Israel never honored The Oslo Peace Accords sSigned at White House

By Donald Neff

(First published in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1998.)

It was five years ago, on Sept. 13, 1993, that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed, amid great euphoria on the White House South Lawn, the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, generally known as the Oslo accords. Its aim was to “establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority...for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338,” which are the basis of the formula of land-for-peace.1 Israel never really lived up to the agreement.

The agreement was signed by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was the main Israeli proponent of the secret talks that led to the Oslo accords, and PLO foreign policy spokesman Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazan. Looking on were Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and President Clinton. During the ceremony Arafat and Rabin for the first time shook hands, with Clinton hovering between, creating the memorable photograph pictured above.2

Rabin, who spoke first and had for so long denied the centrality of the Palestinians to the Middle East conflict, said: “We the soldiers who have returned from the battle stained with blood, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears! Enough!” Arafat did not match Rabin’s rhetorical heights, but he did not fail to remind his audience of the “historic injustice” that the Palestinians had suffered, thereby implicitly challenging the notion that the victor has the right to call for “enough” while he still retains his spoils.

Arafat declared: “Let me address the people of Israel and their leaders, with whom we are meeting today for the first time, and let me assure them that the difficult decision we reached together was one that required great and exceptional courage. We will need more courage and determination to continue the course of building coexistence and peace between us....Our people do not consider that exercising the right to self-determination could violate the rights of their neighbors or infringe on their security.”

Rabin was notably nervous and ill at ease throughout the ceremony, and he admitted later that he shook Arafat’s hand only reluctantly. Nor did the Israeli side display great joy or make any effort to socialize with the Palestinians. The White House had hoped to stage a joint dinner for the two sides following the ceremony, but the Israelis declined and the dinner was not held for the Palestinians alone.

By contrast, Arafat—who for so long had been legally barred from the United States and was in Washington only on presidential sufferance—was ebullient and smiling throughout. He worked the distinguished audience like the politician he is, shaking hands and greeting excited onlookers enthusiastically. Among those attending were eight former secretaries of state—none of whom he had ever met. Arafat signaled out James Baker for a special handshake and he held separate meetings away from the White House with the two attending former presidents, Jimmy Carter and George Bush.

President Clinton had at first said he would meet privately only with Rabin. But after the ceremony he held a private session with Arafat as well. It lasted for 10 minutes.3

Arafat over the years had been demonized by the U.S. media and Israel’s supporters. But in the glow of peace Americans seemed to regard him much like any other celebrity and went out of their way to shake his hand, ask for his autograph and applaud him, as did one group of pharmacists who accidentally came across him in his hotel and spontaneously broke into cheers. From being on America’s Most Wanted list of criminals he had become the celebrity wanted most.4

He was interviewed on national TV, held endless audiences in his hotel suite with such luminaries as Jesse Jackson and former secretary of state Baker. Arafat gave a news conference at the National Press Club, where he was warmly received by some of the same members of the media who only days before were reviling him. When one reporter asked Arafat why Jews should trust him now, he replied: “Many didn’t trust Jesus Christ in the beginning.”5

On TV, Arafat reminded the audience that his only other visit to the United States had been in 1974 when he appeared at the U.N., saying he carried “an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other.” He added: “This time I am coming with two olive branches.”

On the official level, the man who had generally been pictured as a vile enemy of America for three decades was granted open access. He met privately with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, held a long session with a representative of the World Bank about aid for Palestinians, and lunched on Capitol Hill with 20 senators and leaders of Congress, the body that for so many years had ignored Palestinian grievances, passed laws against the PLO and showered Israel with special favors and privileges. There were general, if muted, comments of praise for Arafat from the lawmakers and a stated willingness to help in a limited way with aid for the Palestinians.6

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine promised that he and Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas would examine the legislative record to begin removing some of the many discriminatory laws passed over the years against the PLO. For instance, there were laws prohibiting direct U.S. aid to the PLO or even U.S. support of aid by such international groups as the World Bank. There were at least six laws that barred PLO operations in the United States.7

Mitchell said the aim in reviewing the laws was to remove any legal restriction that would prevent the U.S. from “properly and adequately supporting the agreement.”8 President Clinton and other officials all pledged that the U.S. would do its share, but they said other nations would have to carry the major burden. At the same time, however, Clinton made clear that Israel could continue to count on the $4 billion to $5 billion it annually receives from the United States.

The Israeli Knesset approved the agreement on Sept. 23 by a vote of 61 to 50 with eight abstentions and one absent after three days of rancorous debate.9 A poll showed 66.4 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories supported the agreement while 29.3 percent were opposed. It also showed 60.7 percent endorsed the PLO as their leader while 17.1 percent favored Muslim groups such as Hamas.10

The agreement had been initialed Aug. 20 in Oslo, Norway, where it had been secretly negotiated in 14 meetings starting Jan. 20, 1993. The major negotiators were Uri Savir, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Ahmad Qurai, representing Arafat.11

The schedule leading to autonomy for the Palestinians laid out in the Declaration of Principles provided the following:12

  • Oct. 13, 1993: The Declaration of Principles enters into force. Immediately, a Joint Israeli-Palestinian Liaison Committee will be established “in order to deal with issues requiring coordination, other issues of common interest, and disputes.” Each side will have an equal number of members on the Joint Committee, and it will reach decisions by agreement.
  • Dec. 13, 1993: A schedule on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and Jericho is signed.
  • April 13, 1994: The latest date for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza/Jericho area to be completed. Arrangements will be made “for a safe passage for persons and transportation between the Gaza Strip and Jericho area.” The Palestinians take over all affairs except external security, foreign affairs and Jewish settlements and “other mutually agreed matters.” (There were six Jewish settlements near Jericho and 19 in Gaza.13) Specifically, the Palestinians will assume control of education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism. The two sides may agree on inviting the temporary presence of an international group to monitor security.
  • April 13, 1994: The five-year Transition/Interim period begins with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza/Jericho area and the Interim Agreement negotiations start. “The Interim Agreement shall specify, among other things, the structure of the Council, the number of its members, and the transfer of powers and responsibilities from the Israeli military government and its Civil Administration to the Council. The Interim Agreement shall also specify the Council’s executive authority, legislative authority...and the independent Palestinian judicial organs.”
  • July 12, 1994: The latest date for Israel to conclude the redeployment of its forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • “In redeploying its military forces, Israel will be guided by the principle that its military forces should be redeployed outside populated areas.”
  • July 13, 1994: The latest date for democratic and free elections to be held for a Palestinian Council to govern during the transition period.

The elections “will be held...under agreed supervision and international observation, while the Palestinian police will insure public order.” Palestinians living in Jerusalem will be allowed to vote. Gaza and the West Bank will be considered a “single territorial unit” and the jurisdiction of the Council “will cover West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations.”

The Council will establish, “among other authorities agreed upon,” a Palestinian Electricity Authority, a Gaza Sea Port Authority, a Palestinian Development Bank, a Palestinian Environmental Authority, a Palestinian Land Authority and a Palestinian Water Administration Authority.

“Jurisdiction of the Council will cover West Bank and Gaza Strip territory, except for issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, settlements, military locations, and Israelis.”

“After the inauguration of the Council, the Civil Administration will be dissolved, and the Israeli military government will be withdrawn.”

April 13, 1996: Permanent status negotiations “will commence as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period.”

The negotiations will “cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest.”

“It is understood that the interim arrangements are an integral part of the whole peace process and that the negotiations on the permanent status will lead to the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.”

April 13, 1999: Permanent agreement takes effect.

Israel early showed its disregard for the agreement. Two months after the White House ceremony, on Nov. 25, 1993, Prime Minister Rabin warned that Israel may not be ready to begin its withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, which was scheduled for no later than April 13, 1994. He said negotiations had failed to satisfy Israel’s security concerns, adding: “The date is not sacred....”14 Israel did not withdraw until mid-May. Since then, no other date has been considered sacred by Israel.

The coming to power in mid-1996 of Binyamin Netanyahu basically halted the Oslo peace process. While he did belatedly turn over much, but not all, of Hebron in January 1997, he has failed to surrender any other land since then despite Israel’s Oslo pledge to redeploy all its troops from the West Bank and Gaza by July 12, 1994. To date, Israel has returned to full Palestinian control only about 3 percent of the West Bank, which itself equals only 2,270 square miles of Palestine’s original 10,434 square miles.15

Recommended Reading

  • Epp, Frank, H., Whose Land is Palestine?, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
  • Government of Palestine, A Survey of Palestine, 2 vols and supplement, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1946-1947; reprinted by Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington, DC, 1991.
  • Neff, Donald, Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy towards Palestine and Israel since 1945, Washington, DC.: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1995.


  1. The text is in New York Times , 9/14/93; “Documentation,” Middle East Policy, Number 2, Volume II, 1993. For an analysis, see Burhan Dajani, “The September 1993 Israeli-PLO Documents: Textural Analysis,” Journal of Palestine Studies , Spring 1994.
  2. Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 9/14/93; Ann Devroy and John M. Goshko, Washington Post, 9/14/93.
  3. Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 9/14/93.
  4. Daniel Williams, Washington Post, 9/14/93.
  5. Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, 9/14/93.
  6. Andrew Borowiec, Washington Times, 9/15/93.
  7. John M. Goshko, Washington Post, 9/18/93.
  8. Steven A. Holmes, New York Times, 9/15/93.
  9. John Kifner, New York Times, 9/24/93.
  10. John Kifner, New York Times, 10/16/93.
  11. “The Peace Process,” Declaration of Principles, Washington, DC, 13 September 1993, Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1993, pp. 115-24.
  12. The text is in New York Times, 9/14/93.
  13. Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 2/8/94.
  14. Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 11/27/93.
  15. Government of Palestine, A Survey of Palestine, p. 103. Also see Epp, Whose Land is Palestine? p. 185; Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Special Report, July 1991.

Donald Neff is author of Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel since 1945.