For Israel, the peace process has always been about demography
The 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords has been marked with unsurprisingly downbeat coverage and talk of broken promises. Marginalised or neglected in much of the analysis, however, has been an honest appraisal of Israel’s own strategic considerations at the time.
First, from Israel’s point of view, Oslo was not about Palestinian statehood. According to the 1993 Declaration of Principles, the primary aim of negotiations was “to establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority…for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement”.
There is no mention of Palestinian statehood, and the precise nature of the ‘permanent settlement’ is not stipulated. Israeli leaders were thus able to speak endlessly about the need for peace, but without agreeing to a Palestinian state, let alone recognising Palestinian self-determination.
With respect to then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he did not support the establishment of a sovereign state in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Labour’s platform in the 1992 elections promised a “Jordanian-Palestinian framework that will agree to extensive cooperation with Israel, not a separate Palestinian state west of the Jordan (River).”
In December 1994, a letter authored by a senior aide to Rabin stated: “The prime minister is of the opinion that there is no room for a Palestinian state.” Rabin also reportedly once described Oslo as a gamble, and that if it failed, “we will have a carte blanche to take everything back.”
But of particular importance is an address made by Rabin to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, just a month before he was assassinated. Here, Rabin was quite detailed about what precisely his government envisaged with respect to the end goal of Oslo.
“We view the permanent solution in the framework of State of Israel which will include most of the area of the Land of Israel as it was under the rule of the British Mandate and alongside it a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” he declared.
“We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority,” Rabin added.
This was not just rhetoric – as Amira Hass wrote in 2011, “it was during Rabin's second term that the bypass roads to the settlements were built, making Psagot and the Etzion Bloc part of Jerusalem.” Indeed, it was Rabin who originally authorised settlement construction plans for the so-called ‘E1’ area of the central West Bank.
So, if the accords were not about nation-building, what were they about?
Returning to Rabin’s October 1995 Knesset speech, the Labour leader said the following: “We emphasised to the electorate, at every opportunity that we preferred a Jewish state, even if not on every part of the Land of Israel, to a binational state, which would emerge with the annexation of 2.2 million Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”
This perspective is crucial – it contextualises Oslo and Israel’s strategic motivations in the broader history of settler colonialism in Palestine, and helps us understand not just Rabin’s thinking, but the thinking of other "surprise converts" who would come after him, like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Alongside Rabin, Shimon Peres is perhaps the Israeli political figure most associated with the Oslo Accords, and with the "peace process" more broadly.
Some fifteen years before the ceremony on the White House lawn, in 1978, then-leader of the opposition Peres told Israeli premier Menachem Begin that “Jordan is Palestine” and that he was “against…another Palestinian country, against an Arafat state.”
However, Peres also told Begin that there would ultimately be “no choice but a functional compromise” in the West Bank “because we won’t know what to do with the Arabs.” He went on: “We’ll reach 1.8 million Arabs, and I see our situation as getting very difficult and not a matter of police or prison…I see them eating the Galilee and my heart bleeds.”
“They live in houses in Afula and in Acre and they take over entire streets. The moshavim [rural collective communities] are full of Arab labourers, and Jews sitting in their houses and playing tennis and the Arabs are working in the fields. That doesn’t seem right to me,” Peres added.
Peres and Rabin thus approached the Oslo Accords, and the preceding secret talks, as a means of stifling the First Intifada, reducing the burden of occupation, but, above all, as part of the long-standing demographic battle to preserve a Jewish majority state.
In other words, while for many in the West it was assumed that the peace process was about geography, in fact for Israel it has always been about demography.
“Oslo, in my view, was a clever way for the Labour Party to create a series of Bantustans in which the Palestinians would be confined and dominated by Israel, at the same time hinting that a quasi-state for Palestinians would come into being,” wrote Edward Said in 1998 with characteristic clarity.
“To Israelis, Rabin and Peres spoke openly about separation, not as providing Palestinians with the right to self-determination but as a way of marginalising and diminishing them, leaving the land basically to the more powerful Israelis,” he continued.
Thus, while Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decade in power has seen the consolidation of a de facto single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, it was the Oslo Accords and Rabin’s vision of separation which lay the foundations for today’s apartheid status quo.