What Can We Learn From The 1992 Oslo Accords For Today’s Arab-Israeli Conflict?

Yitzhak Rabin, President Clinton, and Yasser Arafat
Yitzhak Rabin, President Clinton, and Yasser Arafat | Source

In 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed between the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation, acting as a spokesperson for the Palestinian people) and Israel, they were hailed as a major breakthrough in the peace process. Images of the smiling U.S. President Bill Clinton, chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were seen in papers around the world. Yet within a few years famous scholars such as Amos Perlmutter were writing about the failure of the Accords. (See Amos Perlumutter, The Israel-PLO Accord Is Dead’, Foreign Affairs (June 1995)) In light of the renewed hostilities between Palestine and Israel in recent months, can any benefit be seen from the Accords or lessons learned?

The important document that came out of the Accords was the Declaration of Principles.This document established the foundation of mutual recognition between the two groups, the establishment of an interim self-government for Palestine in the form of the Palestinian National Authority and set out a series of confidence building measures each side would undertake so that within 5 years they would be able to negotiate a more permanent solution.

The Oslo Accords did not attempt to address the four major issues which are the centre of the Arab/Israeli war. These issues include:

  • The right of return for Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 war and are still living as refugees.
  • The status of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, which had been under Arab control until the 1967 war when Israel captured them. This acquisition of land through war was condemned by the United Nations (See UN Resolution 242). However, Israelis continued to build settlements in these lands.
  • The status of Jerusalem. The city holds places of significance for Muslims and for Jews (as well as Christians), and there is a debate over who should have authority both over the city as a whole and the individual sites.
  • Security and borders.

These are the issues which still plague peace talks in the Middle East today. The Accords’ refusal to deal with any of these issues at the time meant that they could not bring about peace. However, the aims of the Accords were to bring both parties closer to being able to discuss these key issues. his is a necessary step and were the Accords successful in this?

The most important thing that the Accords achieved was the letters of Mutual Recognition. Until this point, both the PLO and the Israeli Government did not recognise the right of the other to exist. The PLO argued that Israel was not a lawful state, and were invaders in Palestine. Similarly, Israel did not acknowledge the Palestinians as a state, and saw the PLO as a terrorist organisation which they would not negotiate with. There was no way that peace talks could be conducted until both sides recognised the other. As such, the Accords did bring peace a step closer.

The Accords also laid out a series of confidence building measures for each side to perform as a foundation of goodwill for future peace talks. However, in these the Accords were a failure. None of the measures were implemented, and greater violence between the two groups broke out soon after. The problem with the Accords in this matter was twofold. First of all, they did not clearly set out a practical process of how these measures would be achieved, and what would happen if one group did not uphold their end. Second, the parties involved in the Accords did not actually have the power to enable all of these measures, particularly neither side had the ability to control the extremists in order to stop the violence. As violence erupted there was nothing either side could do to regain the other’s confidence.

The Accords had some good elements in theory, but could not have been successfully enacted in practice because of the nature of the conflict. Moreover, now that the PLO is no longer the spokesperson for the Palestinian people, and Israel must deal with Hamas, a lot of the ground covered by the letters of mutual recognition no longer stands. It is still unclear whether confidence building measures would be a successful path to peace, but would need much strong regulation and conditions imposed to ensure each side maintained their agreements. Further, while there is a mentality of terrorism and individual reaction to the peace process, it will be much more difficult for the violence to end. Neither group has enough control over extremists to ensure the violence stops. These are some of the lessons that can be learned from the failure of the Oslo Accords.

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