The weakness of the PLO after the Gulf war, the stalemate in the Washington talks and fear of radical Islam brought the Rabin government to reverse the long-standing Israeli refusal to negotiate with the PLO. Consequently, Israel initiated secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway directly with PLO representatives who had been excluded from the Madrid and Washington talks. These negotiations produced the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles, which was signed in Washington in September 1993.
The Declaration of Principles was based on mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. It established that Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, with additional withdrawals from further unspecified areas of the West Bank during a five-year interim period. During this period, the PLO formed a Palestinian Authority (PA) with “self-governing” (i.e., municipal) powers in the areas from which Israeli forces were redeployed. In January 1996, elections were held for a Palestinian Legislative Council and for the presidency of the PA, which was won handily by Yasser Arafat. The key issues such as the extent of the territories to be ceded by Israel, the nature of the Palestinian entity to be established, the future of the Israeli settlements and settlers, water rights, the resolution of the refugee problem and the status of Jerusalem were set aside to be discussed in final status talks.
The PLO accepted this deeply flawed agreement with Israel because it was weak and had little diplomatic support in the Arab world. Both Islamist radicals and local leaders in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip challenged Arafat’s leadership. Yet only Arafat had the prestige and national legitimacy to conclude a negotiated agreement with Israel.
The Oslo accords set up a negotiating process without specifying an outcome. The process was supposed to have been completed by May 1999. There were many delays due to Israel’s reluctance to relinquish control over the Occupied Territories, unwillingness to make the kinds of concessions necessary to reach a final status agreement, and periodic outbursts of violence by Palestinian opponents of the Oslo process, especially Hamas and Jihad. During the Likud’s return to power in 1996-1999, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoided engaging seriously in the Oslo process, which he distrusted and fundamentally opposed.
A Labor-led coalition government led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to power in 1999. Barak at first concentrated on reaching a peace agreement with Syria. When he failed to convince the Syrians to sign an agreement that would restore to them less than all the area of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967, Barak turned his attention to the Palestinian track.
During the protracted interim period of the Oslo process, Israel’s Labor and Likud governments built new settlements in the Occupied Territories, expanded existing settlements and constructed a network of bypass roads to enable Israeli settlers to travel from their settlements to Israel proper without passing through Palestinian-inhabited areas. These projects were understood by most Palestinians as marking out territory that Israel sought to annex in the final settlement. The Oslo accords contained no mechanism to block these unilateral actions or Israel’s violations of Palestinian human and civil rights in areas under its control.
Final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were to have begun in mid-1996, but only got underway in earnest in mid-2000. By then, a series of painfully negotiated Israeli interim withdrawals left the Palestinian Authority with direct or partial control of some 40 percent of the West Bank and 65 percent of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian areas were surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory with entry and exit controlled by Israel.
The Palestinians’ expectations were not accommodated by the Oslo accords. The Oslo process required the Palestinians to make their principal compromises at the beginning, whereas Israel’s principal compromises beyond recognition of the PLO were to be made in the final status talks.
Published January 2001