The Oslo Accord
Journal of Palestine Studies, 23:3 (Spring 1994), pp. 24-40.
Despite all its limitations and ambiguities, the Declaration of
Principles for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho marked
the mother of all breakthroughs in the century-old conflict between
Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Future generations will look back on
Monday, 13 September 1993, the day the Declaration was signed on the
South Lawn of the White House and sealed with the historic hand-shake
between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation
Organisation chairman Yasir Arafat, as one of the most momentous events
in the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century. In one
stunning move, the two leaders redrew the geo-political map of the
Although the Declaration of Principles was signed in Washington, with
President Bill Clinton acting as the master of ceremonies, it had been
negotiated in Oslo and initialled there in late August. The Oslo accord
is therefore a more fitting name for the historic document than the
Washington accord. The accord in fact 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, dated 9 September but 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 prior agreement on mutual recognition there could have been
no meaningful agreement on Palestinian self-government.
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
Covenant which are 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.
Rabin was only slightly more expansive, but still far from effusive, in
a statement he made at the signing of the letter to Arafat. He noted
that this was the first agreement between the Palestinians and Israel
since the creation of the State of Israel. `It's an historic moment',
he said, `which hopefully will bring about an end to 100 years of
bloodshed, misery, between the Palestinians and Jews, between
Palestinians and Israel.'
Taken together, the two parts of the Oslo accord fully merit the
over-worked epithet `historic' because they reconcile the two principal
parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This conflict has two dimensions:
one is the inter-state conflict between Israel and the neighbouring
Arab states, the other is the clash between Jewish and Palestinian
nationalism. The latter has 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 is one of mutual denial and mutual rejection. Palestinian
rejection of Israel's legitimacy is enshrined in the 1968 Palestinian
National Covenant. Israel's rejection of Palestinian national rights
was pithily summed up by Golda Meir's remark that there is no such
thing as a Palestinian people.
Now mutual denial has 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 Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser 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 old Israeli
war-horse was deeply uneasy about the mammoth step of opening relations
with the PLO which only weeks earlier he was calling a `terrorist
organization'. To his aides he confided that he had `butterflies in his
stomach.' Yet, he managed to overcome his doubts and reservations and
he took this gigantic step, knowing full well that there was no turning
The historic reconciliation was based on a historic compromise:
acceptance of the principle of the partition of Palestine. Both sides,
at the same time, accepted the principle of territorial compromise as
the basis for the settlement of their long and bitter conflict, as the
basis for peaceful co-existence between themselves. Partition is not,
of course, a new idea. It was first proposed by the Peel Commission in
1937 and again by the United Nations in 1947, but it was rejected on
both occasions by the Palestinians who insisted on a unitary state over
the whole of Palestine. They insisted on all or nothing and they ended
up with nothing. Nor were they quick to learn from their mistakes.
Article 2 of the Palestinian National Covenant states that `Palestine,
with the boundaries it had during the British mandate, is an
indivisible territorial unit.' By the time the Palestinian
National Council endorsed the principle of partition and a two-state
solution in 1988, Israel, under a Likud government, rejected the idea,
laying claim to the whole of the Biblical Land of Israel, including
Judea and Samaria.
By accepting the principle of partition at the same time, the two sides
abandoned 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 would seem to support Abba Eban's
observation that men and nations often behave wisely once they have
exhausted all the other alternatives.
The Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation has far-reaching implications
for the other 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 has 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 Alexandria 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 has formally recognized Israel,
there is no longer any compelling reason for the Arab states to
continue to reject her.
Clearly, an important taboo has been broken. PLO recognition of Israel
legitimizes the normalization of relations between the rest of the Arab
world and Israel. It is 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, feels
vindicated and elated by the breakthrough it helped to bring about.
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 has been in force since Israel's creation. Nothing is
quite the same in the Arab world as a result of the Israel-PLO accord.
The rules of the game in the entire Middle East have radically changed.
The change is 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 Palestinian 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, to avoid having to address the core issue of the conflict.
Recognition by the Arab states, it was hoped, would enable Israel
alleviate the conflict without conceding the right of national
self-determination to the Palestinians. Now this strategy has been
stood on its head. PLO recognition of Israel is expected to pave the
way to 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 extend it to the solution of the
conflict between Israel and the Arab countries and other Arab peoples.'
The agreement ended the two-year-old deadlock in the American-sponsored
Middle East peace talks which began at the Madrid conference in October
1991. The collapse of communism and the defeat of Arab radicalism in
the Gulf War provided the backdrop to this renewed attempt to resolve
the Arab-Israeli dispute. In the bilateral talks which followed the
Madrid conference, there were two tracks: an Israeli-Arab track and an
Israeli-Palestinian track. The basis of the negotiations on both tracks
was UN Security Council resolution 242 and the principle of swapping
land for peace. But this principle was not accepted by Yitzhak Shamir,
Likud leader and Israeli prime minister at the time. `Shamir', as
Avishai Margalit presciently observed, `is not a bargainer. Shamir is a
two-dimensional man. One dimension is the length of the Land of Israel,
the second, its width. Since Shamir's historical vision is measured in
inches, he won't give an inch.'
The Labour Party, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, fought the
June 1992 general election on a programme of moving beyond peace talks
to peace-making, with priority to the Palestinian track, and it won a
decisive victory. During the election campaign Rabin promised that, if
elected, he would try to reach agreement on Palestinian autonomy within
six to nine months. But the change of government in Israel did not
yield the longed-for breakthrough in the talks with the Palestinians.
Retaining Likud's Eliakim Rubinstein as the head of the Israeli
delegation to the talks with the Palestinians was a bad omen.
Rubinstein's brief, under the previous management, had been to keep all
the options in the occupied territories open, including that of
eventual annexation by Israel. Rabin's initial offer of Palestinian
autonomy, presented at the opening of the sixth round of the official
talks in Washington, did not differ markedly from that of his
predecessor. Rabin also continued to shun the PLO and to pin his hopes
on the local leaders from the occupied territories whom he considered
to be more moderate and more pragmatic. He saw Arafat as an arch-enemy
and did his best to marginalize him.
While the peace talks were going nowhere slowly, the security situation
on the ground deteriorated rapidly. True to his reputation as a
security hawk, Rabin resorted to draconian measures. In December 1992,
following the abduction and murder of an Israeli border policeman,
Rabin ordered the deportation of over 400 activists from Hamas, the
Islamic resistance movement, to Lebanon. Hamas, being vehemently
opposed to any compromise with the Jewish state, had been campaigning
against Palestinian participation in the Washington talks. By cracking
down on Hamas, Rabin intended to tilt the balance in favour of the
moderates in the Palestinian camp. His illegal and brutal deportation
of the Hamas activists, however, only increased popular support for the
movement in the occupied territories at the expense of the PLO.
At a fairly early stage in the negotiations, Rabin was inclined to
ditch the Palestinians altogether and to strike a deal with Syria.
Having embarked on the peace talks with a `Syria-last' position, he
became a convert to a `Syria-first' position. The bilateral talks
between Syria and Israel in Washington revealed that Syria, once the
standard-bearer of radical Pan-Arabism, was ready for total peace with
Israel in return for total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Rabin therefore had to choose between a deal with Syria which entailed
complete withdrawal and the dismantling of Jewish settlements on the
Golan Heights and a deal with the PLO on interim self-government for a
period of five years which entailed only limited territorial withdrawal
and no dismantling of Jewish settlements. He chose the latter.
Israel's decision to hold direct talks with the PLO constituted a
revolution in its foreign policy, a revolution that paved the way to
the Oslo accord. Three men, all members of the Labour Party, were
primarily responsible for this decision: Yitzhak Rabin who is defence
minister as well as prime minister, his foreign minister and political
rival, Shimon Peres, and Yossi Beilin, the youthful deputy foreign
minister. Rabin, a former Chief of Staff, had always belonged to the
hawkish wing of the Labour Party. For him Israel's security takes
precedence over peace with the Arab neighbours. On being elected, he
assumed personal charge of the bilateral talks and left only the much
less important multilateral talks to his foreign minister.
Peres himself had gradually moved from the hawkish wing to the dovish
wing of the party. Inspired by a vision of a new Middle East based on
the EEC model, he was indefatigable in his search for new and
unconventional avenues of communication with Israel's opponents. Beilin
had always belonged to the extreme dovish wing of the party. He had
consistently maintained over the last twenty years that the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be settled on the basis of mutual
recognition. Beilin 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.
Rabin had repeated on countless occasions that he would never talk to
the PLO. He shared in the conventional wisdom which held that an
agreement with the PLO was unattainable because it represented the
Palestinian diaspora and the right of return of the 1948 refugees. He
saw Yasir Arafat as the main obstacle to reaching an agreement with the
local leadership on autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. When he heard
about the crash landing of Arafat's plane in the Libyan desert, he
muttered `It's a pity he survived.' He preferred to deal with
Palestinian leaders from the occupied territories, like Faisal
Husseini. Yitzhak Shamir had vetoed Faisal Husseini's participation in
the bilateral talks on the grounds that he is a resident of East
Jerusalem and East Jerusalem is part of the State of Israel. Rabin
lifted the veto and allowed Husseini to participate in the talks,
hoping he would carry the Palestinian delegation towards a joint
declaration of principles with Israel. When this hope was dashed, Rabin
described Husseini as a mere `mailbox' for transmitting orders from
Tunis to the Palestinian delegation.
Much against his will, Rabin was forced to recognize that he could not
bypass the PLO and that, if he wanted a deal, a direct channel to Tunis
would be necessary and that he would have to address himself to his
arch-enemy, Yasir Arafat. Peres, on the other hand, believed that the
conventional wisdom was the reverse of the actual position, that
without the PLO there could be no settlement of any kind. He even said
once that expecting the PLO to enable the local leaders to reach an
agreement with Israel was like expecting the turkey to help in
preparing the Thanksgiving dinner. Beilin was even more
categorical in his view that talking to the PLO was a necessary
condition for an agreement with the Palestinians.
Peres and Beilin not only recognized the need to talk to the PLO but
had a clear and coherent long-term strategy for directing the talks.
They realized at the outset that to achieve a peace settlement with the
Palestinians, Israel would have to pay a high price: a return to the
pre-June 1967 borders with only minor modifications, an independent
Palestinian state, the dismantling of Jewish settlements, and the
granting to the Palestinians of functional control over East
Jerusalem. Rabin, on the other hand, had no clear idea of the
final shape of the settlement with the Palestinians. His thinking was
largely conditioned by the Allon Plan, by the Jordanian option and by
the idea of territorial compromise over the West Bank. Nor did Rabin
appear to have any coherent long-term strategy. In the past, especially
during his first term as prime minister from 1974 to 1977, Rabin's only
strategy in the peace talks with the Arabs was to play for time. Now,
aged 71, in his second and probably last term as prime minister, he
seemed anxious to enter history as a peacemaker but without incurring
the opprobrium involved in the dismantling of settlements. Hence the
attraction of the idea of Palestinian self-rule for an interim period
of five years during which the settlements would stay in place. It was
this policy vacuum at the heart of the government that enabled Beilin
to take the lead, to exert an influence that was out of all proportion
to his junior position.
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
Rרd Larsen acted as generous hosts and gentle mediators. The key
players were two Israeli academics, Dr Yair Hirschfeld and Dr Ron
Pundak, and PLO treasurer Ahmed Qurai, better known as Abu Alaa. 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. At the end of March, the talks were plunged into a crisis
by events on the ground back home. Following a brutal wave of murders,
Rabin ordered the closure of the occupied territories to protect
Israeli lives. Prompted by short-term security considerations, this
decision had unanticipated long-term consequences. It resurrected the
`green line' or pre-1967 border, which previous governments had worked
to obliterate in pursuit of Greater Israel, and it started the process
of economic separation between the warring communities on the two sides
of this line.
In the wake of the closure, a public debate re-opened in Israel on the
proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip. Many Israelis
supported the proposal, viewing Gaza as a millstone round their necks.
In May, amidst gloom and doom on all sides, Peres took a highly
significant decision: he ordered Uri Savir, the director-general of the
Foreign Ministry, and Yoel Zinger, his legal adviser, to join
Hirschfeld and Pundak on the weekend trips to Oslo. It was apparently
at this point that Peres first informed Rabin of 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 Alaa 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. Peres read the reports of Eliakim Rubinstein and his
frustration and anger steadily mounted. He did not like the Israeli
approach which strove to establish Palestinian autonomy in a way that
would leave all the options open for the permanent settlement. He was
tired of tactical manoeuvres and wanted to change the course of the
region's history, by tackling once and for all the root cause of
conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
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 up 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, Yasir 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 the
Allon Plan which envisaged 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 Chief
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 both the
Palestinians, the Syrians and the Jordanians.
Rabin carefully scrutinized every word in the declaration of principles
which Yoel Zinger took the lead in drafting. Zinger's approach was
eclectic. He incorporated in the draft declaration elements from
different sources. He adopted some articles from the paper submitted by
the Americans in June, a paper rejected by the Palestinians because it
had Israeli finger-prints all over it. Other articles he derived from
the `Framework for Peace in the Middle East' agreed between Menachem
Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David in September 1978. The idea of an
early transfer of authority was taken out of proposals presented by
Eliakim Rubinstein in Washington. The model of `Gaza and Jericho
first', however, was entirely new. If Menachem Begin had been guilty of
`constructive ambiguity' at Camp David, Yitzhak Rabin was guilty of
what two Israeli journalists termed `creative recalcitrance', examining
every word with a magnifying glass and refusing any proposal from which
there was no turning back. Yet, despite his caution, Rabin moved a very
long way in a very short time. In June he did not take the Oslo channel
at all seriously; in August he wanted to go all the way. In the end,
both he and Peres put all their weight to secure a breakthrough in the
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 Covenant as part of the package
Peres, in the course of an ostensibly ordinary tour of Scandinavia, met
secretly with Abu Alaa in Oslo airport on 24 August and put his seal on
the accord. Since the drafting of the joint declaration of principles
had already been completed, the face-to-face discussion between the
Israeli foreign minister and the PLO official focused on the other
vital element of the accord - mutual recognition. As numerous rumours
began to circulate about his secret meeting, 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
The participation of Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak was critical to the
success of the Oslo channel. As Uri Savir acknowledged: `They are, in a
sense, so removed from the customary manner in which international
diplomacy is shaped, that this is what enabled them to be so
successful. The very unorthodox nature of their mission was a basic
element of our success.'
Hirschfeld himself, when asked what eventually broke the ice between
the two sides, replied that one could never tell. Yet he went on to
single out four factors which in his opinion contributed to the success
of the negotiations: the preservation of absolute secrecy, the
excellent working conditions provided by the Norwegian hosts, the
personal chemistry between the individuals involved, and the sense of
realism which pervaded the talks. The last point was also the most
important. Hirschfeld and Pundak were more intent on putting across
their point of view to the Palestinians than on seeking a solution.
Above all they wanted to convey to the Palestinians a sense of the
limits of what was possible and not to give rise to any illusions. They
made it clear, for example, that Jerusalem would not be included in the
interim settlement and that the Palestinians would not be given control
of all the occupied territories. Everything had to be organized round
the principle of gradualism.
The Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government 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 comes into force.
The shape of the permanent settlement is not specified in the
Declaration of Principles but is left to negotiations between the two
parties during the second stage. The Declaration is 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 will depend on the way the
experiment in Palestinian self-government works out in practice. Rabin
was strongly opposed to an independent Palestinian state but he
favoured an eventual Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Arafat was
even more 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.
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 they 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'.
The Knesset approved the accord, at the end of a debate which stretched
over three days, by 61 votes for, 50 against and nine abstentions.
During the debate, the right appeared more seriously divided on the
peace issue than the centre-left coalition which was backed by five
Arab members of the Knesset. The margin of victory, much greater than
expected, was a boost to Rabin and his peace policy. Given the
importance he attached to having a `Jewish majority' for his policy, he
was greatly reassured by the fact that more Jewish members voted for
than against. The vote gave him a clear mandate to proceed with the
implementation of the Gaza-Jericho plan.
Within the Palestinian camp the accord also encountered loud but, at
least initially, 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 regard 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 inducing 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,' wrote Said. `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
Arab 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, is 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 sought to justify 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 final
Jordan is the country most directly affected by the Israel-PLO accord.
A day after the accord was presented to the world, in a much more
modest ceremony in the State Department, the representatives of Jordan
and Israel signed a common agenda for detailed negotiations aimed at a
comprehensive peace treaty. This document bore the personal stamp of
King Hussein, the king of realism, who has steered his country through
numerous regional crises since he ascended the throne forty years ago.
In 1988 the king turned over to the PLO the territorial claim to the
West Bank which Jordan had lost to Israel in the June 1967 war. In
1991, when the Madrid conference convened, he took the Palestinian
negotiators into the peace talks as part of a joint delegation. The
Jordanian-Israeli agenda was ready for signature in October 1992, but
the king preferred to wait until progress had been made between Israel
and the Palestinians. Great therefore was his anger when he found out
that the PLO chairman had kept him in the dark about his secret
negotiations with Israel.
Even after the king had studied the Israel-PLO accord and given it his
public endorsement, his attitude remained somewhat ambivalent. On the
one hand, he felt vindicated, having argued all along that the Arabs
would have to come to terms with Israel. On the other hand, the new
unholy alliance between the PLO and Israel could threaten Jordan's
traditional position as `the best of enemies' with Israel. If Israel
and the Palestinian entity became close economic partners, the result
could be inflation and unemployment on the East Bank, leading to
political instability. More than half of Jordan's 3.9 million people
are Palestinian. If, for whatever reason, there is an influx of
Palestinians from the West Bank to the East Bank, the pressure will
grow to transform the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into the Republic of
Palestine. In short, Jordan's very survival as a separate state could
be called into question.
The Israel-PLO accord also had implications for Jordan's progress
towards democracy. This process got under way with the elections of
November 1989 and it provides the most effective answer to the
challenge of the Islamic fundamentalists. Another election was
scheduled for 8 November 1993. Arafat's deal, however, meant that some
Palestinians could end up voting for two legislatures, one in Amman and
one in Jericho. As constitutional expert Mustapha Hamarneh explained to
a foreign journalist: `These are extremely challenging times for
Jordan. Yasser Arafat did not pull a rabbit out of his hat, but a
damned camel.' Arafat's camel, it might be added, is not a
dromedary, a one-humped camel bred for riding and racing; it is a
Bactrian camel with two humps - Gaza and Jericho. This split in the
area of Palestinian self-government into two centres involves an
additional complication in as much as Jordan has close political,
economic and administrative links with the West Bank, but only tenuous
links with Gaza.
Under the initial shock of the Israel-PLO accord, King Hussein gave a
clear signal of his intention to postpone November's national
elections. Israeli assurances given at a secret meeting appear to lie
behind the subsequent decision to go ahead as planned. Personal
diplomacy had always played a crucial part in the conduct of relations
between Jordan and Israel. Countless meetings had taken place across
the battle lines between the `plucky little king', as Hussein used to
be called, and Israel's Labour leaders after 1967. One source estimates
that the king had clocked up over a hundred man-hours in conversations
with Labour leaders. This figure presumably includes the time he spent
with Golda Meir who had gained fame by her trip to Amman in May 1948,
disguised as an Arab woman, in a vain attempt to persuade King
Abdullah, Hussein's grandfather, not to join in the Arab invasion of
the soon to be born Jewish
This time, too, the political overture for a high-level meeting
probably came from the Israeli side. The Israeli daily newspaper,
Ma'ariv, quoted intelligence reports which said that the king felt
`cheated and neglected' over the accord. `King Hussein's political
world has collapsed around him and the most direct means are required
to calm him down', the Israeli prime minister was reportedly advised. A
long-time advocate of cooperation with Jordan, Rabin heeded this
advice. He spent several hours aboard the royal yacht in the Red Sea
resort of Aqaba on Sunday, 26 September, conferring with the king and
his advisers. Rabin was said to have assured the king that Israel
remained firmly committed to upholding his regime, that Jordanian
interests would be protected in dealing with the Palestinian issue, and
that future peace strategy would be closely coordinated with Jordan.
The general election held on 8 November 1993, the first multi-party
election since 1957, yielded what King Hussein clearly hoped for: a
strengthening of the conservative, tribal and independent blocs and a
resounding rebuff to the Islamic Action Front whose principal platform
was opposition to the peace talks with Israel. This result gave Hussein
a popular mandate for proceeding with the task of Arab-Israeli
peace-making. It also gave rise to speculation that the signing of a
Jordanian-Israeli peace accord was imminent. Hussein, however, was
unwilling to run the risk of consummating a separate agreement with
Israel, preferring to wait for progress in the stalled Syrian-Israeli
The other key `front-line' leader, President Hafez al-Asad of Syria,
greeted the Israel-PLO accord with coolness verging on hostility and
gave free rein to the dissident Palestinian groups based in Damascus to
attack it. President Asad is a cold and calculating realist, the
Bismarck of the Middle East. His political career has been dominated by
the desire to regain the Golan Heights which Syria lost to Israel when
he was minister of defence in 1967 and by the wider geopolitical
contest with Israel for mastery in the region. Asad agreed to
participate in the peace process started at Madrid but insisted all
along on a unified Arab front leading to related peace treaties. For
most of 1993 it looked as if Syria would lead the way. Suddenly, Syria
was upstaged by the PLO.
Asad felt that by going off secretly on his own and striking a separate
deal, Arafat played into the hands of Rabin who prefers to deal with
the Arab partners individually and not as a bloc. Asad even compared
Arafat's actions to those of Anwar Sadat whose separate deal with
Israel led to Egypt's isolation and vilification in the Arab world for
nearly a decade. Israel alone stood to benefit from the new deal,
claimed Asad. He suspected that Israel made this deal with a weak PLO
in order to draw Jordan next into its orbit, isolate Syria, and
consolidate its own regional hegemony. And he reacted to the
Israel-PLO deal by suspending Syria's participation in the Washington
While the Washington forum remained in limbo, Israel and the PLO
entered into intensive negotiations on the implementation of the Oslo
accord in the Red Sea resort of Taba, Cairo and other locations. These
negotiations were billed as the first official, full-scale,
face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in history. But they were
really back-to-back talks because both sides spent most of their time
with their backs to each other, their eyes looking homeward, taking
great care not to say anything that could get them into trouble with
their domestic constituencies.
Apart from the domestic constraints on the two sides, there were the
inherent defects of the Oslo accord itself. The accord contained so
many ambiguities and contradictions, that it was open to widely
differing interpretations. For the Israeli government the accord makes
provision for an interim arrangement which carries only the most
general implications for the permanent transfer of territory or power.
For the PLO the accord is the first step towards full statehood. The
two sides could not march forward together because they were intent on
marching in different directions.
Deadlock in the negotiations over the implementation of the Oslo accord
re-opened the question of the relationship between the two tracks of
the Middle East peace process. The question for Israel was whether to
concentrate on both tracks simultaneously or only on one track at a
time, and if so, which? Israel's leaders were divided on this question.
Rabin was an advocate of one peace at a time whereas Peres was an
advocate of waging peace on all fronts. Upon his return home from the
historic meeting in Washington, Rabin was inclined to go slow on the
Syrian front in order to give his countrymen a chance to digest the
sudden turn-about in their relations with the Palestinians. Peres was
inclined to move swiftly along the Syrian and Jordanian tracks in order
to widen the accord with the PLO into a comprehensive peace in the
The real problem with Rabin's idea of peace by instalments is that it
generates mutual suspicions that undermine the peace process. Israel,
for example, poses questions to Syria which it refuses to answer when
the very same questions are put to her by the Palestinians. Israel
refuses to say how much land it would be willing to relinquish on the
Golan Heights until the regime in Damascus spells out precisely what it
means by full peace. In other words, Israel demands to know the end
result of the peace process before it would enter into detailed
negotiations with Syria. What the Palestinians demand of Israel is
strikingly similar. They want to know what the permanent settlement
would look like before entering into interim arrangements, but Israel
refuses to answer them.
Consequently, Israelis and Palestinians harbour similar suspicions.
Israelis suspect a Syrian trap. They worry that Asad plans to recover
the entire Golan in return for a mere non-belligerency agreement that
would leave the conflict unresolved. The Palestinians fear an Israeli
trap. They worry that Israel plans to leave them in the lurch with only
a partial transfer of power and a redeployment rather than withdrawal
of Israeli troops from the occupied territories. Rabin plays his cards
very close to his chest in order to minimize the risk of leaks. The
Israeli government has not discussed, let alone defined, its aims in
the talks with either the Palestinians or the Syrians. And in the
absence of clearly-defined goals, it is difficult for the Israeli
negotiators to engage in purposeful negotiations on any track of the
Middle East peace process.
A broad view of the peace policy of the Labour government since it came
to power in 1992 thus reveals an odd combination of strategy and
tactics, Peres's strategy and Rabin's tactics. Peres's strategy aimed
at a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict while
Rabin's tactics aimed at playing the Arabs off against one another in
order to reduce the pressure on Israel to make concessions. When these
tactics ended in deadlock on all fronts, Rabin was forced to go along
with the Beilin-Peres strategy of direct negotiations with the PLO. The
result was the Oslo accord. After the Oslo accord was signed, Rabin
reverted to his customary tactics of divide and rule. This tactic is
sensible enough when waging war against several enemies; it is much
more problematic when waging peace. To attain comprehensive peace in
the Middle East, the Arab world needs to be united rather than divided.
Peres's strategy is calculated to promote comprehensive peace whereas
Rabin's tactics are liable to frustrate it. Rabin is bound to discover
sooner or later that he cannot implement only half of his foreign
minister's strategy. The choice for Israel is between going forward at
full speed on every front at the same time and losing momentum on every
front at the same time. The choice is between forging a comprehensive
settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the anvil of the Oslo accord
and allowing inter-Arab rivalries to nullify this historic
breakthrough. And the choice for the 71-year old Rabin is between going
down in Israel's history merely as a great soldier or also as a great
statesman and peace-maker.
 Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles, Washington D.C., 13
September 1993, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Autumn
1993, pp. 115-21.
 Text of Arafat and Rabin letters, International Herald Tribune, 11-12 September 1993.
 Israeli Prime Minister's Statement, International Herald Tribune, 11-12 September 1993.
 The Palestinian National Charter, John Norton Moore, ed., The
Arab-Israeli Conflict: Readings and Documents (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1977), pp. 1086-91.
 Abba Eban, `Building Bridges, Not Walls', The Guardian, 10 September 1993.
 Israeli Prime Minister's Statement, International Herald Tribune, 11-12 September 1993.
 Avishai Margalit, `The Violent Life of Yitzhak Shamir', New York Review of Books, 14 May 1992.
 Yoel Marcus, `The Revolution and the Grave Pit', Ha'aretz, 15 September 1993.
 Khami Shalev, `The Package Deal and Arafat's Honour', Ha'aretz, 27 August 1993.
 Avraham Tal, `There is No Return from the Temporary', Ha'aretz, 19 September 1993.
 Yoel Marcus, `Three Comments on the Situation', Ha'aretz, 19 September 1993.
 Uzi Benziman, weekly column in Ha'aretz, 3 September 1993.
 Nahum Barnea and Shimon Schiffer, `The Norwegian Connection', Yediot Ahronot, 3 September 1993.
 Derek Brown, `Norwegian Leads Wary Foes along Short Cut to Success', The Guardian, 13 September 1993.
 Barnea and Schiffer, Yediot Ahronot, 3 September 1993.
 Marcus, Ha'aretz, 15 September 1993.
 Barnea and Schiffer, Yediot Ahronot, 3 September 1993.
 Jerrold Kessel, `Professors Clinch Deal', The Guardian, 18 September 1993.
 Interview with Yosef Algazi, Ha'aretz, 3 September 1993.
 The Guardian, 16 September 1993.
 Edward Said, `The Lost Liberation', The Guardian, 9 September 1993.
 Nora Boustany, `King Hussein Fears Prospects for Peace Could Raise
Premature Hope in Jordan', International Herald Tribune, 18-19
 Jerrold Kessel, `Rabin Soothes King at Secret Meeting', The Guardian, 29 September 1993.
 Patrick Seale, `Israel's Vision Fades on the Road to Damascus', The Independent on Sunday, 19 September 1993.
 Zeev Schiff, `Mutual Suspicions', Ha'aretz, 11 June 1993.