How can the U.S. renew Mideast peace talks? Recognize Palestinian statehood

by Josh Paul

On Sept. 13, 1993, with a famous handshake on the White House lawn, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat sealed the Oslo accords, which have, in theory, provided the theoretical and practical basis for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ever since: a set of measures and confidence-building steps that would ultimately lead to a two-state solution.

Thirty years later, it is time to acknowledge that Oslo has failed. One can assign plenty of blame for this to all parties involved. Israel’s vast expansion of settlements in the West Bank violated its pledge that the “integrity and status” of the occupied territories would be preserved. Palestinian leadership fell into a pattern of corruption and mismanagement. And the U.S. and the international community didn’t hold both sides accountable.

As Israel’s bombardment on the Gaza Strip continues, it’s hard to think of what comes next. But we should radically reimagine the peace process and flip the script of Oslo. The first step? U.S. recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The root cause of Oslo’s failure — other than the ill will of those who never wanted to see it succeed, of whom there are many — is its basic structure. Although intended as an interim agreement that would last no more than five years, its expiration was premised on “permanent status negotiations” that would resolve issues including “Jerusalem, settlements, [Israeli] military locations, Palestinian refugees, borders, foreign relations and Israelis” in Palestinian territory. None of those issues has been resolved. One key reason for this is the fundamental imbalance between Israel’s status as a nation-state that gets to decide its own aims and actions, and the PLO’s status as the representative of an occupied people with little capacity beyond day-to-day governance of a shrinking territory.

As a result of Oslo ‘s plan for a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority was created as an interim body to oversee parts of the occupied territories. But it has relied on the Israeli government for its existence — often serving as an extension of the Israeli security apparatus — and was never seen as credible or legitimate by its own people.

Meanwhile, there was the growth of Israeli right-wing politics, signified by the broad adoption of the nomenclature “Judea and Samaria” to refer to the West Bank, as though it comprises provinces of Israel, and the extended leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party’s founding charter states that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” All of this forever postponed the possibility of permanent status negotiations, as well as the Palestinian state that Oslo anticipated.

To correct this imbalance and set the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on course, a fundamental paradigm shift is needed. The U.S. should recognize Palestinian statehood and endorse a Palestinian membership application in the United Nations Security Council. This change would set the ground for permanent status negotiations between Israel and Palestine, not as a set of concessions between the occupier and the occupied, but between two entities that are equal in the eyes of international law. Disputes, such as over the status of Jerusalem or control over borders, water rights and airwaves, can be settled through established global arbitration mechanisms, including the International Court of Justice, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Telecommunication Union.

Of course, this would not be an easy path. The United States would need to continue as a guarantor-in-principle of Israeli security, and other international support, particularly from the Arab world, would be vital. Discussions would likely require politically contentious approaches to looming questions, such as the presence of Israeli settlements within the West Bank. (One solution might involve the dismantlement of lesser settlements and leasing of major settlement blocs to Israel on a 25-year basis, akin to the agreement between the U.K. and China over Hong Kong.) Most of all, this would also require the reemergence of a consensus and representative government for Palestinians that carries a monopoly on the use of force to the exclusion of any militias or unassociated forces, and though there are some signs this may be possible, it too will be hard.

But as challenging as this route may be, it is clear that the current strategy is not working. For as long as Palestinian statehood is conditional on metrics — such as those set in the Oslo accords for Israeli military withdrawal based on “the assumption of responsibility for public order and internal security by the Palestinian police force” — whose achievement is subject to the judgment of the Israeli government, and for as long as Israel can set the terms and shape the realities on the ground within the West Bank and Gaza, the existing political process will never be capable of delivering a just and lasting peace.

That is not to say, however, that two states, as envisioned by Oslo, are the solution. It is far from clear what form of a Palestinian state can be viable at this point — either in the West Bank given the expansive Israeli settlement networks, or in Gaza given the destruction wreaked by the Israeli military operation. And any solution will require resolving the tensions within Palestinian politics between the objectives of governance and resistance.

These factors, combined with the absence of trust in Israeli and Palestinian society — accumulated under Oslo and crystallized since Oct. 7 — suggest, however, that significant change is needed to facilitate onward progress. A one-state solution, or a confederation of some sort, may prove more viable in the long term. But the Palestinian national aspiration cannot be put on hold amid Israel’s increasingly dysfunctional politics.

Oslo was designed to provide security to Israel and statehood to Palestine; it has done neither. It is time to shed old ways. Rather than a path to statehood that starts with negotiations, it is time for a path to negotiations that starts with statehood.

Josh Paul was, until recently, a director in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.