The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements

By Bisharat, George | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements


Bisharat, George, Shofar


by Geoffrey R. Watson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 429 pp. $72.00.

Geoffrey R. Watson, formerly a lawyer for the State Department specializing in Middle East affairs, and currently a professor of law at Catholic University, has written the first comprehensive legal analysis of the series of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians known collectively as the "Oslo Accords." The author's principal aim, as articulated in the Preface, is to answer four questions: "(1) Are the Oslo Accords legally binding agreements governed by treaty law, or are they non-binding political undertakings? (2) To what extent has each side complied with its obligations under the Accords? (3) Insofar as there have been violations of the Accords, what effect (if any) do those violations have on each of the parties' outstanding obligations? (4) How can international law help shape a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

The book commences with a brief but necessary survey of legal historical dimensions of the straggle over Palestine-Israel. In a work that is otherwise extremely thorough, this section of the book may be the least satisfactory. In suggesting, for example, that the 1917 Balfour Declaration (a unilateral commitment by the British government to support Zionist aims of creating a "Jewish national home" in Palestine) may have been legally binding, the author never articulates how such an agreement, concerning territory controlled at the time by neither of the parties, could bind anyone other than the parties to the agreement themselves. Were I, the reviewer, to promise to give you, the reader, Professor Watson's home or car, perhaps I might incur actionable legal obligations to you, but one suspects the unknowing (or protesting) Professor Watson might not be so bound.

The author gains firmer footing in the review and analysis of the Oslo Accords themselves. Rejecting theses that the Accords are binding as treaties, binding declarations, customary international law, or quasi-binding "soft law," Professor Watson argues that they are nonetheless binding as agreements between subjects of international law. Non-expert readers may be more interested in this bottom line conclusion than in the nuances of the preceding discussion, but Professor Watson renders a distinct service in clarifying its legal foundations. Both Israel and the Palestinians have frequently violated the agreements, and almost uniformly have responded disproportionately to breaches of the other, but, in the author's view, never so fundamentally as to justify termination of the agreements altogether. On the contrary, the agreements remain in force, and are likely to continue to provide the fundamental framework for subsequent peace negotiations between the two parties.

Through these sections, the discussion is highly systematic, carefully and respectfully considering alternate arguments, and conclusions, if not incontrovertible, are always well-grounded and supported by logic.

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