After the 1991 Gulf war, the PLO was diplomatically isolated and on the brink of crisis.
US and Israeli failure to respond meaningfully to PLO moderation resulted in the PLO’s opposition to the US-led attack on Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. The PLO did not endorse Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, but it saw Saddam Hussein’s challenge to the US and the Gulf oil-exporting states as a way to alter the regional status quo and focus attention on the question of Palestine. After the war, the PLO was diplomatically isolated. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia cut off financial support they had been providing, bringing the PLO to the brink of crisis.
After the Gulf war, the US sought to stabilize its position in the Middle East by promoting a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite their turn against the PLO, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were anxious to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and remove the potential for regional instability it created. The administration of President George Bush felt obliged to its Arab allies, and pressed a reluctant Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to open negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arab states at a multilateral conference convened in Madrid, Spain, in October 1991. Shamir’s conditions, which the US accepted, were that the PLO be excluded from the talks and that the Palestinian desires for independence and statehood not be directly addressed.
In subsequent negotiating sessions held in Washington, DC, Palestinians were represented by a delegation from the Occupied Territories. Participants in this delegation were subject to Israeli approval, and residents of East Jerusalem were barred on the grounds that the city is part of Israel. Although the PLO was formally excluded from these talks, its leaders regularly consulted with and advised the Palestinian delegation. Although Israeli and Palestinian delegations met many times, little progress was achieved. Prime Minister Shamir announced after he left office that his strategy was to drag out the Washington negotiations for ten years, by which time the annexation of the West Bank would be an accomplished fact.
A new Israeli Labor Party government led by Yitzhak Rabin assumed office in June 1992 and promised rapid conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Instead, the Washington negotiations became stalemated after December 1992, when Israel expelled over 400 Palestinian residents of the occupied territories who were accused (but not tried or convicted) of being radical Islamist activists. Human rights conditions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip deteriorated dramatically after Rabin assumed office. This undermined the legitimacy of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks and prompted the resignation of several delegates.
Lack of progress in the Washington talks and deterioration of the economic and human rights conditions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip accelerated the growth of a radical Islamist challenge to the PLO. Violent attacks against Israeli targets by Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad further exacerbated tensions. Ironically, before the intifada, Israeli authorities had enabled the development of Islamist organizations as a way to divide Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. But as the popularity of Islamists grew and challenged the moderation of the PLO, they came to regret their policy of encouraging political Islam as an alternative to the PLO’s secular nationalism. Eventually, Yitzhak Rabin came to believe that Hamas, Jihad and the broader Islamic movements of which they were a part posed more of a threat to Israel than the PLO.
Published January 2001