Five years ago this week, Washington was awash in celebration as Yasir Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin shook hands for the first time on the White House lawn.
But Sunday’s anniversary of the Oslo Accords was marked with a notable lack of ceremony and a growing feeling of dread about what may happen on May 4, 1999 — the date “final-status” negotiations, which haven’t even started except for a ceremonial opening session, are due to be completed.
Peace process supporters used the occasion to tell a distracted administration that American Jews still support the Oslo process; opponents stepped up their campaign to spotlight Arafat’s failure to comply with Oslo. The Zionist Organization of America marked the anniversary with a 60-page report on Palestinian violations.
At a surprise meeting with
a delegation of pro-Oslo activists, President Bill Clinton promised to intensify his efforts to bring peace to the region, despite the distractions of scandals at home and spreading economic crises around the world.
But that didn’t dispel a somber mood among peace process supporters.
“The fact that we are having this gathering five years after Oslo — when we were supposed to be deep into final-status negotiations — tells a sad story of squandered opportunities,” said one of the leaders of the pro-Oslo rally on Sunday.
The Oslo commemorations took place against the backdrop of yet another mission to the region by special envoy Dennis Ross. U.S. and Israeli officials continued to insist that an agreement on the long-delayed Israeli redeployment on the West Bank was very close. But as always, it was hard to separate reality from wishful thinking and downright spin.
What was obvious was the ticking clock; more and more, administration officials are haunted by the looming deadline.
Palestinian leader Arafat has threatened to declare a Palestinian state on May 4, prompting warnings of strong Israeli retaliation. Officials here see that clash as a looming disaster.
“Everybody has to be concerned about what’s going to happen next,” Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, told The Jewish Week. “If they haven’t resolved the problems by May, 1999 and agreed to fulfill their commitments under the existing agreements, it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
But the administration remains committed to the Oslo format, he said. “From our point of view, there’s only one process; we have to get it back on track and get both sides dealing with the final-status issues.”
Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer and one of the primary architects of the original Declaration of Principles, said that the best option may be to prolong the interim period indefinitely, but there are few indications a restive Palestinian Authority is prepared to do that.
At a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, Singer insisted that the process he helped create is not dead — but warned that a declaration of Palestinian statehood might be the coup de grace.
“If they take unilateral steps, it means the fundamental agreement is gone,” he said.
He suggested an extension of the interim period beyond May 4, along with a continuing effort to resolve enough interim issues to begin final-status talks. He pointed to other interim agreements that have lasted for years without producing final treaties, such as the disengagement disagreement with Syria after the Yom Kippur war.
Indyk said that the administration is not opposed to an extension — but that “it is an issue the parties would have to deal with once they got into negotiating again.”
The main Oslo event took place at a Washington synagogue, where pro-peace process activists tried to maintain an upbeat tone despite the stalemated talks. Sponsors included the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, American for Peace Now, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm. About 400 attended — significantly fewer than promoters had expected.
The event drew the fire of the Netanyahu government, which complained to U.S. officials about Indyk’s participation in what they termed a “left-wing” gathering.
Rabbi Seymour Essrog, the RA president and one of the hosts, scoffed at that charge.
“We represent 90 percent of the Jewish religious community in the United States, so I wouldn’t characterize this as a left-wing movement,” he said. “This is really the mainstream.”
Speakers included Leah Rabin, who termed Sept. 13, 1993 “one wonderful day in the history of the Jewish people,” and Brig. Gen. Yossi Genosar, a former division head of the Israeli General Security Services.
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, acknowledged what was on many minds — the fear that “new bitterness and new hopelessness, a new and truly unbearable cycle of violence, is our only future.”
At a White House briefing before the rally, leaders of the sponsoring committee were joined unexpectedly by President Clinton, who received an extended ovation.
“There was a reciprocal warmth in that room,” said Seymour Reich, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who was moderator of the pro-Oslo event. “He was obviously very pleased with the reception; it was a boost for him.”
Clinton reassured the group “that he is still personally very committed and involved in the peace process,” Reich said. “He was on top of things; he knew the issues and he knew what this group represented. And I think he was sending a message to Israel through us — that there is a possibility of a train wreck if we can’t get past the current stalemate.”
Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval declined an invitation to attend or send a high-level representative to the pro-Oslo gathering. Arab-American groups, which played a major role in the Sept. 13, 1993 events in Washington, were conspicuously, absent from the Oslo commemorations.
“There’s nothing to celebrate,” said James Zogby, executive director of the Arab-American Institute. “People [in Gaza and the West Bank] are poorer, have less hope and less freedom to move than before Oslo was signed. Our community is disillusioned with the way Oslo is being implemented and upset that the Jewish community we worked with after Oslo rolled over when Netanyahu changed the rules.”