Timeline: Twenty years of failed US-led peace talks

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993. (Photo: AP)

The Institute for Middle East Understanding published the following resources to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Oslo Accords on September 13, 2013. 

A TIMELINE: 20 YEARS OF FAILED US-LED PEACE TALKS
Part One

December 1987: The First Intifada

After 20 years of repressive Israeli military rule, Palestinians in the occupied territories launch a large-scale popular uprising, or Intifada. The mostly unarmed rebellion, and Israel’s attempts to crush it with brutal force, gains widespread international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. (See here for more on the First Intifada.)

December 1988: PLO Recognizes Israel

The PLO officially recognizes Israel and agrees to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in just 22% of historic Palestine. Israel dismisses this groundbreaking compromise and continues to refuse to negotiate with the PLO.

June 1990: Mounting US Pressure on Israel to Negotiate

Frustrated at Israel’s intransigence, US Secretary of State James Baker, who is trying to organize an international peace conference, reads the White House switchboard telephone number during congressional testimony, adding to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who isn’t present, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”

October 1990: Haram al-Sharif Massacre

In October 1990, a group of Jewish extremists attempts to lay a cornerstone for a Jewish temple in the highly sensitive Haram al-Sharif mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem. In the unrest that follows, Israeli forces kill at least 20 Palestinians using live ammunition. Israel’s use of lethal, disproportionate force against Palestinian protesters prompts international condemnation, including from the US government, and increases pressure on Israel to talk peace.

1991: The First Gulf War

An international coalition led by the US ejects occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, heralding a new post-Cold War era in the Middle East in which the US is the sole superpower. Following its victory, the US seeks to take advantage of the new geopolitical reality, increasing its efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

October 1991: Madrid Conference

Following threats by the administration of George H.W. Bush to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees unless Israel ends settlement construction, Israeli Prime Minister Shamir agrees to meet with Palestinian representatives, but not PLO officials, despite the fact that the PLO is considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the UN and international community. Talks between Israeli officials and Palestinians based in the occupied territories, who are in close contact with PLO officials behind the scenes, begin in Madrid, Spain, in late October 1991.

October 18, 1991: US Letter of Assurance to the Palestinians

In a letter of assurance sent to the Palestinian delegation prior to the Madrid conference, US Secretary of State James Baker pledges that the US does “not recognize Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem or the extension of its municipal boundaries, and we encourage all sides to avoid unilateral acts that would exacerbate local tensions or make negotiations more difficult or preempt their final outcome… In this regard the United States has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967, which remains an obstacle to peace.”

1992: Secret Talks Under Oslo

While the Madrid talks flounder due to continued Israeli intransigence, the Israeli government bypasses the Palestinian representatives sent to Madrid and begins secret negotiations, sponsored by the Norwegian government, with the PLO, weakened politically since the disaster of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the PLO’s support for Iraq during the First Gulf War, believing it will be more willing to compromise on issues such as settlement construction and fundamental Palestinian rights like the right of return for refugees expelled from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1947-9.

August 1993: Oslo I Announced

The agreement resulting from the secret PLO-Israel negotiations, known as the Declaration of Principles (or Oslo I), is publicly announced. The Oslo process creates the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and is supposed to lead to a final peace agreement by 1999, however the ultimate goal of talks is vague, with Israel still refusing to formally accept the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel subsequently allows Yasser Arafat and other exiled PLO leaders to return to Gaza and the West Bank to head the PA and institute limited Palestinian self-rule in some areas, while the Israeli military continues to maintain overall control of the occupied territories.

September 9, 1993: Official Exchange of Letters Between the PLO and Israel

On September 9, 1993, the PLO and the government of Israel exchange official letters in which the Palestinians formally recognize “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” In return, Israel acknowledges the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people but does not endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

September 13, 1993: Arafat-Rabin Handshake on White House Lawn

In what is widely hailed as an historic moment, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sign theDeclaration of Principles (also known as Oslo I) on the White House lawn with US President Bill Clinton overseeing the proceedings.

1994-2000: Increased Restrictions on Movement & Rapid Expansion of Settlements

As the terms of Oslo begin to be implemented, Israel imposes increased restrictions on Palestinian movement between Israel and the occupied territories, between the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and within the occupied territories themselves. This is part of an Israeli policy designed to separate Palestinians and Israelis, and to separate the West Bank from Gaza, which are supposed to be a single territorial unit under Oslo. Successive Israeli governments also rapidly accelerate the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), nearly doubles, from 110,900 to 190,206 according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Accurate figures for settlements in occupied East Jerusalem are harder to obtain, but as of 2000 the number of settlers in East Jerusalem stands at more than 167,000 according to B’Tselem.

February 25, 1994: Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre

Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein murders 29 Palestinians as they pray in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. In the ensuing unrest, 19 more Palestinians are killed by Israeli soldiers. Following the massacre, Israel fails to remove Hebron’s extremist settler enclave, instead increasing restrictions on Palestinian residents. Just over a month later, the Islamist militant group Hamas, which was formed a few years earlier during the First Intifada, launches its first suicide bombing against Israeli civilians.

May 1994: Gaza-Jericho Agreement Signed

On May 4, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement is signed. A much longer document than the Declaration of Principles, Gaza-Jericho spells out in greater detail the role of the Palestinian Authority and its relationship with Israel, and calls for a final peace agreement to be reached within five years.

September 1995: Oslo II Signed

On September 28, 1995, Israel and the PLO sign an agreement known as Oslo II, which provides for a redeployment of the Israeli military from some parts of the occupied territories and divides the West Bank into three separate administrative units, Areas A, B, and C. As a result, Israel maintains full control over most of the West Bank while turning over responsibility for Palestinian population centers to the PA. (For more on Areas A, B, and C, see section above on Oslo II.)

November 1995: Yitzhak Rabin Assassinated

On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo Accords.

May 1996: Benjamin Netanyahu Elected Prime Minister for First Term

Following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, an outspoken opponent of the Oslo Accords, defeats Shimon Peres in elections and becomes prime minister of Israel. Apparently taking the advice of his predecessor as Likud leader, Yitzhak Shamir, who stated following his 1992 electoral defeat: “I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for 10 years and in the meantime we would have reached half a million [settlers in the occupied West Bank],” Netanyahu drags out talks while simultaneously expanding Jewish settlements. Netanyahu later brags about sabotaging the Oslo process, telling a group of settlers in 2001: “I de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”

January 1997: Hebron Protocol Signed

In 1997, Netanyahu and Arafat sign the Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, which delineates further phased withdrawals of Israeli soldiers from sections of Hebron and other parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu later boasts that with the Hebron Protocol he undermined Oslo by insisting that Israel wouldn’t withdraw soldiers from “specified military locations,” and that Israel would unilaterally decide what constituted a military location. Netanyahu later explains to a group of settlers: “Why is that important? Because from that moment on I stopped the Oslo Accords.”

October 1998: Wye River Memorandum Signed

In October 1998, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sign the Wye River Memorandum, which is intended to facilitate the implementation of parts of the Oslo II agreement which Israel failed to carry out previously, including further redeployments of Israeli forces.

May 1999: Deadline for Final Agreement Expires

Deadline for signing an agreement on final status issues as outlined in the Declaration of Principles and the Gaza-Jericho Agreement passes.

May 1999: Ehud Barak Elected Prime Minister

After defeating Netanyahu in elections in May, Labor party leader Ehud Barak becomes prime minister in July and declares his intention to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, at the same time, Barak further ramps up settlement growth, undermining Palestinian confidence in his intentions. By the end of his short term in office (July 1999-March 2001) Barak approves more settlements than his more right-wing predecessor, Netanyahu, did in his three years in power.

September 1999: Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum Signed

Similar to the Wye River Memorandum, the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum, signed by Arafat and Barak, was intended to implement sections of Oslo II that Israel failed to enact previously, in particular further redeployments of Israeli soldiers. It also called for a permanent agreement on final status issues to be reached by September 2000.

July 2000: Camp David Summit

In July 2000, at the invitation of President Clinton, then in the final months of his second term in office, Israeli and Palestinian leaders meet at Camp David to negotiate final status issues for a hoped-for permanent peace agreement. In secret talks preceding Camp David, Palestinian negotiators offer far-ranging concessions beyond the international consensus of what the outlines of a peace agreement should look like. In contrast to the widely circulated story of the “generous offer” allegedly made by Barak, in reality the Israelis never actually make a formal offer at Camp David, submitting no written proposals. The only proposals offered by the Israelis are conveyed orally, mostly through US officials, and lack detail. The Camp David summit ends without an agreement, after which President Clinton praises Prime Minister Barak’s “courage,” and, contrary to an earlier promise made to the Palestinians who came to Camp David reluctantly, blames the failure on Arafat and the Palestinian leadership. This distorted, one-sided narrative quickly takes hold in Israel and the US, allowing Israeli leaders to claim that they have “no Palestinian partner” for peace. (See here for more on the talks at Camp David.)

October 2000: Outbreak of the Second Intifada

Palestinian frustration at seven years of fruitless negotiations, during which time Israel massively expands settlements and entrenches its occupation rather than rolling it back, boils over into a second, more violent uprising, sparked by a provocative visit by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who is reviled by Palestinians for his brutal record as an officer in the Israeli military and as defense minister, to the Noble Sanctuary mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem.

January 2001: Taba Summit

Following the failure at Camp David and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meet again in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001. Although both sides subsequently agree that progress is made at Taba, by this time Barak is a lame duck prime minister, with polls predicting a massive defeat for his Labor party in elections scheduled for February.

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE OSLO ACCORDS

  • After more than a half-century of bloody conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews, in 1993 Israeli and Palestinian leaders sat down face to face at the negotiating table for the first time in an attempt to forge peace.
  • Oslo marked the beginning of a bilateral negotiations process, with international mediation monopolized by the US, Israel’s greatest patron, that would become the model for all subsequent negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
  • Oslo created the Palestinian Authority (PA), a supposedly interim self-rule government that governs Palestinian population centers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza under overall Israeli military control. 

WHY DID OSLO FAIL?

  • Israeli leaders never accepted the creation of a genuinely independent Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution, continuing to colonize Palestinian land and deepen their control of Palestinians in the occupied territories while supposedly negotiating an end to the occupation.
  • The hardline positions of successive Israeli governments were supported by the Clinton administration, and subsequently the administration of George W. Bush, which both failed to do anything to stop settlement construction or other Israeli violations of signed agreements and international law. Instead of serving as an honest broker, the US acted as “Israel’s attorney,” in the words of longtime senior US State Department official Aaron David Miller.
  • The direct bilateral negotiations framework of Oslo accentuated the massive power imbalance between the two parties, which was further reinforced by the failure of the US to act as an even-handed mediator.
  • While massively expanding settlements and attendant infrastructure such as Israeli-only roads on occupied Palestinian land, Israel began to place severe restrictions on Palestinian movement, both within the occupied territories themselves and between the territories and the outside world. Rather than gaining their freedom from decades of Israeli military rule, during the Oslo years most Palestinians instead witnessed a deepening of Israel’s control over their lives and their land, causing widespread frustration and disillusionment with the peace process.
  • A close examination of the agreements comprising the Oslo Accords and Israeli actions on the ground, most notably rapidly expanding settlement construction, indicate that Oslo was intended by its Israeli and American architects to cement Israeli control over the occupied territories while shifting responsibility for policing the Palestinian population from the Israeli army to the security forces of the PA, thus “streamlining” the occupation for Israel.

RESULTS OF OSLO ON THE GROUND

  • Between 1993 and 2000, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), nearly doubled, from 110,900 to 190,206 according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Today, 20 years after the start of Oslo, there are more than 300,000 Israeli settlers living on Palestinian land in the West Bank, and another 200,000 in East Jerusalem.
  • Between 1993 and 2000, almost 1700 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories were destroyed by Israel,according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
  • Oslo fragmented the West Bank into three separate administrative districts, Areas A, B, C, and Gaza was separated from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. (See below section on Oslo II for more on Areas A, B, and C.)
  • Occupied East Jerusalem was virtually severed from the rest of the West Bank as a result of Israel’s construction of a ring of settlements around the city’s expanded municipal boundaries. (See here for map of settlements around East Jerusalem.)
  • Oslo resulted in increased restrictions on Palestinian movement within the occupied territories and between the occupied territories and the outside world. Today, at any given time, there are approximately 500 barriers to Palestinian movement in the West Bank, an area smaller than Delaware.
  • The restrictions on Palestinian movement and frequent curfews and closures imposed on the occupied territories during the Oslo years and subsequently devastated the Palestinian economy, which has become largely dependent on Israeli tax transfers and international aid.

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