Thursday, 14 February 2013

Have the Oslo Accords had their day?

If anyone believed that support for Palestinian national aspirations was ipso facto incompatible with maintaining close and friendly relations with Israel, they need only look to Cyprus.

On Friday 8 February Cyprus upgraded the status of its Palestinian Authority (PA) diplomatic representation to that of Embassy, and the head of the Palestinian diplomatic mission to Cyprus, Walid Al-Hassan, became a fully-fledged Ambassador. “All official correspondence will now be done in the name of the State of Palestine," he informed the world’s media. “Cyprus is the first European state to upgrade Palestinian status since the UN vote."

Until PA President Mahmoud Abbas succeeded in upgrading the Palestinians’ UN status to “non-member observer state” in November 2012, the broader Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was, by general agreement, governed by the Oslo Accords. In accordance with those undertakings, signed in 1993 and 1995, both Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that a final status settlement would be negotiated between them. It is, therefore, a fair assumption that Abbas’s UN initiative amounted to turning his back on the Accords − and equally that the UN General Assembly, in its wisdom, had done likewise.

Yet both the General Assembly’s vote, and Cyprus’s subsequent upgrading of the PA’s diplomatic status are, in legal terms, merely cosmetic − they do nothing to change the status of the PA in international law. Nor does Cyprus’s initiative represent any sudden shift in policy, for it has always supported Palestinian sovereign aspirations. It was as far back as 1988 that Cyprus formally recognised Palestine as a state within the 1967 boundaries, while in May 2011 it upgraded what was then simply “the general delegation of Palestine” in Cyprus to the status of “diplomatic mission.”

However this decision is not perceived by the Cypriot government as altering its excellent relations with Israel which, like Greece’s, have been flourishing in recent years in parallel with the increasing deterioration of Israel’s relations with Turkey. In announcing the PA’s diplomatic upgrade, Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis expressed "full support" not only for Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty but also for those of Israel for security through a comprehensive negotiated peace based on a two-state solution.

Israeli-Cyprus relations, excellent for a number of years and founded on a thriving tourist industry, have been boosted by the recent discovery of huge oil and natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as what is now the world's longest subsea electric power cable. The alliance has been further strengthened by collaboration on military, cultural and political matters.

All of which goes to show that support for Palestinian national aspirations is not necessarily incompatible with maintaining close and friendly relations with Israel. What it does betray is the basic anomaly at the heart of the current state of the Oslo Accords. In all logic they are a dead letter, yet they also provide the basis on which the current fragile status quo on the West Bank is maintained.

Under the Accords Israel agreed to withdraw in part from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in favor of autonomous Palestinian rule, which was to last for a five-year interim period. Permanent status negotiations, based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, would commence no later than May 1996.

Israel indeed withdrew, but the final status negotiations never took place. A basic requirement of the agreement was breached; accordingly the Oslo Accords no longer governed the relationship between Israel and the PA. What had been established, however, was the first phase of providing the Palestinians with self-government pending a permanent agreement. Under the Accords the West Bank and the Gaza strip were regarded as one territory, and in 1994 Israel began a phased withdrawal from Gaza and a handover of its administration to the PA. The West Bank was divided into three zones:
  • Area A –under the Palestinian Authority's full control and including all Palestinian cities and surrounding areas with no civilian Israeli presence.
  • Area B –under the Palestinian Authority's civil control and Israel's security control and including areas of dense Palestinian population with no civilian Israeli presence.
  • Area C –under full Israeli control, except over Palestinian civilians. This area includes all West Bank settlements and their immediate vicinity as well as strategic areas dubbed "security zones."
The Gaza strip was wrenched from the PA’s grasp in 2008 by Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group opposed to all attempts at reaching a peace agreement with Israel, while also aiming to oust their rivals, Fatah, from the West Bank and perhaps, eventually, from the PA altogether.

As for the West Bank, the Oslo Accords arrangement remains, by mutual agreement, the basis on which the region is currently administered. It is. moreover. the generally accepted road map along which the parties will have to travel to reach a final agreement. The Accords were, after all, signed not only by Israel and the PA as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, but were also witnessed by representatives of the USA, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Norway and the EU. Despite the inconsistencies at the heart of the current situation, despite the PA’s new status at the UN, they remain the only generally acknowledged road map.

So half-dead the Oslo Accords might well be, but they must surely provide the starting point for any new attempt to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. As the catch-phrase has it: “there’s life in the old dog yet”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 14 February 2013:
http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=303147&prmusr=scK4u5QXSHEwzHAi6aqeDOI8dmmPhePOFTyhs1CZu%2boyhzFZHWbRWkFQx1pDT9j%2f

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