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Madrid and the Oslo Accord

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Madrid and the Oslo Accord
Short-Lived Promises of a Negotiated Settlement

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The 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 Oslo accords marked the beginning of the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has continued, off and on, until today. The Madrid Conference marked the first time that Israelis had sat down at a conference table with Arabs since the Geneva Conference in December 1973, and the first time in which all four of the frontline Arab states sat down with Israelis since the 1949 Lausanne Conference. It also was the first-ever conference in which Palestinians formally attended as participants alongside Israelis. The Oslo Accord was the first bilateral Israeli-Palestinian document that laid out a process by which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) could end decades of conflict. Though widely hailed at the signing as offering Palestinians self-government on the path toward eventual statehood, after several decades of unabated occupation, many Palestinians see the Oslo accords as having done little if anything to produce the conditions under which independent Palestinian statehood—much less liberation—could be realized.

With the defeat of Iraq at the hands of an American-led military coalition in the Gulf War of January–March 1991 and the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that same year, the George Bush administration felt that it had to “reward” the Arab countries, especially Syria, for their participation in the coalition against the Iraqi regime and that the time was right to use the immense power and prestige of the United States in the Middle East to push for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. To do so, the United States proposed reconvening the international conference provided for by UN Security Council Resolution 338 of 1973, but which had been held in abeyance ever since.

Two major sticking points in preconference preparations were the nature of Palestinian representation and the terms of reference for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Both Israel and the United States opposed PLO participation, and the latter, weakened and lacking Arab support because of what was perceived as its support for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, had to give its blessing to a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation where Palestinian members would not be formally associated with the PLO. In fact, the United States accepted Israeli conditions that members should be residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the diaspora were to be excluded. As to the terms of reference, Security Council Resolution 242 was to govern negotiations on all tracks: talks would be held first on five-year interim self-government arrangements and, once these arrangements were in place, Resolution 242 could form the basis for reaching a final status agreement. The Palestinians had to accept all of these conditions.    

The conference took place in Madrid on 30 October, under a formal US-Soviet sponsorship. The head of the Palestinian side in the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation Haydar Abd al-Shafi, was given the same status as the heads of the Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel delegations. It was common knowledge that Palestinian members had been appointed by the PLO and would answer directly to it, meaning that Israel was negotiating de facto with the PLO. After the official opening of the conference, the joint delegation and the Israeli delegation held a first round of talks and agreed that negotiations will be conducted “along two tracks: a Palestinian-Israeli track and a Jordanian-Israeli track.”

During the following twenty months, Palestinians and Israeli held nine additional rounds in Washington. At the third round in January 1992, the Palestinian delegates practically split away from the Jordanian delegation and began separate bilateral talks with the Israelis. The independent Palestinian role was confirmed in multilateral talks that commenced in Moscow on 28 January 1992 to discuss regional issues such as refugees, economic cooperation, water, and security. However, apart from providing high and positive visibility to the Palestinians, neither the bilateral nor the multilateral talks produced real substantive progress, especially on the questions of Palestinian jurisdiction over land, Jerusalem, and Israeli settlements.

As the formal Israeli-Palestinian bilateral talks were practically stuck, with the US administration effectively supporting Israeli positions and urging the Palestinians to take whatever the Israelis offered, Israel and the PLO began secret, back-channel talks in January 1993 in Norway. The talks, which became serious and practical in May 1993, involved PLO negotiator Ahmad Qurai‘ (Abu Ala’) and Uri Savir from the Israel Foreign Ministry. The essence of the talks did not depart from the terms of reference of the Madrid Conference, namely putting in place the five-year interim self-government arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza. On 20 August 1993, the two sides initialed the text of a “Declaration of Principles on Self-Government Arrangementss” (DOP). On 9–10 September, Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Rabin exchanged letters of mutual recognition: the PLO recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” and committed to amend those articles of the Palestine National Charter that deny this right; for its part, the Israeli government recognized the PLO “as the representative of the Palestinian people.”

On 13 September, the official signing of the DOP took place in Washington at the White House. The DOP provided for an Israeli redeployment from most of Gaza and the area around Jericho, as a first step to be followed by the establishment of an elected council and the broadening of its jurisdiction in the West Bank. Some issues, such as Jerusalem, settlements, military locations, refugees, security arrangements, water, and borders, were left to the final status talks. The DOP did not include an Israeli commitment to freeze settlement activities in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; it did not specify the effective extent of the settlements and military locations to which the Israeli army will redeploy, and consequently, the lands that will be transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction during the interim period. The ongoing expansion of settlements and limited land transfer eventually doomed the agreement to failure. With hindsight, the fact that the DOP did not provide for binding arbitration and contained only broad principles requiring further negotiations to implement them left the Israeli side with the upper hand.

The world generally hailed the accord as the beginning of a negotiated end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, a coalition of ten Palestinian groups opposed to the negotiations was created in Damascus in September 1992. The coalition included such groups as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. On 2 September 1993, the coalition issued a statement declaring that the text of the agreement to be signed meant perpetuating the Israeli occupation, transforming the Palestinians into its instruments, and establishing a Palestinian police force to protect Israeli security and repress the Palestinian people.

The two decades since the signing of the Oslo accords have witnessed the passing of the five-year deadline without any final peace treaty, the eruption of the second intifada in 2000, the general cessation of meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and, perhaps most importantly, the continued expansion and entrenchment of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank coupled with a crippling siege of the Gaza Strip. The results of the Oslo accords might thus be viewed as a reconfiguring of the framework for occupation rather than a step toward statehood or liberation.

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Selected Bibliography

Abbas, Mahmoud. Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo. Reading, UK: Garnet, 1995 (translation of Tariq Uslu: mawaqqi’ al-ittifaq yarwi al-asrar al-haqiqiyya li-l-mufawadat).

Ashrawi, Hanan. This Side of Peace: A Personal Account. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Mansour, Camille. The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations: An Overview and Assessment: October 1991-January 1993. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1993.

Said, Edward. The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Savir, Uri. The Process: 1,100 Days That Changed the Middle East. New York: Vintage, 1999.

Tamari, Salim. Palestinian Refugee Negotiations: From Madrid to Oslo II. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996.

Waage, Hilde Henriksen. “Norway’s Role in the Middle East Peace Talks: Between a Strong State and a Weak Belligerent.Journal of Palestine Studies 34, no.4 (2005): 6–24.