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An economically strangled and militarily overwhelmed Palestine: A view of Oslo from 1993

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Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. (Photo: Getty Images)

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. (Photo: Getty Images)

Phyllis Bennis published the following on September 20, 1993 as a report for NGOs on the Oslo peace process. 20 years after the peace process started, here’s a look back at Bennis’ thinking about what turned out to be a catastrophic failure.

The agreement signed 13 September between the PLO and Israel did not bring an independent Palestinian state into being or even lay the groundwork for it. It does not deserve the tidal wave of euphoria that greeted its signing in the U.S. But it does represent an historic shift in the terms of debate, and created a wholly new political terrain on which the struggle for an independent Palestine takes shape.

Understanding the agreement’s potential, as well as its certain and still-unknown dangers, can only happen away from the uncritical jubilation and exultation that has shaped much of the Western official and press responses.

Israel’s recognition of the PLO, however grudging, should not be taken lightly. Acknowledgement of the organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people has been a hard-fought goal of the national movement and its supporters. Among Israelis, the recognition represents a perhaps unprecedented shift in national psychology. It reverses a centerpiece of Zionist consensus, which rejected the PLO because the organization represents the Palestinians as a separate people, inside and outside the occupied territories. That psychological reversal is a consequence of recognizing the PLO, regardless of whether the reluctant handshake in fact leads to Palestine’s acquisition of its national rights. It also represents a significant defeat for the longstanding effort to create an alternative leadership to the PLO: by Israel supporting Hamas as a hoped-for replacement of the PLO, and more recently by relying on the fiction that a West Bank/Gaza delegation could somehow replace the PLO.

And, not insignificantly, it appears that a majority of the Israeli public, left, right and center, believe (whether they like it or not) that this agreement makes an independent Palestinian state inevitable. Certainly Israel is not such a democracy that popular opinion creates policy, but a widespread Israeli view that a Palestinian state is in fact being created may open up new possibilities for change.

But for Palestine?

Having said all of that, on the Palestinian side the recognition process looks far different, and far less promising. Even the New York Times noted “minds have been changed, not maps.” The excitement at the press and policy level that greeted the PLO recognition of Israel’s right to exist was based on an enormous lapse of historical memory: the PLO had already recognized Israel in 1988 at the General Assembly meeting convened in Geneva because the U.S. refused Arafat a visa to address the UN in New York.

The Zionist consensus rejecting recognition of the PLO was always based on the understanding that the PLO represented the nationhood of Palestinians now scattered in a world-wide diaspora. It meant that the “Palestine question” was substantially more than the standard of living or political rights of those Palestinians who remained under Israeli occupation; it implied the right of return of those expelled and dispossessed. Recognition in its 1993 form accepts the form, but not the political consequences of that nationhood.

The agreement that followed the Israeli-PLO recognition reflects the fundamental weakness of the PLO and the Palestinian national movement in this post-decolonization, post-Cold War new world order of unchallenged U.S. strategic domination. On the immediate symbolic level, the agreement transforms the internationally recognized equation of the PLO with national rights, to an equation with municipal rights. If it does bring peace, it will be the peace of the weak; being brave will have little to do with it.

It is possible, though too early to say for sure, that the PLO-Israeli agreement will represent the first step towards something called an independent Palestinian state. What is clearer, and what may underlie some of the Palestinian unease with and opposition to the agreement’s terms, is that if a state should emerge from this process, it will probably look very little like the truly independent democratic Palestine that so many fought for. Rather, a Palestinian state created at the end of the 20th century is likely to be only nominally independent, trapped in a confederation with Jordan, militarily overwhelmed and economically strangled by an Israel strengthened by open ties to the Arab world, financially dominated by the IMF and the World Bank, accountable to U.S. and Western business interests, and repressive towards domestic opponents.

Any or all of that is possible — but it does not exist yet–and if it does, it won’t be entirely or even primarily the “fault” of the PLO. The agreement did not create a state, and fears that a future state may be less than what was once hoped for must not undermine the continuing commitment to work to end the occupation once and for all. Certainly a future Palestinian state will face its own internal struggles, divisions and contradictions. But that is still for the future; especially for non-Palestinian supporters of the national struggle, understanding the weaknesses of the current agreement should not undermine the continuing work towards creation of an independent state.

As Afif Safiyeh, the PLO’s ambassador in London, described it, “this agreement is now the only game in town; it’s up to us to try to make the most out of it that can be done.”

Why Now?

The PLO’s assessment that it had no alternative but to sign on to the agreement with Israel is rooted in a number of factors weakening the organization and the national movement. The PLO’s own predicament, its dwindling support inside the occupied territories, and its inability to lead with a renewed vision of how the crisis-ridden intifada could be reenergized, brought the organization to consider heretofore unacceptable positions. The rise in popularity of Islamist movements as possible replacements for the secular nationalism of the PLO furthered the crisis. The economic catastrophe resulting from the cut-off of funds from the Gulf states after the Gulf War almost eliminated the PLO’s ability to support its national institutions in the occupied territories. And the Gulf War’s splintering of the long-held (if sometimes only rhetorical) Arab unity in support of Palestinian national rights, deprived the Palestinians of key strategic backing. All of this led to a growing realization that the Madrid process had failed.

The urgency of the PLO may also have been rooted in the organization’s growing understanding of the U.S. role. Round 10 of the Madrid talks collapsed over the issue of Jerusalem. Prior to that round, some hope had lingered among at least some of the Palestinian diplomats that the Clinton administration would stake out a position rooted in its claimed commitment to human rights — rather than its well-known close ties to the Israeli lobby. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher not only accepted the legitimacy of Israel’s position (that occupied Arab Jerusalem be excluded from the interim Palestinian authority) but demanded that the Palestinians sign a “joint statement of principles” based on that position, the Palestinians realized they could not hope for an even-handed sponsor in Washington, and the talks collapsed. The loss of that hoped-for U.S. role may have set the stage for a new level of Palestinian urgency in the already-underway Oslo talks.

What’s in the Agreement

The preamble of the agreement speaks of a “just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation.” It does recognize 242 and 338 as the basis for the final settlement, but leaves unchallenged Israel’s definition which asserts that 242’s requirements were largely met with the return of the Sinai to Egypt. It says nothing about ending occupation, Palestinian national rights, or human rights; it does not acknowledge that one of the parties is occupying the other.

The terms of the agreement do not reflect only a Gaza-Jericho solution. If one accepts the written document on its face, the difference is in the timetables planned for Gaza-Jericho on the one hand, and the rest of the West Bank on the other. It does mention Jerusalem as a subject for negotiation in the final status talks.


The withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories represents perhaps the most significant immediate move. But the term is misleading. The text does speak of “withdrawal” from Gaza and Jericho, and “redeployment” from the Palestinian population centers in the rest of the West Bank, within various time frames. Theoretically an elected Palestinian Council will establish “a strong police force” to maintain “public order and internal security” for Palestinians. But at the same time “Israel will continue to carry the responsibility for defending against external threats [controlling access to Jericho and Gaza] as well as the responsibility for overall security of Israelis…” The implication of continuing Israeli troop presence to protect Israeli settlers, even inside Gaza, is clear. In Annex II, the Protocol on Withdrawal of Israeli Forces from the Gaza Strip and Jericho Area, there is discussion of a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement. “The agreement will include … structure, powers and responsibilities of the Palestinian authority in these areas [Gaza & Jericho] except: external security, settlements, Israelis, foreign relations, and other mutually agreed matters.”

In the rest of the West Bank, troops are to be redeployed away from population centers, but will remain in the roads, around settlements, etc.

Military Government & Palestinian Council:

The Civil Administration (Israel’s military government in the occupied territories) is to be dissolved after the elected Palestinian Council is inaugurated. Palestinians in East Jerusalem will be allowed to vote in the elections.

Areas of Palestinian authority:

In all of the West Bank and Gaza, authority will be transferred to the Palestinians in the areas of education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation, tourism. Israel remains in control of foreign affairs and security, among other issues. It is not clear how developments in one of the Palestinian-controlled areas, perceived by Israel as a “security issue,” would be resolved. Example: Israeli control of “security” means Tel Aviv retains the right to ban books deemed violative of security; do Palestinians with nominal authority for education have the right to use the banned books anyway?

Right of return:

A joint Continuing Committee of Israelis and Palestinians along with Jordan and Egypt will “decide by agreement [meaning each has veto power] on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.” PLO authorities indicate that preliminary discussions with Israel have focused on the return of about 700,000 1967 Palestinians.

There is no provision for return of 1948 Palestinians, except in the inclusion of “refugees” among topics for the permanent status negotiations.


The agreement mandates no change in the status of settlers or settlements for at least three years; settlements are one of the topics for final status negotiations. In the interim period, settlements can be enlarged, new settlements built, and settlers will not be accountable to Palestinian authorities; protection of settlers will presumably be a major rationale for continuing presence of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories during the interim period.


Great emphasis is placed on the creation of joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in various development schemes, in the context of “multilateral peace efforts in promoting a development program for the region, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to be initiated by the G-7.” The planned Clinton administration-sponsored Donors Conference is likely the first expression of this. Specific plans are outlined for social rehabilitation including housing and construction; small and medium business development; infrastructure development program for water, electricity, etc.

The inevitable result of this close cooperation is Israeli domination of such issues as land use, water, port development, etc. The starting point in Western press analyses seems to be “Israel needs…” access to water or whatever, and what can be done to arrange some share for Palestinians out of what’s left.

All analysts acknowledge that success for the agreement (with “success” usually defined as stability), demands immediate improvement in the standard of living in the occupied territories, requiring the infusion of large sums of money. While many numbers are being tossed around ($3 billion from the World Bank, $500 million from the E.C., $600 million arranged by the U.S. from Saudis and other Gulf states, etc.) it remains to be seen what money actually arrives, when, who it goes to, and with what restrictions. (It will be interesting to note how the World Bank deals with its own requirement that loans be made only to sovereign governments; will it so designate the Palestinian Council or the PLO?) Palestinian businessmen, especially in Gaza and Jericho, are likely to do well; how much improvement goes to the lives of ordinary people is uncertain. Jordan is growing fearful of a cash flow out of the country, and is apparently considering limits on how much cash it will allow to be taken out of the country.

At bottom, how to create an autonomous Palestinian economy — not to speak of an independent one — when Palestine’s $1800 per capita GNP goes head to head with Israel’s $11,000 per capita, bespeaks tremendous challenges for Palestinian economists and development experts.

U.S. and International Role:

While the agreement speaks primarily of the Palestinian -Israeli-Jordanian ties, the underlying political reality requires a high degree of international support, both political and economic. Large amounts of foreign aid are an assumed requirement of the agreement’s success.

U.S. involvement is clearly quite active, especially as coordinator of the international fundraising effort (although the U.S. contribution is likely to be small). U.S. control of IMF and World Bank decision-making, and its influence with the E.C. and Japan, will give WAshington additional weight.

But the bilateral U.S.-Israeli ties will be, if anything, strengthened by the agreement. Tel Aviv has already requested a $2 billion bomber deal from the U.S., on a no-pay-back grant basis. It appears that the possibility of peace treaties between Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and others in the future, as well as the already-underway normalization of Israel’s relations with other Arab states, will do little to even slow the Israeli militarization process.

The United Nations: Out of the Loop

The UN remains qualitatively excluded from the new Middle East diplomacy, just as it was during Madrid. Israeli opposition to UN involvement appears unchanged, and Washington has no intention of challenging that opposition in favor of involving the international community.

Yasir Arafat’s brief meeting with Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali l6 September appeared to accomplish little beyond some coordination of UNDP, UNRWA and other UN agencies’ work in the occupied territories. Questions of UN peacekeepers or even monitors in the West Bank and Gaza, or greater UN involvement at the Security Council level towards implementing the agreement, remained unanswered.

Potentially more dangerous is an emerging Israeli-led effort, with U.S. and perhaps emerging Egyptian support, not only to prevent future UN discussion of the continuing occupation, human rights, Israeli-South African ties or other issues, but actually to reverse some or all prior UN resolutions dealing with the Palestine-Israel conflict, claiming that they have been made “irrelevant” by the current agreement. Such revocation of resolutions is almost unprecedented; the single exception in UN history was the November 1991 General Assembly vote revoking the resolution identifying Zionism as a form of racial discrimination. The campaign for that revocation was part of Washington’s pay-off for Tel Aviv’s agreement not to jeopardize the anti-Iraq Arab coalition by entering the Gulf war directly.

Potential Results & Dangers on the Ground

One immediate danger will likely result from the enormous campaign of jubilation and skyrocketing expectations of immediate assuaging of the occupation. When these aspirations, of a massive influx of money, withdrawal of soldiers, free elections, etc., are not met — delayed (almost certainly) or derailed (very likely) — the consequences of betrayed hopes may be drastic.

Under the best of conditions, if most of the agreement is quickly implemented, the immediate results may include a less obtrusive presence of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. In some areas, within a few months, the elected Palestinian Council may actually begin to function as a quasi-municipal government as the Civil Administration is withdrawn. And some of the 1967 exiles may return home.

But their homecoming will exacerbate the loss of those expelled in 1948, asked to wait another several years before even allowing their rights to be placed on the agenda.

Further, the power of the Palestinian Council and its “strong police force” is thoroughly derivative; it exists at the whim of, and subject to, its grant of power by Israel. The Council elections’ more significant impact may be through their ability to institutionalize some of the sharp debate already ubiquitous in Palestinian society.

The dangers posed by that debate are exacerbated by a lack of fundamental democracy — despite democratic forms — within the PLO and within its constituent organizations. There is a danger that opposition to the accord and to the new institutions it creates, will be viewed as outside the pale of “legitimate” Palestinian discourse. Similarly, there is a danger that some opponents of the PLO leadership’s direction may work to undermine the PLO itself even before there is a state within which on-going class and political struggles can be waged.

The agreement threatens serious divisions between Palestinians in those areas where Israeli troops and the Civil Administration may be withdrawn first, such as Gaza and Jericho, and those where the jackboot of military occupation remains essentially unchanged. The threat is that resistance to the continuing occupation (both of which will continue, if not escalate, despite incremental or quantitative changes in some areas) will be marginalized and delegitimized, both in international public opinion and, more importantly, within Palestinian society. The West’s press, and most governments, are certain to take the position that now that a PLO-endorsed “process” of building Palestinian self-government is underway, the intifada and any militant resistance to the extant occupation is an “extremist” and illegitimate response.

What remains may be the distortion of the historical memory of the intifada, its example and its lessons.

The Opposition

The opponents of the peace accord fall into three broad categories. The Islamist parties, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the occupied territories, reject the agreement’s two-state framework as a “sell-out” because it does not create an Islamic state “in all of Palestine.” Support for Hamas demonstrations in Gaza appear to have substantially dwindled in the days after the agreement was signed.

Many of the opposition groups both inside and outside the PLO framework, grouped in the 10 signatories of the Damascus statement, oppose the accord from a variety of secular perspectives: some still claim to hold to a “democratic secular state in all of Palestine” goal, rejecting 242 and a two-state formula. The agendas of several of the smaller splinter factions in this group are shaped primarily by longstanding opposition to Arafat and the PLO leadership as a whole, and have been accompanied by various threats to Arafat and others. The more significant -PLO opposition groups, especially the Popular and Democratic Fronts, have opposed the agreement on the same basis that they opposed Madrid: the view that it would not move forward the effort towards creating a Palestinian state. They have remained within the PLO umbrella, although dissociating from the Executive Committee before the vote on the agreement. They have not, as yet, posed an alternative to this process beyond the broad rubric of continuing the intifada.

Many, perhaps most, Palestinian opponents, inside Palestine and in the diaspora, have long since accepted a two-state formula as the national goal most reflective of reality, if not justice. They are uneasy about, afraid of, or dead set against this agreement precisely because they do not believe it will move forward the possibility of even a West Bank/Gaza state.

Regional Impact & Involvement

The Israeli-Jordanian pact followed the Palestinian agreement by only a day; it was widely viewed, throughout the Madrid process, of being derivative of Tel Aviv’s relationship with Palestine. The king now faces a reorchestration of his relations with Israel in the face of an international focus on the Palestinian-Israeli links, and a potential economic disaster as international funds (already sparse) head from the East Bank to the West Bank and wealthy Palestinians in Jordan take their money and head home.

The king has recently staked out a position distancing himself from a confederation with Palestine, stating that first their must be an independent Palestinian state to confederate with; the PLO leadership, especially Arafat, has already reasserted its intended links to Jordan before even the first Palestinian elections are held.

Syria, while expressing unhappiness about being kept out in the cold by the Palestinian diplomacy, stands a great deal to gain. Since Madrid many have believed that an Israeli-Syrian accord on the Golan was essentially done, waiting only for a situation in which Assad could sign on without appearing to betray the Arab consensus for a comprehensive regional settlement, especially for the Palestinians. Now he can go ahead, waiting only an Israeli decision that the public opinion is far enough along in accepting the Palestinian and Jordanian accords to be willing to deal with Syria too. An agreement for full Israeli withdrawal from a demilitarized Golan patrolled by U.S. troops, a “full peace” between Damascus and Tel Aviv, Israeli guarantees of Golani water, family reunification for the Syrians living under occupation, and a likely buy-out of the Israeli settlers on the Golan, is likely not far off.

On a broader regional level, Israel stands to gain a tremendous advantage in the economic, as well as political sphere, by the normalizing of relations with the Arab states, as well as other Islamic countries and especially the non-aligned African countries, even before there is any tangible change in the conditions of Palestinians on the ground. Together those countries represent a huge new market for Israeli goods, especially in the high-tech service and military hardware arenas.

A Note for NGOs

The sudden media- and government-driven reversal of the demonization of the PLO in the West holds many new possibilities but many dangers. The “cuddlization” of Yasir Arafat and his embrace by the West, while an important step towards legitimizing the PLO, still threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the national goals the organization has always represented. Whatever we may think about the agreement and the process that brought it into being, the PLO remains the repository of Palestine’s national aspirations, and is still the sole legitimate representative of its people.

Potential pressure points:

Enforcement of Geneva Conventions, and human rights issues generally. The agreement makes no mention of release of prisoners, ending administrative detention and other arbitrary arrest procedures, ending house demolitions and olive tree uprootings, recalling the death squads. Crucially, there is no indication that the March closure of the West Bank and Gaza from each other, from Israel and from Jerusalem, will be ended.

The question of land remains unresolved in the agreement. Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafi suggested that NGOs take up the question of an Israeli “gesture of good faith” in the form of releasing all seized Palestinian land not in actual immediate use.

The question of material aid remains. While huge sums of governmental and multi-lateral funds are likely to begin flowing, the grassroots organizations in the health, agriculture, women’s, students, and other arenas, especially those not tied to the PLO leadership, are likely to be bypassed.

A note to U.S. NGOs: it should not be forgotten that while the Clinton Administration is orchestrating an international Donors’ Conference to coordinate fundraising for the PLO and its institutions in the West Bank, the U.S. is still attempting to deport the Los Angeles Eight for raising money for West Bank institutions linked to one of the PLO’s constituent organizations…

A Final Note

Martin Luther King defined peace as “not just the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” The final verdict of this peace agreement will be rooted in whether it meets that criteria.

Phyllis Bennis
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3 Responses

  1. James Canning
    James Canning
    September 17, 2013, 2:37 pm

    Do we conclude that the defeat of G H W Bush was a disaster for the Palestinians?

  2. ivri
    September 17, 2013, 3:53 pm

    Regarding The final note paragraph:
    The term “justice” is the biggest victim of the Israel/Palestinian saga. A wholly contestable term in that context has still been furnished an absolutist interpretation with much ferocity and for so long as to have it impaired irredeemably. The damaging consequences of having diluted such a fundamental concept for mankind will leave all of us morally exposed.

  3. ramzijaber
    September 18, 2013, 8:53 am

    Very interesting tidbits about Oslo from Rabin’s closest aide

    I also find it really great to hear an Israeli say “When they become PM, they realize how utterly dependent Israel is on the US”, where Israel is nothing without the USA. Yet another proof that IF THE US GOV REALLY WANTS, they can enforce a settlement. Bottom line is that the US gov wants to keep the situation generally as is with Israel being superior militarily since it serves the US’s interests.

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