Oslo 20 years later: The origins and dangers of ‘security zones’

How Israel succeeded in diluting the implementation of the Oslo Accords through a combination of hypothetical worst-case military scenarios and the misleading and incorrect attribution of the term ‘security zones’ to diplomatic texts.

By Shemuel Meir

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly declares that in any agreement with the Palestinians, “security zones” – code for large settlement blocs and the “Jordan Valley” – will remain under Israeli sovereignty. But what is the origin of “security zones,” which repeatedly appear in the discourse of Israeli decision makers? The following is an analysis of “security zones” and the stories that we tell ourselves.

The main and lasting achievement of the Oslo Accords, whose 20th anniversary is approaching, was the mutual Israeli and Palestinian recognition of each side’s national aspirations. The anniversary provides us with an opportunity to examine a forgotten dimension of these accords – the birth of the “security zones.”

First, a few preliminary remarks. Wide ranging “security zones” are not equivalent to defined “security arrangements,” which are basically of a military character and are designed to facilitate the attainment of a peace agreement. According to the September 1995 Interim Agreement (Oslo II) the Palestinian Authority’s territory in the West Bank would be gradually expanded in three “stages” of withdrawal and “further redeployment.” At the conclusion of this agreement, the PA territory would include all of the West Bank except Jerusalem, settlements and specified military locations which would remain under Israeli control until the anticipated Final Status Agreement, which is derived from the Interim Agreement. The key lies in the concept of “specified military locations” that appears a number of times in the Interim Agreement.

Those who claim that Israel can unilaterally define large “security zones” – that would remain under Israeli control – create an equation, which has no basis in the peace process, between “specified military locations” and “security zones.” They also create the misleading impression that “security,” which is a multidimensional and subjective concept, and “military,” which is specific and relates only to armies and fighting forces and which appears explicitly in the agreement, are synonyms. This is not the case.

In order to understand that the Interim Agreement refers to the minimalist concept of the territory to remain under Israeli control until final status in accordance with the “military locations” construct, and not to the maximalist concept of “security zones,” it is necessary to examine how the minimalist concept originated. The concept of “specified locations” arose from American diplomacy during the Camp David negotiations (1978). When President Sadat demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to the pre-1967 borders and the negotiations seemed to have reached an impasse, President Carter sent his National Security Council team with prepared compromise proposals. The book, Camp David: the Key to Peace (1979), by Haaretz Washington correspondent Yoel Marcus, provides us with a detailed and factual account of those crucial days at Camp David.

According to Marcus, the Americans presented a draft according to which “the IDF would withdraw and redeploy in accordance with security arrangements to limited specified locations for five years.” The Israeli delegation rejected the American proposal and erased the sentence. Instead, it wrote, “in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, there will be a withdrawal of IDF forces and there will be an Israeli military security presence in these areas.” In the end, however, Israel had to agree to a formulation closer to the American version. In the final binding English version of the Camp David Framework Agreement (1978), paragraph 1.B, which refers to withdrawal and redeployment in the West Bank, uses the formulation, “specified security locations.”

The non binding Hebrew version, however, apparently inspired by legal advisors Meir Rosen and Elyakim Rubinstein, who participated in the negotiations, states that “there will be a redeployment of the remaining Israeli forces to security zones to be specified.” The formulation “security zones to be specified” can be found nowhere in the binding Camp David Accords text. Israel seems to have used the Hebrew translation as a means of amending the Camp David Accords so that they would include the Israeli formulation that had been rejected during the negotiations – an irregular move in international relations that would seem to be an Israeli invention.

Paragraph 13 of the Declaration of Principles (Oslo I, September 1993), states that the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will consist of “further redeployment to specified locations.” The 1995 Interim Agreement, in which the Americans were actively involved, included “military” in the binding formulation: further redeployment of Israeli forces to “specified military locations.” The Americans, who had learned from President Carter’s Camp David experience of the Israeli tendency to use wide ranging general formulations of “security zones,” this time managed to bring the sides to use an exact and specific formulation: “military” as opposed to the more general “security”; “location” with the clear connotation of a specifically defined place as opposed to “zone,” which has wide geographic connotations. Nevertheless, the binding agreement with the Palestinians has not hindered Israeli officials from continuing to use large “security zones” that would remain under Israeli control, and in their opinion, also under Israeli sovereignty.

An additional aspect of the Interim Agreement that enabled Israel to avoid full implementation was a contribution of the Israeli military establishment. Like all military systems, the Israeli one bases itself on a worst case analysis which is not appropriate for political issues. This contribution was the graphic model of areas “A, B and C,” which was intended to introduce a graduated withdrawal in stages. A close reading of the Interim Agreement and its annexes shows that a dynamic process was envisaged, in which Area C, except for settlements and specified military locations, were meant to become Area B, which would itself eventually become Area A.

The Agreement does not envisage the possibility of a permanent Area C as it is intended to disappear at the end of the process. There is no basis for the widely held Israeli view that the current large Area C (today about 60 percent of the West Bank) is intended, by definition, to remain under full Israeli military and civilian control.

The view of the Americans, who played an active role in Oslo II, was that Israel had freedom of action during the first phases of the withdrawal and the redeployment, but in the third and decisive stage, Israel was meant to complete the withdrawal and to stand at the finish line that was defined by the concept of “specified military locations.” As a theoretical illustration, we could say that Israel would abide by the Agreement with a first withdrawal of 2 percent, a second withdrawal of 3 percent, but the third and final withdrawal would have to be about 90 percent. This would bring us to the Clinton Parameters’ 95 percent, which the Americans still hoped would bring the two sides to a final agreement.

In the future, historians will examine a number of questions. They will have to explain how Israel succeeded in diluting the implementation of the agreements with the Palestinians through a combination of the military scenarios and the misleading and incorrect attribution of the term “security zones” to diplomatic texts. They will also have to explain how the three stages of the withdrawal became a chain of never-ending interim stages and sub stages. Finally, they will have to answer the question of whether there was an understanding and if so, of what kind, between the military and the decision makers on a diluted version of the implementation of the Agreements. It was this means of implementation that enabled the Israeli governments of 1995-2000 to ensure that Israel never reached the finish line of the third stage and a redeployment to “specified military locations.” To this day, Israel has not implemented the third stage.

Examining the origins of “security zones” provides us with insights into current Israeli-Palestinian relations. It can help us to filter out background noises (“security zones”) and spins (“no partner”) from authentic signals of the peace process. A better understanding of the past 20 years of Oslo enables us to see its influence on the current situation. The efforts of the past can help us to understand today’s renewed negotiations for a final status agreement based on the Obama Outline, and to internalize that the American concept for settling the conflict reflects a continuing and consistent vision from the Rogers Plan via Carter to Obama. It is not accidental that the Obama Outline, presented in his May 2011 State Department speech, talks about a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 lines with agreed upon land swaps and minor alterations. The emphasis is on a sovereign and contiguous Palestine that borders on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, i.e. a final settlement that does not include “security zones” consisting of settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. We have reached the end of the good old days of permanent interim agreements whose implementation can be stretched to the end of days, which in reality result in violent uprisings. The long corridor doctrine, whose intention was never to reach the finish line of a peace agreement, is no longer tenable. Peace agreements are first and foremost about territory and borders. This is how it works in the global system. Israel does not have an exemption.

Shemuel Meir is a strategic analyst and author of the Haaretz blog “Strategic Discourse” (Siah Estrategi), where a version of this post first appeared in Hebrew.