Abbas’s Declaration: The Oslo Accords are Now Dead and Buried

By announcing that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is ending its adherence to all agreements with Israel and the United States, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered the coup de grace to the moribund so-called peace process between the Palestinians and Israel. Coming as Israel’s new government plans to annex more than 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, the pronouncement appears to spell the end of the line for Palestinian leaders who have invested in fruitless negotiations with Israel—under US supervision—for close to 30 years. To be sure, Palestinian leaders have shown time and again an ironclad, though mostly wishful, commitment to that process despite Israel’s delays, roadblocks, creation of facts on the ground, and reneging on agreements, among other practices that hinder effective compromises.
The Palestinian leadership has previously threatened to withdraw from all agreements with Israel––specifically those that emerged from the Oslo Accords of the 1990s and were affirmed at different negotiating rounds since––every time Israeli leaders broke a promise, ordered the building of more settlements in occupied territories, or threatened to annex additional land. This time around, however, Palestinians have no doubt that annexation will mean Israel’s deeper retrenchment in Palestinian occupied territory, further precluding the possibility of a state for which they have long compromised and offered serious concessions. In essence, Abbas and other officials are finally convinced that they are expected to be mere witnesses in the final liquidation of the Palestinian cause and to sign on the proverbial dotted line marking the end of the question of Palestine.

Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) has asked its fellows to comment on different aspects of the Abbas pronouncement. Their analyses and perspectives are below.

Do Palestinian words mean something in 2020?
Khalil E. Jahshan, Executive Director, ACW

The declaration on May 19, 2020, by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ending all Palestinian commitments and understandings between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the State of Palestine, on the one hand, with Israel and the United States, on the other, is fundamentally a symbolic move in political terms. Nonetheless, it is long overdue.

With the de facto collapse of bilateral negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel since 2010, it is quite surprising that the status quo pertaining to Israeli occupation and domination over Palestine has lasted relatively uninterrupted for so long. Threats to undertake such steps have been made frequently by various Palestinian leaders during this decade of political paralysis, but neither the PLO nor the Palestinian National Authority (PA) found it politically convenient and within their interest to carry out their verbal threats until this week.

The Ramallah proclamation, motivated by the Israeli government’s declared objective to annex Palestinian territory and apply Israeli sovereignty over significant parts of the West Bank, essentially resolves to undertake, among other provisions, five basic steps aimed at raising the stakes for such an ill-devised and ill-timed option brought about by US—rather than by purely Israeli—policy considerations:

  1. The “Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are absolved, as of today, of all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments … including the security ones.”
  2. The “Israeli occupation authority, as of today, has to shoulder all responsibilities and obligations in front of the international community as an occupying power.”
  3. The Palestinians “hold the American administration fully responsible for the oppression befalling the Palestinian people.”
  4. The State of Palestine will sign agreements “to accede to international agreements and conventions that we have not yet joined.”
  5. The PLO/State of Palestine reaffirm their “commitment to a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the two-state solution … under international auspices … through an international peace conference based on international legitimacy.”

Political statements of this magnitude could be very useful if they fulfill a domestic or international function deemed in the national interest of the issuing party. However, short of that, public pronouncements that fail to be implemented and honored could turn out to be quite damaging and self-defeating. Those who care about the Palestinian people and endorse their inalienable rights to independence and self-determination hope that sufficient planning on the part of the leadership in Ramallah has accompanied this historic declaration—plans that will enhance Palestinian objectives and not set them back.

The foremost challenge facing the Palestinians in the implementation phase would be the extent to which their words do achieve the desired impact on the Israeli side, which is led at this specific time by a hybrid two-headed government not necessarily focused or united around a peace agenda with the Palestinians. If the Palestinian statement and its repercussions are ignored by Israel or if they fail to persuade the new Netanyahu-Gantz government to apply brakes on its publicly declared annexation plan as early as July 1, then the whole exercise would prove to be futile. Worse yet would be if unintended consequences ensue, such as the Israeli government retaliating by forcefully dismantling the PA and targeting the civilian population by making daily life more hellish than it already is. One would hope that Abbas and his colleagues have developed a serious contingency plan to deal with this possibility.

Issuing tough statements is vastly easier than implementing the plans outlined in them. In the final analysis, however, Politics 101 teaches us that the proof is indeed in the pudding. It is hoped that the Palestinian people will have a relatively safe landing after Abbas’s break with the past.

Why did Abbas announce the revocation of the agreements at this time?
Yousef Munayyer, Non-resident Fellow, ACW

PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s extensive announcement comes shortly after the new Israeli government, which has agreed to advance annexation of part of the occupied West Bank, was formally sworn in this week. While Abbas’s declaration touched on a wide range of issues, including withdrawing from agreements, turning responsibility for the occupied territories over to Israel, and seeking membership in additional international organizations, it is probably not helpful at this point to dissect each issue area. The reality is that Abbas has periodically made many announcements or issued threats on which he never followed through. Whether about holding elections, dissolving the PA, or resignations, the PA leadership has cried wolf too many times to be taken more seriously now.

With credibility lacking after years of failing to follow through on threats and promises, it is worth taking a very skeptical look at this announcement. The only interesting thing about it is the timing. The annexation issue is coming to a head and all players know that. Abbas had the opportunity to react to it after the Knesset vote would have taken place and he could have made such an announcement then. Instead, however, he decided to do so now. This is a risky decision because the Israeli leadership will likely use the announcement to proclaim, once again, that they have no partner in peace negotiations, and this could make annexation even easier.

So why make such a move now? One explanation might be that Abbas is launching this as a last-ditch effort to stop annexation by making clear the costs of Israel’s plan ahead of the debate in the Israeli Knesset. Abbas may believe that it gives leverage to those voices in the Israeli system, including some in the government, who would argue that annexation, if done or done hastily, could be a security risk for Israel. To think this would work is probably rooted in a misreading of Israeli politics. But desperate times call for desperate measures and Abbas might believe that this is the only card he has to play and that this moment is the best opportunity for him to play it.

What are the possible legal repercussions of Abbas’s decision?
Jonathan Kuttab, Non-resident Fellow, ACW

The major agreements between Israel and the PLO, starting with the Declaration of Principles signed in Oslo in 1993 and the Interim Agreement signed in Cairo in 1994, established a framework for governing the occupied Palestinian territories. The agreement set up the PA and delineated the areas under its control as well as the extent of its powers. It was intended to be an interim agreement, for five years, that would lead eventually to full statehood for the Palestinians. These Oslo Accords left crucial issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and security to be negotiated as “final status” issues. They gave the PA certain powers within the densely populated Area A and limited civilian power in Area B, while leaving Area C (about 62 percent of the West Bank) under direct Israeli military control. Many subsequent agreements and understandings were reached as Israel developed this temporary arrangement into a semi-permanent state of affairs.

After the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel stopped turning over additional territories and powers to the Palestinians and refused to carry out a number of key provisions of the agreements (such as free passage between Gaza and the West Bank and respect for fishing rights, among others). At the same time, Israel demanded that Palestinians meticulously observe “security coordination” provisions to control their own population.

Today, the Palestinian authority is intricately tied to Israel in numerous ways. To declare that Palestinians no longer feel bound by these agreements and understandings is indeed a radical step, but it requires immediate actions to set up an alternative framework or to deal with the consequences of this declaration. Importantly, by saying the entire framework is no longer operative and affirming that Israel should now be treated as a belligerent occupier that is solely responsible for the area and its population (according to international law and the Geneva Conventions), the PA is in effect dissolving itself since its very existence is based on those agreements. The question then arises as to what happens next. Will the PA cease to exist or simply continue to operate under business as usual?

Other questions emerge as well.  If the Palestinian Authority declares that it no longer accepts this arrangement, how then can it operate? Will it stop paying the salaries of its employees (the police officers, teachers, civil servants, and others)? Will it cease to go through the Israeli system for customs, value added taxes, banking, postal service, electricity, and internet? Will it halt the practice of applying for the permits to travel in and out of the occupied territories, or even between different cities? And will Israel then cut off these services or deny them for lack of Palestinian coordination (read, compliance) with these systems? Finally, will the two parties enter into a number of secret arrangements to keep these services running, as Hamas is doing in Gaza today?

The best-case scenario is that this exercise may lead to renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for a different framework and on the basis of international law. Unfortunately, the balance of power presently is skewed and Israel feels emboldened—especially with the support of the Trump Administration—to create yet more unfavorable terms for the Palestinians.

What influence did the Trump Administration have on this announcement? 
Imad K. Harb, Director of Research, ACW

It was only a matter of time until President Abbas declared the PA’s withdrawal from all agreements and security arrangements with Israel and the United States. The American angle here is pivotal because the United States has been the sponsor of the so-called peace process to which it has devoted effort, energy, and funds. But that devotion was always considered disingenuous, and correctly so, because of Washington’s long-standing and deep political, economic, and military commitment to Israel and its security.

That commitment has always deterred the United States’ wish to appear neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Still, Palestinian leaders remained convinced that the United States continued to be the only actor capable of effectively working toward an equitable peace between them and Israel. Such a conviction was proved misplaced, at best, and very ill-advised, as negotiations advanced through the years and the United States failed miserably to halt Israel’s efforts to sabotage Palestinian aspirations.

But that was before 2017 and the advent of Donald Trump, an ill-informed president eager to please the Israeli right and its supporters, including evangelical Christians, in the American political system. Since his arrival at the White House, Trump has given his full and public support to the Israeli right’s agenda of paving the way for the establishment of Greater Israel on Palestinian land and the subsequent eradication of the Palestinian cause. By appointing ardent supporters of Israel and its illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and siege of Gaza to pivotal positions in the administration, Donald Trump ended any illusion Palestinians and others had of an impartial role for the United States to find a solution, any solution, to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

President Trump ordered the American embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem, an illegal act according to international law. The move ended any liaison between the Palestinians and the United States. He also recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1981. His administration cut off funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that cares for millions of Palestinian refugees; he also pushed to end their status as refugees. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo (an avowed evangelical Christian), and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman (a committed supporter of settlements on the occupied territories), have conferred on Israel the authority to build settlements and annex Palestinian land. After many delays, the administration advanced what the president had long called the “deal of the century,” a peace proposal that deprives Palestinians of the right to an independent state and allows Israel to unilaterally annex their land.

It is indeed hard to understand why Palestinian leaders have waited this long to declare their withdrawal from agreements and arrangements with Israel that were negotiated and sponsored by the United States. Perhaps President Abbas was waiting for a miracle that could have convinced President Trump of the error of his ways. Perhaps the waiting was because the Palestinian leadership could not devise or organize an alternative to the defunct elements of the peace process. But whatever the reason, Abbas’s announcement is unlikely to faze the Trump Administration or cause it to change course. What remains to be done is for the Palestinians to reaffirm the priority of national unity, rebuild their institutions, elect a new leadership, and rewrite in word and deed their national liberation agenda.