The Oslo Accords

Herb Kelman

Professor Emeritus, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: It seems like much of the Oslo Agreement was based loosely on this kind of workshop where people come together, in confidence, talk about possibilities, and then come up with new solutions. Oslo, by most accounts, hasn't worked. Some people may still be waiting for it to work. Does that change the approach at all, or the relevance, maybe, of the problem-solving workshop in situations of such great conflict like this?

A: I don't think so. First of all, I think that the main contribution of the kind of work we did, and others as well, at the track II level, and I'm doing a chapter for a book that Ron Fischer is editing and we had a panel at the International Society of Political Psychology, which I presented my ideas about what our work contributed to Oslo, and I think the main contribution in our work is in preparing the ground for Oslo in developing the building blocks for Oslo and I would summarize it by saying three things. One is developing cadres, people who had the experience of talking to each other and found it useful and actually none of my people were directly involved in Oslo but this was a larger part of the two communities. The people who had been involved in the track II activities had an influence and Oslo started as a track II. It was always a little messed up because on the Israeli side it was completely track II, on the Palestinian side it was track I, but it had some of the elements, it was a bit of a mixture. Many of us think of it as track I 1/2. So we contributed in terms of developing the cadre. Very importantly we contributed in terms of developing the ideas and that's what I focused on in my paper, the ideas that were the building blocks, culminating in the whole concept of a two-state solution. When I began my work in the '70s these ideas didn't exist, and by the time of Oslo some of these ideas were widely accepted. We helped to develop these ideas that made the Oslo Agreement possible and the other is to help develop a political atmosphere for it. These were the contributions.

There are a number of problems with Oslo. It cannot be evaluated as a track II process. It was a track I process, or at least the outcome was an official political agreement and there is the anomaly, and I wrote about this long before Oslo failed, that there was a contradiction in the sense that in order for an agreement to emerge, the process had to be secret. If it had been public it would have been shot down long before it got to the point of agreement. But because it was secret there wasn't the opportunity to build the constituencies for it and that was an inherent problem to which there was no solution. There would have been no Oslo if it hadn't been secret, there wouldn't have been any agreement. So you couldn't solve that problem. It should have been taken into account, and there should have been explicit efforts to build these constituencies afterward and not enough of that was done.

The other problem with Oslo, and again I think it was inherent-the problem was that they could not come to an agreement about the final outcome. In other words they didn't come to a firm agreement not only about the final status issues, which were the critical issues, but even the concept of a two-state solution. It was generally understood that that's at the end of the process but there was no commitment to it, and because of that lack of commitment, two things happened, in my analysis. First, the leaders maintained reserve options. In the case of Rabin, the reserve option was: if it doesn't work, to re-institute control and in the case of Arafat: if it doesn't work, the reserve option was to re-institute the armed struggle. These weren't just psychological options; these were options on the ground. In other words Arafat didn't dismantle, he continued to build weapons beyond what the Oslo Agreement permitted, and he maintained the viability of an arms struggle of sorts. Rabin certainly maintained the possibility of reinstating control and we now are in the situation where these reserve options have become the dominant things but they maintained these reserve options because they didn't make that final commitment. The other cost of the reserve option is that they didn't, in a way they couldn't, but they didn't even when they could have, educate their publics.

It was difficult to educate their publics to a solution, to the reason and the value and the cost of a solution, which they weren't willing to state, publicly. Rabin wasn't prepared to say we are committed to a two-state solution and tell his public here is what that means, here is the price we have to pay, e.g. settlements, and it's worth it, it's good for us and them, it's good for peace. He wasn't ready to fully do that. Arafat had no problem with saying a two-state solution but he wasn't prepared to say that this means the end of the conflict, this means very serious compromises on the issue of the right of return. He wasn't prepared to say those things. They didn't really educate their publics properly and bring them along. It was a consequence of the fact that what was the obvious implication of Oslo was left implicit rather than explicit. But, again, they weren't ready to make it explicit so the choice was do you have an agreement with all of these flaws or do you have no agreement? My own feeling is that I wish they had been more aware of the limitations and done more to correct for them in the post-Oslo process but I am still glad that they came up with the Oslo Agreement and I still think that it represents a fundamental breakthrough. The big difference now is to revive the process. Now you have to start at the end, (the final status, stuff?) yeah, you have to start with a definite commitment to a two-state solution but more than just the words. Everybody is committed to that now but what Sharon means by two-state solution and what the Palestinians mean by a two-state solution are two very different things. The U.S. is now committed to a two-state solution. All that is progress, by the way, real progress and lets not minimize that, but it needs to be spelled out. That's what we are going to come back to, that or continuing warfare with really disastrous consequences for both parties.

Q: At the risk of stating the obvious, maybe one of the lessons learned from the Oslo process for the problem solving workshop methodology is that problem solving workshops are a great way to get an idea out but certainly a very insufficient piece of the process for implementation overall?

A: I certainly agree with that, I've never thought of it otherwise. There is no substitute for political decisions and for what you need for political decisions, which is both an official, authoritative process-our advantage is that we have no authority, but to implement an agreement you need authority. Secondly, you need to put public opinion. We contribute to that. In other words we provide potential inputs to public opinion, very significant ones, potentially, by getting these ideas into the public debate and into the public consciousness. They come out of workshops, in part, along with many other activities. Of course I don't want to exaggerate the contribution of this one approach because it is one of many. We contribute to that but the task of persuading public opinion is a task that requires political leadership and it doesn't happen by itself.

Q: Problem-solving workshops can be used even to that end as you were mentioning. It can be used both for coming up with the ideas and then maybe to even generate support in the sense that people can talk about it more.

A: RIght, but it's not a substitute for the educational process that political leaders have to engage in. Our people, we do not select participants, primarily on the grounds of being political leaders. Some of them, may be, some of them are to some degree, but we select them more on the grounds of being political thinkers, influentials, but that's different from a political leader in the sense whose task it is to mobilize the public. There may be an occasional person in our workshop who performs that role in his society. That's not primarily the basis on which we select people. Workshops do not substitute for either part of the political process, the authoritative part or the educational part, whatever you want to call it. I have never claimed or thought that it does. I still believe that Oslo was useful and I'm not ashamed of our contribution to it although it's different than it was in '93 or '94. At that time I could feel good when people said, oh, you had something to do with Oslo. Now I feel defensive but I am prepared to defend.