Extremists on both sides foiled plan

The Oslo agreement was the first agreement ever signed between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, intended to put an end to the national struggle that is the heart of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

It was the natural continuation of the framework agreements signed at the 1978 Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which also provided the basis for the 1991 Madrid conference.

But the talks that I initiated in Oslo contained two unique elements: For the first time, the Palestinian partner was clearly identified as the PLO. In addition, the idea was proposed to transfer to Palestinian control most of the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area even before elections were held for the Palestinian Authority's legislative council and leadership.

The Oslo process was intended to save the Zionist enterprise before Israel would control an area where the majority of residents would be Palestinian. Anyone who believes Israel must be a Jewish and democratic state must support the establishment of a border between Israel and the Palestinian side — preferably by consent rather than by unilateral measures.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood this and gave his support to the Oslo process. He faced opposition from a right-wing camp that presented itself as nationalist but did not propose any solution that would guarantee a Jewish and democratic future for Israel.

Even today, when Israel is led by its most right-wing government ever, and the U.S. administration also is more conservative, the "road map'' peace plan is being presented as the only game in town. In fact it's nothing more than artificial respiration to keep the Oslo process alive through 2005.

The interim measures did not accomplish their goal — that is, a final peace agreement — because of efforts by elements on both sides.

On the Palestinian side, the extremist religious organizations understood that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be the end of the road for them, and they acted to undermine the process through violence. The more difficult the conditions became in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the more public support these organizations gained.

On the Israeli side, it was the right wing — in particular, extremist settlers — who did whatever they could to foil a final-status settlement that would divide the biblical land of Israel.

Attempts to attribute the past three years of violence to the Oslo agreement are characteristic of those who did not believe in the agreement in the first place — and who believe that any agreement with the enemy is a surrender that ultimately will engender more violence.

I am not saying that the Oslo agreement was free of flaws. But those flaws were not the result of an innocent belief that the five-year interim period would build such confidence and esteem between Israelis and Palestinians that it would be easy to reach a final-status settlement.

In my opinion, there were two flaws in the Oslo agreement and its implementation:

First, the fact that no reference was made to the freezing of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — the Palestinians accepted Rabin's personal commitment to halt the construction of new settlements — created an opening that a subsequent right-wing government used to build new settlements, though it clearly was not the original intent of the agreement.

Second, Israel did not give sufficient importance to incitement in the Palestinian media, thinking it was a trend that would pass when the final-status agreement was signed. This incitement played a significant role in the Palestinians' return to violence in 2000.

Would it have been possible to dispense with the interim period and go immediately to a final settlement in 1993? We'll never know, but that was my preferred option. I tried to persuade Rabin to take advantage of the momentum and reach a final agreement in that summer 10 years ago, but he was afraid that it would be too great a burden for Israeli public opinion.

Both sides blame the other for the process' failure, though the Palestinians' choice of violence means they have the greater share of blame.

But our future does not lie in reciprocal blaming. If we want to secure the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, we must do it before there is a Palestinian majority under Israeli control.

If the Palestinians want a state with a secular and pragmatic leadership, they must do it before Hamas and Islamic Jihad conquer the hearts of the people.

We have no time. The only effective way to do this is to complete the Oslo process and reach the final-status agreement as quickly as possible.

The author was minister of justice in Ehud Barak's government and one of architects of the Oslo agreements.