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The legacy of the 1993 Oslo Accords

 US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin (L) as they shake hands for the first time, on September 13, 1993 at the White House in Washington DC, after signing the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. AFP PHOTO J.DAVID AKE (Photo by J. DAVID AKE / AFP) (Photo by J. DAVID AKE/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin (L) as they shake hands for the first time, on September 13, 1993 at the White House in Washington DC, after signing the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. AFP PHOTO J.DAVID AKE (Photo by J. DAVID AKE / AFP) (Photo by J. DAVID AKE/AFP via Getty Images)

September 13, 1993 was a milestone in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised peace.

They had signed the first of the Oslo Accords. Though oft referenced now, the truth is, Oslo was an interim peace agreement meant to pave the way to a permanent peace which never happened.

“You build a bridge of ropes for five years. You drive on it and go on it for 30 years. You are surprised that it is not exactly as it was then, and you are celebrating?” says Yossi Beilin, key initiator of the Oslo Accords.

Today, On Point: From Oslo to today, learning from Arab-Israeli peace talks that failed.


Yossi Beilin, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister from 1992 to 1995. Key initiator of the Oslo Accords.

Omar Dajani, Professor at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific. Served as legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel from 1999 to 2001.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: One of the most iconic handshakes of the 20th century took place on September 13th, 1993, on the South Lawn of the White House. This handshake, between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, symbolized the possibility of peace for Arab-Israeli relations for the first time in decades.

President Bill Clinton presided over the ceremony.

PRES. BILL CLINTON: Now, the efforts of all who have labored before us bring us to this moment, a moment when we dare to pledge what for so long seemed difficult even to imagine, that the security of the Israeli people will be reconciled with the hopes of the Palestinian people, and there will be more security and more hope for all.

CHAKRABARTI: That day, Rabin and Arafat signed what was formally called a Declaration of Principles on Interim Self Government Arrangements. It’s much more widely known as the First Oslo Accord. As the formal name states, Oslo was an interim agreement, an accord meant to pave the way later to a permanent peace.

Here’s PLO Chairman Arafat speaking through an interpreter right after the signing.


ARAFAT: Our two peoples are awaiting today this historic hope, and they want to give peace a real chance. (APPLAUSE)

CHAKRABARTI: And Israeli Prime Minister Rabin.

RABIN: We have no desire for revenge. We have no, we harbor no hatred towards you. We like you, our people.

People who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you. In dignity. In empathy, as human beings, as free men, we are today giving peace a chance, and saying to you. (APPLAUSE) And saying again to you, enough. Let us pray, that a day will come, when we all will say, farewell to the arms.

CHAKRABARTI: At the signing, Israel agreed to accept the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist. Both sides agreed that the Palestinian Authority would be established and assume responsibility over Gaza and the West Bank.

And then, crucially, permanent talks would be held later, regarding borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. Later that day, after the signing ceremony, Rabin spoke at a different press conference, and he seemed less optimistic.

RABIN: To what extent, when we try to hand over gradually responsibility for public order and security of the Palestinians in the densely populated areas, will the Palestinians be able to control it?

For their own sake. To what extent we will be able to prevent the use of this area as a springboard for attacks on Israel? From the Palestinians’ point of view, the issue will be the economic social development. If we not create a hope, a real one that is based on realities to the Gazans. That as a result of this agreement, their conditions will be improved, I don’t know if the whole ceremony will lead to a solution.

CHAKRABARTI: It did not. Years later, peace talks collapsed. Ideally, people can learn from failure, but often people are doomed to repeat mistakes. So 30 years on, what were the critical mistakes? And what can be learned from the failed process launched by the First Oslo Accord?

In a moment, we’ll hear from a Palestinian legal advisor who participated in talks later in the 90s, specifically at Camp David. But today we’re going to begin with Yossi Beilin. He was the key initiator of what ended up being the 1993 Oslo Accord. He is also the former Israeli deputy foreign minister.

He served in that position from 1992 to 1995. Later on, from 1999 to 2001, he was the Israeli minister of justice. Yossi Beilin, welcome to On Point.

YOSSI BEILIN: Thank you very much.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, I really encourage listeners to stick with us because later in the show, Mr. Beilin, I want to ask you about why you’ve recently suggested that Oslo should just be torn up.

But I want to start with that handshake. Where were you standing when Rabin and Arafat shook hands on that day at the White House?

BEILIN: It was very hot. I tried to find a place with a shadow among so many people, so I was somewhere in the corner.

CHAKRABARTI: And from where you were standing, I’m curious about what you saw with your own eyes, because looking back at the video of that entire ceremony with the distance of 30 years between then and now, it seems rather not just staged, but stiff. That moment of the handshake, it’s almost as if Clinton had to bring Rabin and Arafat together. Was there, amongst you and people that you were at the ceremony with, the same sense of optimism that the speeches seemed to indicate at the time?

BEILIN: It was a very emotional, for me personally, of course, it was the most important day in my public life. I couldn’t believe it. It’s something I thought about nine months earlier would become such a huge international focus. And you could see there on the White House, West Lawn, actually everybody. Everybody, prime ministers, foreign ministers, heads of all international organizations from the UN, many others, and I felt like a Bar Mitzvah boy and all of them, or many of them, came to me, to congratulate. And yes, it was seen like something totally unbelievable. But also frightening.

Frightening because I thought from day one that this ceremony was a little bit too big. It was like a peace treaty ceremony, not like an interim agreement ceremony of signing. And as a result of it, the expectations were very high, and, of course, the frustration was very big, too, when many things have not been materialized.

CHAKRABARTI: So I want to reiterate that you were deputy foreign minister for Israel from ’92 to ’95, and it was you who initiated the process that became that first Oslo Accord, what was it that gave you the optimism or thought that there was an opening to enter into talks with the Palestinians prior to Oslo being signed in those first secret meetings that happened in Norway?

BEILIN: The main thing was that the talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the joint very artificial Jordanian Palestinian delegation, were stuck. It was impossible to find solutions to the issues on the agenda. And these talks were a result of the Madrid conference of ’91. And the invitation to the Madrid conference was written by secretary of State Jim Baker, who added to the invitations, also the main lines for the main points for the negotiations, so that nobody would be surprised and that the result of the conference would be known in advance.

And on the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, the idea was to have an interim agreement and after five years, a permanent agreement. This was the mandate of the negotiations. And as I said, they went nowhere. So what I thought, and I was then in the opposition in ’92, that there should be a behind the scene meetings or process of meetings between the Palestinians and a small group of Israelis in order to solve informally all the problems on the agenda.

And then showing the results to the leaders on both sides, so that they will tell their delegations in Washington to sign the agreement. This was my original idea. And I thought that all the issues, which I knew exactly, what they were soluble. And I thought that we could help solving all these issues in quite a short while.

And so the idea was to do it behind the scene. The problem was that when I came to my boss, to Mr. Peres, who was the foreign minister, to tell him that I intended to go to Oslo. He exposed to me the secret that he had not told me before. And could, would he tell me before I would not have taken the function of a deputy.

The point was that Rabin agreed with him that he would not be involved at all with the peace processes, not only with the Palestinians, but also with the Lebanese and the Syrians. And that was quite a humiliating situation. So I could not tell him, “Hey, I’m going to Oslo to save the world.”

And I had to cancel my own my own tickets and to ask my friend Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, to replace me and to negotiate for me. I don’t remember whether I told him the real reason for that, but I said to myself that I could actually come back to Peres, who would have to go to Rabin with any paper, only when I have a paper.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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