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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Introduction – The Oslo Accords’ Unintended Consequences

Filed under: Palestinians
Publication: The Oslo Accords at 30: Lessons Learned

Introduction – The Oslo Accords’ Unintended Consequences
The Oslo Accords signing ceremony at the White House on September 13, 1993. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres sits at the table, prepared to sign. Behind him (from the right) PLO official Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
  • Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, consecutive Israeli governments have enacted a policy of tolerance and restraint with regard to egregious Palestinian Authority violations of those agreements. Despite sustained delegitimization and demonization of Israel, the use of antisemitic tropes and annihilationist language, and the financial payments to Palestinian terrorists and their families, Israel has not exacted a price for this enduring malevolent behavior.
  • Motivated by the interest of maintaining stability and preventing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has chosen to overlook what would in any other situation be understood as the culpable actions of an enemy entity. This has resulted in grievous unintended consequences that are destroying Israel’s legitimacy in the international arena, growing antisemitism, and depriving Palestinians of civil society.
  • While Israel’s new government has taken steps to penalize members of the Palestinian Authority, the actions have been timidly insufficient and incorrectly justified.
  • What is needed is an immediate and thorough change of political course, one that will hold the Palestinian Authority accountable to a basic standard of ethics, indeed to the very commitments they have made.

Shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed, Yasser Arafat made his intentions clear. He said that the agreements were nothing more than a “Hudabiyah,” a temporary arrangement intended to effectuate Israel’s ultimate demise. The Arabic term refers to a ten-year truce that the prophet Muhammed signed with the Quraysh tribe who controlled Mecca, which, when it became militarily opportune, he breached soon afterward. What the Quraysh were to Mecca, the Jews are to Palestine. Oslo was made to be breached.

Eight years later, during the second Intifada, the incessant Palestinian terror attacks that killed hundreds and maimed thousands of Israelis, did not persuade Israel’s political leadership to change course. This, despite growing skepticism among the Israeli public that the entire process was seriously flawed.

The architects of the Oslo process held steadfast to the notion that if Arafat and his PLO had not in fact already changed, the peace process would soon leave them no choice but to make their anticipated change manifest. Shimon Peres brushed off Arafat’s repeated comments as mere reflections of his need to adjust to a new reality and to appease his domestic constituency, and Yossi Beilin asserted that they were nothing more than “silly words.” The requirements of governance and the international recognition of their governing body would force the Palestinian leadership to both formally and functionally abandon terrorism in all its manifestations.

But 30 years after the accords were signed and the promises to abandon the legacy of terror made, the Palestinian Authority continues to advocate for terrorism, to support it in Palestinian society, the media, the schools, and an official governmental budget line that actually pays terrorists and their families. The unambiguous and unapologetic policy of the Palestinian Authority is to pay for the slaying of Israelis. Mahmoud Abbas might not actually be dispatching terror cells to murder people, but he is responsible for the hate indoctrination, incitement, and incentivization that make them do just that, and when they do so, he and his cohorts are not just congratulatory, they pay them. It is an official policy of money for murder. 

Assuming the alternative to be worse, Israeli governments, including those who opposed Oslo and warned of the diplomatic ruse from the start, have consistently avoided holding the PA accountable. Assuming that accountability might include the collapse of the PA, and that its collapse necessarily means the return of the IDF to the task of municipal management of Palestinian Arab population centers, all egregious PA violations of the agreements they signed have been formally criticized but functionally ignored.

Aside from the morally reprehensible position of tolerating broadscale incitement to murder, for many, reason enough to abandon such a laissez-faire attitude toward agreement violations, this has led to several unintended consequences. Each consequence is significant enough to warrant a change of policy, but cumulatively, they leave Israel with no choice but to immediately and effectively move to a consistent and unambiguous policy of conditionality and accountability.

The “Cobra Effect,” “Blowback,” and the Law of Unintended Consequences

The “Law of unintended consequences” is a concept in political, economic, and sociological theory that dates back at least to John Locke in the 17th century. The “law” refers to an outcome or outcomes of a purposeful action that is/are unforeseen or unanticipated. The unintended outcome is often driven by a “perverse incentive,” an incentive that produces results contrary to the intentions of its designers. Perhaps the best example of a perverse incentive is the “cobra effect.”

During the British rule of India, New Delhi was infested with cobras. When British officials offered a bounty on cobra skins in the hope that financial incentives would help enlist the public in the effort to eradicate the snakes, the problem got much worse. The cobra population increased as people began to breed cobras in pursuit of compensation. When the British caught on and terminated the program, the now worthless cobras were set free, creating greater danger to the public than what was originally contended with. German economist, Horst Siebert, dubbed this form of unintended consequence, the “Cobra effect.”

The CIA uses a different term to describe the unintended consequences of their operations; they call it “Blowback.” The covert operation supporting the Afghan Mujahideen dubbed “Operation Cyclone,” was intended to overthrow the communist regime that had taken hold of Afghanistan. It was a cold war strategy to stop the spread of Communism, but it resulted in the destabilization of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. These consequences, hardly on the CIA radar screen, were wholly unintended and unforeseen. They were, in CIA jargon, “Blowback.”

Would the CIA have continued with “Operation Cyclone” had they anticipated the blowback? The rise of Al-Qaeda, the attacks of September 11, and the wars and mayhem that have ensued? It is fair to say “no.”

And it is fair to ask the same question and provide the same answer regarding Oslo. Would the designers of the Oslo Accords have proceeded with the legitimization of the PLO and its empowerment through the establishment of the Palestinian Authority if they knew what the consequences would be? 

Oslo’s Unintended Consequences

“Nothing has just one consequence,” writes evolutionary epistemologist, Jeremy Sherman. “Consequences fan out in all directions over time. Life is like playing piano with oven mitts on. You go to hit one key and others get hit in the process.”

The architects of Oslo wore oven mitts and tried to play one key. The consequences have fanned out in all directions, and they are dire. The oven mitts now have to come off. Consecutive governments, intelligence assessments, and defense planners focused on one potential consequence of a policy of PA accountability – the breakup of the PA. In that context, it could be argued whether or not that consequence was something to contend with simply on moral grounds. But in the meantime, several unintended consequences have materialized which are far more serious and threatening than the potential disintegration of the PA. Put another way, the cobras have been released and the blowback is lethal. They appear in the form of hate indoctrination and incitement, “Pay for Slay,” promotion of worldwide antisemitism, delegitimization of Israel, illegal construction in Area C, ignoring the Palestinian commitments under the Oslo agreements, the radicalization of Israeli Arabs, and institutional corruption that harms the Palestinian people.

Continuing down this path will be a mistake, it will serve no one. Israel can and must find a way to take off the mitts as it plays the political piano.