The Oslo Accords, which Israel and Palestine signed in 1993, were supposed to end the decades-old fight between them. Hesitation on both sides, however, derailed the process, leaving the United States and other entities once again trying to mediate an end to the Middle East conflict.
While Norway played a key role in secret negotiations that led to the accords, U.S. President Bill Clinton presided over final, open negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the agreements on the White House lawn. An iconic photo shows Clinton congratulating the two after the signing.
The Jewish state of Israel and Palestinians have been at odds since the creation of Israel in 1948. After the Holocaust of World War II, the global Jewish community began pressing for a recognized Jewish state in the Holy Land region of the Middle East between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. When the United Nations partitioned an area for Israel out of the former British holdings of the Trans-Jordan regions, some 700,000 Islamic Palestinians found themselves displaced.
Palestinians and their Arab supporters in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan immediately went to war with the new state of Israel in 1948, however Israel won handily, validating its right to exist. In major wars in 1967 and 1973, Israel occupied more Palestinian areas including:
- The Gaza Strip, near the Israeli border with Egypt
- The West Bank (of the Jordan River), which Israel insists is necessary for its own security
- The Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria
- The Sinai Penisula, which Israel later returned to Egypt
Palestinian Liberation Organization
The Palestinian Liberation Organization -- or PLO -- formed in 1964. As its name suggests, it became Palestine's primary organizational device to free Palestinian regions from Israeli occupation.
In 1969, Yasser Arafat became leader of the PLO. Arafat had long been a leader in Fatah, a Palestinian organization that sought freedom from Israel while maintaining its autonomy from other Arab states. Arafat, who had fought in the 1948 war and had helped organize military raids against Israel, exerted control over both PLO military and diplomatic efforts.
Arafat long denied Israel's right to exist. However, his tenor changed, and by the late 1980s he accepted the fact of Israel's existence.
Secret Meetings in Oslo
Arafat's new opinion on Israel, Egypt's treaty of peace with Israel in 1979, and Arab cooperation with the United States in defeating Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, opened new doors to possible Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, elected in 1992, also wanted to explore new avenues of peace. He knew, however, that direct talks with the PLO would be politically divisive.
Norway offered to provide a place where Israeli and Palestinian diplomats could hold secret meetings. In a secluded, wooded area near Oslo, diplomats gathered in 1992. They held 14 secret meetings. Since the diplomats all stayed under the same roof and frequently took walks together in secured areas of the woods, many other unofficial meetings also occurred.
The negotiators emerged from the Oslo woods with a "Declaration of Principles", or the Oslo Accords. They included:
- Israel recognized the PLO as Palestine's official representative
- The PLO renounced the use of violence
- The PLO recognized Israel's right to exist
- Both agreed to Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the Jericho area of the West Bank by 2000
- A five-year interim period would facilitate further Israeli withdrawals from other, unspecified areas of the West Bank.
Rabin and Arafat signed the Accords on the White House lawn in September 1993. President Clinton announced that the "Children of Abraham" had taken new steps on a "bold journey" toward peace.
The PLO moved to validate its renunciation of violence with a change of organization and name. In 1994 the PLO became the Palestinian National Authority, or simply the PA -- Palestinian Authority. Israel also began giving up territory in Gaza and the West Bank.
But in 1995, an Israeli radical, angry over the Oslo Accords, assassinated Rabin. Palestinian "rejectionists" -- many of them refugees in neighboring Arab countries who thought Arafat had betrayed them -- began attacks on Israel. Hezbollah, operating out of southern Lebanon, began a series of attacks against Israel. Those culminated in the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War.
Those incidents scared Israelis, who then elected the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu to his first term as prime minister. Netanyahu did not like the Oslo Accords, and he put no effort into following up on their terms.
Netanyahu is again Israel's prime minister. He remains distrustful of a recognized Palestinian state.