“While … ambiguity may have motivated extremist contingents on both sides to acquiesce, intractable issues were kicked like a can down the road.”
Nearly three decades have elapsed since the signing of the Oslo Accords by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), yet peace continues to elude the region. The Accords, initially praised as a monumental breakthrough, resulted in mutual PLO-Israeli recognition of each other’s legitimacy – and were intended to serve as a framework for peace that would see the PLO renounce terrorism and affirm Israel’s existence. Accordingly, an interim Palestinian Authority (PA), would be established to govern contested territories for five years before an eventual two-state solution.
While the negotiating climate was initially optimistic, subsequent treaty violations and the Second Intifada have caused a near-complete breakdown in negotiations. Therefore, while I hold treaty violations culpable for stymieing the peace process, I argue that a deeper problem facilitates them: the constructive ambiguity of open-ended agreements which allow certain factions to pay mere lip service to compromise; pursuing instead domestically appealing outcomes on intractable issues such as settlements and ‘the right of return’, or by appeasing extremist factions – all at the expense of mutual trust.
Intractable issues in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict center around the biblically significant and contested Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Previously occupied by Jordan and Egypt post-Palestinian Mandate, Israel has occupied these territories since the 1967 Six-Day War, seeing significant influxes of Jewish migrants to so-called ‘settlements’, and reciprocally, significant outflows of Palestinian refugees into surrounding Arab nations. Consequently, the PLO consistently advocated for an end to Israeli occupation from all the territories, and the ‘the right of return’ of refugees under the authority of Security Council resolutions 237 and 338. However, Israel interprets its obligations under these resolutions differently, and maintains that the return of refugees is not explicitly a right, but limited return could potentially be part of a long-term peace deal.
A Palestinian woman argues with an Israeli border policeman in the West Bank. Mohamed Torokman/Reuters
Therefore, before a sustained peace, these intractable issues must be resolved through compromise. To accomplish this, the strategy chosen by diplomats was constructive ambiguity: the deliberate use of ambiguous language when negotiating intractable issues. Used successfully in the past to negotiate Security Council Resolution 242 between Egypt and Israel – proponents reasoned that such a strategy could advance both PLO and Israeli interests by enabling each party to claim concessions, thus achieving an interim conclusion of sorts on intractable issues. In short, constructive ambiguity “is about postponing hard choices.” Accordingly, the negotiating text was then portrayed as an interim ‘framework’ for peace, based on the hope that mutual trust could be fostered gradually through reciprocated conciliatory initiatives.
Nonetheless, amid ambiguities, one critical factor remains steadfast: “For a framework agreement to be credible, it must not only mention the core issues but actually identify how each issue is to be resolved.”
However, Oslo I, which produced The Declaration on Principles (DOP), was “conspicuously silent about the form the permanent status arrangements [would] take.” Its full name, The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, is fitting, because only two of the treaty’s seventeen articles even hint at a permanent settlement.
The first, Article I, proposes “a permanent settlement based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338” as the desired endstate of negotiations. Given pre-existing disagreements over interpreting these already ambiguous UN resolutions, because the DOP does not even bother to put forth a definitive interpretation, its vagueness is thereby compounded twofold. The second, Article V, proposes ‘permanent status negotiations’ regarding the aforementioned intractable issues, to be held on a date to be later specified. Therefore, while the DOP’s ambiguity may have motivated extremist contingents on both sides to acquiesce, intractable issues were kicked like a can down the road. Subsequently, this lack of specificity invited leaders on both sides to “interpret the agreements … in a manner that was convenient for them – even if this meant that they would be moving in opposite directions.”
Prime Minister Rabin. Reuters
For example, Prime Minister Rabin promised his constituents that “the borders of the State of Israel, during [a] permanent solution, [would] be beyond the lines which existed before the Six-Day War.” Operating based on its victory in 1967, Israel approached subsequent negotiations under the belief that an eventual settlement would entail the retention of East Jerusalem and Palestinian concessions regarding claims to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the other hand, the PLO believed that they were negotiating through a pre-1948 lens, and according to Chairman Arafat, expected nothing less than “the dismantlement of occupation and the complete withdrawal of occupation troops from [Palestinian] land, … holy places and holy Jerusalem.”
Furthermore, the two parties maintained their uncompromising positions on the aforementioned ‘right of return,’ and Israel continued to increase its settler population in the West Bank, albeit at a slower pace during 1995-96. Consequently, the sheer incompatibility of their opposing positions, which were allowed to solidify during the ambiguous interim period, only strengthened unrealistic expectations among extremist factions, cementing mutual distrust and divergence from the spirit of compromise.
Former Israeli Labor Party politician Yossi Beilin, suspects that the interim solution was created “so that a permanent agreement would never be reached … [before] another round of elections in Israel, which would allow extremists from both sides to thwart” the peace process. His premonitions materialized with Rabin’s assassination by an ultranationalist and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing Likud politician in 1996. Under Netanyahu, Israeli deviations from the DOP’s object and purpose, increased in latitude, given the Likud’s uncompromising stance on the intractable issues.
For instance, Netanyahu lifted the partial freeze on settlement building in the West Bank and authorized the opening of an ancient tunnel that led to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which was interpreted by Palestinians as “a declaration of war on the peace process.” Reciprocally, the inability, or rather, unwillingness, of Arafat to wrangle extremist Hamas resulted in numerous terrorist attacks in response to perceived Israeli provocations.
Former Labor Party politician Yossi Beilin. Amir Levy/Flash90
Later that year, tensions came to a head when Likud politician, Ariel Sharon, visited the religiously sacred Temple Mount, also known as the Haram al-Sharif, which is claimed by both Jews and Muslims. As Sharon asserted Israel’s sovereignty over the holy site, he was met with violence and condemnation by Palestinians, who labeled the incident as yet another Israeli provocation to “kill the peace.” Subsequently, the violence, which became known as the Second Intifada, only escalated with the brutal retaliatory killings of two Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. In turn, the killings were met with overwhelming force by the IDF, who reoccupied territories that they had previously vacated during redeployment five years earlier.
As a result, no progress was made at the Taba Summit: a last-ditch effort to broker mutual concessions in July 2000, and when Sharon was elected Prime Minister in 2001, he did not resume negotiations – given the extent that mutual trust had deteriorated. Furthermore, with Arafat’s death in 2005 and Hamas’ ascendence within the PA to fill the vacuum, negotiations have since reached a diplomatic impasse that remains unresolved.
Israeli Soldiers taking part in Operation Defensive Shield, 2002. IDF Photo
In summation, while constructive ambiguity was needed to bring parties to the bargaining table, it proved destructive rather than constructive – and has since stymied the resolution of intractable issues by empowering factions to pursue unilateral interests, rather than compromise.
Therefore, instead of gradually building mutual trust, the Oslo Peace Process eroded it. Even before the Second Intifada, the Israelis did not believe that Arafat was capable of abandoning his militant origins, due to Hamas terrorist attacks, and the Palestinians doubted Israeli sincerity due to Likud hardliners. Therefore, for future negotiations to be successful, parties must approach negotiations wholeheartedly, ready to make specific concessions on the spot that are spelled out explicitly in binding legal text.
Ambiguity over intractable issues, while convenient in the short term to give the illusion of progress, merely enables extremist factions in their efforts to topple the entire house of diplomatic cards – thereby creating a larger, and more complicated mess to further alienate parties.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or position of the US Government, the Department of Defense or the US Army.