Hardly anything is more agreed among both Israelis and Palestinians than the condemnation of the Oslo Accords. They did not bring peace, or continue with the steps included in the agreements that were meant to bring the parties closer to peace.
Since Oslo, Israeli and Palestinians at the highest levels have been able to talk about their mutual problems. Often it has been through lower tier colleagues. The big men may not have wanted to tarnish their standing by dealing directly and publicly with the other. There have been breaks in the connection, and no small amount of violence. But since Oslo, there has been a Palestinian address for Israel to deal with.
According to participants in the original negotiations, one secret of their success was to avoid historical disputes about who was to be blamed for what, and to concentrate on what each side was willing to accept at that time.
While Oslo applied to both Gaza and the West Bank, the unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005 left in place the agreed-upon, albeit temporary, divisions of land and responsibilities in the West Bank.
In Area A there is civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority on seven Palestinian cities and their surrounding villages, i.e., Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem and most of Hebron.
Area B provides Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control on Palestinian villages and their surrounding lands.
Area C includes areas of Jewish settlements, and provides for Israeli civil and security control.
Each side claims that the other has violated the terms or spirit of the agreement. Palestinians charge that Israel has not continued withdrawing from areas as promised, and has expanded settlements. Israelis charge that Palestinians have not ceased anti-Israel propaganda in schools and media.
What is best about Oslo is that it has survived for 20 years, despite frequent Palestinian threats to walk away and return all responsibility to Israel if Israel does not comply with one or another demand.
What we are seeing, helped by two decades of hindsight, is that Oslo did the easy part. That both explains its success, and the failure of both sides to complete its promises toward the near future and further pave the way to a complete peace.
It worked by avoiding the most difficult of issues: refugees, Jerusalem, final borders, and Jewish settlers.
Those remain to stifle further progress.
Oslo provided the Palestinians a firmer base for international politicking via Israel's recognition of the PLO, and it provided a freedom of day to day friction with Israelis most of the time in most large Palestinian settlements. The status associated with their own government if not their own "state," the financial aid going to the Palestine Authority, not all of which seeps through to Palestinian residents, may be the best explanation of why Palestinian leaders have not carried out their threats to cancel the agreement and disband themselves.
For Israel, the agreement ends responsibility for day to day administration of most Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel continues to build in its settlements, limited only by how it chooses to respond to international pressure and its own internal politics.
We can argue if the glass is more or less than half full.
The Israeli military and other security forces occasionally enter Palestinian cities or villages in response to overt violence, to pursue those wanted for acts of violence, or intelligence indicating that violence is imminent.
There were major incursions, with substantial destruction and casualties during the Intifada that began in 2000 and gradually petered out a half decade later. The intifada left considerable damage in the form of distrust that pervades the right of center in Israeli politics, much of the center, and is by no means absent from the left. Yet the distrust has not precluded commitments apparent in the left and center, as well as the right, to further negotiations that advocates hope will bring a final agreement, or least agreements on details beyond those apparent under Oslo..
There have been years with little violence, but a recent upturn may be associated with the onset of the Kerry round of negotiations.
There remain substantial barriers to any further success, along with signs that the two parties could get along reasonably well if left alone.
The toughest issues are still there.
Jerusalem presents several problems.
While substantial elements of the Israeli polity refuse to consider "dividing Jerusalem," that may be the most symbolic and least substantial of the slogans focusing on the city. Other substantial elements of the Jewish population of Jerusalem want to rid themselves of Palestinian neighborhoods, and extend the security wall between themselves and areas said to produce car thieves, fire bombings, attacks on women, and other unpleasantness.
Would Palestine be given a piece of what Israel currently calls Jerusalem to serve as its capital?
That does not seem beyond the realm of possibility, but would depend on Palestinian cooperation on other matters.
Especially sticky is the Temple Mount, the location of the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque. Israeli Jews generally avoid the area, some of them for religious reasons connected with fear of treading on holy ground. However, Jews in Israel and elsewhere insist on access, and are appalled by Palestinian insistence that Jews never had a claim on the place, that come along with Palestinian efforts to destroy archaeological evidence of the historical realities.
Carving up Jerusalem in the best of spirits would be a daunting task. Not are they places where Arab and Jewish homes abut and mix with one another, but it is not clear how many East Jerusalem Arabs want to become residents of a Palestinian state.
Refugees are another discouraging issue. The passage of a decade or more may resolve the problem of those who left what became Israel in 1948 by their own willingness or by the force of the nascent Israeli army. However, the Palestinian claim includes the rights of refugees' descendants to return where they never lived.
Some would solve this issue by compensation. However, that claim is complicated by Jewish demands for compensation for property left behind in a number of Muslim countries that their families left under pressure. Imagine that Israel waits on an agreement about compensating Arabs until the governments of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran sort out the claims for compensation by Jews.
Moreover, the Palestinians have invested so much effort in instilling demands for returning home that it may be impossible for any leadership to agree to the existential refusal of Israelis to accept even a small flood of Palestinian newcomers.
The boundaries of Israel and Palestine, beyond Jerusalem, present issues that so far have been defined by Palestinians as based on the lines of 1967, with territory swaps to accommodate some Israeli settlements. The Israeli leadership refuses to accept the validity of the 1967 lines as a starting point, and shows no signs of the generosity in terms of land swaps that Palestinians demand.
The outlying settlements are their own problem. While some Israelis are inclined to dismantle them, others are steadfast in opposing such a move, citing the Palestinians' violent response to the dismantling of settlement in Gaza. Moreover, the demand of Mahmoud Abbas that Palestine must be free of all Israelis (or Jews), reminds a substantial portion of the Israeli population about the worst of Jewish history, and turns them against any continuation of discussions.
When this round of discussions began, the parties committed themselves to avoid any report or discussions in public about what was being discussed in private.
We can argue about how well each side has complied with that commitment.
Among the outbursts are the frequent recitations of both sides' essential demands about refugees, settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and the maintenance of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley. There have been frequent Palestinian assertions that Israel is violating the terms of discussion by continuing the construction in settlements, against the Israeli retort that the Palestinians knew that settlement construction would continue along with the payment of prisoner releases to the Palestinians.
Among the mantras heard by those who condemn Oslo as a failure is the assurance that the status quo cannot continue.
I'm not sure.
So far, so good. It has been better than what preceded it. The most extreme of Palestinian elements now have their own game to play in Gaza. The West Bank is showing signs of economic progress, including the construction of a major new town near Ramallah. Years of limited violence allowed the reopening of Israel to the daily inflow of Palestinian workers from the West Bank. While there have been instances of violence associated with this, in the main it works, and contributes to the economy of the West Bank.
The lack of Palestinian statehood may be an anomaly, but it may continue along with other cases of restive, but mostly quiescent minorities elsewhere, that have various degrees of autonomy, either formal or informal.
The details of history, violence, and international concern elsewhere are not exactly like the details of Israel and the Palestinians. The fit is much closer between other countries' accommodation of ethnic minorities and the cases of Israel's Arab citizens and the Arab residents of Jerusalem. The Palestinians of the West Bank are highly dependent on Israel, and lack the right to vote in Israeli elections. However, they do have a voice in Israeli policymaking, aided by Israeli activists and reinforced by inputs from greater powers.
Given the sensitivity of the unresolved, and perhaps unsolvable issues between Israel and Palestine, acceptance of the status quo appears to be more healthy than the clamoring of outsiders for solutions that meet their views. The downside of what may be well meaning, but naive efforts may be to heighten expectations and frustrations. Palestinian incitement can easily escalate, with local gangs infused with religious and nationalist extremism, itching to take action against the nearest Jew. Should that be unleashed, the inevitably harsh Israeli response will not be long in coming.
What we have comes largely from the Oslo Accords. It is not ideal, but it has proved to be tolerable, and so far durable, despite criticisms.