Short-Term Significance of the Oslo Accords for Political Relationships Within the Middle East essay

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Oslo Accords

Jonathan Zaun

Political cartoon by Carlos Latuff, illustrating both the lack of communication and the incessant foreign interference which lies at the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

The ongoing conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people has long defined by force employed in its extremity, with bombings and bulldozers becoming tragic symbols of the age old strife, but the impact of a simple handshake will be remembered long after the smoke has settled and the dust has cleared. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin joined hands with his Palestinian counterpart Yasser Arafat on September 13th, 1993, signaling the official ratification of the Oslo Accords, the world was cautiously optimistic that the violence tearing at the seams of the Middle East had finally ended. After years of denying their opponent's basic rights to existence, both the Israelis and the Palestinians had grudgingly given ground and reached a tentative compromise. The cornerstones of the Oslo Accords were the Letters of Mutual Recognition, through which Arafat stated that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) "recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security," while Rabin affirmed that "the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people." Today the overall significance of this mutual recognition is disputed, with many detractors on both sides arguing that a genuine progression towards peace has yet to be achieved. Indeed, nearly two decades since the historic handshake between bitter rivals, the establishment of a Palestinian state remains elusive and violence still rages throughout the region. Despite the imperfect application, however, the agreement forged by the Oslo Accords provided a crucial framework for the fragile peace process and its geopolitical impact endures to this day.

In the days and months following the signing of the Oslo Accords, an outcry was raised by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians alike, with each side viewing the agreement as a fundamental concession of rights and territory for which many had sacrificed their lives. The great irony of the Oslo Accords, signed as they were to reconcile two warring parties, was that their immediate political significance included the revelation of deeply held divisions within the respective ranks of the Israeli and Palestinian political structure. The compromise reached at Oslo called for the formation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), viewed by many as the precursor to Palestinian statehood, while also mandating the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from disputed territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For global observers of the conflict, these initial steps appeared to be positive developments which would hasten the overall effort to attain a lasting peace. Average Israeli citizens like Aharon Domb, however, viewed Oslo and its call for the withdrawal of settlers with hesitancy; "branding the accord merely a surrender," while "treason was the word Israeli right-wingers used to degrade the Oslo peace accords" (Hockstader). Palestinian activists were also largely unsatisfied by Oslo's provisions, with militant groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad inherently rejecting Israel's right to existence. The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, stated explicitly that "the group's armed wing would cause more Israeli blood to flow no matter what" (Hockstader) in the immediate aftermath of the Oslo Accords signing.

Despite the outrage expressed by extremist elements on both sides, the beneficial effects of the Oslo Accords reverberated across the Middle East as many of the compact's stated short-term goals began to come to fruition. The construction of new Israeli settlements within the bitterly disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank was halted and expansion of existing settlements was slowed in the years following the 1993 signing. The Palestinian National Authority was instituted as a five-year interim body in 1994, enabling the Palestinian people to finally exercise autonomous control over their security status and civilian affairs. Formed through a democratically styled elective process, the legitimate authority held by the PNA was among the first signs of progress to emerge in the wake of the Oslo Accords. During the first months following the passage of the Oslo Accords, the attainment of a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine appeared to be tantalizingly close. Many observers echoed the sentiments of Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, who expressed his belief that "the accord would set in motion a gradual but irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and that it would lead, after the five-year transition period, to an independent Palestinian state over most of the West Bank and Gaza" (Shlaim 28). This expression of hope would be dashed, however, during the chaotic years between 1995 and 2001, as the fallout from the Oslo Accords predicted by many opponents began to materialize.

On November 4th, 1995, just two short years after he shocked the world by embracing the hand of his former enemy, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was felled by an assassin's bullet in Tel Aviv. Rabin's murderer, Yigal Amir, was a radicalized Orthodox Jew and an ardent opponent of the Oslo Accords who believed that killing the architect of the historic agreement would significantly damage the peace process in the short-term, while also weakening the Israeli government in the long-term. Just five weeks prior to his death, Rabin had expressed his commitment to the progress engendered by Oslo by certifying the Oslo II agreement, which extended Palestinian self-governance to territories such as Bethlehem and Hebron. Upon the assassination of Rabin, who served as the primary facilitator of the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations, the peace process at large was thrown into a state of flux. The simmering divisions between progressive Israelis and the nation's ultra-conservative right wing were further exacerbated, and a growing movement expressly opposed to the Oslo Accords began to assert itself within the Israeli political structure.

Led by ambitious politician Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli contingent opposed to the formation of a Palestinian government was motivated in part by a traditional distrust of their Arab neighbors, as well as by government reports stating that "more Israelis have been killed by Palestinian terrorists in the 5 years since the first Oslo agreement was signed in September 1993 than in the 15 preceding years" (GPO). Following the death of Prime Minister Rabin, his temporary successor Shimon Peres led a call for direct elections to select the new leader of Israel. When Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in 1996, as a representative of the Likud party, he overtly expressed his disapproval of the Oslo Accords, declaring his intent "to interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the '67 borders" (Kessler). The ascent of Netanyahu, one of the most vocal detractors of the Oslo Accords, to the pinnacle of Israel's leadership signaled the looming demise of the 1993 agreement as a legitimate resource in the agonizingly slow Israeli/Palestinian peace process, and was perhaps the most significant product of the post-Oslo political environment. Indeed, during his first term in office from 1996-1999, Netanyahu "proceeded & #8230; to evade Israel's obligations and to destroy the foundations that his predecessors had laid for peace with the Palestinians" (Shlaim 29) through the imposition of invasive curfews targeting ordinary Palestinians and the construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Netanyahu's provocative and counterproductive actions while serving as Prime Minister were met with intense international scrutiny, led by the American government who had invested so much in the success of the Oslo Accords. In 1999, Netanyahu lost his bid for reelection and decorated Israeli military officer Ehud Barak took power, charged with an "unambiguous mandate & #8230; to resume the struggle for comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors" (Shlaim 29). Many people on each side of the conflict viewed Barak as the leader who would finally allow the Oslo Accords to flourish and affect change in their intended manner. This optimism was short-lived, however, and Barak's militaristic leadership style caused many of his Palestinian contemporaries to bristle under his harsh negotiating tactics. The rising tensions came to a head during the Camp David meetings in 2000, when Barak and Yasser Arafat convened alongside President Bill Clinton to negotiate the terms of peace. Barak's offer to hasten the negotiations, a step enabled by simply skipping the series of gradual redeployments of IDF forces called for in the Oslo Accords, was roundly rejected by Arafat, who believed that "the Clinton/Barak plan would have left the new Palestinian state with significant loss of water and good land" (Frontline). The Camp David summit collapsed without a resolution and both sides retreated to reconsider their next steps, which they would be forced to take against the backdrop of an increasingly armed and violent conflict.

In September of 2000, when the leader of the Israel's Likud party Ariel Sharon made a publicized trip to the Muslim shrine of Harim-al-Sharif in Jerusalem, his presence provoked an intense outcry by Palestinians and the entirety of the Arab world, which viewed the visit…[continue]

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