Watson : The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements

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VOL. 32

2002/03

No. 1
P. 110
Recent Books
Watson : The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements
FULL TEXT

    This book represents the most recent contribution to the growing literature on the Oslo accords and international law. Geoffrey R. Watson teaches law at the Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America, and formerly was attorney-adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State, where he specialized in the legal aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The book endeavors to answer four important legal and factual questions: "(1) Are the Oslo Accords legally binding agreements governed by treaty law, or are they non-binding political undertakings? (2) To what extent has each side complied with its obligations under the Accords? (3) Insofar as there have been violations of the Accords, what effect (if any) do those violations have on each of the parties' outstanding obligations? (4) How can international law help shape a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?" (p. vii).
    Watson answers the first question in the affirmative, correctly pointing out that although the Oslo accords cannot be treaties in the traditional sense (since only states possess the legal capacity to enter into treaties), they do qualify as "legally binding international agreements" under customary international law-a form of binding contractual arrangement that nonstate actors (such as national liberation movements) have the capacity to conclude and that are governed by treaty law principles (p. 101). Watson deals with the second and third questions by examining Israeli and Palestinian records of compliance with a number of obligations through early 2000, including troop redeployment (p. 105), settlement construction (p. 132), human rights protection (pp. 168 and 252), and prevention of terror and violence (p. 211). He concludes that each of the parties are in substantial compliance with the accords, there being no material breach committed that legally would justify a formal abrogation by either side, and argues that both sides are under a continuing obligation to negotiate in good faith (p. 308). Finally, Watson draws on general principles of international law to explore a variety of possible scenarios for the settlement of the final status issues. Some readers reasonably may question the utility of a study of this sort given the fact that the Oslo process has come apart in the wake of the al-Aqsa intifada. Watson argues, however, that in the absence of any formal termination of the accords they "will continue to furnish the basis for Israeli-Palestinian relations" despite any difficulties the parties face (p. ix).
    That a "comprehensive legal analysis" of the Oslo accords under international law is needed is hardly in doubt (p. vii). Unfortunately, Watson's attempt to provide it falls short for the following three reasons. First, the book is replete with very serious errors and omissions in legal analysis, which is surprising given Watson's purported expertise in the field. For instance, in an introductory chapter on the legal history of the conflict, Watson asserts that the Balfour Declaration should be construed as "protecting the rights of both peoples to self-determination" in Palestine, notwithstanding the declaration's deliberate failure to refer to the political rights of "existing non-Jewish communities" (p. 14). Likewise, Watson offers virtually no discussion of the relationship between the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and the Oslo accords, a critical omission given the fact that many of Oslo's most important provisions (i.e., regarding Jerusalem, settlements, and so forth) may be void ab initio given the convention's stipulation that no agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the occupying power may deprive protected persons of their rights thereunder. Second, although Watson attempts to present his work as "an impartial legal analysis" (p. viii), the book is tainted by an obvious pro-Israel bias. Thus, for instance, Israel's notoriously feeble argument against the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the occupied Palestinian territories is presented as "hardly frivolous" (p. 141); the Palestinian economy that has suffered a complete meltdown since Oslo is described as merely having "lost ground since 1993" (p. 157); and Israel is presented as having a "good" if not "exemplary" record on human rights, such as freedom of speech, association, the press, and religion (pp. 186-89). Third, the book assumes without any critical reflection that the Oslo accords were intended to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, even though they do not once expressly refer to Palestinian self-determination. Thus, the "Bantustan" argument carries no weight with Watson, who amazingly describes the accords as "a success . . . an impressive and historic achievement [and] a monument to peace" (pp. 310-11). Ultimately, these and other similar problems render what should have been an extremely enlightening study only moderately useful at best.


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Ardi Imseis, a lawyer specializing in international law, is currently a policy analysis officer with UNRWA, Gaza headquarters.