Oslo has come to mean many things over the years. There were, of course, the Oslo Accords themselves and the rounds of negotiations and additional protocols that followed. Oslo was represented visually as a map of the West Bank carved up into Areas A, B, and C, the chaotic Venn diagram of jurisdictions that delineate and constrain the powers of the Palestinian Authority. Oslo was a desperately needed moment of hope that was cruelly and violently snatched away from Palestinians and Israelis alike. Oslo was a repressive diplomatic zeitgeist in which the entire international community was willing to discuss Israel, Palestine, or Israel/Palestine, only within a rigid two-state framework. Despite successive Israeli governments explicitly rejecting the idea of Palestinian statehood with the collapse of the Kerry process in 2014, the world continued its two-state charade for nearly a full decade. Not that there had been a Palestinian interlocutor with a mandate to enter such talks since 2007, when the Fatah-Hamas schism left the former controlling the West Bank and the latter in charge of the besieged Gaza Strip.
Oslo failed because of major power imbalances between negotiating parties
A great number of compelling arguments explaining why the Oslo Accords failed have been published over the years. The most compelling of those reasons has nothing to do with the process itself or even the two-state vision it came to represent. That reason is the immensly skewed balance of power between the two parties, accentuated by the international impunity the United States bestows upon Israel. Put simply, Israel has never felt any real external pressure to achieve a two-state outcome and it has never faced any consequences for the many steps it took to guarantee there is never a sovereign Palestinian state. Life in Israel has often been difficult for most Israelis, and the threat of violence always looms, but Israeli society was never made to pay a price heavy enough to force a break from the relative comfort it enjoyed in the status quo — experienced by Palestinians as occupation, siege, and apartheid.
That all changed on October 7.
In the wake of the horrific Hamas attack on October 7, Jewish Israelis across virtually all political lines formed a new national consensus: everybody understood that something fundamental must change. There’s no going back to the status quo. The sight of hundreds of murdered civilians, entire families taken hostage, military bases overrun and a vaunted security establishment caught asleep at the wheel, and a plummeting sense of personal security has created a new national narrative. For the moment, this narrative has manifest itself as consensus support for a war Israeli leaders are painting as a fight between good and evil – a war that has already taken the lives of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including a shocking number of children. Nevertheless, any military campaign invariably serves a political objective and, particularly if it is successful, creates a new political reality. In shaping that reality, Israel will need to decide what type of relationship it wants to have with the Palestinians in this next era.
The international community must pressure Israel to seek a just resolution
It’s impossible to know what the region might look like in just a few weeks, let alone a few months’ time. It’s also difficult to see a scenario in which Israel is able to both achieve its goals of destroying the military and political arms of Hamas and restoring deterrence, while also staving off international pressure to end its occupation and apartheid rule over millions of Palestinians. In other words, particularly if Israel is able to eliminate the capabilities of Hamas and other Palestinian armed factions, it will not be long before the world starts pushing for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Only, by then and in every other foreseeable outcome of this war, the vast power imbalance that doomed the Oslo processes of yesteryear will have widened exponentially. At the same time, the trauma of the October 7 attack is pushing Israel’s risk tolerance further and further down. How, then, does one begin to imagine a peace process emerging from the ashes of this war when it is all but guaranteed that the victor, the proven stronger party, has no incentive to compromise?
Shedding the two-state blinders of the Oslo era
It is very difficult to even imagine a scenario in which Israel would agree to participate in a process aimed at achieving a just peace unless it comes as the result of sustained and coordinated political pressure on Israel. For such pressure to be effective it would need to include the full range of diplomatic tools at the disposal of the international community for ending situations of illegal occupation, annexation, and apartheid, in defiance of decades of UN Security Council resolutions. The international community will have to utilize the same types and levels of pressure on Israel as it has in the war in Ukraine and as it did against South Africa decades earlier.
This war, despite the myriad dangers it poses, could create an opening for a different international approach to Israel-Palestine. If Israel destroys Hamas’s military capabilities, it will find itself without of any immediate security threat from the Palestinians. Without a looming security threat and without even the façade of a peace process, the international community may finally decide that it’s time to insist that Israel end its regime of apartheid and occupation.
The international community must pressure Israel to engage in a peace process
Nothing less than immense international pressure can incentivize Israel to participate in any peace process with the Palestinians at this stage and that will certainly become more true following this war. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine the United States reversing decades of foreign policy and allowing Israel to face real international accountability. However, in the unlikely scenario that the international community is able to come together to apply real pressure on Israel, it must have one very clearly articulated demand: that Israel end the occupation and dismantle its apartheid regime — not just theoretically in a future peace deal, but now. Of note, there is no Palestinian interlocutor in this scenario, putting the onus to change on Israel alone.
The two easiest ways Israel could comply with that demand is: working with the international community to rapidly establish and build a functioning, sovereign Palestinian state along the 1949 armistice lines. Or alternatively, if to decides against continuing down the same failed strategy of separation, Israel could transform itself from an undemocratic one-state reality to a democratic one-state reality. That could be accomplished with a package of steps, which could include extending full citizenship to all Palestinians between the river and the sea and redefining Israel not as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people but as a state of all its citizens.
Right now, the world needs to focus its energy on implementing a ceasefire and preventing Israel from committing ethnic cleansing. But once the humanitarian disaster of this war is halted, the international community would be wise to shed its two-state blinders, start considering alternatives to the Oslo-era process, and start drawing up policies and processes to work toward a more just and peaceful future. Without first addressing the worsening power imbalance, however, none of that will be possible.
Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man is the director of research for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Prior to joining DAWN, Michael lived in Israel-Palestine for 16 years, where he worked as a journalist, including as the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine.