The Secret Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations in Oslo: Their Success
and Why the Process Ultimately Failed by Sven Behrendt. Oxford:
Routledge, 2007. 176 pp. Hardcover, $120.
Riad al Khouri
Riad al Khouri, the director of Middle East Business Associates,
Amman, is a visiting scholar at the Middle East Center of the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut.
Despite its title, this book is no potboiler, being a recent
publication in the scholarly Durham Modern Middle East and Islamic
World Series. Rather, The Secret Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations
in Oslo looks at the topic against the background of negotiation
concepts and strategies, focusing particularly on the timely issue
of non-recognition. That was certainly a significant topic in the
early 1990s when the book's events mainly took place; but is a
vital one today, given the emergence of Hamas as a key political
player, and the soap opera currently playing in Palestine and world
capitals starring various forces and governments refusing to
recognize one another.
Since 2000 Sven Behrendt has worked for the World Economic Forum
(WEF), where he set up and ran numerous projects focusing on
geopolitics and business strategy, including several in the Arab
world. Behrendt's credentials are sound, on both the theory of
negotiation and the real-life issues of the region, and his
description and analysis do not disappoint. He starts by showing
how Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were
facing challenges in the late 1980s and early 1990s that drove them
to start talking to each other. Although Arab-Israeli diplomacy was
always there, what made the Oslo negotiations different were
direct, face-to-face talks between Israel and the PLO.
Oslo called for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West
Bank, affirming Palestinian self-government there. After an interim
period, the two sides were to negotiate permanent agreements on
deliberately excluded "final status" issues such as Jerusalem,
refugees and Israeli settlements. However, with these core topics
off the table, what did Oslo actually accomplish? Most important,
the two sides had engaged in formal mutual recognition. The
Israelis officially accepted the PLO as the legitimate
representative of the Palestinians, who in turn recognized the
right of Israel to exist, and renounced terrorism and
While the accord raised hopes for an end to conflict, skepticism
abounded. The many subsequent negotiations ended in the fiasco of
the 2000 Camp David Summit, which failed to resolve final status
issues. The al-Aqsa Intifada followed, and the rest, as they say,
In the final analysis, Oslo was an icebreaker. Not that icebreaking
is not an honorable activity, or indeed a necessary one. The last
chapter in the book is tellingly entitled "The Success of the Oslo
Talks - and Why the Process Failed." Behrendt correctly concludes
that the lack of longer-term vision on both sides doomed Oslo, but
it was, in its own way, a successful breaking of the ice.
Where are we today, 14 years later? James Wolfensohn summed it up
by ending an interview in Haaretz earlier this year on a note of
exasperation: "Israelis and Palestinians really should get over
thinking that they're a show on Broadway. They are a show in the
Village, off-off-off-off-Broadway. I hope I don't get into too much
trouble for saying this, but what the hell, that's what I believe,
and I'm 73."
Wolfensohn is a 21st-century Old Testament patriarch who will
certainly not get into hot water over his outspokenness. I, neither
a septuagenarian nor Jewish, hope I can stay out of trouble for
repeating something I said on the record in late 1995 about
Arab-Israeli rapprochement: "The ice has been broken but the
temperature is still below zero. It could easily freeze over
again." I made that comment in the wake of an ice-breaking WEF
conference in Amman. Held before Behrendt joined the Forum, that
event, which was overt and large-scale, brought together in Jordan
for the first time Arab and Israeli public- and private-sector
decision-makers to talk business. Such an open gathering would have
been unthinkable before the October 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace
accord, which, in fact, the Oslo agreement had made possible. The
Palestinians having signed such a treaty with Israel, a pact
between Jordan and Israel became easy to conclude - and indeed
inevitable -just over a year after Oslo.
However, the PLO's pact with the Jewish state had already sown the
seeds for open Israeli-Jordanian cooperation, as can be seen
clearly in Annex IV of the Oslo agreement. Entitled "Protocol on
Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation Concerning Regional Development
Programs," this segment called on the Israelis and the Palestinians
to cooperate in promoting a "Development Program for the region"
initiated by the G-7 powers. The Annex states: "The parties will
request the G-7 to seek the participation in this program" of
others such as "regional Arab states and institutions."
Accordingly, a "Regional Economic Development Program" could
consist of: "development of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian
Plan for coordinated exploitation of the Dead Sea area" and of the
Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal. You do not need a post-graduate
degree in politics to figure out that open Jordanian participation
in "peace projects" was the target here. Alas, over a decade after
Oslo, the Dead Sea is deader than ever as a focus for regional
cooperation, and the "Med-Dead canal" remains unbuilt. However,
even without all that, Jordan made peace with Israel, and that
event may have been one of the key results of Oslo.
The maestro for all that was Shimon Peres, who has kept the faith
by talking constantly about how people in the region can cooperate.
In fact, he ended his long cabinet career in a position invented
expressly for him, "minister for regional cooperation." Never mind
that most of his ideas on Middle East states cooperating have come
to naught: Peres has shown that there is nothing like hot air to
melt ice, an apt metaphor in this age of global warming.
Now that Peres is occupying the bully pulpit of the Israeli
presidency, could we be in for another, perhaps final, chapter of
the Palestinian-Israeli show? After all, he helped orchestrate the
ice-breaking at Oslo, so maybe… With the American position
weakening in the Middle East, and more of the region's inhabitants
(including those of Israel/Palestine) fed up with the consequences
of Zionism and its antitheses, it may be time for Israel to wind
down its failed colonialism. That would first involve real
recognition of the Palestinians and their rights, instead of an
Oslo-like public relations exercise.