for too long on profit. Arafat and Oslo are dead. Let us find a vision for which we can live.
*Omar Dajani is a professor of law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, California, and a former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel. His new biography of Yasser Arafat will be published by Potomac Books next year.