20 Years of Oslo: The Green Line’s Challenge to the Statehood Project

The Oslo accords have been the subject of considerable debate ever since the first agreement was signed in 1993. Most of the literature on the agreements has dealt with their impact on the occupied territories (e.g. the growth of settlements, the separation barrier, restrictions on movement), to the near exclusion of the situation inside the Green Line. This essay, by contrast, focuses on Oslo’s consequences with regard to the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the way that the conflict is conceptualized by Israeli Jewish society.

Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo accords during the most promising period of the twentieth century. Around the world, regime changes were taking place through agreements and reconciliation processes. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1994 rank among the most significant events of that period. The end of the twentieth century also saw the rise of constitutionalism, as many countries adopted new constitutions that dealt with historical injustices against discriminated groups. On the international level, the United Nations General Assembly issued the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic or National, Linguistic and Religious Minorities in 1992, and scholarly literature on multiculturalism proliferated.

These trends also influenced the State of Israel. Since 1949, all Israeli government coalitions have excluded Palestinian political parties, and the Palestinian Arab Members of Knesset (MKs) have never been asked nor have they demanded to join any government. Yet, Palestinian Arab MKs supported the Rabin-Peres government with votes in the Knesset due to the signing of the Oslo accords, and the Rabin-Peres government needed this support in order to sustain itself. Despite right-wing attacks against the legitimacy of the Rabin-Peres government inspired by the support it received from Palestinian MKs, the liberal political climate of Oslo contributed to the strengthening of civil rights discourse within the Israeli government. In 1992, the Knesset enacted two new Israeli Basic Laws (which enumerate certain constitutional rights)—the Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty, and the Basic Law Freedom of Occupation. This liberal climate, the rise of world constitutionalism, and the internal political climate in Israel (which gave a sense of “a new beginning”) empowered the Israeli Supreme Court in 1995 to declare that these Basic Laws constituted a “constitutional revolution.” For the first time, the court ruled that it had judicial review power over laws, which also led to increased civil rights rhetoric by the court.

However, while most of the newly adopted constitutions in the 1990s contained the inclusive phrase, “We,the people of ...,” to refer to the political community in its entirety, the new Basic Laws identified Israel ethnically, describing it as a “Jewish and democratic state.” It was the first time that this phrase appeared in law.

Before Oslo, the State of Israel faced challenges to its legitimacy based on its mere existence. No Arab state, except Egypt, recognized its right to exist as a sovereign, independent state. Thus, Israel emphasized its right to exist as such in its worldwide advocacy; the Jewish character (Jewishness) of the state was not its focus. The Oslo accords minimized the question of Israel’sexistence as amain concern because the greatest of all enemies, the PLO, recognized the right of Israel to exist. Oslo made a peace treaty with Jordan possible and allowed Israel to have commercial relationships with some other Arab states. Many Arab states, after Oslo, began to relate differently to the territory within the Green Line, no longer referring to it as a “Zionist colonial entity.” Israel’s control of the territory within the Green Line became legitimate rule by a sovereign state; only Israel’s control of the 1967 occupied territories was perceived as illegitimate. Whereas in 1947 the Arab League rejected the UN Partition Plan for Palestine—which sought to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, each controlling more or less half of Palestine—the post-Oslo climate paved the way for the Arab League to endorse a two-state solution which would establish a Palestinian state on one-fourth of historic Palestine. Conversely,whereas,beforeOslo, Israelilaw definedthe PLO as a terrorist organization, currently, many Israeli officials argue that security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority (PA), established after Oslo, and Israel saves Israeli lives. In sum, the political climate created by the Oslo accords relieved Israel of the need to advocate for its existence as a state, laying the foundation for it to advocate for its essence as a Jewish state.

This transformation does not mean that Israel was not a Jewish state before the Oslo era. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (1948) relies heavily on ethnicity, and the state’s practices were always ethnically determined. Even when laws had the semblance of ethnic neutrality, the authorities did not implement the law impartially.1 Since the Oslo accords, Israel has enacted explicitly ethnic laws that target Palestinian citizens’ rights more than ever before.2

The political climate in Israel after Oslo encouraged Israeli Zionist liberals, including those in the center (hereafter the pragmatic group), to advocate for separation between the two peoples. Although the Oslo accords did not speak explicitly about a two-state solution, the agreement created a dynamic in which many Israelis accepted this arrangement as a legitimate political solution. The pragmatic group argued that if Israel continued to control the occupied territories, it had only two options: to become a bi-national state or to become an apartheid state. The first option would deeply risk the prevailing demographic policy of keeping a Jewish majority inside the Green Line, whereas the second option of apartheid would de-legitimize Israel internationally. When the question of the state’s essence took center stage in the Israeli political arena, the Israeli Left began to extol the values of the “Jewish and democratic” state, making advocacy for the latter its main policy position.

In the past, the Israeli Left had been silent about Israel’s ethnic character in their academic writings and public advocacy. But the Oslo political climate legitimized ethnic conceptions of the state (as I will elaborate upon shortly), allowing the Left to be vocal about its stance on Israel’s Jewish essence. Thus, from the 1990s onward, we begin to see Israeli liberal academic literature focus on justifying the values of a Jewish and democratic state.3 These values dominated Israeli politics, philosophy, and law, and they became the most debated set of values between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews.4

What do these ethnic values mean? According to the Israeli liberal nationalists, Israel is a Jewish state in that it ensures Jewish group rights as well as a Jewish demographic majority through special guarantees—mainly the Law of Return, which ensures the right of every Jewish person in the world to come to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship—in addition to prohibiting the return of the Palestinian refugees. According to this liberal nationalist vision, the State of Israel is a democratic state in that it grants, more or less, equal civil rights for its Palestinian citizens. These liberal ethnic values, which are legitimized by the Oslo accords, also “fit” the Palestinian statehood project. According to these ethnic values, equality for the Palestinian people will not be reached through individual rights, but rather through group rights, by the equal self-determination of the two peoples separately. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence, declared by the PLO in 1988, opens with the statement: “The State of Palestine is the state of Palestinians wherever they may be.” If Israel is a state for all Jews everywhere, so will the Palestinian state be a state for Palestinians everywhere.

The new status of Palestine, however, according to the United Nations resolution adopted by the General Assembly in November 2012, defines the Palestinian state as the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories. This resolution came sixty-five years after the UN Partition Resolution of 1947, which proposed partitioning Mandatory Palestine into two states—one Arab and one Jewish—with Jerusalem as a corpus separatum under a special international regime. The plan guaranteed equal rights for all the citizens in each territory, including the right of movement between the two states as well as economic union among them. In contrast, the 2012 UN resolution that upgrades Palestine to non-member observer status in the UN speaks only about territory, without any mention of rights. As I will detail later, the concept of statehood in this resolution is that partitioning precedes rights, whereas the UN Partition Plan of 1947, despite its serious defects, is based on the concept of partitioning while ensuring rights.

The current statehood project complies with the old idea of the finality of war. According to this concept, which predominated until the eighteenth century, the side that loses a war accepts its consequences as a verdict without negotiations. War determined the outcome of conflicts and at the end, the winner was declared the “right” side.5 The ethnic statehood project, then, recognizes the finality of the 1948 war, which created what we know as the Green Line, more or less based on the agreed-upon ceasefire lines. According to this concept the state of affairs within the Green Line cannot be challenged; it is already decided. Today, however, the notion of the finality of war is anachronistic as it contradicts the laws of war and international human rights law.

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