Chapter 11: The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Peace Process
International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2005, 241-61.
One of the salient strands
in the international relations of the Middle
in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War
was the American-sponsored peace process between Israel
and the Arabs. On the Arab side the principal participants were Syria
and the Palestinians. This chapter focuses on the two principal parties to the
Arab-Israeli conflict – Israel
and the Palestinians. It traces the emergence, the development, and
the breakdown of the peace negotiations between Israel
and the PLO from 1991 to 2001. The main landmarks in this process are the
conclusion of the Oslo
accord, the implementation of the accord, Oslo II, the Camp David
summit, and the
return to violence. The main conclusion is that the Oslo
accord was not
doomed to failure from the start: it failed because Israel
under the leadership of the Likud, reneged on its side of the deal.
The Middle East
is the most
penetrated sub-system of the international political system. Ever since
Napoleon’s expeditionary force landed in Egypt
1798, it has been an object of rivalry among the great powers. The strategic
value of the Middle East
was considerable as the gateway between Europe
and the Far East
. The discovery of oil,
in the early part of the twentieth century, enhanced the region’s importance
for the global economy. After World War II, the Middle East
became one of the
major theatres of the Cold War. It was constantly caught up in superpower
rivalry for political influence, power, and prestige. External sources of
conflict combined with internal ones to produce frequent crises, violence and
wars. One of the most destabilising factors in the affairs of the region is the
dispute between Israel
and the Arabs.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is
one of the most bitter, protracted, and intractable conflicts of modern times.
It is also one of the dominant themes in the international relations of the Middle East
. There are two
principal levels to this conflict: the inter-state level and the
Israeli-Palestinian level. In origin and in essence this is a clash between the
Jewish and Palestinian national movements over the land of Palestine
problem therefore remains the core of the conflict. But the search
for a settlement is complicated by inter-Arab relations and by the involvement
of outside powers. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the peace process
that got under way in the aftermath of the Gulf War and, more specifically, the
quest for a settlement between Israel
and the Palestinians.
The Peace Process
The United States
took the lead in convening an international conference to address
the Arab-Israeli dispute following the expulsion of Iraq
. The conference was held in Madrid
at the end
of October 1991. At the conference the US
adopted an even-handed approach and pledged to promote a settlement that would
provide security for Israel
and justice to the Palestinians. Negotiations were to be based on
UN resolution 242 of November 1967 and the principle of land for peace that it
All the parties to the
conflict were invited to Madrid
but the PLO was excluded on account of its support for Iraq
following its invasion if Kuwait
2 August 1990
. The Palestinian delegation was made up of residents of the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip
who went to Madrid
not as an independent delegation but as part of a joint delegation
thus provided an umbrella for Palestinian participation in the
peace talks. Although the PLO leadership in Tunis
banned from attending this major international gathering, the Palestinian
negotiators kept in close touch with their colleagues in Tunis
The Israeli delegation to Madrid
by prime minister Itzhak Shamir, the leader of the right-wing Likud party.
Whereas Labour is a pragmatic party committed to territorial compromise, the
Likud is an ideological party committed to maintaining the West Bank
as part of the
ancestral Land of Israel
. At Madrid Shamir struck a tough and uncompromising posture. By
arguing that the basic problem was not territory but the Arab denial of Israel
very right to exist, he came close to rejecting the principle of swapping land
Two tracks for negotiations
were established in Madrid
: an Israeli-Arab track and an Israeli Palestinian track. Stage two
of the peace process consisted of bilateral negotiations between Israel
and individual Arab parties. These bilateral talks were held under American
auspices in Washington
, starting in January 1992. Several rounds of negotiations were held
in the American capital, but as long as the Likud remained in power little
progress was made on either track. It was only after the Labour’s victory over
the Likud in June 1992 that the Israeli position began to be modified, at least
on the Arab track. On the Palestinian issue the Israeli position displayed more
continuity than change following the rise of the Labour government under the
leadership of Itzhak Rabin. Consequently, the official talks between the Israeli
and Palestinian delegations in Washington
made painfully slow progress.
Stalemate in the official
talks led both Israel
and the PLO to seek a back channel for communicating. The decision
to hold direct talks with the PLO was a diplomatic revolution in Israel
foreign policy and paved the way to the Oslo
accord of 13 September 1993
Three men were primarily
responsible for this decision: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, the foreign
minister, and Yossi Beilin, the youthful deputy foreign minister.
Rabin held out against direct talks with the
PLO for as long as he could.
the view that without the PLO there could be no settlement.
Expecting the PLO to enable the local
Palestinian leaders to reach an agreement with Israel
he said on one occasion, was like expecting the turkey to help in preparing the
Thanksgiving dinner. As long as Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO,
remained in Tunis, he argued, he represented
the ‘outsiders’, the Palestinian diaspora, and he would do his best to slow
down the peace talks.
Yossi Beilin was even more
categorical in his view that talking to the PLO was a necessary condition for
an agreement with the Palestinians.
Beilin had always belonged to the extreme dovish wing of the Labour
He was the real architect behind
the Israeli recognition of the PLO.
Peres backed him all the way and the two of them succeeded in carrying
their hesitant and suspicious senior colleague with them.
The secret talks in Oslo got under way in late January 1993
with the active encouragement of Yossi Beilin who kept Shimon Peres fully
informed. Altogether, fourteen sessions of talks were held over an eight-month
period, all behind a thick veil of secrecy. Norwegian foreign affairs minister
Johan Joergen Holst and social scientist Terge Rød Larsen acted as generous
hosts and facilitators. The key players were two Israeli academics, Dr Yair
Hirschfeld and Dr Ron Pundik, and PLO treasurer Ahmad Qurei, better known as
Abu Ala. Away from the glare of publicity and political pressures, these three
men worked imaginatively and indefatigably to establish the conceptual
framework of the Israel-PLO accord. Their discussions ran parallel to the
bilateral talks in Washington but they proceeded without the
knowledge of the official Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
The unofficial talks initially dealt
with economic cooperation but quickly broadened into a dialogue about a joint
declaration of principles. In May, Peres took a highly significant decision: he
ordered Uri Savir, the director-general of the foreign ministry, and Yoel
Singer, a high-flying attorney who had spent twenty years in the IDF legal
department, to join Hirschfeld and Pundik on the weekend trips to Oslo. At this point Peres began to report
to Rabin regularly on developments in the Norwegian back-channel. At first
Rabin showed little interest in this channel but he raised no objection to
continuing the explorations either. Gradually, however, he became more involved
in the details and assumed an active role in directing the talks alongside
Peres. Since Abu Ala reported directly to Arafat, an
indirect line of communication had been established between Jerusalem and the PLO headquarters in Tunis.
Another landmark in the progress of
the talks was the failure of the tenth round of the official
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington. To tempt the Palestinians to move
forward, Peres floated the idea of ‘Gaza first’. He believed that Arafat was
desperate for a concrete achievement to bolster his sagging political fortunes
and that Gaza would provide him with his first toehold in the occupied territories.
Peres also knew that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would be greeted with sighs of relief
among the great majority of his countrymen. Arafat, however, did not swallow
the bait, suspecting an Israeli plan to confine the dream of Palestinian
independence to the narrow strip of territory stretching from Gaza City to Rafah. The idea was attractive to
some Palestinians, especially the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, but not to the
politicians in Tunis. Rather than reject the Israeli offer out of
hand, Yasser Arafat came up with a counter offer of his own: Gaza and Jericho
first. His choice of the small and sleepy West Bank town seemed quirky at first sight but it served
as a symbol of his claim to the whole of the West Bank.
Rabin did not balk at the counter
offer. All along he had supported handing over Jericho to Jordanian rule while keeping the Jordan Valley in Israeli hands. But he had one
condition: the Palestinian foothold on the West Bank would be an island inside Israeli-controlled
territory with the Allenby Bridge also remaining in Israeli hands. Jordan, too, preferred Israel to the Palestinians at the other end
of the bridge. Arafat therefore had to settle for the Israeli version of the ‘Gaza and Jericho first’ plan.
Rabin’s conversion to the idea of a
deal with the PLO was clinched by four evaluations which reached him between
the end of May and July. First was the advice of Itamar Rabinovich, the head of
the Israeli delegation to the talks with Syria, that a settlement with Syria was attainable but only at the cost
of complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Second were the reports from various
quarters that the local Palestinian leadership had been finally neutralized.
Third was the assessment of the IDF director of military intelligence that
Arafat’s dire situation, and possibly imminent collapse, made him the most
convenient interlocutor for Israel at that particular juncture. Fourth
were the reports of the impressive progress achieved through the Oslo channel. Other reports that reached
Rabin during this period pointed to an alarming growth in the popular following
of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the occupied territories. Both the army chiefs
and the internal security chiefs repeatedly stressed to him the urgency of
finding a political solution to the crisis in the relations between Israel and the inhabitants of the occupied
territories. Rabin therefore gave the
green light to the Israeli team and the secret diplomacy in Oslo moved into higher gear.
Rabin and Peres also believed that
progress towards a settlement with the Palestinians would lower the price of a
settlement with Syria by reducing the latter’s bargaining
power. Peres reduced the link between the two sets of negotiations to what he
called ‘the bicycle principle’: when one presses on one pedal, the other pedal
moves by itself. His formula was not directed at reaching a separate agreement
with the Palestinians but at gradual movement towards a settlement with the
Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Jordanians.
On 23 August, Rabin stated publicly
for the first time that ‘there would be no escape from recognizing the
PLO.’ In private, he elaborated on the
price that Israel could extract in exchange for this
recognition. In his estimate, the PLO was ‘on the ropes’ and it was therefore
highly probable that the PLO would drop some of its sacred principles to secure
Israeli recognition. Accordingly, while endorsing the joint declaration of
principles on Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho and mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, he insisted on changes
to the Palestinian National Charter as part of the package deal.
Peres flew to California to explain the accord to the US secretary of state, Warren
Christopher. Christopher was surprised by the scope of the accord and by the
unorthodox method by which it had been achieved. He naturally assumed that America had a monopoly over the peace
process. His aides in the State Department had come to be called ‘the peace
processors’. Now their feathers were ruffled because they had been so
thoroughly upstaged by the Norwegians. All the participants in the Oslo back-channel, on the other hand, had
the satisfaction of knowing that they had reached the accord on their own
without any help from the State Department. Their success showed that the fate
of the peace process lay in the hands of the protagonists rather than in the
hands of the intermediaries.
The Oslo Accord
Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements was
essentially an agenda for negotiations, governed by a tight timetable, rather
than a full-blown agreement. The Declaration laid down that within two months
of the signing ceremony, agreement on Israel’s military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho should be reached and within four
months the withdrawal should be completed. A Palestinian police force, made up
mostly of pro-Arafat Palestinian fighters, was to be imported to maintain
internal security in Gaza and Jericho, with Israel retaining overall responsibility for
external security and foreign affairs. At the same time, elsewhere in the West Bank, Israel undertook to transfer power to
‘authorized Palestinians’ in five spheres: education, health, social welfare, direct
taxation, and tourism. Within nine months, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were to hold elections to a
Palestinian Council to take office and assume responsibility for most
government functions except defence and foreign affairs. Within two years, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to
commence negotiations on the final status of the territories, and at the end of
five years the permanent settlement was to come into force.
 In short, the Declaration of Principles
promised to set in motion a process that would end Israeli rule over the two
million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza
shape of the permanent settlement was not specified in the Declaration of
Principles but was left to negotiations between the two parties during the
second stage. The Declaration was completely silent on vital issues such as the
right of return of the 1948 refugees, the borders of the Palestinian entity,
the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, and the status of Jerusalem. The reason for this silence is not
hard to understand: if these issues had been addressed, there would have been
no accord. Both sides took a calculated risk, realizing that a great deal would
depend on the way the experiment in Palestinian self-government worked out in
practice. Rabin was strongly opposed to an independent Palestinian state but he
favoured an eventual Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Arafat was strongly
committed to an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but he did not rule
out the idea of a confederation with Jordan.
Despite all its limitations and
ambiguities, the Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho marked a major breakthrough in the
century-old conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.
On Monday, 13 September 1993, the Declaration was signed on the
South Lawn of the White House and sealed with the historic hand-shake between
prime minister Rabin and chairman Arafat.
The Oslo accord consisted of two parts, both
of which were the product of secret diplomacy in the Norwegian capital. The
first part consisted of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. It took the form of two
letters, on plain paper and without letterheads, signed by Chairman Arafat and
prime minister Rabin respectively on 9 and 10 September. Nearly all the
publicity focused on the signing of the Declaration of Principles, but without
the mutual recognition there could have been no meaningful agreement on
In his letter to Rabin, Arafat
observed that the signing of the Declaration of Principles marked a new era in
the history of the Middle East. He then confirmed the PLO’s commitment to recognize Israel’s right to live in peace and
security, to accept United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, to
renounce the use of terrorism and other acts of violence, and to change those
parts of the Palestinian National Charter which were inconsistent with these
commitments. In his terse, one-sentence reply to Arafat, Rabin confirmed that
in the light of these commitments, the Government of Israel decided to
recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and to
commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.
Taken together, the two parts of the Oslo accord seemed at the time to merit
the over-worked epithet ‘historic’ because they reconciled the two principal
parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The clash between Jewish and Palestinian
nationalism had always been the heart and core of the Arab-Israeli-conflict.
Both national movements, Jewish and Palestinian, denied the other the right to
self-determination in Palestine. Their history was one of mutual
denial and mutual rejection. Now mutual denial made way for mutual recognition.
Israel not only recognized the Palestinians as a people
with political rights but formally recognized the PLO as its representative.
The handshake between Rabin and Arafat at the signing ceremony, despite the
former’s awkward body language, was a powerful symbol of the historic
reconciliation between the two nations.
The historic reconciliation was based
on a historic compromise: acceptance of the principle of the partition of Palestine. Both sides accepted territorial
compromise as the basis for the settlement of their long and bitter conflict.
By accepting the principle of partition, the two sides suspended the
ideological dispute as to who is the rightful owner of Palestine and turned to finding a practical
solution to the problem of sharing the cramped living space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea. Each side resigned itself to parting
with territory that it had previously regarded not only as its patrimony but as
a vital part of its national identity. Each side was driven to this historic
compromise by the recognition that it lacked the power to impose its own vision
on the other side. That the idea of partition was finally accepted by the two
sides seemed to support Abba Eban’s observation that men and nations often
behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.
The breakthrough at Oslo was achieved by separating the
interim settlement from the final settlement.
In the past the Palestinians had always refused to consider any interim
agreement unless the principles of the permanent settlement were agreed in
advance. Israel on the other hand, had insisted that
a five-year transition period should begin without a prior agreement about the
nature of the permanent settlement. At Oslo the PLO accepted the Israeli formula. In contrast to the official Palestinian
position in Washington, the PLO agreed to a five-year transition period
without clear commitments by Israel as to the nature of the permanent
Reactions to Oslo
The Israeli-PLO accord had far-reaching
implications for the inter-state dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Originally, the Arab states got involved in the Palestine conflict out of a sense of solidarity
with the Palestine Arabs against the Zionist intruders. Continuing commitment
to the Palestinian cause had precluded the Arab states, with the notable
exception of Egypt, from extending recognition to the
Jewish state. One of the main functions of the Arab League, which was
established in 1945, was to assist the Palestinians in the struggle for Palestine. After 1948, the League became a
forum for coordinating military policy and for waging political, economic, and
ideological warfare against the Jewish state. In 1974 the Arab League
recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian
people. Now that the PLO had formally recognized Israel, there was no longer any compelling
reason for the Arab states to continue to reject her.
Clearly, an important taboo had been
broken. PLO recognition of Israel was an important landmark along the
road to Arab recognition of Israel and the normalizing of relations with
her. Egypt, which was first to take the plunge back in the
late 1970s, felt vindicated and elated by the breakthrough. When Rabin stopped
in Rabat on his way home after attending the
signing ceremony in Washington, he was received like any other
visiting head of state by King Hassan II of Morocco. Jordan allowed Israeli television the first
ever live report by one of its correspondents from Amman. A number of Arab states, like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, started thinking seriously about the
establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. And the Arab League began
discussions on the lifting of the economic boycott which had been in force
since Israel’s creation. Nothing was quite the same in the
Arab world as a result of the Israel-PLO accord. The rules of the game in the
The change was no less marked in Israel’s approach to her Arab opponents than
in their approach to her. Zionist policy, before and after 1948, proceeded on
the assumption that agreement on the partition of Palestine would be easier to achieve with the
rulers of the neighbouring Arab states than with the Palestine Arabs. Israel’s courting of conservative Arab leaders,
like King Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, was an attempt to bypass the local
Arabs, and avoid having to address the core issue of the conflict. Recognition
by the Arab states, it was hoped, would help to alleviate the conflict without
conceding the right of national self-determination to the Palestinians. Now
this strategy was reversed. PLO recognition of Israel was expected to pave the way for
wider recognition by the Arab states from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Rabin expressed this hope when signing the
letter to Arafat in which Israel recognized the PLO. ‘I believe’, he
said, ‘that there is a great opportunity of changing not only the relations
between the Palestinians and Israel, but to expand it to the solution of
the conflict between Israel and the Arab countries and other Arab
On both sides of the
Israeli-Palestinian divide, the Rabin-Arafat deal provoked strong and
vociferous opposition on the part of the hard-liners. Both leaders were accused
of a betrayal and a sell-out. Leaders of the Likud, and of the nationalistic
parties further to the right, attacked Rabin for his abrupt departure from the
bipartisan policy of refusing to negotiate with the PLO and charged him with
abandoning the 120,000 settlers in the occupied territories to the tender
mercies of terrorists. The Gaza-Jericho plan was denounced as a bridgehead to a
Palestinian state and the beginning of the end of Greater Israel. A Gallup poll, however, indicated considerable
popular support for the prime minister. Of the 1,000 Israelis polled, 65 per
cent said they approved of the peace accord, with only 13 per cent describing
themselves as ‘very much against’.
Within the Palestinian camp the accord
also encountered loud but ineffective opposition. The PLO itself was split,
with the radical nationalists accusing Arafat of abandoning principles to grab
power. They included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by
George Habash, and the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of
Palestine, led by Nayef Hawatmeh. Arafat succeeded in mustering the necessary
majority in favour of the deal on the PLO’s 18-member Executive Committee but
only after a bruising battle and the resignation of four of his colleagues.
Outside the PLO, the deal aroused the implacable wrath of the militant
resistance movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who regarded any compromise with
the Jewish state as anathema.
Opposition to the deal from
rejectionist quarters, whether secular or religious, was only to be expected.
More disturbing was the opposition of mainstream figures like Farouk Kaddoumi,
the PLO ‘foreign minister’ and prominent intellectuals like Professor Edward
Said and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Some of the criticisms related to Arafat’s
autocratic, idiosyncratic, and secretive style of management. Others related to
the substance of the deal. The most basic criticism was that the deal
negotiated by Arafat did not carry the promise, let alone a guarantee, of an
independent Palestinian state.
This criticism took various forms.
Farouk Kaddoumi argued that the deal compromised the basic national rights of
the Palestinian people as well as the individual rights of the 1948 refugees.
Edward Said lambasted Arafat for unilaterally cancelling the intifada, for failing to coordinate his
moves with the Arab states, and for introducing appalling disarray within the
ranks of the PLO. ‘The PLO’, wrote Said, ‘has transformed itself from a
national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government, with the same
handful of people still in command.’ For
the deal itself, Said had nothing but scorn. ‘All secret deals between a very
strong and a very weak partner necessarily involve concessions hidden in
embarrassment by the latter,’ he wrote. ‘The deal before us’, he continued,
‘smacks of the PLO leadership’s exhaustion and isolation, and of Israel’s shrewdness.'
 ‘Gaza and Jericho first ... and last’ was Mahmoud
Darwish’s damning verdict on the deal.
reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian accord were rather mixed. Arafat got a
polite but cool reception from the 19 foreign ministers of the Arab League who
met in Cairo a week after the signing ceremony in Washington. Some member states of the League,
especially Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, were dismayed by the PLO chairman’s
solo diplomacy which violated Arab pledges to coordinate their negotiating
strategy. Arafat defended his decision to sign the accord by presenting it as
the first step towards a more comprehensive peace in the Middle East. The interim agreement, he said, was
only the first step towards a final settlement of the Palestinian problem and
of the Arab-Israeli conflict which would involve Israeli withdrawal from all
the occupied territories, including ‘Holy Jerusalem’. He justified his resort
to a secret channel by arguing that the almost two years of public negotiations
under US sponsorship had reached a dead end. Some of the
Arab foreign ministers agreed with the PLO chairman that the accord was an
important first step, even if they were not all agreed on the next step or the
the Declaration of Principles
Two committees were set up in early
October 1993 to negotiate the implementation of the lofty-sounding declaration
signed in Washington. The first committee was chaired by Shimon Peres
and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader who signed the declaration on behalf of the PLO.
This ministerial-level committee was supposed to meet in Cairo every two or three weeks. The other
committee, the nuts and bolts committee, consisted of experts who were supposed
to meet for two or three days each week in the Egyptian resort of Taba on the Red Sea. The heads of the delegations to
these talks were Nabil Sha’ath and Major-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak the
number-two man in the IDF and head of its military intelligence. The two sides
managed to hammer out an agenda and formed two groups of experts, one to deal
with military affairs, the other with the transfer of authority.
The IDF officers took a generally
tough line in the negotiations. These officers had been excluded from the
secret talks in the Norwegian capital and they felt bitter at having not been
consulted about the security implications of the accord. Chief of staff Ehud
Barak believed that in their haste to secure their place in history, the
politicians had conceded too much to the PLO and that when the time came to
implement the agreement, it would be the responsibility of the army to tackle
the security problems.
Underlying the labyrinthine
negotiations at Taba, there was a basic conceptual divide. The Israeli
representatives wanted a gradual and strictly limited transfer of powers while
maintaining overall responsibility for security in the occupied territories in
their own hands. They wanted to repackage rather than end Israel’s military occupation. The
Palestinians wanted an early and extensive transfer of power to enable them to
start laying the foundations for an independent state. They were anxious to get
rid of the Israeli occupation and they struggled to gain every possible symbol of
sovereignty. As a result of this basic
conceptual divide the Taba negotiations plunged repeatedly into crisis and took
considerably longer to complete than the two months allowed for in the original
After four months of wrangling, an agreement was reached in the form
of two documents, one on general principles, and the other on border crossings.
The two documents were initialled by Shimon Peres and Yasir Arafat in Cairo
on 9 February 1994
. Although the Cairo
agreement was tactfully presented as a compromise solution, it was
a compromise that tilted very heavily towards the Israeli position. The IDF had
managed to impose its own conception of the interim period: specific steps to
transfer limited powers to the Palestinians without giving up Israel
overall responsibility for security. The IDF undertook to redeploy rather than
withdraw its forces in the Gaza Strip and Jericho
. The Cairo
gave the IDF full authority over Gaza
’s three settlement blocs, the four lateral roads joining them to
the Green Line and ‘the relevant territory overlooking them’. The outstanding
feature of the agreement was thus to allow the IDF to maintain a military
presence in and around the area earmarked for Palestinian self-government and
to retain full responsibility for external security and control of the land
crossings to Egypt
. Despite these serious limitations, the Cairo
formed a first step in regulating the withdrawal of the Israeli Civil
Administration and secret services from Gaza
Another round of negotiations resulted
in an agreement which was signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in Cairo on 4 May. The Cairo agreement wrapped up the Gaza-Jericho
negotiations and set the terms for expanding Palestinian self-government to the
rest of the West
Expansion was to take place in three stages. First, responsibility for tourism,
education and culture, health, social welfare and direct taxation was to be
transferred from Israel’s Civil Administration to the
Palestinian National Authority. Second, Israel was to redeploy its armed forces away
from ‘Palestinian population centres’. Third, elections were due to take place
throughout the West
Bank and the
Gaza Strip for a new authority.
The Cairo document was billed by both sides as
an agreement to divorce after 27 years of unhappy coexistence in which the
stronger partner forced the weaker to live under its yoke. This was true in the
sense that Israel secured a separate legal system and
separate water, electricity and roads for the Jewish settlements. It was not
true in the sense that the document gave the stronger party firm control over
the new relationship.
The Cairo document stressed repeatedly the need
for cooperation, coordination and harmonization in the new relationship. A
large number of liaison committees, most of which were to have an equal number
of representatives from the two sides, gave a superficial appearance of parity.
But this parity was undermined in favour of the stronger partner by the fact
that Israeli occupation laws and military orders were to remain in force unless
amended or abrogated by mutual agreement. What this meant in practice was that
any issue that could not be resolved by negotiation would be subject to the
provisions of Israeli law rather than that of international law. This was a
retreat from the Palestinian demand that international law, particularly the
Fourth Geneva Convention, should be the source of legislation and jurisdiction
during the transition period.
A week after the Cairo document was signed, a token force of
30 Palestinian policemen entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt to assume control for internal
security from the retreating Israelis. This was the first tangible evidence
that Israeli occupation was winding down. Until this point all the movement had
been unilateral as the Israeli army redeployed its forces so as to provide
continuing protection for the tiny community of Jewish settlers in the strip.
Now a new Palestinian police force was to take charge of the nearby Palestinian
population centres in accordance with a pre-arranged division of labour. The
Israeli withdrawal was greeted with a sigh of relief at home and great joy and
jubilation among the Gazans. As the last Israeli soldiers pulled out of their
military camps in Rafah and Nusairat to a final barrage of stones, the Israeli
flag was replaced by the flag of Palestine. A 27-year old experiment in imposing
Israeli rule over two million recalcitrant Arabs was symbolically visibly and
nearing the end of its life.
The government’s policy of controlled
withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho enjoyed broad popular support. Hard as they
tried, the leaders of the opposition failed to arouse the nation against the
decisions of the government. As far as the government was concerned, the real paradox
was that it needed a strong PLO to implement the Gaza-Jericho settlement, but a
strong PLO could only reinforce the determination of the Palestinians to fight
for a state of their own.
The government maintained
its commitment to peace with the Palestinians despite the protests from the
right and despite the terrorist attacks launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad
with the aim of derailing the peace talks.
, the Agreement on Preparatory
Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities was signed by Israel
and the Palestinians.
transferred powers to the Palestinian Authority in five specified spheres:
education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation, and tourism.
Negotiations on the Syrian
track proceeded in parallel to those on the Palestinian track. Rabin’s strategy
was to decouple the Syrian track from the Palestinian, Jordanian, and Lebanese
tracks. He controlled the pace of the negotiations with Syria
according to what was happening on the other tracks. The Americans offered
their good offices in trying to broker a settlement with Syria.
For Syria the key issue was full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights by which they
meant a return to the armistice lines of 4 June 1967.
The Israelis preferred withdrawal to the 1923 international border which was
more favourable to them. In the second half of 1993 Rabin came close to
accepting the Syrian condition if Syria met his demands, the four legs of the
table as he used to call them. Besides withdrawal, the other three legs of the
table were normalisation, security arrangements, and a timetable for
implementation. The Syrian response on these other points did not satisfy
Rabin. Consequently, although considerable progress was achieved by the two
sides in narrowing down the differences, it was not sufficient to secure a
breakthrough on the Syrian track.
was more directly affected by the Israel-PLO accord than any other Arab country
because of its close association with the West
and because over half of its
population is of Palestinian origin. A day after the accord was presented to
the world, in a much more modest ceremony in the State Department, the
representatives of Jordan
signed a common agenda for negotiations aimed at a comprehensive
peace treaty. Its main components were borders and territorial matters, Jerusalem
security, and refugees. The document bore the personal stamp of King Hussein
who had been deeply involved in the quest for peace in the Middle East
for the preceding
quarter of a century. A year of intensive negotiations culminated in the
signature of a peace treaty in the Arava desert on 26 October 1994
. This was the second peace treaty concluded between Israel
and an Arab country in fifteen years and the first to be signed in the region.
The treaty between Israel
had been signed in 1979. But whereas Egypt
offered a cold peace, King Hussein offered Israel
On 28 September 1995
, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip
was signed in Washington
by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the presence of Bill Clinton,
Hosni Mubarak, and King Hussein of Jordan
It became popularly known as Oslo II.
This agreement, which marked the conclusion
of the first stage in the negotiations between Israel
and the PLO, incorporated and superseded the Gaza-Jericho and the early
Agreement was comprehensive in its scope and, with its various annexes,
stretched to over 300 pages.
point of view of changes on the ground, it was highly significant.
It provided for elections to a Palestinian
Council, the transfer of legislative authority to this Council, the withdrawal
of Israeli forces from the Palestinian centres of population, and the division
of territories into three areas – A, B, and C.
Area A was under exclusive Palestinian control, area C under exclusive
Israeli control, and in area B the Palestinians exercised civilian authority
continued to be in charge of security.
Under the terms of this agreement, Israel
yielded to the Palestinians control over nearly a third of the West Bank
Four per cent of the West Bank
(including the towns
of Jenin, Nablus
, Kalkilya, Tulkarem, Ramallah, Bethlehem
, and Hebron
) were turned
over to exclusive Palestinian control and another 25 per cent to
marked the point of no return in the process of ending Israel
coercive control over the Palestinian people.
On 5 October, Yitzhak Rabin
gave the Knesset a comprehensive survey of Oslo II and of the thinking behind
His speech was repeatedly
interrupted by catcalls from the benches of the opposition.
Two Likud MKs opened black umbrellas, the
symbols of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich
In the course of his speech, Rabin outlined
his thinking for the permanent settlement: military presence but no annexation
of the Jordan Valley; retention of the large blocks of settlements near the
1967 border; preservation of a united Jerusalem with respect for the rights of
the other religions; and a Palestinian entity which would be less than a state
and whose territory would be demilitarized.
The fact that Rabin sketched out the principles of the permanent
settlement in a session devoted to the interim settlement suggested a strong
interest in proceeding to the next stage.
that Knesset endorsed Oslo II by a majority of one, thousands of demonstrators
gathered in Zion Square
Binjamin Netanyahu, the
leader of the Likud, was on the grandstand while the demonstrators displayed an
effigy of Rabin in SS uniform.
set the tone with an inflammatory speech.
He called Oslo II a surrender agreement and accused Rabin of ‘causing
national humiliation by accepting the dictates of the terrorist Arafat.’
A month later, on 4 November 1995
, Rabin was assassinated by a religious-nationalist Jewish fanatic
with the explicit aim of derailing the peace process.
Rabin’s demise, as the murderer expected,
dealt a serious body blow to the entire peace process.
Shimon Peres followed Rabin down the
pot-holed road to peace with the Palestinians but his efforts were cut short by
his electoral defeat in May 1996.
Declaration of War on the Peace Process
The return of
power of the Likud under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu dealt another
body blow to the Oslo
From the very
beginning the Likud had been bitterly opposed to the Labour government's
land-for-peace deal with the PLO.
Netanyahu himself repeatedly denounced the accord as a violation of the
historic right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel
a mortal danger to their security.
foreign policy guidelines of his government expressed firm opposition to a
Palestinian state, to the Palestinian right of return, and to the dismantling
of Jewish settlements.
’s sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem
out withdrawal from the Golan Heights
In the Arab world this
programme was widely seen as a declaration of war on the peace process.
his two and a half years in power in a relentless attempt to arrest, freeze,
and subvert the Oslo
He kept preaching
reciprocity while acting unilaterally in demolishing Arab houses, imposing
curfews, confiscating Arab land, building new Jewish settlements, and opening
an archaeological tunnel near the Muslim holy places in the Old City of
Jerusalem. Whereas the Oslo
accord left Jerusalem
to the final stage of the negotiations, Netanyahu made it the
centrepiece of his programme in order to block progress on any other
His government waged an economic
and political war of attrition against the Palestinians in order to lower their
pressure compelled Netanyahu to concede territory to the Palestinian Authority
on two occasions.
The Hebron Protocol
was signed on 15
, dividing the city into a
Palestinian zone and a Jewish zone.
was a milestone in the Middle East
peace process, the first agreement signed by the Likud government
and the Palestinians. The second agreement was brokered by President Bill
Clinton at Wye Plantation in Maryland
on 23 October 1998
By signing the Wye River Memorandum,
Netanyahu undertook to withdraw from a further 13 per cent of the West Bank
in three stages over
a period of three months.
But a revolt
of his ultra-nationalist and religious partners brought down the government
after only one pullback.
The fall of the
government was inevitable because of the basic contradiction between its
declared policy of striving for peace with the Arab world and its ideological
makeup, which militated against trading land for peace.
leadership of Ehud Barak the Labour Party won landslide victory in the May
1999. Labour’s return to power was widely expected to revive the moribund peace
process. During the election campaign Barak presented himself as Rabin’s
disciple, as a soldier who turned from fighting the Arabs to peace-making. He
was given a clear mandate to resume the quest for peace with all of Israel
neighbours. Within a short time, however, Barak dashed the hopes that had been
pinned on him.
He lacked the vision, the
political courage, and the personal qualities that were necessary to follow
through on the peace partnership with the Palestinians. During his army days
Barak used to be called Little Napoleon. In politics, too, his style was
arrogant and authoritarian and he approached diplomacy as the extension of war
by other means.
barrier on the road to peace with the Palestinians raised by Barak was the
expansion of Jewish settlements on the West
. Settlement activity is not contrary
to the letter of the Oslo
accord, but it is contrary to its spirit. True, settlement activity
had gone on under all previous prime ministers, Labour as well as Likud. But
under Barak settlement activity gathered pace: more houses were constructed,
more Arab land was confiscated, and more access roads were built to isolated
Jewish settlements. For the Palestinian population these settlements are not
just a symbol of the hated occupation but a source of daily friction and a
constant reminder of the danger to the territorial contiguity of their future
Another reason for
the slowdown on the Palestinian track was the clear preference articulated by
Barak for a deal with Syria
first on the grounds that Syria
a serious military power whereas the Palestinians were not. During his first
six months in power Barak concentrated almost exclusively on the Syrian track,
leaving the Palestinians to twist in the wind. When the late Syrian President,
Hafez al-Assad, rejected his final offer, Barak turned, belatedly and
reluctantly, to the Palestinian track. His reservations about the Oslo
well known. He argued that the step-by-step approach of trading land for peace
does not serve Israel
’s interests because the Palestinians will always come back for
more. This made him wary of further interim agreements and prompted him to
insist that the Palestinian Authority commit itself to an absolutely final end
to the conflict.
One more interim
agreement was necessary, however, before taking the plunge to the final
settlement. It took ten months to break the deadlock created by the Likud
government’s failure to implement the Wye River Memorandum. Once again, Barak
proved to be a tough negotiator, applying intense pressure on the Palestinians.
His method was described as ‘peace by ultimatum’. The accord that he and Yasser
Arafat signed at Sharm el-Sheikh, on 4 September1999, reflected the underlying
balance of power between the two parties. It put in place a new timetable for
the final status talks, aiming at a ‘framework agreement’ by February and a
fully fledged peace treaty by 13 September 2000
deadline fell by the wayside, fuelling frustration on the Palestinian side and
prompting Arafat to threaten to issue a unilateral declaration of independence
if no agreement could be reached. To forestall this eventuality, Barak
persuaded President Clinton to convene a trilateral summit in the United States
. With the announcement of the summit, Barak’s chaotic coalition
fell apart. Three parties quit the government, robbing him of his parliamentary
majority on the eve of his departure for the summit. In a defiant speech, Barak
told the Knesset that although he no longer commanded a majority, as the
directly elected prime minister he still had a mandate to make peace. But
Barak’s domestic political weakness inevitably reduced the diplomatic room for
manoeuvre that he enjoyed. Once again, as so often in the past, the peace
process was held hostage to the vagaries of the Israeli political system.
Negotiations at Camp David
started on 11 July 2000
and lasted fourteen days. Barak approached the summit meeting in
the manner of a soldier rather than that of a diplomat. He dismissed Arafat’s
plea for more time to prepare the groundwork, believing that with the help of
the American ‘peace processors’ he would be able to impose his terms for the
final settlement on the opponent. In fairness to Barak it must be said that he
crossed his own ‘red lines’ and put on the table a package which addressed all
the issues at the heart of the conflict: land, settlements, refugee rights, and
envisaged an independent Palestinian state over the whole of the Gaza Strip and
most of the West Bank
, but with the large settlement blocs next to the 1967 border being
annexed to Israel
. The Jordan Valley
, long cherished as Israel
security border, would eventually be turned over to exclusive Palestinian
sovereignty. Altogether 20.5 of the West
was to remain in Israel
hands: 10.5 to be annexed outright and 10 per cent to be under Israeli military
occupation for twenty years. Barak agreed to the return of Palestinian refugees
but only in the context of family reunification involving 500 people a year. On
Jerusalem he went further than any previous Israeli prime minister, and indeed
broke a taboo by agreeing to the partition of the city. But his offer fell well
short of the Palestinian demand for exclusive sovereignty over all of the
city’s Arab suburbs and over Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The problem with this package was that it was presented pretty much on a ‘take
it or leave it’ basis. Moreover, Barak insisted that an agreement would mark
the final end of the conflict, with the Palestinians formally renouncing any
further claim against the State of Israel.
delegation was divided in its response to the package. Some saw in it a
historic opportunity for putting the conflict behind them, others felt that it
would compromise their basic national rights, and in particular the right of
return of the 1948 refugees. In addition, the Palestinian delegation came under
pressure from Egypt and Saudi Arabia not to compromise Muslim rights over the
Muslim holy places in the Old City of Jerusalem. At this critical juncture in
his people’s history, Yasser Arafat displayed neither courage nor
statesmanship. His greatest mistake lay in rejecting many of the proposals put
to him without putting forward any counter-proposals of his own. Consequently,
when the summit ended in failure, Barak and Clinton were able to put all the
blame on Arafat. Arafat returned home to a hero’s welcome, but he returned
The question of
responsibility for the failure of the summit became the subject of heated
controversy, not surprisingly given the serious consequences of failure. Both
sides of the argument were forcefully presented over the pages of the New York Review of Books in articles and
letters to the editor. Robert Malley and Hussein Agha launched the debate with
a long revisionist article based on first-hand knowledge. They believe that
Bill Clinton consistently sided with Ehud Barak leading Yasser Arafat to
suspect that there was a conspiracy afoot against him and causing him to dig
his heels in. Ehud
Barak repeatedly asserted that at Camp David he made a most generous offer and
that Arafat made a deliberate choice to abort the negotiations and to resort to
violence in order to extract further concessions from Israel. Dennis Ross, Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East, also laid all the
blame at Arafat’s door, arguing that at no point during Camp David or in the
six months after it did the Chairman demonstrate any capability to conclude a
permanent status deal. Jeremy Pressman, an academic with no axe to grind, examined in depth both the
Israeli and the Palestinian versions of the Camp David summit and concluded
that the latter is significantly more accurate than the former.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada
With the collapse
of the Camp David summit, the countdown to the outbreak of the next round of
violence began. On the Palestinian side there was mounting frustration and
deepening doubt that Israel would ever voluntarily accept a settlement that
involved even a modicum of justice. Israel’s apparent intransigence fed the
belief that it only understands the language of force. On the Israeli side,
there was growing disenchantment with the Palestinians and disillusion with the
results of the Oslo accord. Ehud Barak succeeded in persuading virtually all
his compatriots that there is no Palestinian peace partner.
It was against
this background that Ariel Sharon, the leader of the Likud, chose to stage his
much-publicised visit to al-Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary which the Jews
call Temple Mount. On 28 September 2000, flanked by a thousand security men and
in deliberate disregard for the sensitivity of the Muslim worshippers, Sharon
walked into the sanctuary. By embarking on this deliberately provocative
walk-about, Sharon in effect put a match to the barrel of gun-powder. His visit
sparked off riots on the Haram al-Sharif that spread to other Arab areas of
East Jerusalem and to other cities. Within a very short time, the riots
snow-balled into a full-scale uprising -- the Al-Aqsa intifada.
uprising happened spontaneously, the Palestinian security services became
involved and played their part in the escalation of violence. The move from
rocks to rifles on the Palestinian side and the resort to rockets, tanks, and
attack helicopters by the Israelis drove the death toll inexorably upwards. As
so often in the past, the sound of gunfire drowned the dialogue of the
diplomats. Violence is, of course, no stranger to the region. Even after the
signing of the Oslo accord, diplomacy was sometimes interspersed with bursts of
violence. Now fierce fighting was interspersed with small doses of ineffectual
diplomacy. Positions hardened on both sides and the tit-for-tat gathered its
Neither side wanted to be seen as
willing to back down. Yasser Arafat saw no contradiction between the intifada
and negotiations. On the contrary, he hoped that the intifada would give him
more leverage in dealing with the Israelis. Ehud Barak insisted that the
incitement and the violence had to end before he would return to the
negotiating table. His announcement of ‘time out’ signaled the abandonment of
the political track until further notice. In the absence of talks, the security
situation steadily deteriorated, clashes became more frequent and lethal, and
the death toll increased at an alarming rate. Trust between the two sides broke
down completely. The two societies became locked in a dance of death. The Oslo
accords were in tatters.
Why did the Oslo peace process
break down? One possible answer is that the Oslo accord was doomed to failure
from the start because of its inherent shortcomings, and in particular because
it did not address any of the core issues in the conflict between Israel and
the Palestinians. The foregoing account of the rise and fall of the Oslo
accord, however, suggests a different answer. It suggests that the basic reason
for the failure of Oslo to resolve the conflict is that Israel, under the
leadership of the Likud, reneged on its side of the deal. By resorting to
violence, the Palestinians contributed to the breakdown of trust without which
no political progress is possible. But the more fundamental cause behind the loss
of trust and the loss of momentum was the Israeli policy of expanding
settlements on the West Bank which carried on under Labour as well as Likud.
This policy precluded the emergence of a viable Palestinian state without which
there can be no end to the conflict.
The breakdown of the Oslo peace
process suggests one general conclusion about the international relations of
the Middle East, namely, the importance of external intervention for the
resolution of regional conflicts. According to a no doubt apocryphal story,
Pope John Paul believes that there are two possible solutions to the
Arab-Israeli conflict – the realistic and the miraculous. The realistic would
involve divine intervention, the miraculous a voluntary agreement between the
parties. For the reasons explained in this chapter, the PLO and Israel were
able to negotiate the Oslo accord without the help of a third party. But the
imbalance in power between them made it exceedingly difficult to carry this
agreement to a successful conclusion. America’s role as the manager of the
peace process was therefore essential to the success of the whole enterprise.
In the final analysis, only America could push Israel into a settlement. And in
the event, America’s failure to exert sufficient pressure on Israel to withdraw
from the occupied territories was one of the factors that contributed to the
breakdown of the Oslo peace process.
* The author would
like to thank the United States Institute of Peace for supporting his research
on the Middle East peace process.
 Shimon Peres, Battling for
Peace: Memoirs, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995, pp. 323-24.
 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government, Washington, 13
September 1993, Meron Medzini, ed., Israel’s
Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1992-1994, volume 13, Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 319-28.
 Abba Eban, ‘Building Bridges, Not Walls’, The Guardian, 10 September 1993.
Yossi Beilin, Touching
, (Tel Aviv: Yediot
Aharonot, 1997), p. 152.
 Israeli Prime Minister’s Statement, International Herald Tribune, 11-12
Guardian, 16 September 1993.
 Edward Said, Peace and its Discontents: Gaza-Jericho, 1993-1995, London:
Vintage, 1995, p. 2.
 Charles Enderlin, Shattered
Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002, New
York, Other Press, 2003, pp. 213, 270, and 324.
 Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, ‘Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors’,
New York Review of Books, 9 August
 Benny Morris, ‘Camp David and After: An Interview with Ehud Barak’,
New York Review of Books, 13 June
2002; and Benny Morris and Ehud Barak, ‘Camp David and After – Continued’, New York Review of Books, 27 June 2002.
 Dennis Ross, ‘Camp David – An Exchange’, New York Review of Books, 20 September 2001.
 Jeremy Pressman, ‘Visions in Collision: What Happened at Camp David
and Taba?’ International Security, vol.
28, no. 2, Fall 2003.
Guide to Further Reading
Zittrain, and Caplan, Neil, Negotiating
Arab-Israeli Peace: Patterns, Problems, Possibilities (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1998). A useful comparative survey
of peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbours.
Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the
Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002 (New York: Other Press, 2003). A detailed but
readable account of the breakdown of the peace process based on extensive
research and interviews, and on minutes of conversations taken by the
Guyatt, Nicholas, The Absence of Peace: Understanding the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (London: Zed
Books, 1998). A highly critical analysis of the nature of the Oslo
accord and of its
political and economic consequences for the Palestinians.
Makovsky, David, Making Peace with the PLO: The Rabin
Government's Road to the
Oslo Accord (Boulder, Colorado: Westview
Press, 1996). A detailed account of the politics and
diplomacy of the Rabin government by a well-informed Israeli
Rabinovich, Itamar, Waging
Peace: Israel and the Arabs at the End of the Century (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). An overview of Israel’s
relationship with the Arab world by
an academic who headed the Israeli delegation to the talks with Syria.
Said, Edward W., Peace and its Discontents: Gaza-Jericho, 1993-1995 (London,
Vintage Books, 1995). A
collection of essays by a prominent Palestinian academic with severe strictures
on the PLO leadership and the peace it made with Israel.
Said, Edward W., The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (London: Granta Books,
subsequent collection of articles by the same author that deal with the peace process and
other aspects of Palestinian life.
Shlaim, Avi, War and Peace in
the Middle East: A Concise History (London: Penguin Books,
1995). A brief and basic introduction to the international politics of the
Middle East since World War I.
Shlaim, Avi, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2000). A detailed
and highly critical study of Israel’s policy in the conflict with the Arabs during
the first 50 years of statehood.