Arab-Israeli Wars: 60 Years of Conflict
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Oslo Accords

Title: Oslo Accords
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Event Date: September 13, 1993

The agreement commonly called the Oslo Accords and formally known as the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements was signed on September 13, 1993, in Washington, D.C., by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat, and U.S. president Bill Clinton. In the Oslo Accords, the PLO, the Palestinians' major representative party and de facto government-in-exile, formally recognized Israel's right to exist and Israel's sovereignty over 78 percent of historic Palestine and pledged to end military actions against Israel. Israel, while failing to recognize Palestinian statehood, did recognize Palestinian nationhood, including the right of self-determination, and the PLO's role as the Palestinians' legitimate representative body.

The document spelled out ways in which the Palestinians could achieve a degree of autonomy in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had been occupied by Israeli forces since the June 1967 Six-Day War. The hope was that by the PLO's demonstration of competent self-governance and control over anti-Israel violence, the Israelis would gain the confidence needed to make a phased withdrawal from the occupied territories and grant the Palestinians an independent state alongside Israel. Similarly, it was hoped that the removal of foreign occupation forces from certain areas, increasing levels of self-government, and the prospects of a viable independent state would give the Palestinian population the incentive to end the violence against Israelis. The interim peace period was to be completed by 1998, at which time a permanent peace agreement would be signed.

Although the U.S. government became the guarantor of the Oslo Accords, Washington had little to do with the agreement itself. Soon after the election of a more moderate Israeli government in 1992, direct talks began in secret between representatives of Israel and the PLO. They were first facilitated by Norwegian nongovernmental organizations and later with the assistance of the foreign ministry. This apparently took place without the knowledge of American officials, who still took the position that the PLO should not be allowed to take part in the peace process, excluding it from the stalled peace talks then going on in Washington. As the secret negotiations in Norway progressed during the summer of 1993, the Clinton administration put forward what it called a compromise proposal for Palestinian autonomy. This compromise was actually less favorable to the Palestinians than what was then being put forward by the Israelis.

The U.S. role in the Oslo process began with a historic signing ceremony on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. The agreement had been finalized in Oslo on August 20. Given the ambiguities in the agreement, both parties agreed that the United States should be its guarantor. Indeed, the Israelis saw the U.S. government as the entity most likely to support its positions on outstanding issues, and the Palestinians saw the U.S. government as the only entity capable of forcing Israel to live up to its commitments and able to move the occupying power to compromise.

Peace talks resumed in Washington in the fall of 1993 within the Oslo framework. Over the next seven years, the United States brokered a series of Israeli-Palestinian agreements that led to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from most of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. By the end of the decade, about 40 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including most of its towns and cities, had been placed under the rule of the new Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Arafat, and divided into dozens of noncontiguous zones wherein the Palestinians could for the first time exercise some limited autonomy within their sphere of control.

During this period, the Israeli government severely limited the mobility of Palestinians within and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, dramatically expanded its expropriation of land in the occupied territories for colonization by Jewish settlers, and refused to withdraw from as much territory as promised in the U.S.-brokered disengagement agreements. In addition, the United States tended to side with the Israelis on most issues during talks regarding the disengagement process, even after a right-wing coalition that had opposed the Oslo Accords came to power in Israel in 1996. This served to alienate many Palestinians who had been initially hopeful about the peace process and hardened anti-Israeli attitudes.

Meanwhile, much of the PA proved itself to be rather inept, corrupt, and autocratic in its governance of those parts of the occupied territories under its control. The corruption alienated much of the Palestinian population, and the PA's lack of control made it difficult to suppress the growth of radical Islamic groups. On more than two dozen occasions between 1994 and 2000, Islamic extremists from the occupied Palestinian territories engaged in terrorist attacks inside Israel, killing scores of Israeli civilians and thereby hardening anti-Palestinian attitudes.

The Palestinians had hoped that the United States would broker the negotiations based on international law that forbids the expansion of any country's territory by military force and prohibits occupying powers from transferring their civilian population into occupied land. The Palestinians also hoped that American officials would support a series of specific United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions demanding that Israel honor these principles. From the Palestinians' perspective—as well as that of the UN, most U.S. allies, and most international legal experts—the onus of the burden was on Israel, as the occupying power, to make most of the compromises for peace. The Clinton administration, however, argued that the UN resolutions were no longer relevant and saw the West Bank and the Gaza Strip simply as disputed territories, thereby requiring both sides to compromise. This gave the Israelis a clear advantage in the peace process.

In signing the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians operated on the assumption that the agreement would result in concrete improvements in the lives of those in the occupied territories. They hoped that the interim period would be no more than five years and that the permanent settlement would be based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which called upon Israel to withdraw from the territories seized in the 1967 war. For their part, the Israelis had hoped that the Oslo Accords would lead to the emergence of a responsible Palestinian leadership and greater security. None of these wishes, however, came to pass.

Stephen Zunes

Further Reading
Brown, Nathan J. Palestinian Politics after the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.; Freedman, Robert Owen, ed. The Middle East and the Peace Process: The Impact of the Oslo Accords. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.; Peres, Shimon. The New Middle East. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.; Weinberger, Peter. Co-opting the PLO: A Critical Reconstruction of the Oslo Accords, 1993–1995. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.

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