Twenty years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are still negotiating with no end in sight. It's as though the process were caught in a timeless prism separated from reality, with the U.S. sponsored talks moving forward alongside Israeli settlement expansion and increased segregation of Palestinians. But few are asking if the patron of the negotiations is interested in peace or just managing Middle East conflicts.
When the Americans mediated the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, a new approach to American power in the Middle East began unfolding. As close relations between Israel and Egypt’s security forces developed, Egypt became the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Middle East after Israel. The country at the center of professed pan-Arabism became an essential tool in dividing the Arab world.
By the time the Oslo process began in the early 1990s a newly divided Middle East provided the U.S. with an opportunity to entrench its interests through brokering a new round of Israeli peace negotiations. A bankrupt Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) in exile had few options with a divided Arab world and the assertion of U.S. dominance following the First Gulf War.
Over the two decades that followed, U.S. aid flowed to the dependent Palestinian leadership when talks were on and the Israeli occupation was given a stable process of expansion. For the U.S., the rhetoric of resolving the longest standing Middle East conflict secured a long-term, multi layered presence in regional politics. The unending negotiations have given Israel the domestic stability to lash out in the region, using its American made weapons.
On one level this process provides Israel clear incentives to maintain the status quo, but in the bigger picture, this conflict and its reverberations help serve the U.S. approach to power and oil access in the Middle East.
Since the negotiations process began, Israel has launched three wars and brutally put down a Palestinian popular uprising while engaging in military strikes and covert assassination attempts around the region. Through it all, after providing support to the Israelis, the U.S. has intervened in the conflicts as a central power broker, moving to contain the fallout while securing its centrality in the Middle East.
Even when negotiations are not happening, the discussion of getting back to the table has become an end goal in itself, providing a role for Israeli provocation both domestically and in the region while facilitating America intervention to find short term diplomatic solutions. It is why the Palestinians are only brought to the table at points of increasing weakness.
The Palestinian leadership initially agreed to the Oslo process in a bid to gain American legitimacy, support and recognition. These days, return to the table is based on that same leadership’s need to maintain its U.S. legitimacy and funding as it faces an unprecedented lack of popularity with its people and an inability to reconcile internal Palestinian divisions with the Hamas, which rules Gaza.
But when the Arab revolutions brought popular discontent and calls for government by the people onto the streets in 2011, the divisions of the Middle East shifted. Instead of hinging its influence on its traditional alliances, conflicts and acerbated divisions, America was forced to respond to popular demands that challenged key allies, like Egypt. For a brief moment it appeared U.S. polarization was receding as the discontents of the Arab world confronting authoritarian rule, inequality and poverty forced the U.S. to deal with new reality.
Still, a door to the past was opened for the Americans when the general’s stormed back into power in Egypt and Assad clung to his rule by turning a popular uprising it into a sectarian based civil war.
As traditional division in the regions central conflicts unfolded on Israel’s borders, the U.S. has seen fit to push forward another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that, like Oslo, are in no way structured to reach a just and final settlement. In the meantime Israel strengthens its ties with the Egyptian military and is working with the U.S. in pushing a position on Syria that aims for neither Assad nor the opposition to claim victory, continuing the bloodletting on all sides.
Constantly striving to be decider-in-chief in the Middle East and acerbating conflicts that facilitate this goal, twenty years on from Oslo, the platitudes of eventual peace should be treated as a central plank of the U.S. strategy to manipulate regional fractures.