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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 29, 2003

Road Map Torn by Ambiguity

There is something intellectually dishonest about a "peace process" that tacitly promises mutually exclusive demands to the Israelis and Palestinians by papering over their differences until they inevitably collide. In the parlance of diplomacy, this is called "creative ambiguity." It formed the basis of the failed Oslo accords in the 1990s, and it will surely spell the demise of the current "road map" for peace.

The Oslo accords, agreed upon by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, was an exercise in creative ambiguity. At the signing ceremony, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Jerusalem the "ancient and eternal capital of the Jewish people" and said it "must remain united and be our capital forever." Conversely, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat interpreted Oslo to mean "the Palestinian flag will soon fly over Jerusalem."

Rabin would later show signs he was willing to trade parts of East Jerusalem for peace, but contrary to common opinion, Arafat never pledged to crack down on the rejectionist Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Why were these issues not explicitly addressed in the Oslo accords? "The reason for this silence is not hard to understand," one Oxford professor noted at the time. "If these issues had been addressed, there would have been no accord."

The seeds of conflict were there from the start, but the so-called "interim period" belied this fact. It addressed the easy questions while putting off the thorny "final status" issues. The theory was that the two sides would begin with confidence-building measures, and by the time compromises were needed, both sides would be ready. Israel would begin withdrawing from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho. Simultaneously, elsewhere in the Palestinian-dominated West Bank, Israel would transfer authority over education, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank would then hold elections to create their own government, the Palestinian Authority.

Unfortunately, it was a honeymoon built on false pretenses. What were the issues on which the 1993 agreement was mute? None other than the core components of the conflict itself — not just the future status of Jerusalem and Arafat's strategy to clamp down on terrorists but also the borders of any Palestinian state, limitations on Israeli settlements and the so-called Palestinian right of return. On the crux of the conflict, Oslo said nothing at all. Both the Israelis and Palestinians believed that the empty vessel of Oslo would ultimately be filled with their dueling visions of Palestine.[more]