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'A trap': Oslo, Jerusalem and the door to Arab normalisation

On the 27th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians fear the deal has cost them dear
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin seal the Oslo Accords (AFP)
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East Jerusalem

On the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed and celebrated as a step towards peace. On the day of their anniversary, 27 years later, Palestinians in Jerusalem lament that their city's status was never settled - and is now threatened. 

The agreements, signed on the Palestinian side by now President Mahmoud Abbas, delayed several "final status negotiations" on some of the most important issues like borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem.

Far beyond the five-year transitional period set out in the agreement, Palestinians analysts now feel sure the city's status should have not have been risked, with their Arab former allies now striking deals with Israel that deprive them of one of the few diplomatic tools left to them.

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Hatem Abdel Qader, a former minister for Jerusalem in the Palestinian Authority (PA) established under the accords, told Middle East Eye he believes the Palestinians fell into a trap that allowed Israel to establish more control over Jerusalem and ultimately left the door open for US President Donald Trump to shift his country's policy and recognise the city as Israel's capital. 

"It rushed to impose a new reality. The city has since witnessed many changes at the geographical, political, institutional, demographic and religious levels," he said.

After the establishment of the PA, with its headquarters in Ramallah, Jerusalem lost its identity as an Arab city, Abdel Qader argues, pointing to the Israeli authorities' closure of numerous Palestinian institutions, including the Orient House building, which had been a political, social and economic hub for Palestinians in the city. 

He accused Israel of taking advantage of the lack of settled status by converting large parts of the city into settlements, claiming they had increased by 500 percent since Oslo. 

'It all began after Oslo'

Israel's recent deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, formalising relations that had once been withheld on the condition of a peace deal, "all began after Oslo," according to the Israeli official in charge of Israel's unofficial links to Arab states. 

The foreign ministry's Eliav Benjamin told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, who signed the deal opposite Abbas, returned telling them to prepare to open the door to the Arab world.

The normalisation with the UAE then began "slowly and quietly," including establishing direct contact with Abu Dhabi. 

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Abdel Qader believes the same, that Oslo paved the way for some Arab countries to view normalisation with Israel as being within their interests, particularly as the Arabs were not consulted about the agreement.

A part of the Palestinian negotiating delegation in Madrid and Washington, Abdel Qader said they were "not aware" that the Palestine Liberation Organization "opened another channel in Oslo". 

"We, too, the Palestinian delegation assigned on behalf of the PLO, were surprised by this agreement," he told MEE.

'No peace without a radical solution'

Jerusalem itself has changed, according to Mansour Nsasra, a lecturer in political science and international relations at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Exeter University in the UK.

Two years ago, on Oslo's 25th anniversary, Nsasra spent time mapping out those changes in the city and found the altering of religious landmarks, the number of settlers in East Jerusalem, and increasing restrictions on Palestinians in the city, had all been used to make the city seem more Israeli in character, to fit more into the idea of a Jewish state. 

Today, he describes Jerusalem as an island isolated from Palestinians because of Israeli policies that physically cut them off from the city by trapping tens of thousands of traditional residents behind its separation wall.

Nsasra said the UAE deal is the product of policies since the 1980s of supporting Palestinians economically, and with various projects, while in parallel establishing economic relations with Israel. 

The signs of normalisation have been there for a while, he said, including when the UAE and Bahrain participated in the 2018 Giro d'Italia cycling race in Jersualem. 

Nsasra said the UAE may have tried to portray the deal as in the interests of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but in reality they have no leverage over Israel. 

"We should not give Abu Dhabi greater attention for this issue than its warranted size, as it is keen on its economic and commercial interests only," he said.

'Election propaganda'

The UAE-Israel deal will not bring regional peace, Nsasra continued, because, without a radical solution to the Palestinian matter, there will be neither peace nor stability in the region.

"Economic peace in the region will not translate into political regional peace," he said.

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"Rather, it is part of the deal of the century and the election propaganda of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, as both are in trouble."

It is the Palestinians of Jerusalem, Nsasra says, who will really guard their own interests and decide the city's fate.

They have already shown they can react to challenges to the city's status, particularly at its holy sites, when mass protests defeated attempts to install metal detectors at Al-Aqsa's gates in 2017, and inside the mosque at the Bab al-Rahma prayer space that Israel tried to shut down in 2019. 

The White House will again host a signing on Tuesday by the leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, but this time, the Palestinians will not be present.