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Tomgram: Sandy Tolan, Was Oslo Doomed From the Start?

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Honestly, what is it about Fridays, the Trump administration, and the Palestinians? Each of the last three Fridays, "at the direction of the president," State Department officials have unveiled new cuts to U.S. aid, all aimed at Palestinian civilians (after the U.S. had already made "drastic cuts to its contribution to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees" back in January). Three Fridays ago, more than $200 million for humanitarian and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza was slashed. Two Fridays ago, it was another $60 million, previously scheduled to go to the U.N. agency running schools and health clinics there. Last Friday, the administration went after six East Jerusalem hospitals, including "cutting money to cover cancer treatments and other critical care." All told, it adds up to more than $300 million in aid cuts aimed at the most vulnerable of Palestinians.

This evidently passes for a negotiating tactic in the Trump era, as the president made all too clear in a recent new year's call to American Jewish community leaders and rabbis. In a world in which Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have already given copiously to the Israelis -- moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the hilt -- this is apparently how the art of the deal applies to the Middle East. ("If we don't make a deal, we're not paying," said the president in that phone call. "And that's going to have a little impact.")

No one should be surprised by any of this. As its grim policy of separating children and their parents on the U.S.-Mexico border demonstrated, Donald Trump's administration has no hesitation about going after the weakest human link in any chain. And sadly, while his is a particularly extreme version of American policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it remains more culmination than break on this grim 25th anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accords, as TomDispatchregular Sandy Tolan, author of Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land, suggests today. Tom

From Peace to Armageddon
The Israel-Palestine Nightmare
By Sandy Tolan

When I first traveled to Israel-Palestine in 1994, during the heady early days of the Oslo peace process, I was expecting to see more of the joyful celebrations I'd watched on television at home. The emotional welcoming of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat back to Palestine. The massive demonstrations for peace on the streets of Tel Aviv. The spontaneous moment when Palestinians placed carnations in the gun barrels of departing Israeli soldiers. And though the early euphoria had already begun to ebb, clearly there was still hope.

It was the era of dialogue. Many Palestinians stood witness to Israeli trauma rooted in the Holocaust. Groups of Israelis began to understand the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948. In the wake of the Oslo Declaration of Principles, signed on September 13, 1993 -- a quarter of a century ago today -- polls showed that large majorities of Israelis and Palestinians supported the agreement. Israelis, weary of a six-year Palestinian intifada, wanted Oslo to lead to lasting peace; Palestinians believed it would result in the creation of a free nation of their own, side by side with Israel.

"People thought this was the beginning of a new era," says Salim Tamari, Palestinian sociologist and editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly.

"It was miraculous," recalls Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, "a high peak of optimism and hope." Baskin, an American who emigrated to Israel nearly 40 years ago, remembers the emotional power of "these two parties who refused to recognize each other's right to exist coming into a room and breaking through that and putting down a formula which, at the time, looked reasonable."

Euphoria Never Lasts

Even then, however, there were disturbing signs. During that first trip, still in the glow of Oslo, I found myself in the heart of the West Bank, driving down new, smooth-as-glass "bypass roads" built for Israeli settlers and VIPs on my way from Bethlehem to Hebron. I was confused. Wasn't this the territory-to-be of a future independent Palestinian state? Why, then, would something like this be authorized? Similarly, the next year, when Israeli forces undertook their much-heralded "withdrawal" from Ramallah, why did they only redeploy to the edge of that town, while retaining full military control of 72% of the West Bank?

Such stubborn facts on the ground stood in the way of the seemingly overwhelming optimism generated by that "peace of the brave," symbolized by a handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in front of President Clinton on the White House lawn. Was it possible we were witnessing the beginning of the end of generations of bloodshed and trauma?

Already, however, there were dissenters. Mourid Barghouti, a Palestinian poet who, like thousands of his brethren, returned from exile in the early days of Oslo, was shocked to find former PLO liberation fighters reduced to the status of petty bureaucrats lording it over ordinary citizens. Israel, he wrote in his memoir, I Saw Ramallah, had "succeeded in tearing away the sacred aspect of the Palestinian cause, turning it into what it is now -- a series of 'procedures' and 'schedules' that are usually respected only by the weaker party in the conflict... The others are still masters of the place."

Another Oslo critic, Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual and professor of comparative literature at Columbia, refused a White House invitation to attend the signing ceremony between Arafat and Rabin. Oslo, he wrote, should be considered "an instrument of Palestinian surrender... a kingdom of illusions, with Israel firmly in command. Clearly the PLO has transformed itself from a national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government... What Israel has gotten is official Palestinian consent to continued occupation."

At the time, many Palestinians wrote off Said as someone intent on obstructing real, if incremental, progress. Arafat himself said that, living as he did in America, the famed professor "does not feel the suffering of his people."

Or maybe he did. In my nearly 20 trips to the Holy Land over the quarter-century since Oslo, I watched the West Bank settler population quadruple, new settlements come to ring Jerusalem, and Israel keep full military control over 60% of the West Bank (instead of the previous 72%). All those settler "bypass" roads and limited troop redeployments turned out to point not simply to obstacles on the road to the culmination of the "peace process" but to fatal flaws baked into Oslo from the beginning. Indeed, the Oslo Declaration of Principles, which mentioned security 12 times but never once independence, sovereignty, self-determination, freedom, or Palestine, simply wasn't designed to stop such expansion. In fact, the accords only seemed to facilitate it.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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