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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Twenty-Five Years Since the Oslo Accord: A History of Palestinian Violence and Missed Opportunities

It was arguably the most joyous day in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Sept. 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn next to President Bill Clinton. Nearby, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat’s top aide Mahmoud Abbas signed the Declaration of Principles, better known as the Oslo Accord (named after the city in which negotiations leading to the agreement were held).

Four days earlier, as an integral part of the agreement, Arafat and Rabin signed the following exchange of letters:

Arafat to Rabin:

“The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security… The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations… [T]he PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators…”

Rabin to Arafat:

“I wish to confirm to you that, in light of the PLO commitments included in your letter, the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.”

As for the text of the Sept. 13 accord itself, it states in Art. 1:

“The aim of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the current Middle East peace process is, among other things, to establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority, the elected Council (the "Council"), for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973).”

In short, in return for Arafat’s promise to recognize Israel, renounce violence and resolve all issues through negotiations, Israel agreed to recognize the PLO and to transfer to Palestinian self-government parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Unfortunately, in the years that followed, the PLO failed to keep its part of the bargain. While Israel still recognizes the PLO and has transferred to Palestinian self-governance substantial portions of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, the PLO too often acts as if the accord was never signed: Arafat himself called in 1994 for “jihad” against Israel, and his own security forces played an active role in carrying out the Second Intifada (2000-2005), during which Palestinian terrorists murdered more than 1,000 Israeli civilians. Abbas, who succeeded Arafat as PLO leader, has also challenged Israel’s legitimacy.

Furthermore, Israel subsequently offered the PLO at least three additional momentous opportunities to attain Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza: in 2000, 2005 and 2008. These opportunities have all been rebuffed, either by Arafat or, since his death in 2004, his successor Abbas.

Since Oslo, Palestinian Violence Has Intensified

Since the Oslo Accord, Israel has signed four major implementation agreements: (1) the May 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement between Rabin and Arafat, which transferred to Palestinian self-government the city of Jericho in the West Bank and almost the entire Gaza Strip; (2) the September 1995 Interim Agreement (better known as Oslo II), also between Rabin and Arafat, which transferred much additional West Bank land to the Palestinians; (3) the October 1998 Wye River Memorandum between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arafat, which transferred more West Bank land to the Palestinians; and (4) the September 1999 Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat, implementing all previous agreements and transferring more West Bank land to the Palestinians. Despite these Israeli concessions, which cost Rabin his life and put Netanyahu and Barak under intense domestic pressure, Palestinian violence continued, and even intensified, with Arafat’s blessing.

Oslo’s implementation began on an ominous note. On May 10, 1994—just six days after signing the Gaza-Jericho agreement—Arafat, speaking at a mosque in Johannesburg, South Africa, called for a “jihad to liberate Jerusalem” and then suggested that the agreement was only a tactical step that could still be reversed. On the very day of the PLO’s July 1994 assumption of self-government in Gaza and Jericho, Arafat smuggled (in the trunk of his car) Mamduh Nawfal, the terrorist considered a mastermind of the 1974 Ma’alot massacre in which 23 children were murdered.

Arafat’s personal support for terrorism was further confirmed in 1997, when concealed explosives containers were found in his personal helicopter, and again in 2002, when Israel intercepted the Palestinian Authority (PA)-bound ship Karine A with 50 tons of weapons and explosives aboard. After Arafat denied any Palestinian involvement, President George W. Bush later wrote: “Arafat had lied to me. I never trusted him again.”

Of note, almost all terrorist attacks during the Oslo period (1993-1999) were perpetrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, not by Arafat’s PLO faction Fatah. However, Arafat did virtually nothing to stop the attacks, many of which originated in areas under his control.

This changed dramatically during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), during which more than 1,000 Israeli civilians were murdered. Contrary to the widespread belief that it started as a spontaneous Palestinian reaction to Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, testimonies by Arafat’s own advisors and others prove that Arafat personally initiated the Second Intifada after the failure of the Camp David Summit in July 2000. Many of the subsequent terrorist attacks were perpetrated by Fatah terrorists, sometimes in cooperation with Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and in several cases Arafat’s own PA forces carried out terrorist acts.

To his credit, Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas has stated his opposition to terrorism and violence, and his security forces maintain effective security coordination with Israel, yet terrorist attacks have continued under his watch. And by paying lavish salaries to imprisoned Palestinian terrorists and to the families of terrorists who were killed while attacking Israelis, Abbas at least implicitly continues to encourage further terrorist attacks, in violation of the PLO’s Oslo commitment to renounce terrorism.

The PLO Violates Oslo Commitments

After the collapse of U.S.-sponsored peace talks in 2014, rather than extending the talks, Abbas chose to bypass Oslo-mandated negotiations by internationalizing the conflict. He submitted applications to 15 international organizations and treaties in April 2014, a harbinger for future unilateral Palestinian actions. In September 2014, Abbas delivered a slanderous address to the U.N. in which he accused Israel of genocide, taking another significant step backwards for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Palestinian delegation to the U.N. presented an extreme, one-sided resolution to the U.N. Security Council that sought to predetermine an outcome while ignoring basic Israeli concerns. The resolution, which was put to a vote in December 2014, demanded that Israel withdraw from the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem by the end of 2017—irrespective of the security situation or Israeli claims.

The deleterious resolution failed, leading to a flurry of further unilateral Palestinian actions. Abbas signed an additional 20 international treaties that same month, including the Rome Statute which governs the International Criminal Court (ICC). The PA formally presented a request to the United Nations in January 2015 to join the ICC. The Palestinians indicated to the ICC that they would go after Israelis for alleged war crimes. In April 2015, the “State of Palestine” officially became a member of the ICC.

Abbas then threatened to abrogate the Oslo Accords, stating in September 2015: “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and…Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power, because the status quo cannot continue.” Abbas added, “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every shahid [martyr] will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.” That’s a far cry from the Oslo commitment to resolve all issues through negotiations.

Earlier this year, Palestinian violations of the Oslo commitments reached a crescendo. In an address to the PLO Central Council in January, Abbas said the council is “required to reexamine the agreements between the PLO and the Israeli government.” He claimed that conspiracies to settle the Jews in the Middle East had begun in the 17th century with Oliver Cromwell, and continued throughout the centuries, and that the Zionist movement “constitutes a colonialist enterprise that has nothing to do with Judaism.”

The council then voted to order the PLO to suspend its recognition of Israel until it “recognizes the state of Palestine,” cancels its annexation of East Jerusalem and stops all settlement activity. It said the obligations of the Oslo agreement “no longer stand.” It also adopted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement—a direct contradiction of the Oslo commitment to resolve all disputes through negotiations—in order to “deter Israel’s blatant violations against international law and stop its ongoing aggression against Palestinians and the apartheid system that it imposes on them.”

In April, Abbas negated the Oslo commitment to recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security by stating that Israel is “a colonialist enterprise, aimed at planting a foreign body in this region.”

And reconvening last month, the PLO Central Council confirmed its decisions from January, adding, in blatant violation of the PLO’s Oslo commitment to settle all disputes through negotiations: The connection with Israel is based on “a struggle between the Palestinian people and its occupied country and the occupying force.”

The PLO Misses Opportunities for Peace

After the collapse of the Oslo process at the Camp David peace conference in July 2000, Israel offered the Palestinians three major opportunities to establish their own state on most of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Tragically, they missed all three opportunities. Since the collapse of the 2013-2014 peace talks, Abbas has refused to even enter into direct peace talks with Israel despite Netanyahu’s repeated calls on him to hold such talks with no preconditions.

Accepting the Clinton Parameters for Peace (2000)

In December 2000, President Clinton presented to Israel and the Palestinians the parameters of a peace agreement under which Israel would agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state; give the Palestinians about 95 percent of the West Bank, as well as parts of its own sovereign territory as compensation for the remaining five percent it would keep; the Palestinians would get the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and control over Temple Mount; Israel would cede the entire Gaza Strip to the Palestinians; and Palestinian refugees would be allowed to move to the Palestinian state.

As President Clinton later stated, Prime Minister Barak agreed to those parameters, which—had they been accepted by the Palestinians as well—would have obliged Israel to make painful compromises for peace. Arafat, however, rejected the parameters, which consequently lapsed.

Withdrawing from Gaza (2005)

In August 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally removed all 8,000 residents of the Jewish settlements, as well as the Israeli military, from the entire Gaza Strip. Israel hoped that the withdrawal would prompt Gazans to focus on economic development and to live in peace with Israel. If that were the case, Sharon indicated, he would initiate a large-scale withdrawal in the West Bank as well. But instead, when Hamas violently took control of Gaza in 2007, it turned the Strip into a base for launching terrorist attacks, firing rockets, digging attack tunnels and later attempting to breach the border fence with tens of thousands of Gazans and burning Israeli farms, parks and nature reserves with incendiary kites and balloons.

Offering Almost the Entire West Bank to the Palestinians (2008)

In September 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a peace proposal that was even more generous than the Clinton Parameters, including recognition of a Palestinian state in the territories; withdrawal from almost the entire West Bank and granting the Palestinian state part of Israel’s sovereign territory as compensation for keeping the rest of the West Bank; and turning over to the Palestinian state the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Abbas never even responded to Olmert’s offer, stating later that “the gaps were too wide.”

The Way Forward

Despite these obstacles and setbacks, the quest for peace must continue. The United States is the only potential mediator trusted enough by Israel to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories living side-by-side with Israel. To further the chances for peace, the United States should maintain its commitment to the five principles that guided previous successful negotiations:

Talks must be direct and bilateral.A solution cannot be imposed on the parties.Both sides must be willing to make key compromises.Disagreements should be resolved privately.The United States must support and work closely with Israel.

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report