Oslo after thirty: A paradigm beyond partition

Lex Takkenberg

Mondoweiss  /  September 24, 2023

Lex Takkenberg argues that we need to move beyond Oslo’s paradigm of partition and separation and to instead adopt a new-old vision for a single democratic state.

ARDD’s Senior Advisor on the Question of Palestine, Dr. Lex Takkenberg, reflects on the plight of the Palestinian people, who have been deprived of their homeland in the century-old confrontation with Zionism and Israel, three decades after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords. Building on British and UN propositions in the 1930s and 40s, Oslo represented the latest effort by the international community at the territorial partition of historic Palestine into a Jewish and Palestinian state. Thirty years later, it has become clear that the ‘logic of partition’ has failed and that the evolving one-state apartheid reality to which Palestinians have been subjected calls for a fundamental reset. A new political ‘grammar’ is emerging around a new – or old, from a Palestinian perspective – paradigm, moving beyond partition and separation towards a democratic one-state solution. Takkenberg explores the drivers of the new discourse as well as its ramifications and implications for the principal stakeholders.

On September 13, 1993, PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, signed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements — commonly referred to as the (first) Oslo Accord — on the White House Lawn in the presence of then-U.S. President, Bill Clinton, and invited dignitaries. Thirty years later, commentators laud the success of Israel in the Oslo Accords, including several subsequent agreements. Commentators offering a Palestinian perspective relate to the agreements’ betrayal of the Palestinians, meant only to help Israel consolidate its occupation and colonization. The Oslo framework allowed Israel’s extended and enhanced control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and its Palestinian inhabitants, eventually culminating in what is increasingly and authoritatively recognized as a one-state apartheid reality.

The Oslo Framework — the accords and the Middle East Peace Process that accompanied them — reiterated the idea of territorial partition, recommended first by the United Kingdom in 1937 when it held the Mandate over Palestine, and subsequently by the UN General Assembly in its 1947 Partition Plan. The “logic of partition” and the “statist” interpretation of the right to national self-determination — according to which partitioning the land between Jews and Palestinians in two separate states was deemed the most desired and effective way to meet the demands of the conflicting parties — have dominated the hitherto unsuccessful attempts to settle the Question of Palestine. Onderkant formulier

On the positive side, the past three decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in efforts towards Palestinian justice and holding Israel to account for its crimes against the Palestinians, despite the official Palestinian leadership being held hostage by the Oslo trap. Palestinians have adopted a clear, predominantly non-violent strategy towards liberation, primarily through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and sustained efforts at achieving justice and accountability through international and — increasingly — national courts. 

Whilst the official Palestinian leadership — like the international community – continues to cling to the Oslo Framework — Palestinian intellectuals, and activists, along with an increasing number of anti-Zionist Jews, as well as other supporters of Palestinian liberation, are moving towards a new discourse and the development of a new paradigm. One of the most constitutive features of the new paradigm is the attempt to go beyond partition and rethink the notion of separation. 

A ‘new’ paradigm and political ‘grammar’

The wretched binational situation in Palestine/Israel has resulted in a renewed focus on settler-colonialism, (denial of) Palestinian self-determination, and apartheid as frameworks to capture the realities and facts on the ground. 

Palestinians have long held that the violent birth of Israel in 1948, and the subsequent colonization of the entirety of historic Palestine after the 1967 war, are the highlights of Zionism’s settler-colonial ambitions in Palestine, first articulated 125 years ago. As its historical precedents suggest, Zionist settler colonialism is fundamentally based on the operative logic of ‘eliminating the natives’ and, failing that, to marginalize and ‘minoritize’ them. Also in line with historical precedent since the Second World War, to undo the injustices associated with settler-colonialism, what is required is a process of comprehensive and ethical decolonization. 

The principal legal ‘driver’ towards decolonization is the right to self-determination, as yet unrealized in the case of the Palestinian people. As highlighted by the current UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, Francesca Albanese in her 2022 report, “[t]he violation of the peoples’ right to self-determination is inherent to settler-colonialism.” In view of the persistent denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination by Israel (and the international community), the Special Rapporteur calls for a paradigm shift “by opting for a solution premised on respect for history and international law. This can only be resolved by respecting the cardinal norm of peoples’ right to self-determination and the recognition of the absolute illegality of the settler-colonialism and apartheid that the prolonged Israeli occupation has imposed on the Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory. Given the settler-colonial nature of the occupation, its overall assessment must change, and so the deliberations of the international community.”

Since the turn of the century, several reputable Palestinian, Israeli, and international scholars and organizations have concluded that systemic and widespread discriminatory Israeli policies and practices against the Palestinians – in Israel, the occupied territories, and vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees in the diaspora – amount to the crime of apartheid under international law. While the international community has not significantly acted upon this finding of fact and law, the concept is rapidly gaining traction and has far-reaching implications, both in terms of the prospect of holding Israeli authorities and officials accountable, and in terms of the approach to a resolution of the root causes of systematic discrimination in this context.

Although the situation in South Africa was different from that in Palestine, the experience with respect to the former has taught us that apartheid is not something that can be reformed; it needs to be abolished in its totality, including the intention to settler-colonize the land. In the present context, his means doing away with all manifestations of Israeli-Zionist supremacy, colonial privilege, exclusivity, and discrimination, whether in laws, policies, and practices. 

This will have profound implications for both Palestinians and Israelis. Contrary to Israel’s persistent assertions, the country’s Jewish population is not entitled to self-determination in historic Palestine. According to the general principle of (international) law, ex iniuria ius non oritur – no right can be derived from injustice or the commission of a wrong – Israel’s establishment, through the premeditated and systemic destruction of Palestinian society and the forcible transfer of most of the Palestinian people, cannot give rise to a Jewish right to self-determination in Palestine. As compellingly articulated by Peter Beinart, editor-at- large of Jewish Currents, Jews similarly do not have the right to a sovereign state in historic Palestine. They do, however, have acquired rights to continued residency based on their exceptionally long stay – as do Palestinian refugees in the Arab host states where most of them, including their descendants, have found refuge since the Nakba and/or the Naksa.

Against this backdrop, the one-state solution is increasingly invoked as a possible alternative to the two-state option for resolving the Question of Palestine. In view of the current one-state-reality in Palestine/Israel, albeit one at present characterized by apartheid, this appears to be the way forward, by default rather than design. For Palestinians, this represents not a new idea; the PLO’s 1964 Charter set out the establishment of one democratic state, with equal rights for all its citizens, including Jews, in the entirety of historic Palestine as its vision for Palestinian liberation. The idea got overtaken by the PLO’s acceptance of the two-state framework, but Palestinian and Israeli politicians, academics, and activists have been reviving calls for a one-state solution during the past two decades, when the flaws of the Oslo Framework and its inability to realize Palestinian self-determination became increasingly clear. 

Proponents of a one-state solution include advocates for a binational state, either in the form of a federation or confederation (examples herehere, and here), and those pursuing liberal democracy in the form of one democratic state (see here, here, and here). Discussions of the pros and cons of each set of options are ongoing, and the extent to which each will be able to contribute to achieving Palestinian self-determination, an end to apartheid, and full and ethical decolonization of Palestine should guide Palestinians as they move forward. Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) is critically engaged with respect to this evolving exploration through its Question of Palestine program.

Let there be no illusions: the ‘endgame’ over the Question of Palestine will be difficult, painful, and likely bloody — yet unstoppable, as the other processes of decolonization post WW2 have demonstrated. It will have profound consequences for all major stakeholders.


Seventy-five years of Israel has demonstrated the inherent failure of Zionism to create a sustainable Jewish national home in Palestine as envisaged by its founders. For reasons brilliantly explained by Professor Daniel Bar Tal, Israel’s Jewish population has over the years been “Sinking into the Honey Trap” — the title of his latest book — gradually turning the country into an autocracy and adopting narratives and mechanisms that allow Jewish Israelis to ignore reality, live in a situation that prolongs the conflict, and postpones the solution to an unseen future with ongoing violence. The current Israeli government is the culmination of this process. Narratives of supremacy and deep-rooted victimhood have resulted in ever more violent suppression of Palestinians and their rights, accompanied by repeated calls for annexation of the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip) and even a new Nakba. 

The unprecedented so-called pro-democracy protests in Israel against the ongoing slide towards autocratic government represent a wake-up call by a significant part of Jewish Israeli society. To date, the protest movement is almost completely devoid of any engagement with the ongoing occupation, let alone the country’s settler-colonial character, although demonstrators increasingly make a connection between the ongoing erosion of the Israeli High Court’s powers and the risk of Israeli officers and others being held to account in international or foreign courts for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against Palestinians.

It is too early to predict the outcome of the ongoing escalation. If the extreme far-right religious-Zionist and Kahanist blocs prevail, we are likely to see even more extreme policies and violence, with formal annexation of the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip), further ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population, and civil war in Israel within the green line. This may eventually take such extreme proportions that the international community can no longer condone the situation. If, on the other hand, the “pro-democracy” movement manages to stop the judicial overhaul and, in the process, achieves the collapse of the current coalition, a more centrist government headed by Benny Gantz may slow down developments and appease the international community. However, it will be impossible to completely turn the tide, and hence, even in this scenario, the international community would eventually have no choice but to change position and intervene.


Commentators have compellingly argued that Oslo resulted in the de facto demise of the PLO — until then recognized by most Palestinians and the international community as the sole representative of the Palestinian people — and that the autocratic state of the Palestinian Authority and the current Palestinian leadership crisis are very much the product of Israel’s divide and rule (this includes facilitating and orchestrating the rise of Islamism in Gaza (Hamas) and in South Lebanon (Hizballah) to pull the rug under the essentially secular PLO). In addition, many Palestinians, for reasons similar to those described above vis-à-vis Israeli Jews, have become comfortable with the long-lasting reality of victimhood resulting, among others, in a “Politics of Suffering” — a term coined by American Anthropologist, Nell Gabiam, in a fascinating book about Palestinian refugees in Syria. 

Against this backdrop, the struggle towards the decolonization of Palestine and the liberation of its people is currently led by an inspiring new generation of Palestinian academics, writers, artists, and activists who are less invested in the former Palestinian political structures and establishment, nor affected by the ongoing political stalemate. Eventually, their professionalism, eloquence, dedication, and bottom-up power will result in a new Palestinian leadership aligned with the evolving vision and discourse toward decolonization and liberation.

International community

At present, the international community is wrestling to come to terms with the evolving one-state apartheid reality in Palestine/Israel and its policy implications, especially as Israel and its supporters are aggressively attempting to preempt criticism of its policies and practices, and engagement with respect to the evolving discourse beyond separation, through an expanded and weaponized use of (allegations of) antisemitism. These attempts are vocally exposed and challenged by many Jewish and other intellectuals and organizations, increasingly stricken down by courts of law, and will eventually fail, especially as the policies and practices of the current Israeli government make it no longer possible to deny that Israel is practicing apartheid and that the occupation has become permanent and hence illegal. 

In January of this year, only weeks after the arrival of the current Israeli government, ARDD’s Global Network on the Question of Palestine (GNQP) asserted in an open letter to UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, that the new political reality in Israel and the deteriorating situation in occupied Palestine calls for a fundamental change in vision and approach coupled with bold and courageous leadership from the United Nations that must address the root causes and core of the unresolved Palestine question and re-establish the centrality of the UN in its resolution. It urges the Secretary-General to “direct the relevant parts of the UN Secretariat and broader UN system to immediately develop both operational and policy responses to the evolving situation in Israel/Palestine.”

New leadership and a change in vision and approach are also required with respect to UNRWA, the UN agency that has protected and provided essential education, health, and relief services to Palestinian refugees. Beyond its role as a provider of public services, UNRWA is seen by the Palestinian refugees as evidence that their unresolved plight remains an international responsibility, as a new book by Anne Irfan asserts. As a number of members of the GNQP have argued, UNRWA needs to take account of the evolving political reality, including by more closely aligning with the international refugee regime as mandated by the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. More specifically, a “radical yet gradual evolution of UNRWA’s strategic direction” is proposed, “from providing support for humanitarian needs and basic human development to a comprehensive response on all aspects of the Palestinian refugee question, including a more expanded focus on protection and the pursuit of durable solutions.”

In conclusion, the endgame towards Palestinian liberation will undoubtedly encounter very significant pushback from Israel and its traditional supporters, and possibly others, that prefer the oppressive status quo. It is imperative that those engaged in the discourse toward justice resist these pressures and re-establish the primacy of international law and legitimacy. The longer-term benefits, not just for the principal stakeholders but for the world at large, will be immeasurable.

Lex Takkenberg is Senior Advisor on the Question of Palestine at Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD); he previously served for three decades with the United Nations Relief and works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)