Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, former US president Bill Clinton, and the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The Oslo Peace Process – Lessons Learned

By |

By all accounts the Oslo Peace Process can be defined as a failed peace process. There are many arguments and assessments of what went wrong with the Oslo Peace Process (OPP) and there are equally many attribute of blame for its failure. Several detailed papers have been written detailing the failures and trying to assess what went wrong (Pundak, Baskin, Adwan, and more). Very little analysis has be conducted on determining what are the lessons to be learned from the failed peace process and what must be done in order to help assure success in the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution process. The lessons learned from the failure of the OPP might also be valuable to conflict resolution practioners in other parts of the world as well. Most importantly, in writing this paper, it is hoped that some of the assessed lessons learned presented here might help negotiators and policy makers, in Israel and Palestine and around the world avoid similar errors in the future.

This brief essay is by no means a comprehensive assessment of all of the lessons that should be learned from the failed Oslo Peace Process. It is only a first attempt to verbalize what might be considered obvious. The lessons learned that are listed here are not in any particular order. The observations and assessments are those of the author alone. It is the hope of the author that this essay will provoke additional discussion and research on this issue.

Lesson Learned: In protracted conflicts it is important to reach agreement on at least the principles of longer-term final or permanent status issues.
Lesson Learned: In protracted conflicts it is not sufficient to only detail the beginning of the process; it is important, and perhaps essential to reach agreement on at least the principles of longer-term final or permanent status issues.

The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP) signed on September 13, 1993 provided a framework for mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This signed agreement, it was hoped, would provide the sides with the framework and the mechanism to begin a process of normalization, mutual recognition, mutual confidence building, and to lead to future negotiations. The DOP also listed the main issues in conflict that must be resolved within the final or permanent status between the two sides. The DOP dealt with procedural issues regarding the longer term while in the short term the DOP and the second Oslo Agreement only dealt with interim or temporary status issues, leaving the core issues of the conflict for later stages. The two sides adopted the Kissengerian notion of “constructive ambiguity” in order to “sell” the agreements to their own constituencies. In doing so, each side was also allowed to interpret what they perceived to be unwritten agreements regarding the final or permanent status that will emerge at the end of the process.

The main issues of the conflict: borders, Palestinian sovereignty or statehood, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, refugees, etc. were not included at all in the initial negotiations. They were left out of the agreement to be dealt with at a later stage. These issues are the heart of the conflict. By not reaching at least a declaration of principles on these issues at the beginning of the process, each side was free to develop amongst their own constituencies disparate understandings of what the final outcome would be. Rather than coming closer together on most of the core issues, the gaps in understandings grew throughout the years when no negotiations took place regarding the final status. Along with disparate understandings were also political manipulations that added to the adoption of more extreme positions on these issues. This process widened the gaps between the sides and moved them further away from peace. As the most significant case in point one could point to the refugee issue where the gaps between the positions of the sides grew wider and wider over time as this issue was only addressed in the very final stages of negotiations.

Some analysts suggest that at the time of the DOP it would have been impossible to reach agreements of principle on the core issues. If this is the case, then perhaps the signing of the DOP should have been postponed until a declaration of principles on core issues could be reached. Another alternative would have been to agree on a much shorter timeline to reach mutual understandings on the framework of final status. Leaving the end game completely open helped to add to the growing distrust between the sides while also allowing for new facts to be created on the ground that impacted upon or limited the chances of reaching agreed upon final status arrangements.

Lesson Learned: Dates are Holy!
The DOP set up a timeline for implementation. The basic timeline determined that there would an interim period of five years and that negotiations on permanent status “will commence as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period”. The DOP also set forth a schedule for Palestinian elections and Israeli redeployments or withdrawals from Palestinian territories. The second Oslo Agreement set up a more rigid schedule for further implementation of Israeli withdrawals. Very early in the process, in early 1995 Prime Minister Rabin, following a series of terrorist attacks, assured the Israeli Knesset that there are “no holy dates” and that further Israeli redeployments would not be implemented according to the schedule set forth in the agreements. From that time on, throughout the OPP implementation of agreements were not kept according to what had been the agreed upon dates. A process of mutual breaching of the agreements began as each side came to understand that if then other side does not comply with the signed agreement, then they too are not bound to what they signed.

The entire process was predicated on the implementation of the agreements on a time frame that demanded that each side fulfill its part of the deal on time. A unilateral Israeli decision to breach the agreement on the time table of implementation led the Palestinians to breach other elements of the agreement. The Israeli decision was based on the belief that the Palestinians were not undertaking a sincere battle against terrorism. The Palestinians argued that their best weapon against terrorism is the progress of the peace process and the Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territories, and thus a “catch 22” cycle of breaches following breaches ensued and progressed until the final breakdown in the end of 2000. Permanent status negotiations did not begin as scheduled. Israeli withdrawals did not take place on schedule, while at the same time violence increased, opposition on both sides gathered support and breaching the agreements became the norm.

Lesson Learned: Protracted conflicts in which there is little or no trust and confidence require external mechanisms
Protracted conflicts in which there is little or no trust and confidence require external mechanisms for verification of implementation of the agreements, external mechanisms for insuring compliance and external mechanisms for external dispute resolution.

The DOP and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian agreements were absent of any external mechanisms of verification of implementation, external mechanisms for insuring compliance with the agreements and external mechanisms for dispute resolution. The DOP stated: “Disputes arising out of the application or interpretation of this Declaration of Principles, or any subsequent agreements pertaining to the interim period, shall be resolved by negotiations through the Joint Liaison Committee (JLC) to be established….Disputes which cannot be settled by negotiations may be resolved by a mechanism of conciliation to be agreed upon by the parties.” What happens when and if the sides cannot resolve the disputes or disparate interpretations of the agreements through agreement? What happens if the sides are not capable of reaching an agreement on the mechanism of conciliation? This is precisely what happened. Each side breached the agreements or interpreted their obligations or the obligations of the other side in different ways and then issued statements against the other side. The Joint Liaison Committee that was established was simply incapable of resolving the disputes because the JLC became the forum through which each side raised it claims against the other — not for the purpose of resolving the dispute but for the aim of “scoring points” against the other side.

When the breaches “piled up” so high, the JLC ceased to function, as did most of the joint bodies that were formed through the agreements. There was no mechanism established that could fairly determine which claims were valid and which were less valid. There was no external mechanism established that could help the sides to comply with the commitments that they had taken upon themselves. There was no external mechanism that could help bring about resolution of the disputes and thus once the process of breaching the agreement became the norm, there was little or no value in signing new agreements. Signing new agreements nevertheless became part of the process — these agreements mainly stating that the sides would undertake the implementation of agreements already signed in the past. At least two formal agreements were subsequently signed that were aimed at repairing the damages of formerly breached agreements (The Wye River Protocol and the Sharm el Sheikh Agreement), yet these agreements were also breached. Throughout the process, the failure to resolve the disputes also emanating from a lack of external mechanisms led to further breakdowns in trust and confidence that further limited the ability of the sides to continue negotiations on the core issues.

It seems that had the sides invented mechanisms involving acceptable third parties for processes of verification of implementation, compliance assurance and dispute resolution, perhaps breaches of the agreement would have been resolved from the very first breach and future disputes would have been contained and resolved. By leaving the verification, compliance assurance and dispute resolution means to the two disputing parties alone sabotaged the process from within.

Lesson Learned: Maps are important!
Much of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has territorial dimensions. Everyone can easily recall the ceremony of signing the Oslo II Agreement in Cairo when Yasser Arafat was reluctant to put his signature to the maps. Throughout the process, the use of maps was haphazard and at times even not on the table. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on territorial issues often took place with the absence of maps on the table. The sides resorted to talking about principles and percentages and only in the final stages of negotiations did the Israeli side (usually) produce a map, which on every occasion was rejected by the Palestinians. The use of maps was extremely selective, secretive and often manipulative. The two sides were negotiating areas of Israeli withdrawal and redeployment and areas where the Palestinian Authority would take over control — administrative or more. Yet, rather than sitting around a single map or sharing data — digital or otherwise, the two sides usually worked with different maps, different scales of dimension, different data. Palestinians often did not even have access to up-to-date maps and were not always able to secure Israel agreements to purchase accurate digital aerial photographs. Some of the donor nations helped the Palestinians to secure maps and data and then received Israeli approval, but this process of having to “beg” for maps and data impaired on the process itself.

The Israeli-Palestinian agreements spoke about Israeli withdrawals and redeployments, but they did not specify from exactly where this would occur. As a result, Palestinians and Israelis interpreted the agreements differently and in the end the decision on withdrawals and redeployments became an Israeli unilateral decision. This kind of agreements should not have been signed without accompanied signed maps. The lack of agreed upon signed maps left the door wide open to intensive disputes and once again contributed greatly to the loss of confidence in the peace process by both publics.

Lesson Learned: Agreements must be as explicit as possible.
Too much of the Oslo Agreements was open to too many varied and opposing interpretations. Several of the best examples relate to territorial and settlement issues. Palestinians understood that upon signing the DOP Israeli settlement activity would cease in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians believed that Israeli agreement to specify that the process was based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, that the process would not prejudice the outcome of final status agreements, that the Israelis agreed to mention the integrity of Palestinian territories and that the Palestinian Council would have authority over all areas of the West Bank and Gaza “except external security, settlements, Israelis, foreign relations….” meant that Israel would sustain from the construction of new settlements or from expanding existing ones. This, however, did not happen. The Israeli claimed that no where in any of the agreements did Israel agree to cease settlement construction. Israel further claimed that the construction of new settlements, by-pass roads or the enlargement of existing settlements did not prejudice the outcome of the permanent status agreements because their construction did not impinge on the possibility that these would either remain under Israeli sovereignty by agreement or be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty, by agreement. According to the letter of the agreements, Israel is correct. On the other hand, there is little doubt that the continuation of the settlement construction, the continued confiscation of Palestinian lands by Israel, and the construction of by-pass roads was one of the major factors that led to the end of the Oslo Process. One can only ponder why then did the Palestinians not demand an explicit reference to the cessation of all settlement construction in writing as part of the agreement?

Another example of so-called “constructive ambiguity” appears in Oslo II where there is reference to further Israeli redeployments to specified military locations”. The agreement also states that “the two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period” (Article XI, paragraph 1). Furthermore, the agreement states “the two sides agree that West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in permanent status negotiations, will come under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Council…” (Article XI, paragraph 2). From these statements the Palestinians understood that Israel would withdraw from all territories of the West Bank and Gaza except for settlements and military basis prior to the beginning of permanent status negotiations and that approximately 90% of the West Bank and Gaza would be under their control leaving only an additional 10% of the territory open for negotiations. The Israeli understanding was different. While the built up areas of settlements accounted for only 2-3% of the territory, the zoning maps of the settlements that Israel had authorized through its various planning bodies accounted for more than 40% of the West Bank and Gaza. With regards to “specified military locations” Israel later stated (under Prime Minister Netanyahu) that this referred to “security zones” and not military bases. The specified military locations would account for about 6-% of the territories while “security zones” can be anything and as such, Israel related to the entire Jordan Valley as a “security zone” and therefore precluded that there would be no further redeployment from that area.

There is no problem to provide additional examples where non-explicit language may have made the signing of an agreement possible, but made the amenable implementation of the agreement impossible.

Lesson Learned: Political violence cannot be tolerated.
The Oslo process was marked from the outset with outrageous violence beginning with a Jewish terrorist who massacred Muslim prayers in the Ibrahimia Mosque in Hebron to many acts of fundamentalist Islamic suicide bombers who murdered Israelis indiscriminately. These acts of violence created an impossible situation for the political leaders who stood behind the peace process on both sides. There is no simple known formula for what leaders should do when their citizens fall victim to terrorism aimed at halting a peace process. Ceasing the process would only award those who seek through their terror to achieve precisely that result. It was Prime Minister Rabin who articulated the policy that the fight against terror would continue as if there were no negotiations and that the negotiations would continue as if there was no terror. Other than agreeing with that basic formula, there are probably at least two additional points that could be raised and may point to some lessons that should be learned.

First, it was probably a mistake to call the victims of terror “the casualties of peace”. First, this is wrong — they were casualties of continued warfare and not casualties of peace. The notion that these victims of terrorism suffered as a result of a peace process only served to strengthen the opposition to the peace process in both publics. Words are very important and very powerful.

Second, at almost no time during the peace process did the two sides work honestly and sincerely together, in partnership, to confront the problem of terrorism and violent opposition to the peace process. Had the two sides worked together against the problem, rather than the two sides working against each other, there is a chance that the results could have been more positive. More often than not, Arafat was blamed by the Israelis for not preventing terrorism emanating from areas that were not even under his security control and responsibility. Without opening the argument of whether or not Arafat was ever really sincere in fighting against terrorism, the likelihood of a real Palestinian effort against its own extremists could have been enhanced through a cooperative approach rather than the antagonistic approach that was employed. The more that Israel blamed the Palestinian Authority, its leaders and its security chiefs for failing to prevent terrorism, the more these same people were presented in their own media as agents of Israel, as they suddenly responded to Israeli demands to “round up” some extremists and imprison them.

There is no doubt that the leaders on both sides failed to find a positive and effective way of confronting the spoilers, the extremists and the killers on both sides. There are no simple recipes here and this brief essay cannot attempt at even providing some reasonable answers, yet it seems that much of what was done achieved the exact opposite results. There is a great need for conflict resolution practioners from around the world to confront this issue together. This is not a problem that has surfaced only in the Israeli-Palestinian context — it is a problem that has become one of the most significant dangers to peace making around the globe.

Lesson Learned: The public must be involved and informed
Under the pretext that agreements could only be reached through secret negotiations, much of the Oslo Process was devoid of any real public debate or involvement. The politicians and negotiators often spoke one language to their publics through their media and an entirely different voice in the negotiations. This could only lead the negotiators themselves to question: which is the real voice (that they hear from the other side). When Ehud Barak boarded the plane to Camp David he once again stressed that united Jerusalem would remain the undivided eternal capital of the State of Israel and would remain united under Israeli sovereignty. In Camp David, Barak began the process of negotiating Jerusalem whereby parts of the city would be brought to Palestinian sovereignty.

There are many examples where due to the perception that the negotiations would be more successful, or where one side believed it would get a “better deal” if they did not “expose” themselves too much in public, where as a result, great gaps were created between where the process was or needed to go and to where the public was and thought it should stay. Public debate and public involvement in the issues was viewed negatively by both sides. This is most particularly true with regards to the issues of Israeli settlements, the right of return and Jerusalem.

The gaps between public opinion (and public knowledge) about the issues and the compromises necessary to reach agreements remained too wide throughout the peace process. Institutionalizing public input and encouraging public debate could have served several important functions. It could have helped to prepare the publics for compromises. It could have made a contribution to the creation of new ideas and new thinking. It could have given the publics a sense that they are partners to the public rather than effected subjects or silenced victims.

Institutionalized public involvement can take many forms. There could have been the establishment of a Ministry for Peace or a “clearing house” for collecting ideas, proposals, suggestions, and criticisms from the public with a means for sharing these with decision makers and the public. The political circles could have encouraged the local written and electronic media to contribute to constructive debate. The leaders could have addressed the public opening and honestly with dilemmas that the two nations must face in the negotiations. But instead, the leaders chose the worse possible option — they lied to the publics and tried to keep them in the dark and in the end, not only the leaders suffered a loss of public support, the two peoples suffered from the destruction of the peace process.

Lesson learned: Better agreements are reached then the negotiators on both sides decide to share information, data, ideas and proposals
This is the first lesson in any text book on negotiations. It is a lesson that was never practiced by negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace process. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators never approached their task as a mission of joint problem solving. The negotiators often adopted the “correct language” and spoke of “win-win” agreements, but in practice, they negotiated as classic Middle East Bazaar negotiators in a zero-sum game. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were not honest with each other. They should not share information and ideas with each other. They did not speak about real interests — they hid real interests through “inflated” positioning. There were very few attempts to honestly understand each other’s real needs, fears, and real interests. When I once questioned an Israeli negotiator about a particular point in one of the agreements where the Palestinians did not reach a certain achievement that would have been beneficial for both sides, I was told by the Israeli negotiator: “we were prepared to give it to them, but they never asked for it!”

Even after years of negotiating together, the style of negotiations did not change — in fact, over time it became more and more adversarial and perhaps because of this (among other reasons) failed to produce agreements.

Lesson learned: Democracy and democratic institution building is essential
Many observers attribute one of the failings of the Oslo Peace Process to the lack of democracy in the Palestinian Authority. These observers believe that when the time for making hard decision came in the final days of negotiations, the very fact that there was no democratic regime in Palestine with a public constituency that had to be taken into account, allowed for the leader to avoid making the difficult decisions. The lack of accountability, the lack of transparency and the centralistic control of both decision making and of the economy have all been pointed to as failings in the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has also played a role in critiquing the lack of democracy in Palestine over the years. However, it could also be noted that the various governments of Israel viewed Arafat’s ability to take actions against anti-peace forces in Palestine as overriding any need for Palestinian democracy. This was articulated by Prime Minister Rabin’s famous sentence — “bli bagatz u’bli btzelem” — without the Supreme Court and without Betzelem — meaning that Arafat could arrest, detain, and even execute anyone, without any real due process of law.

Israel was also afraid of the Palestinian Legislative Council being able to legislate Palestinian laws that are against Israel’s interest or against agreements so that Israel never challenged Arafat when he declared in private meetings that he could not sign the “Palestinian Basic Law” — the Palestinian Constitution – into law because of Israeli objections. This Constitution would have given some real basis to the rule of law in Palestine and would have created some semblance of the separation of authorities and some measures of checks and balances. Many appeals were made to Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu to issue public declarations that Israel viewed the “Palestinian Basic Law” favorably — something that never happened.

It should also be noted that there was wide ranging Israeli involvement in the development of the centrally controlled, monopolistic and corrupt Palestinian economic system. Despite constant warnings by this author and many others of the dangers of direct Israeli involvement in Palestinian corruption, Israeli officials facilitated and encouraged what must be called “the ripping off of the Palestinian people” through shady deals and schemes conducted in broad day light by tens of former Israeli security officials with agents of the Palestinian Authority including Palestinian intelligence officers, policemen and “advisors” working on behalf of themselves and on behalf of Arafat directly. At least some of these deals, if conducted in Israel proper would have ended with indictments and jail penalties. But in this case, they were conducted in “the interest of peace”. This is perhaps one of the most cynical elements of what emerged over the years of the Oslo Peace process.

It is also necessary to point out that the State of Israel has also been suffering from a less than healthy democracy. Problems with Israel’s election laws have created unstable governments leading to elections nearly every 18 months. Issues that were taboo in Israeli society in the past, such as “transfer” — a euphemism for racist ethnic cleansing, are now legitimately debated within the Israeli Parliament and Government sponsored by political parties that are members of the ruling coalition. Israeli democracy is in a state of high risk, this is definitely exacerbated by the continuing violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is an argument in the professional literature regarding the claim that democracy is a prerequisite for peace. It is difficult to make concrete categorical claims that this is 100% true. Nonetheless, it seems to be common wisdom, at least amongst Palestinian intellectuals that the lack of democracy in Palestine was one of the causes of the failure of the peace process. This issue needs to be investigated in greater depth.

Lesson Learned: Peace must pay — peace must have a constituency
There were many promises that peace would pay. From the day after the signing of the DOP in Washington on September 13, 1993, President Clinton convened a “donors conference” in order to provide large financial resources for the development and reconstruction of Palestine. Shimon Peres spoke about a new Middle East that would flourish with the fruits of peace. A lot of money was pumped into the process and economic development projects and large scale infrastructure development projects were launched. At the same time, in response to a continuation of terrorism, the various Israeli governments imposed new systems of closures limiting Palestinian access to Israel and to Israeli markets. The most effected sector was that of the export of Palestinian labor to Israel. Economic data point to the fact that the losses to the Palestinian economy equaled and even surpassed the total amount of donor funds that were pumped into the process. The result on the ground was a continual shrinking of the Palestinian economy (with the exception of 1999-2000). The common Palestinian citizen became poorer and the Palestinian economy actually suffered significant losses after September 1993. In short the fruits of peace were never delivered to the plates of the average Palestinian citizen. As a result, most Palestinians clearly associated the OPP with economic suffering, instead of the opposite result whereby they would have profited from peace.

The slogans of economic benefits remained slogans amidst a worsening economic situation. Most Israeli security experts concur that the closures did very little serve real Israeli security needs. Most concur that they were imposed for internal Israeli political concerns — to show the Israeli public that the governments were responding to real security needs. In the end, the closures probably contributed more to the worsening of the security needs of Israel by creating more enemies of the peace process and by increasing Palestinian poverty. From this it seems quite clear that peace processes must improve the lives of the average citizens. They must feel the benefits at home in order to build a constituency for peace.

Lesson Learned: Mediators must be ready and prepared to play bridging roles when required.
For most of the Oslo Peace Process the Americans were perceived as a kind of mediator. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators more often than not requested that the American serve a convener role and not a mediator role. There was great reluctance to invite the Americans or others to submit bridging proposals or to engage in mediation. The Palestinians feared that the Americans were too close to the Israeli positions and the Israelis have always had a fear of too much intervention by any outside parties. As such, both sides forfeited the valuable roles that credible mediators can play. Even at Camp David, the sides were reluctant to request US proposals and when they were finally asked for, the Americans hesitated for too long for their proposals to have enough time to crystallize and be accepted by the sides.

Peace processes that are as entrenched and complex as the Israeli-Palestinian example require outside intervention by credible neutral parties that are ready to back their proposals with political and economic weight. The OPP would have benefited greatly by the active participation of credible and experienced mediators.

Mediators will always ask themselves if their presence is desired. They will often hesitate before putting proposals down on the table. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, potential mediators will be intimidated and even told that their presence is not desired. In most conflict contexts, one side will usually feel that the mediators are not balanced or even handed. When the mediator represents a government, like the United States, and there is recognition of the need for mediation in the conflict as part of an ongoing peace process, the mediator should understand that intimidation and off-handed rejection of proposals is part of the process. The American peace team in the Oslo Peace Process admits today that they should have insisted on putting their proposals on the table throughout the years. They should have refused to serve only as conveners. They should have served mediating roles rather than messengers.

Lesson Learned: Cooperation between former enemies requires assistance
The Oslo Peace Process created about 30 joint bodies and coordination committees for cooperation. These dealt with every field of cooperation imaginable — from security to all forms of cooperation in the economic, scientific, cultural, environmental and technical fields. Today, only one joint body continues to work — the joint water committee. One of the reasons for the failure of these joint bodies is the lack of third party involvement. These bodies were formed to facilitate and coordinate cooperation between the sides. The idea behind their establishment was sound and there were a lot of good intentions and good will. There was a lot of optimism that through these cooperative committees real peace would emerge. From the early years of the peace process many of the cooperative bodies never worked. They either didn’t meet at all or they could never agree on much of the agenda. The joint scientific environment committee is an example in point. The head of this committee from the Israeli side says that in spite of reviewing tens of joint environmental projects, not one project was approved and nothing new was built on the ground, despite the many generous offer of international donors to support many joint projects. The forum became a debating arena for pointing blame at who was more responsible for harming the environment — Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

On the other hand, there is one joint body which has continued to work throughout the peace process and beyond into the intifada. This is the joint water committee. The body has even issued at least two joint statements co-signed by the heads of the committee regarding their decision to keep water out of the bounds of the intifada. The committee continues to meet and continues to authorize new projects. The reason for this success is that the committee quickly became a tri-lateral committee with direct US participation. The nature of the committee changed with the addition of the Americans, however, in essence, this committee is doing what it was set up to do. During these difficult times, the committee would not meet if there was no third party convener. The Americans serve as inviters as well as deliverers of messages between the sides. The Americans also host the meetings, facilitate the discussions and the follow-ups and also provide the funding for most of the projects agreed upon between the sides. Without the American involvement in this committee, there would be no joint water committee today (by the way, the Americans, at least, insist on not calling it the joint water committee).

Lesson Learned: Peace processes must be “civilized” — the role of the military must be reduced.
The Oslo peace process, after the first stage of negotiations was controlled primarily by military and security personnel on both sides. As time passed, the role of the military-security forces in controlling the relations between the sides became more and more entrenched and institutionalized. The military-security forces participated far beyond the realms of military-security issues. All of the joint committees and bodies had high level participation from the military-security forces. The “civil affairs” coordination between Israel and the Palestinians was controlled by the office of the Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories — a military officer at the rank of General with a relatively large staff below him. Even though the coordinator dressed in civilian clothes for meetings with the Palestinians, it was clear that it was still the IDF and the Ministry of Defense on the front line. Even in issues where there were no military-security questions on the table, the military-security presence was there and often took control. The same thing happened on the Palestinian side — the Israeli military presence in the discussions brought the Palestinians to bring on board their own military personnel. In the end, the role of the civilian ministries and officials became minimized in favor of the military.

Instead of de-militarizing the relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the militarization of the relations impacted deeply on the down-spin that occurred each time there were difficulties. Military personnel are not usually trained in the arts of peace making. They usually lack the sensitivities necessary for transforming relations that were based on conflict and animosity into relations of peaceful neighbors. The heavy handed continued presence of the military also signaled to Israelis and Palestinians alike that the basic dynamics of the relations did not change after signing peace agreements. The military occupation simply changed its clothes, as was stated by many Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

Another complicating factor was that with the peace process the Israeli civil administration (another euphemism for military government) was officially disbanded and many Israeli military personnel were threatened with the loss of their jobs. Instead of removing the military government entirely and transferring all of the relations to civil ministries, the employees of the military government became “civilians” carrying on their same tasks under new titles — nothing really changed. Everyone knew that the Israeli “civil affairs” personnel still had the last word.

There were great expectations that the peace process would end the occupation and the mentality of occupation. One of the contributing factors to the failure of the peace process was that the mind-set of occupation did not end with the redeployments of Israeli forces outside of Palestinian cities. There should have been a conscious decision to transfer all coordination and cooperation outside of direct military-security matters to civilian ministries. Coordination of agricultural affairs should have been dealt with by the two Ministries of Agriculture, tourism by the Ministries of Tourism, etc. without military presence overriding decisions and setting the tone. Peace processes must be civilized and de-militarized.

Lesson Learned: Personal relationship building is important
It might sound a bit too obvious but it must nonetheless be stated explicitly — peace is built first and foremost of the personal relationships of individuals. Looking backwards from today into the past, it is clear that not all Israeli-Palestinians relationships have disappeared as the violence of the past two years increased. Even on the official level, there remain some working relationships that have played a crucial role over the past two years. In all cases, these working relations were based on personal friendships that developed during the years of peace making. Those friendships went beyond the working relations. After the crisis began in September 2000, these personal friendships are what brought people to call their friends to ask about their welfare and their wellbeing of their families. After terror attacks in Israel or after Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities, these few personal relationships demonstrated the kind of humanity that one would expect from a peace process. It was this demonstration of humanity that has managed to sustain personal relations despite an atmosphere of increasing hatred, fear and anger overtakes both societies.

The Oslo process created a mechanism called “joint patrols”. These joint patrols were Israeli and Palestinian military personnel patrolling main roads in Palestinian areas together. Usually, personal relations between the Israeli and Palestinian soldiers did not develop. The Israelis traveled in their own jeeps and the Palestinians in theirs. When they stopped on the side of the road for coffee breaks, they would part some 50-100 meters from each other and drink their coffee separately. Not all of the officers in the joint patrols even knew the names of their colleagues from the other side with whom they patrolled everyday. When crises occurred and violence broke out, even before September 2000, in many cases, the joint patrols ceased to function. When these joint patrols were most needed — for the exact circumstances for which they were created, they were unable to function. There were of course exceptions to the rule. It has been reported that the joint patrol that worked in the Jenin area until September 2000, continued to function throughout all of the prior crises, even when joint patrols in other areas were not functioning. A researcher who looked into the workings of the joint patrols discovered that the commanders of the Jenin joint patrol on both sides had become close personal friends. They had visited each other at home after work and on holidays. Their families knew each other and they liked each other. When crises occurred, they picked up the phone and spoke with each other. They were able to raise their complaints with each other and then they continued to work together, and their work was much more effective.

I often lectured to the Israeli officers who commanded joint patrols. In one of my lecturers when I emphasized the importance of developing close personal relationships with their Palestinian counterparts, I was told by the commander that this was against instructions. From that point on I concluded all of my lectures to the joint patrols by stating that what I have to say may be against orders, but nonetheless, if they forget everything I told them, they should remember one thing: on all of your breaks, sit with your Palestinian colleagues, drink coffee and talk about everything and anything except work. Get to know the Palestinian officers as people and try to befriend them. For many of the Palestinian and Israeli officers, just a short time ago, the officers of the other side were their most ardent enemy. Now they must work together, and for them it is as difficult as it is for you. The development of good and friendly personal relations is the cornerstone of peace making.

Lesson Learned: Ongoing contact between leaders is essential
There was never a “hotline” between the office of the Israeli Prime and the office of the President of the Palestinian Authority. The “hotline” is not only the technology of a special phone line — it is a concept. When there is an emergency, pick up the hotline and deal with the crisis quickly and directly. This did not exist in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Crises brewed, perked and then exploded. They were then allowed to fester until “enough” suffering had occurred or until the international community intervened and pushed the sides to end the crisis. Even during the beginning of the events of September-October 2000 there was no direct contact between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. Despite the attempts of many to bring about direct contact, either by telephone or a face-to-face meeting, including efforts by IPCRI led to no direct contact. At the time when direct contact could have been the most potentially powerful means of putting an end to the crisis and the violence, the resistance to that contact due to the total lack of trust and confidence between the leaders meant that the leaders essentially preferred to escalate the conflict through vociferous mutual criticisms rather than overcoming their mutual dislikes of each in favor of the larger interests of their people.

On the fourth night of the intifada, IPCRI had almost succeeded in bringing about a face-to-face meeting between Barak and Arafat through the good offices of Jabril Rajoub. Arafat agreed to and even proposed hosting Barak in Rajoub’s office in Ramallah. But Barak rejected the offer and in the coming days the violence continued to escalate leading to the first direct attack by the IDF on the Palestinian Authority after the lynch of two Israeli soldiers by a mob that was assisted by Palestinian police. Had there already been a means and a tradition of direct and immediate contact between the leaders perhaps the situation would not have escalated beyond control.

Lessons learned: Peace processes must also take place from the bottom-up.
The Oslo Peace Process was largely framed as a “top-down” strategy for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The strategy was based on reaching political agreements between the Government of Israel and the PLO. The expectation was that political agreements between the leaders would significantly change the realities on the ground and the peoples of both sides would almost automatically support the process. As an afterthought, the sides added to the Oslo II agreement an annex calling for the institution of People-to-People projects as a means of strengthening peace between the two peoples. The international community embraced the agreements and the idea of People-to-People projects. However, during all of the years of the peace process (until September 2000) an estimated $20-$25 million dollars only was allocated for funding people-to-people projects mainly through NGO’s and Civil Society Institutions in Israel and Palestine. Most projects were one-time events as almost none of the donors provided multi-year funding allowing for the development of a clear and coherent strategy for affecting changes of public opinion. In the final assessment, the people-to-people process was not taken seriously, not by the donors and not by the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority which allocated almost no funding at all to this process and paid only lip service to it politically.

Most Israelis and Palestinians never participated in a people-to-people program. Most Israelis and Palestinians never even knew about people-to-people programs and activities. The local and the international media almost completely ignored these activities as they seemed to them to be common place and not news worthy — good news doesn’t sell newspapers. Only after the peace process collapsed did people begin to ask where were all of the people-to-people contacts that should have built peace from the bottom-up. The successful people-to-people programs did continue into the intifada and have been sustained up to today. The main people-to-people NGOs that conducted and organized these programs remain today as the only foundation for peace making on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians.

At the time of the outbreak of violence, most of the donors froze their support for these projects taking a “time-out” for assessment and evaluation. Just when these funds were needed more than ever, they became more and more difficult to find.

Peace building and peace making must be a top-down process with governments and representatives making political agreements. It must also be a bottom-up process involving critical masses of people from both sides of the conflict. The governments and representatives must provide real and substantial political and financial support for these activities.

This aspect of peace making must be taken a lot more seriously than it was in the Israeli-Palestinian process. While its direct impact may be difficult to measure, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why some donors are reluctant to fund it, the conclusion that these activities are of great value is based on more than logic and good intentions. The people-to-people NGOs have played a most significant role in the past two years in keeping contacts between the sides alive and viable. Without them there would be almost no positive contacts at all today between Israelis and Palestinians.

There must be recognition by the governments and representatives of the value of this work and when the sides come back to the negotiating table, they should invest a lot more energy and thought into how to integrate the bottom-up peace making process within their overall strategies.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin

Latest posts by Gershon Baskin (see all)