The Oslo Accords (officially the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements) were signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington, DC, on September 13, 1993, after months of secret negotiations. This agreement established an important new approach for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by initiating open, direct talks between Israel and the PLO.
At the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, the international context for negotiating peace in the Middle East had changed dramatically. Iraq’s defeat by a coalition of European and Arab countries allayed Israel’s fears of future Iraqi attacks. Because of its support for Iraq in the war, the PLO was isolated by several Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait cut off aid to the PLO, and other Middle Eastern states expelled Palestinian workers. Meanwhile, the accelerating disintegration of the Soviet Union reduced Cold War tensions that previously had complicated Middle East peacemaking efforts.
The United States Government believed that the recent political changes in the Middle East presented an opportunity to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. To implement this goal, it co-sponsored the Madrid Conference with the Soviet Union. The Madrid Conference convened on October 30, 1991, and was attended by its two sponsors as well as the governments of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and representatives of the European Community. The goals of the conference were to launch bilateral peace talks between Israel and bordering Arab states; multilateral talks on key regional issues like refugees; and talks between Israelis and non-PLO Palestinians on 5-year interim self-rule, to be followed by talks on permanent status issues. Although the Madrid Conference did not produce any final settlements, it helped set the stage for the Oslo Accords.
The Oslo negotiations were set in motion in January 1993 by Terje Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist, and Yossi Beilin, a member of Israel’s Labor Party government that had come to power in 1992. The two agreed that for peace to occur, direct talks between Israel and the PLO were necessary (the ongoing Madrid process talks involved only Palestinians unaffiliated with the PLO). Because Israeli law banned contacts between Israelis and PLO officials, Larsen and Beilin established a secret, unofficial backchannel between two Israeli professors and a team of three PLO officials led by Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei). The first meetings were held on January 20-22, 1993 near Oslo at the home of Norwegian Minister of Defense (after April 1993, Minister of Foreign Affairs) Jorgen Holst and his wife Marianne Heiberg. The Oslo talks sought to draft a document of principles to guide Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and the strict secrecy allowed the negotiators to discuss scenarios and potential concessions without incurring domestic political costs. An important step forward occurred in May 1993, when Israel elevated the talks to an official level by sending Deputy Foreign Minister Uri Savir to Oslo.
In August, 1993, the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators initialed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DOP) in Oslo. President William J. Clinton subsequently hosted a formal signing ceremony in Washington on September 13, 1993, at which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat shook hands. The Oslo Accords were a pivotal milestone in Israeli-Palestinian relations, aimed at propelling the peace process forward and providing for the expansion of Palestinian self-rule throughout most of the West Bank. Along with the DOP, the agreement included Letters of Mutual Recognition in which the PLO recognized the existence of the State of Israel and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Under the DOP, Israel committed itself to withdrawing from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and acknowledged the Palestinian right to self government in those territories under a Palestinian Authority. During a 5-year interim period, a permanent peace settlement would be negotiated. The DOP went into force one month after it was signed. Two months later, Israel and the PLO agreed on withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho (excluding Israeli settlements).
Although the peacemaking efforts launched by the Oslo Accords did not produce a permanent agreement, the Oslo agreements achieved several breakthroughs. The Palestinians made a significant advance toward self-government with the creation of the Palestinian National Authority, composed of a democratically elected Council with Arafat as its head. For the first time, the PLO’s status was legitimized internationally. Israeli troops were redeployed from Gaza and Jericho and from the villages and cities in the West Bank. Despite the successes of the Oslo process, failures on both sides to fulfill commitments, internal political opposition, lack of progress in negotiating final status issues, and outbreaks of violence undermined the trust-building element of Oslo that was intended to make possible a final peace agreement. The Oslo approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts effectively came to an end with the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada.