A decade after the initial Oslo Accord was signed in 1993, public opinion on the process it spawned was divided between those who believed it was a promising initiative to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace that was tragically derailed, and those who insisted that it lacked the rudimentary elements of a meaningful peace process. Today, those who continue to believe in “the peace process”, aside from that perennially invested smattering of European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN) functionaries occasionally encouraged by their peers in Washington, can be counted on the fingers of an amputated hand.
Among Palestinians, disenchantment with Oslo and hostility to its perpetuation is particularly widespread, and cynicism about it can also be found throughout the ranks of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the body charged with its implementation. Palestinians view the intensified dispossession and impoverishment they have experienced since 1993 as realities enabled by the agreements of the 1990s rather than developments that have taken place despite them.
Nevertheless, the PA leadership remains committed to Oslo, and there is seemingly nothing– including Israel’s current extremist government–capable of producing a change of heart in Ramallah. In the Gaza Strip, the Hamas movement that gained power on the strength of popular disillusion with Oslo in the early 2000s and its vow to demolish it, has made an implicit peace with the limited self-government Oslo produced.
The status quo may soon change—not because it is untenable, but because Palestinian as well as Israeli politics are in transition. Not only is Israel becoming an increasingly authoritarian polity, but its electorate has for decades been shifting increasingly rightwards, bringing fanatics from the fringes into the mainstream and rewarding them with growing representation and power. If Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu understands the value of maintaining Oslo as a fig leaf for creeping annexation and of sustaining the PA to police the Palestinians, his far-right coalition partners are incapable of tactical flexibility and increasingly view the very existence of the PA as an affront to their determination to proclaim formal sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank. Bringing the entire edifice down is for them a price worth paying. More to the point, the annexationists in power believe there are no significant costs involved in carrying out their plans and substantial benefits to be had in doing so.
On the Palestinian side of the equation, PA President and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s unremarkable life is approaching its tenth decade and he may exit the stage at any moment. More importantly, there is no planning but plenty of anticipation for this scenario. In other words, and in contrast to 2004-2005, when Abbas was installed at the summit of Palestinian national institutions by consensus and a symbolic plebiscite after Yasir Arafat’s demise, a leadership vacuum or dispute—or both—is likely.
Further complicating the succession is that in contrast to 2004, the PA today no longer commands legitimacy among Palestinians and lacks viable options to rebuild popular support. Its own and for that matter the PLO’s continued adherence to the Oslo paradigm despite continuously deteriorating conditions on the ground, has sapped them and particularly the PA of virtually all credibility among their constituents. The PA, established in 1994 as an interim self-government administration pending a comprehensive political settlement scheduled for conclusion during the last millennium, has metamorphosed into a permanent agency nearly half as old as Israel. Political negotiations, once farcical, have for years been non-existent. Against this background, many if not most Palestinians view the PA as an instrument of Israeli rule that is facilitating annexation rather than statehood. Should Israel seek to further weaken or fragment the PA geographically, it is therefore unlikely to encounter significant resistance, particularly if it accommodates those Palestinian interests vested in its survival.
Elections have been touted as a potentially significant avenue for the PA to reclaim credibility. Yet even under the best of circumstances such polls represent a double-edged sword; unless accompanied by institutional renewal and representational reforms at the national level, factional consensus, and a strategy to challenge rather than co-exist with Israeli rule, it will primarily serve to revalidate the PA within Oslo’s existing architecture.
Assuming for the sake of argument that elections would be held, few anticipate that Fatah can or will successfully coalesce around a single presidential candidate, let alone a unified slate of parliamentary nominees. Formerly composed of competing power centers led by individuals who had often risen to prominence prior to Oslo, commanded significant resources, and collectively retained a capacity for unified decision-making, the Fatah elite today consists of a narrow leadership group wholly dependent on Abbas for its position, and beyond it a collection of bitter rivals characterized by limited resources, shallow popular support, but sufficient mutual enmity to prevent unified action.
For its part, Hamas is in new polls likely to prioritize weakening those elements of Fatah most closely associated with the Abbas era over attempting to achieve the pinnacle of administration itself. It would do so by either throwing its weight behind an independent candidate with broader appeal than its own, or endorsing a Fatah activist open to Hamas participation in leadership institutions, such as Marwan Barghouti, who from the Islamist movement’s perspective has the added benefit of having to project his authority from an Israeli prison cell.
Three decades after Oslo, at a time when the Palestinian people are in desperate need of credible and unified leadership, their political landscape remains characterized by schism and fragmentation. In contrast to 1993, most Palestinians have abandoned the movements that have for decades dominated Palestinian politics and increasingly put their confidence in “none of the above”. Party affiliation is today a less powerful bond than previously, as the emergence of local, unaffiliated armed groups in the northern West Bank incorporating members of different legacy organizations suggests. Indeed, Palestinian activists appear to be moving beyond institutions and schisms that are perceived as either constraining their ability to resist Israel, irrelevant, or both.
This raises fundamental questions about the way forward. It is difficult to conceive of one in the absence of credible, representative, and preferably unified organizations and institutions that can perform the role of formulating a coherent strategy and mobilizing the resources to implement it. To understand this point, one need only compare the effectiveness of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against the former white minority regime in South Africa, a campaign embraced, nurtured, and promoted by the African National Congress (ANC), or the Israel boycott promulgated by the Arab League between 1945 and the early 1990s, with the current Palestinian BDS movement, which has been eschewed—if not undermined—by the PLO-PA leadership. Similarly, Palestinian recourse to international legal and human rights institutions such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), and more recently the International Criminal Court (ICC), have consistently suffered from a lack of resolve by that same leadership.
Among the first priorities of such a unified institution would need to be the renunciation of the Oslo agreements and the various Palestinian commitments that accompanied them. Although this is likely to come at a high price, the impact on Palestinian lives and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination of such an initiative will, at least initially, be negligible. The realities, dynamics, and network of relationships established over the course of three long decades are too deeply entrenched, and one cannot simply turn back the clock and undo the damage inflicted over the course of thirty years. Yet by the same token, it will be impossible to address and redress the current impasse so long as Palestinians remain constrained by the ghosts of 1993.
[An edited version of this article was first published by the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.]