The Oslo agreement was based on a territorial compromise which would be acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians. But as the peace process falters, the "two-state solution" implicit in Oslo may have to give way to a unitary "binational state" as the only way of reconciling competing national claims.

Five years ago, on 13th September 1993, the White House lawn was the scene for one of the most extraordinary acts of contemporary political theatre. After months of secret negotiations in Norway between Israel and the PLO, the US assembled a select audience to bear witness to what has become known as the Oslo agreement and Bill Clinton finally nudged Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin into a historic, if reluctant, handshake with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.


Oslo’s promise lay in the prospect of unprecedented political and psychological engagement between Israel and the PLO and the hopes this raised for peace. The agreement was based on mutual recognition and gradual implementation. Israel would cede territory to an interim Palestinian self-governing authority over a transitional period of five years. The most difficult issues (Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees of 1948, Jewish settlements in the territories, final political borders) would be deferred for “final status talks” to be completed before the five-year period was over. Israel would remain ever vigilant to its security concerns, but sequential withdrawals would allow for the gradual spread of Palestinian jurisdiction to all areas except those reserved for final status deliberation.


The text itself was pedestrian and laced with loopholes. But beyond the clich?s and the legalese, both sides shared a fundamental (albeit unstated) premise: peace could only be attained on the basis of an agreed separation between Arab and Jew, leading to the demarcation of a final political division of the land. For most Israelis and Palestinians, Oslo’s text was less important than its spirit: a hope for deliverance from the 100-year conflict over Palestine and peaceful coexistence between the two competing nationalisms in the Holy Land.


Five years later, Oslo is dead or dying-depending on your perspective. The image of the White House handshake has taken on the quality of dusty newsreel. Of the three Nobel laureates who made Oslo possible, Rabin has been assassinated by a member of his own tribe, Peres rejected by his electorate, and the future of a physically shaky and often incoherent Arafat seems less certain than ever. On all sides there is a retrenchment into pre-Oslo antagonisms. Above all, there is the sense of a historical moment slipping away.


Rabin’s death largely destroyed the hope for progress along the trajectory drawn at Oslo. The return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud coalition in May 1996 accelerated a realignment away from the agreement. Viscerally antagonistic to Palestinian nationalism, instinctively hostile to territorial concession and hostage to his own ideologically obdurate constituency, Netanyahu succeeded in bringing the process to a halt in early 1997. Drawing on the Israeli public’s understandable fears after successive bombings by Islamic opponents of the PLO, Netanyahu has been hugely successful in converting legitimate Israeli security concerns into a device for thwarting the possibility of any progress towards a settlement. For those contemplating the debris of Oslo from the Palestinian side, there is a bitter irony in Netanyahu’s claim of having “lowered Palestinian expectations” regarding the terms of an agreement. Netanyahu is right, but not in the manner intended: Palestinian expectations have indeed been lowered to a point where most no longer harbour any real hope for peace at all.


oslo represented the first step towards the attainment of the PLO’s supreme national goal as it had developed over two decades. A sober assessment of the balance of power after the Arab-Israeli October war of 1973 led the PLO leadership to recognise that Israel, within the borders it occupied before June 1967, was an irreversible reality. Henceforth, Palestinian aspirations would be directed towards the territories occupied after June 1967-East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. This meant acceptance of a Palestinian state in these territories alongside rather than in place of Israel as the basis for any permanent settlement. The “two-state solution” (formally adopted in 1988) represented a radical break with the politically nostalgic absolutism of the past. But it also involved a supreme concession: the gut-wrenching admission that a future Palestine could only be built on a small part of what was considered to be the Palestinian patrimony. In conceding Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders, the PLO accepted a state in only 23 per cent of Palestine as it had been under the British mandate in 1948; 77 per cent of Palestinian land was irretrievably lost to the Jewish state.


Obsessed with “combating terrorism,” successive Israeli governments sought to eradicate the PLO, while denying the rising tide of Palestinian nationalism which sustained it. Likud’s dominance between 1977 and 1992 effectively stifled the possibilities of an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough. The return to power of the Labour party in 1992 marked the first real chance for change. Burdened by the Palestinian intifada and motivated by the desire to preserve both “Israel’s Jewish character and its democracy,” Israel’s new leaders were finally ready to begin the process of disengagement from the West Bank and Gaza. For the Labour party, a “territorial compromise” would relieve Israel of the moral and material costs of the occupation, reduce the “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewish majority and open the door to a new era of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours.


Oslo met the interests of both sides at a time when their respective publics seemed ready for compromise. The PLO and the Labour party were still far from agreement on the terms of a territorial settlement, but for the first time both sides were speaking the same language with the same potentially convergent purpose. By late 1995, ongoing Palestinian-Israeli contacts and Rabin’s gradual elaboration of Israel’s position on final status gave good cause to believe that an agreement along the lines of the two-state solution was eventually possible. Indeed, it was this very same assessment which drove the Israeli right to accusations of “treachery” and Rabin’s assassination in November 1995.


At the point of Rabin’s death, the Rabin-Arafat partnership had only just begun and it may well have been tested by subsequent events. In retrospect, however, this partnership may have held the best hope for progress towards a final settlement which would be minimally acceptable to both sides. By contrast, no realistically foreseeable circumstances hold that same promise. The moment of meaningful progress towards a two-state solution seems to have passed. The reason for this lies less in the current impasse over interim issues, more in what appears to be the emergent Israeli consensus for a permanent settlement.


from all the available evidence, Netanyahu’s vision of final status precludes the return of much more than 60 per cent of the West Bank to Palestinian hands. This means that the Palestinians would have to be content with about 12 per cent to 14 per cent of their original homeland (60 per cent of 23 per cent of Mandate Palestine). Netanyahu’s vision-leaked as the “Allon Plus” plan last May-envisages a Palestinian entity which is territorially discontinuous, engulfed by Israeli security zones and military bases and criss-crossed by a network of bypass roads linking pockets of permanent extra-territorial Jewish settlements to Israeli territory. Moreover, there is no redress to other Palestinian grievances, such as a return of the 1948 refugees to their homes or the possibility of a shared sovereign capital in East Jerusalem. While never formally tabled in negotiations with the PLO, the import of the Allon Plus plan was clear. The proposed Palestinian entity could be graced with the nominal appellation of statehood as an ultimate Israeli “concession”; in reality, however, this “state” would consist of Petainesque enclaves consigned to perpetual subservience to Israeli security needs.


Perhaps the worst part of this vision is that it has been almost unchallenged by the leader of the Israeli Labour party. Ehud Barak, the much decorated successor to Rabin and Peres, has been conspicuously absent from the debate on the future of the occupied territories. As a former chief of staff, Barak seems unwilling to appear “softer” than his right-wing opponent on the territorial-security issue and has remained reticent about cultivating any dialogue with the Palestinians, let alone promoting any credible peace platform which could galvanise the substantial but moribund pro-peace constituency in Israel. Instead, arguing the need for electability, Barak appears bent on wresting the political centre-right from Netanyahu. But in doing so he has done a deep disservice to his potential Palestinian partners in peace. The current public stance of the Labour party suggests that there is little to choose between Israeli “left” and “right” regarding a permanent settlement.


The five-year interim period designated in Oslo is due to expire in May 1999, with no agreed provision on what is meant to happen if a final status accord has not been reached by that date. Given the extant divisions between the two sides, it will take a political miracle to finalise any agreement before the set deadline. Having joined the Oslo process with the specific purpose of obtaining statehood, the PLO leadership has repeatedly suggested that it may opt for a unilateral declaration of independence once the interim period ends. This in turn could trigger a crisis, with Israel imposing a wide-scale military and economic blockade on Palestinian areas, and the PLO seeking to maximise its leverage by a combination of fact-creating on the ground and mobilising external political and diplomatic support for independence. In different circumstances the May 1999 deadline may not have appeared so ominous. But in the prevailing conditions of mutual distrust and deep frustration on the Palestinian side, the potential for an important-possibly bloody-showdown cannot be discounted. Even if diplomatic efforts were to succeed in defusing a confrontation, the peace process as currently construed may have already passed the point of mere crisis management and an entirely new chapter in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be in the making.


it is important to recognise the dimensions of the historical concession implied by the two-state solution in the Palestinian mind. For most Palestinians, this option makes sense only if it can deliver something that has the political and psychological attributes of an acceptable and dignified resolution to the conflict. Even if the huge costs of the conflict before 1967 were to be ignored, the consolation offered by a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem must be seen to be commensurate with the moral and material sacrifices incurred since 1967. The Red Cross estimates that some 350,000 Israeli jail sentences have been doled out over the 30 years of occupation, out of a demographic base of about 2.5m people in the occupied territories. By Rabin’s own admission, some 27,000 Palestinians had been killed or wounded by Israeli forces and settlers and up to 140,000 imprisoned in the seven years between the outbreak of the intifada in 1987 and early 1994 alone. Land seizures, curfews, collective punishment and the destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes have accompanied successive waves of Israeli colonisation, bringing some 170,000 Jewish settlers into East Jerusalem and another 150,000 settlers into Gaza and the West Bank. Since Oslo, scores of Palestinians have lost their lives and thousands more have remained in detention. Economic conditions have deteriorated and Israeli “security” measures have disrupted every aspect of daily life in the territories.


Against this, the tangible gains of Oslo appear paltry and unconvincing to a sceptical Palestinian audience. Lost in the jangle of disputed territorial percentages which have dominated the Netanyahu era is the fact that, as of mid-summer 1998, five years after Oslo, the total area yielded by Israel to unqualified PLO control did not exceed 3 per cent of the West Bank (about 0.75 per cent of Mandate Palestine). Despite charges of corruption, human rights abuse and increasing disillusionment with the PLO’s performance in governance, Arafat still has the political and moral authority to sign and deliver a permanent settlement based on a two-state solution, and to make whatever other decisions may be necessary regarding the 1948 refugees and other issues on the final status agenda. If the Israeli side is unable or unwilling to go well beyond the parameters of its present approach and contemplate a bold package which offers the Palestinian side a reasonable share of its homeland, the physical sacrifices and political concessions that made Oslo possible would be deemed to have been made in vain. Even Arafat will not put his name to a capitulation which will be rejected outright by his constituency and which will tarnish his political legacy for ever.


It is conceivable that Netanyahu may be hoping to outlast the physically ailing Arafat and strike a “better” deal with his successors, whoever they may be. But if Arafat himself cannot sign or deliver a capitulation, his successors will have even less authority to do so. A decent deal with Arafat can be carried by his successors who will be absolved of the political costs of reasonable compromise. Without Arafat, any deal foisted in extremis on the new leadership will simply not be sustainable. Israeli short-term gains would have been offset by the dangers of a long-term renewal of the conflict with yet greater vigour and intensity.


widespread violence is certainly one possible consequence of the collapse of the two-state solution. But other alternatives may develop in parallel with, or as an alternative to, this dire scenario. As the chances of a reasonable territorial settlement recede, a new debate is taking place on the Palestinian side which opens the door to a revival of a solution sidelined by the territorialism of the PLO and its drive for national self-expression through statehood. The new approach argues that the Palestine problem can be seen to have three possible outcomes. The first involves domination by one side of the other-and hence the condemnation of both sides to perpetual confrontation. The second is based on the territorial division of Palestine between the two sides, according to some mutually acceptable formula. The third envisages an agreed equal sharing of the whole of the land between the two peoples. If the first is unacceptable and the second unattainable, only the third option remains as a valid and humane means of resolving the conflict. As opposed to the national territorial division inherent in the two-state solution and implicit in Oslo, “binationalism” posits the reconciliation of competing national claims within one unitary state. The character of that state and its political and legal ethos would be determined on the basis of equality between its citizens rather than ethnicity or national/religious origin. Any Israeli and any Palestinian would have the right to live anywhere in Israel/Palestine under one agreed form of government. The national symbols of the state would be less important than the equality of its citizens.


Binationalism has been suggested before (mostly in the 1930s) as a possible way out of the morass of clashing national claims in Palestine. Its appeal has waned as national sentiment on both sides has consolidated over the past 50 years. The suggestion that the Palestinians may now spurn a separate national existence in favour of “one man, one vote” alongside the Jewish citizens of Israel may appear far-fetched. But it need not be inconceivable, particularly if the state on offer confers no real advantages, and if the alternative is either perpetual occupation or some variant of apartheid as proposed under various Israeli plans for Palestinian “autonomy.” Already a small but increasingly influential circle of Palestinians of all political persuasions is posing binationalism as a long-term goal to be achieved by peaceful means as a practical alternative to the increasingly irrelevant Oslo process.


The Palestinian supporters of binationalism do not yet occupy the mainstream of Palestinian political thought. Besides the difficulties of weaning the Palestinians themselves away from territorial nationalism, there remains the formidable problem of overcoming Israeli-Jewish opposition to the idea. By its nature, the binational solution cannot be built on coercion. As the vital spirit of Israel, Zionism is based on the very negation of binationalism and on preserving a Jewish majority in Palestine. Even when expressed as a readiness to live as full equals under Israeli laws, Palestinian binationalism is most often met with outright hostility and the suspicion that this is yet another ploy to “destroy the Jewish state.”


The truth is that Zionism has hardly endeared itself to those on its receiving end. Its drive to maintain a clear demographic advantage has long encompassed the idea of a “transfer” of the Palestinians outside their homeland. Settlement policies represent a persistent attempt at “ethnic accumulation” designed to blunt the remaining Arab presence in Jerusalem and the occupied territories. A recent plan to expand the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem was explained as necessary to counter any possible demographic “imbalance” in the Arabs’ favour. This preoccupation with head counting now includes the absurd practice of submitting new immigrants from Russia to DNA tests to determine their Jewishness.


As the peace process falters, a binational solution may emerge faute de mieux. Most Israelis see this as a threat. Within Israel itself there are already 1m Arab citizens out of a population of 6m. Another 2.5m Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank (about 4m more in the diaspora). By the second or third decade of the next century, some sort of demographic parity between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land seems inevitable. There has always been an irreconcilable tension between Israel’s claim to be both Jewish and democratic. Yet most Israelis still see Zionism as the legitimate expression of Jewish nationalism and the ultimate guarantor of Jewish survival in Palestine. But a credible and peacefully articulated Palestinian campaign for binationalism and “one man, one vote” will demand a better response than the mere reiteration of faith in exclusivist “blood and soil” nationalism. Ultimately Israel cannot have the best of all worlds: no to a reasonable partition of the land, no to equal sharing; and yes to the indefinite suspension of Palestinian rights at no cost to the very way of life Israel is meant to preserve.