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History, The Peace Process

Washington sessions, Israeli student, Yigal Amir, Palestinian settlements, leftist parties

The end of the Cold War, a 45-year period of tense relations between the United States and the USSR, and the success of the Gulf War coalition suggested new possibilities in the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace. After months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. secretary of state James Baker, the United States and the USSR issued invitations to Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians to a peace conference in Madrid, Spain, in the fall of 1991. Israel continued to exclude the PLO, insisting on meeting instead with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

The Madrid conference convened in October 1991 and was followed by bilateral negotiations in Washington, D.C., several months later. Despite months of negotiations between Israel and the Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian-Palestinian delegations, no agreements emerged. Nevertheless, the conference was an important step on the road to peace because it involved direct, bilateral, public, and official peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors on the central political issues of the conflict.

In the midst of the Washington sessions, Labor emerged as the leading party in the Knesset elections in June 1992. As prime minister, Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin formed a coalition government of center and leftist parties. As the Washington sessions continued, Israel and the PLO began secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway, resulting in a breakthrough in the peace process. In 1993 the parties reached several important agreements and exchanged letters in which the PLO affirmed Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO renounced the use of terrorism and other forms of violence and committed itself to resolve the conflict with Israel through peaceful negotiations.

On September 13, 1993, Rabin and Arafat witnessed the signing of a historic accord between Israel and the PLO at the White House in Washington. This Declaration of Principles (DOP), outlined a proposal for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank town of Jericho. It also stated that within five years the two sides were to reach a comprehensive peace settlement regarding all remaining issues in dispute, including the status of Jerusalem. The agreement also set the stage for the establishment of an interim body, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), to administer these regions. Despite the general euphoric mood created by the agreement, right-wing Israeli parties and dissident Palestinian groups expressed dissent, sometimes in the form of terrorist attacks.

Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Principles, Israel and Jordan entered into separate negotiations that led to the signing of a peace treaty in October 1994. The treaty addressed security, boundary demarcations and border crossings, control of water resources, police cooperation, environmental issues, and the establishment of normalized relations. Both parties agreed not to join, aid, or cooperate with any party intending to attack the other side and to prohibit military forces or equipment that could harm the other side from entering their territories. They pledged to cooperate in combating terrorism and to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees. They also agreed to cooperate on economic matters, including trade, development, and tourism. Finally, Israel recognized Jordan’s special role as guardian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, which angered Palestinians because it undermined their agreement with Israel to negotiate the status of Jerusalem at a later date.

Amid this initial progress toward peace, Israel was able to forge new diplomatic and trade relations with a large number of states in Africa and Asia, including China and India. Israel became more acceptable to the international community, and foreign trade grew dramatically, producing greater prosperity and an improved standard of living.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continued. After reaching further agreements with the PLO concerning transfer of much of the Gaza Strip and Jericho to PNA administration, Israel completed its withdrawal from these areas in May 1994. The PNA, which was headed by Arafat and staffed primarily by PLO members, assumed control of civil matters in the Gaza Strip and Jericho and deployed a Palestinian police force to maintain internal security. Israel retained control over Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as well as over security of the region’s borders. An interim agreement in September 1995 focused on Israeli withdrawals from the remaining Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank and set the date of elections for the PNA’s president and its legislature, the Palestinian Legislative Council. The agreement also stated that after PNA elections, Israel would redeploy from Palestinian rural areas of the West Bank. Israel was to retain control over Jewish settlements and military installations until final status negotiations—including discussion of the status of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, and security arrangements—were completed.

In November 1995 Yigal Amir, an Israeli student who opposed the peace process, assassinated Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, claiming it was his religious duty to prevent the return of biblical lands to the Arabs. Shimon Peres, who as foreign minister under Rabin had been instrumental in peace negotiations, became Labor leader and prime minister. Peres proclaimed his desire to continue the peace process and carried out the terms of the interim agreement. Over the next several months Israel turned over civil administration of all other West Bank cities and most Palestinian towns and villages to the PNA, thus ending Israeli administration, established after the Six-Day War in 1967, over most of the Palestinian residents in the West Bank. In the cities, the PNA also assumed responsibility for internal security. The exception was Hebron, sacred to Jews as the site of King David’s capital prior to Jerusalem and the burial place of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Negotiations concerning Israel’s withdrawal from Hebron continued for another year. In Palestinian towns and villages, security came under joint control of a Palestinian police force and Israeli troops, with Israel’s authority predominant. As in the Gaza Strip, Israel retained control over Jewish settlements and over security of the West Bank’s borders, as well as over the travel routes between Palestinian settlements. In January 1996 Palestinians elected Yasir Arafat as president of the PNA and chose the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Despite Rabin’s assassination it appeared that the peace process was progressing as planned. However, terrorist attacks against Israel in early 1996, including suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, helped sway Israeli public opinion toward a position of fewer compromises. In May Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s first popularly elected prime minister and formed a coalition government determined to assure security for Israel. The government insisted that the PNA meet its obligations to prevent terrorism before Israel would make any more withdrawals. The peace process stalled despite efforts by the United States and others to restart it.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria, which had continued sporadically since the 1991 Madrid conference, were also affected by Likud’s return to power. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad believed progress had been made in the mid-1990s and wished to continue negotiations from where he and Israel’s former leaders had left off. However, Netanyahu and his coalition partners sought to reassess the situation and renegotiate the central issues, and the process stalled.

Although peace negotiations under the new Likud government had stalled, an agreement involving Hebron was completed and signed in January 1997. Israel withdrew from 80 percent of the city, maintaining control over Jewish settlements there. However, Israel decided the following month to proceed with a Jewish housing project in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians viewed as a violation of preceding agreements. Negotiations again deadlocked. Terrorist attacks by Islamic groups , particularly by the Palestinian group Hamas, prompted Israel to demand more action by Palestinian leaders against terrorism. In September Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan’s capital. The action strained Israeli-Jordanian relations.

Terrorist attacks by Islamic groups from Lebanon on the security zone and into northern Israel also plagued Israel. In 1998 Israel offered to withdraw from its security zone in southern Lebanon, which Israel had maintained since 1985, in return for Lebanon’s guarantee to prevent attacks on northern Israel by terrorist groups. Lebanon refused the offer, calling for an unconditional withdrawal.

By mid-1998 Netanyahu faced increasing criticism in the Knesset from both the right and the left. In October he signed a U.S.-brokered accord providing for Israeli withdrawals from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank. In return, the Palestinian leadership promised to improve security to prevent attacks on Israelis by Palestinian terrorist groups, and to remove from their national charter the clauses calling for the destruction of Israel. Netanyahu’s action drew harsh criticism from members of Likud and others opposed to land-for-peace agreements.

In December 1998, after the first Israeli withdrawal, Netanyahu froze the accord, citing Palestinian violations and placing new conditions on further withdrawals. This angered Labor and other parties that sought to move forward with the peace process. Netanyahu also faced defections of key coalition partners. That month the Knesset voted to call for elections in May 1999, a year before Netanyahu’s term was due to expire. In these elections, 15 parties, including 6 new parties, won seats. Labor, which had formed a coalition known as One Israel, won the largest number of seats, and Likud came in second. However, both parties wound up with fewer seats than they had held before the elections. Shas, a religious party consisting primarily of Sephardic Jews, came in third, while Meretz, a strongly pro-peace leftist party, placed fourth. Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party and the One Israel bloc, defeated Netanyahu in elections for prime minister.

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